Summit Notebook

Exclusive outtakes from industry leaders

from Newsmaker:

How to create a new industry

Last week, President Obama went to Cleveland to meet with small business owners to hear about their successes and setbacks. One of the prominent themes of that meeting was innovation. In his closing remarks from the forum, Obama cited multiple examples of innovation in companies he sees moving the economy forward, such as Ashlawn Energy, a company that Obama says is "poised to manufacture a next-generation energy storage system in Painesville [Ohio] that will improve efficiency."

While we wait to see which companies will shape our future, an example of one company that transformed the U.S. economy over 100 years ago is Alcoa, the world's leading producing of aluminum. The current head of that company, Klaus Kleinfeld, will be at Thomson Reuters tomorrow to discuss how to thrive in a new global economy as part of the Reuters Future Face of Finance Summit. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there's a lot to learn from Alcoa's past -- and present day -- success.

cmhallWhen Charles Martin Hall was a student at Oberlin College, his chemistry professor told the class that "fame and fortune awaited the man who would find an inexpensive way to separate the metal (aluminum)" from bauxite ore, the rock from which most aluminium is extracted. Hall turned out to be that student. In February of 1886, at the age of 22, he discovered that molten cryolite, a sodium aluminum fluoride, would dissolve aluminum oxide. That discovery completely changed the manner -- and cost -- of aluminum production. And it paved the way for the founding of Alcoa, which had a profound impact on the metals industry and the U.S. economy in ways that even Hall's prophetic professor couldn't have imagined.

So, how does an aluminum experiment performed in a summer kitchen attached to the back of Hall's home lead to the creation of one of the nation's largest companies? From the beginning, the importance of Hall's discovery was recognized by businessmen of the day. In 1888, a group of Pittsburgh businessmen agreed to put up $50,000 to build a plant for what was then called the Pittsburgh Aluminum Company. They recognized that a cheap process to produce aluminum would have a major impact on the construction industry.