Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Class of 2020: Stevan Slijepcevic
Stevan Slijepcevic never will forget the scene.
He was sitting at a table in a restaurant in Germany with a group of Honeywell Aerospace’s engineers when the call came.
The program they’d spent 18 months building, the energy exhausted, the issues overcome, the questions answered, had been rewarded. The team had just secured a contract to provide major mechanical systems for Airbus’ long-range, wide-body A350 aircraft. The contract was expected to generate more than $16 billion in revenue over 25 years. It was the largest contract awarded in the company’s history.
People at the table erupted in celebration. Some cried. A sense of pride and satisfaction overwhelmed Slijepcevic, then the company’s director of new business development.
“It felt amazing,” Slijepcevic said.
Especially considering the reality.
A few years before landing that historic contract with Airbus in 2007, Honeywell had missed out on a significant bid for Boeing, the other major airline manufacturer.
“The implications if we had not won that (Airbus) one were pretty significant in terms of work for engineers, manufacturing,” Slijepcevic said. “It would have had a severe downside to the long-term growth of the business had we not won.”
Instead, it became a stepping stone for Slijepcevic. He got promoted to VP for an even bigger job, as a business leader for a $200-million original equipment manufacturer customer business segment. More success followed. And the process kept repeating, as Slijepcevic continued to showcase his innate ability to lead teams, to target customer needs, to execute on large scales.
He’s now president of Honeywell’s Electronic Solutions Strategic Business Unit — and responsible for running a $5-billion business unit that consists of five business enterprises and direct management of more than 2,500 employees.
It’s certainly a career worthy of recognition, and Slijepcevic will be added to an elite group soon. On April 12, Slijepcevic (BSAAE ’93, MSAAE ’94) will be honored as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, the highest alumni honor bestowed by the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Only 2 percent of the School’s alumni have been named OAEs.
“It is great honor to be recognized among peers that have accomplished great things in their careers after Purdue,” Slijepcevic said.
Slijepcevic’s ascent to senior leadership wasn’t always the plan.
While he was in AAE, he intended to take a technical path after Purdue. And his work in graduate school with Professor Tom Farris fueled that aspiration.
Under Farris, Slijepcevic did finite element analysis. There were previous papers written about how metals form in automotive crashes, Slijepcevic said, but there was no real way to test how those metals formed until test equipment and analytical tools were developed that could model materials under dynamic conditions. Slijepcevic’s thesis centered on modeling the interactions of certain metals under high-stress conditions, similar to what a car crash would look like. It was interesting work, he said, especially with Farris as his advisor.
Slijepcevic found himself learning how and when to ask questions and challenge assumptions, how to go deep into problem solving.
There were times when classes were a struggle or an experiment wasn’t going well, but Slijepcevic learned not to accept failure and continue to look for different ways to come up with answers. He was motivated by that fear of failure — “it’s the way I was programmed”— and it kept pushing him to succeed.
“Tom Farris would not give you the answers to the problems,” Slijepcevic said. “He would give you a lot of clues and a lot of things to think about but never gave us the answers. That always struck me as I went on. When I coach people today, even if I know the answer, I’ll give them clues but not the answer. That was just how he operated, and it was just great learning for me to be curious.”
After he completed his master’s work, Slijepcevic joined Honeywell as a design engineer in 1995. He found his highly specialized skill in stress analysis immediately valuable. On his first day, he was shocked to see everyone doing everything manually and not using advanced techniques. Slijepcevic found himself training older engineers.
That role was fun, Slijepcevic said, but it didn’t take long for his curiosity to kick in.
While sitting in customer meetings, Slijepcevic found himself intently listening as he watched customer-facing business leaders deal with problems with customers and negotiations. He was intrigued about the end-to-end aspect of the business. The technology and the products were interesting, but he was curious about why customers wanted them and why they paid what they did for them.
Slijepcevic took advantage of Honeywell’s benefit of paying for advanced degrees and started going to school at night to earn his MBA. Over three years, he gained insight into how to think about strategy, marketing and sales. And the trajectory of his career began to shift.
“The opportunity to apply some of those to a highly technical field was pretty interesting to me,” he said. “I learned something about myself — that I would not be happy in a technical silo my whole life, even though that’s what I had been training to do for the last six years (at Purdue).
“Sometime around three years as an engineer, I was faced with a decision because I was being recruited by management outside of engineering to come and do some things outside of engineering. It became apparent to me the moment I did that I was going to be on a different path than what I thought while I was at Purdue.”
It’s clear now that the leadership path was the right one.
Slijepcevic’s most effective leadership traits, empathy for people and his ability to establish a culture of driving accountability, have spurred success.
“Being able to lead large teams and deliver results consistently over time is really how you define effective leaders in the company like the one I work at or any public company,” he said.
It’s been important, too, for Slijepcevic to effectively communicate a long-term vision for the future. He has to remind and emphasize to a work force of more than 2,500 people that aerospace is a long-cycle business, keeping in mind nothing will change fast but things will change.
So he plants seeds, helps spur dreams and ideas that will blossom 10, 15 years from now.
He combats complacency by reiterating the competition in the market and the consequences of failure.
“We’re spending a lot of time in my business today trying to educate people on why that market is evolving, what’s our right to play in it, how can we shape that industry, what investments should we make now, what technology do we need to develop now and what it will look like when we’re a leader in that space from an electronics perspective 10 years from now,” he said. “But you’re not going to see these things for a while, so people have a hard time associating with it.”
The technology and differentiation of the technology continue to excite Slijepcevic.
It’s why he has stayed with Honeywell for more than 25 years, spurning offers from other companies.
Honeywell is on the leading-edge of technology, he said, and it’s technology that usually is differentiated vs. the competitors. And it’s technology that matters, that is important to aviation.
“The stuff we make makes aircraft safer, more efficient, less carbon footprint. There’s a part of people and part of me that likes being part of something that’s good for the world and being really good at it,” he said. “So that’s really what motivates me to every day go to work.”
More on 2020 class of OAEs:
March 29: Doug Adams
March 30: Chris Clark
March 31: Darin DiTommaso
April 1: Doug Joyce
April 2: Yen Matsutomi
April 5: Loral O'Hara
April 6: David Schmidt
April 8: Rhonda Walthall