Though a giant in the buildings and automotive industries, Johnson Controls Inc. was long considered a quiet company -- seldom a major presence outside its lines of business. That's changing as the firm increasingly raises its voice and its profile to spread its mantra of "Efficiency Now."  

The convergence of advanced technology, growing awareness of the need to curb the impact of the built environment, domestic and international pressure to set firm climate policy, and an increasing perception that green is a lifeboat for the foundering economy -- all have helped set the stage for Johnson Controls.

"It's like we've been practicing more for than 125 years for this," Joe Walicki, Johnson Controls' vice president and GM Systems North America, told a gathering of more than 100 building professionals in October.

The occasion, the company's first executive summit about intelligent buildings, came amid the latest wave of media attention for the Fortune 500 firm. (Full disclosure: I was a Johnson Control's guest at the summit and the firm hosted my trip to the event.) Among the recent stories coming out of Milwaukee:

  • In the past fiscal quarter, the company received the single largest Recovery Act grant, $299 million, from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the country's manufacturing capacity for advanced batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles.

  • During the same period, the U.S. Navy enlisted Johnson Controls in a $34.1 million energy efficiency retrofit for the base in Santa Rita, Guam.

  • In September, company President and CEO Steve Roell signed the Copenhagen Communique. Signed by more than 600 companies from 60 countries, communique urges world leaders to agree on "an ambitious, robust and equitable global deal on climate change" during the international talks scheduled for December in Copenhagen.

  • The same month, the company claimed the 11th highest spot in Newsweek's Green Rankings of the 500 largest companies in the U.S.

  • In October, just days before the summit, Johnson Controls was among the 28 big companies and environmental groups that took out full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post to call for the U.S. Senate to "pass clean energy legislation with a cap on greenhouse gas emissions this year."

  • And toward the close of the month, the firm released its fourth-quarter earnings. Quarterly profits surged as a result of tough cost-cutting that helped the company overcome sales declines in the building efficiency and automotive businesses for the period.

The company's business strategy, its results, and the attention both have drawn reflect the changes steadily initiated under leadership of Roell, who took the helm of the firm in October 2007. About the same, the company launched a campaign to heighten its public presence and highlight the new emphasis the diversified, multi-industrial global firm had placed on ingenuity and innovation.

The global economic crisis has since tested the resilience of the firm and its strategies.

"I am proud that we continued to invest in our growth initiatives and in increasing our competitive advantage despite the difficult conditions," Roell said in the company's earnings announcement. "The benefits of these actions are evident in our fourth quarter results, which represent the second sequential quarter of improved profitability."

Johnson Controls forecasts further improvement in 2010, and the company's building efficiency business is expected to have a big role in that quest as is the government's stimulus program. The firm is bidding on some 3,300 stimulus-related projects worth an estimated $2.7 billion.  And, as Roell noted in a recent interview with ChiefExecutive.net, 75 percent of the company's building business comes from projects involving existing structures rather than new construction.

In keeping with that trend, the company's summit served to introduce clients and business partners to the range of Johnson Controls products and services for buildings. 

 

Image of the Glendale Campus,  Johnson Controls' Corporate Headquarters