Tim Thorsteinson: At Home in the World

Talk about nerve. Here’s a guy working a swing shift in fabrication at National Semiconductor who decides he has a better way to run the operation.

“I invented a quality improvement program and sent it to the president about eight levels above me,” said Tim Thorsteinson, who now heads up the broadcast division of Harris. “He said, 'why don’t you implement this around the world.’”

A requisition was authorized for staff.

“I didn’t know what a requisition form was,” he said. “I went back to my boss and said, 'hey, he wants me to hire 30 people and do this.’”

Thorsteinson was 24. He’d been with the company less than a month when he was sent to Malaysia to implement a plan that he likened to The One Minute Manager.

“I had the confidence to not totally decompose,” he said. “I went to an inner city high school, which taught me how to adjust to different cultures.”

That proving ground was Sacramento High School, a 150-year old institution in a “pretty rough section of town,” Thorsteinson said. His tempering at Sac High also prepared him to deal with troubled businesses, something that would further define his career after working in Asia for several years.

By the mid-’90s, Thorsteinson had a cherry gig running the Pacific division of Tektronix from a flat in Hong Kong. Then Britain gave the city back to China.

“I hated to leave Hong Kong, and might still be there today,” Thorsteinson said. “I came back when they told they me they weren’t going to keep paying my rent. It was $13,000 for a small apartment.”

So he returned to the Tektronix home office in Beaverton, Ore., where he was given his next assignment. The company owned a near-legendary equipment maker in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada, but operations weren’t going well. Thorsteinson was charged with restructuring the former Grass Valley Group.

“I remember asking if I had a choice, and the CEO said, 'not really,’” he said. There would be layoffs at Grass, once the biggest employer in a small community not an hour from where Thorsteinson grew up.

He was preparing to deliver the news when “someone called and said the woman from the union wants to talk to you,” he said. “I was getting ready for union negotiations.”

A few hours passed before he discovered The Union was a local newspaper, and the woman in question, its business reporter (and the same woman who is now editor-in-chief of Television Broadcast).

Thorsteinson was as candid then as he is now. Jobs had to be cut, he said. Inventories had to be honed.

“I think it’s better to be direct,” he said. “Call it like you see it. You might not be right, but at least they know how you feel, and they can respond.”

Thorsteinson would lead the company through two ownership changes before moving to Toronto in 2003 to run Leitch, now owned by Harris. In all, he would move four times in 10 years, from Hong Kong, to Beaverton, to Granite Bay, Calif., and then to his current home in Canada.

“If you’re in these international businesses today, you’ve really got to be willing to move,” he said. “Going to Hong Kong was the best thing I ever did.”

That, and telling his boss how to run the business.