Martha Goldberg Aronson
Persuading physicians to adopt new technology is often a tough slog. In the early 2000s, Hutchinson Technology Inc. was learning that reality the hard way.
In 2006, the Hutchinson-based precision manufacturer, known worldwide for its suspension assemblies used in disk drives, had introduced InSpectra, a handheld oxygen monitor designed to help emergency room and critical care physicians assess whether a patient is going into hemorrhagic shock, allowing doctors to act faster.
Medical technology wasn’t a radical foray for the company. Hutchinson Technology had produced components for the Medtronic pacemaker years ago. What’s more, its product was distinctive—unlike other such monitors, it was noninvasive and offered real-time information on oxygen levels in patient tissues.
Still, InSpectra wasn’t catching on in the market. So in 2010, Hutchinson asked Martha Goldberg Aronson to join the board to help. Aronson brought more than 20 years of experience as an executive, mostly with Medtronic, to the Hutchinson board, where she joined the compensation and governance committees.
Aronson provided critical help in shaping the company’s marketing, according to then-CEO and current board chair Wayne Fortun. For instance, she championed the use of language in marketing materials that reflected the way physicians speak to each other, rather than using business-speak. Aronson also advised Hutchinson to use more clinical evidence and highlight cost savings when marketing InSpectra.
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The device did make some headway in the market. Fortun says InSpectra is still used at Mayo Clinic, for example. But as the impact of the Great Recession lingered, Hutchinson needed to channel resources into its core disk-drive suspension business. Aronson helped the company evaluate whether to continue pursuing InSpectra. Last year, Hutchison stopped marketing the product.
Once that decision was made, Aronson offered to resign; Hutchinson Technology had recruited her for her med-tech expertise and now it wasn’t needed. But Fortun and other executives had come to rely on Aronson, and they didn’t want to let her go.
“A business is always faced with perplexing problems, ones that don’t have simple solutions,” Fortun says. “Martha thinks broadly, deeply, and considers multiple alternatives, and then is not afraid to challenge management and state her views. Through that kind of thinking and her open-minded approach to problem-solving, it causes the people who work around her to think about things differently and come up with solutions that fit.”
Much of that thinking is expressed in the ways Aronson addresses issues with her fellow directors and executives. “Someone said to me, ‘Your style is so interesting because you phrase almost everything as a question,’ ” she says. “I might say ‘Can you help me understand why we’ve grown 6 percent this quarter instead of the 10 percent you projected?’ It’s an approach that impacts how people interact with you and share information going forward. It’s critical for a senior leadership team and a board, and I use that question method a lot.”
Earlier this year, Aronson stepped down from her position at Ecolab as president of global health after successfully battling breast cancer. She is now a director at two other companies as well as Hutchinson. (Last year, Japanese electronics company TDK Corp. made an offer to acquire Hutchinson Technology. As of early September, the deal was awaiting Federal Trade Commission approval.)
“I really enjoy the Hutchinson board work,” Aronson says. “I love the game and business, and I love thinking and learning about different businesses. I’d like to think that after running P&L’s all over the world for 20 years that I’ve made enough mistakes that I can help people go commit some new ones and not make the same ones I’ve made.” —Suzy Frisch