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Planting the seeds of innovation- how the history of 3M helped define its future

3M Europe : 23 April, 2003  (New Product)
After overcoming many serious setbacks in its formative years, it took 14 years for 3M to become profitable. But once it did, the company continued to grow beyond anything its founders dreamed.
When 3M was incorporated 100 years ago, little did its founders realize that the company’s formula for success would carry it into the next century. After overcoming many serious setbacks in its formative years, it took 14 years for 3M to become profitable. But once it did, the company continued to grow beyond anything its founders dreamed.

3M is now a $16 billion diversified technology company serving customers in nearly 200 countries, and the company’s stock is one of the 30 that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Today’s 3M leaders credit the entrepreneurial spirit and remarkable perseverance of its founders as the basis for the company’s continuing growth and success.

In 1902, five northern Minnesota businessmen had the idea that a mineral they thought was corundum, on the shores of Lake Superior, might rival that of garnet, the mineral abrasive found in grinding wheels used by furniture manufacturers at the time. It took more than two years for 3M to sell its first batch of corundum, but it was soon determined that the mineral was inferior to that of garnet. In fact, in 1907, 3M’s founders learned that what they thought was Crystal Bay corundum wasn’t corundum at all, but a low-grade mineral that was useless as an abrasive substance.

Nevertheless, 3M continued to secure funding from investors and search for a successful “start-up” business. Working without pay, the original founders of 3M seemed determined to make the company succeed.

Sticking with its original idea of producing sandpaper, 3M found a source of Spanish garnet in 1907 and made the decision to use it to make sandpaper. Even when their new plant collapsed and the quality of early sandpaper was poor, 3M persevered.

Enter William L McKnight, a young assistant bookkeeper who instilled the company with many of the key practices and philosophies on innovation that 3M relies on today. He recognized the importance of quality assurance and technological excellence for the company’s products. And McKnight’s profoundly progressive business philosophy espoused freedom in the workplace, which fostered a spirit of adventure and challenge and paved the way for others to rise to leadership.

Under McKnight’s watchful eye, 3M introduced its first unique product called
Three-M-ite, an abrasive cloth. Thanks in large part to this new product and additional business resulting from World War I, the company declared its first dividend of six cents per share in the last quarter of 1916. 3M has paid a dividend every quarter since.

“Conceive, believe and achieve” has become a mantra for 3M that stemmed from its early days. Persistence, combined with creativity and faith — is the formula the company adheres to today for long-term success.
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