The helm at New York Air Brake will be taken by a new leader.
North country native Michael J. Hawthorne, who spent the last 12 years leading one of Air Brakes subsidiaries in Texas, has returned to become president of the company whose headquarters are at 748 Starbuck Ave. On July 1 he replaced J. Paul Morgan, who had served as president since 1993.
The 44-year-old Clarkson University graduate, who was mentored by Mr. Morgan for more than a decade, said hes now ready to take over the manufacturing plant, which supplies parts and brake systems to the railroad industry.
Paul has been teaching me for 12 years what it means to run a business, said the Harrisville native, who moved from Texas to Watertown in January to become the vice president and general manager. The six-month leadership stint was planned as a transition period before he took on the full responsibilities of president.
Mr. Hawthorne, who got his start at Air Brake in 1995 as an engineer at the Watertown plant, has had a passion for designing products since his college days.
In 2001, he became director of Train Dynamic Systems in Irving, Texas a small startup at the time that set out to develop simulator programs to teach people how to drive trains. As the technology gained traction among train operators, the companys staff ballooned from 12 to 130 employees.
That decade of firsthand experience in Texas was an ideal prelude to the role of president.
My time as an engineer allowed me to see not just what we do, but how and why we do it, Mr. Hawthorne said.
Though hes now older, Mr. Hawthorne said, he still has a passion for building things from start to finish. He plans to channel that enthusiasm into his role of president.
Designing a product or building a deck makes me happy, but I find the ultimate challenge is building a business, he said.
Although Mr. Hawthorne will have a full plate, Mr. Morgan said he feels confident the company is in the right hands. The outgoing president said he will continue to work part-time at the company until the end of the year to ensure a smooth transition.
Mike has been a planned successor as president for a number of years, Mr. Morgan said. It feels rewarding to hand over this strong company to a very able, successful guy who Ive worked with on a close basis for years.
Mr. Morgan waged a war against the economy during his tenure as president, guiding the company through downturns in 2001 and 2009. But its a battle he said has made the company more resilient today.
We established a strong position until 2001, when it seemed like everything reversed, he said. Our core business is rail cars, and almost none were built in 2002. Sales dropped by two-thirds and we went from 160 hourly employees to 90.
But those hardships turned out to be a blessing in disguise, he said, because it compelled the business to make its operations more efficient.
When the next recession struck in 2009, Air Brake was doing a good amount of business overseas. It also had developed successful brake systems and software to make train operations more efficient by lowering fuel consumption and wear on parts.
Our international sales covered us when our other sales were weak during the recession and allowed us to have a strong rebound, Mr. Morgan said.
Today, Air Brake is coming off the heels of its most profitable years. Sales for 2012 are projected at $310 million, up from last years $250 million.
And Mr. Morgan said theres no reason to expect that trend to settle down, even in this uncertain economy.
Economic cycles can break companies, but weve been through it twice and sustained operations, he said. Those cycles will continue, and we have to remain focused on acting quickly when things turn down.