Inspiring Leadership

The Tompkins Professorship in Industrial Engineering
"Industrial engineering students have unique capabilities to be leaders and to make a real difference." — Jim Tompkins

For Jim Tompkins (BSIE '69, MSIE '70, PhD '72), the path to Purdue started in an unlikely place — a library book.

During his sophomore year in high school, Tompkins' English teacher sent him to the library after he wrote a paper about his career goals. He wanted to be an engineer but didn't put much thought into the paper. Unimpressed by his last-minute effort, the teacher tasked him with researching a second draft.

Looking through the stacks of books, he noticed one written by an industrial engineer and CEO. Intrigued by the author's analytical approach to leadership, he thumbed to the back of the book and found rankings for industrial engineering programs. Purdue was No. 1.

"That's where I want to go," he thought.

In that moment, the class assignment became much more than just a paper. He remembers it as the first time he started to use brains instead of brawn to meet his goals, and he never looked back.

Ten years later, he completed his studies at Purdue with a PhD in industrial engineering.

Tompkins followed the course he laid out that day in the high school library, becoming not only an industrial engineer, but also a CEO and author.

His company, Tompkins International, is a leader in global supply chain consulting and implementation, and his clients include some of the world's most progressive businesses. He has written or contributed to more than 30 books and received more than 50 awards, including recognition from Purdue as an Outstanding Industrial Engineer and a Distinguished Engineering Alumni.

Tompkins' success required hard work and dedication, and along the way he developed an approach to management that he calls inspirational leadership. He focuses not only on leading a team, but also on guiding others to become leaders as well.

As he seeks out future leaders, he sees great potential in Purdue students.

"Industrial engineering students have unique capabilities to be leaders and to make a real difference," he says.

To help cultivate these leadership qualities, Jim and his wife, Shari, created the Tompkins Professorship in Industrial Engineering in 2009 as a deferred gift through their estate. Their contribution creates an endowed professorship in the School of Industrial Engineering with a focus on promoting principles of leadership in discovery, learning and engagement.

For Jim and Shari, one of the hallmarks of inspirational leadership is that it promotes new possibilities by embracing change.

This principle has shaped their support of the University. Last year, they revisited their contribution after the College of Engineering released its five-year plan for strategic growth, including a goal to increase faculty by 30 percent.

Dean Leah H. Jamieson outlined the importance of this effort.

"Faculty growth of this magnitude has the potential to shape how we educate our students, particularly in developing hands-on, team-oriented classes," Jamieson says. "With a team-based classroom approach, which a lower faculty-to-student ratio will allow, our graduates are better prepared to make the transition from school to career."

As Jim and Shari learned about the strategic plan, they sought out a way to help meet the college's vision. Last year, they revised the structure of their contribution to include annual gifts, helping to realize the potential of the Tompkins Professorship more quickly and making it possible for the University to promote faculty growth by immediately filling the position.

The strategic plan applies a principle that Jim learned during his time at Purdue: Leadership often means changing the status quo.

One of the highlights of his college years was meeting Lillian Gilbreth, a pioneer of industrial engineering, when she spoke on campus. He was eager to hear the lessons of Gilbreth's career and asked her how to become a successful industrial engineer.

The most important thing, she said, was to ask the question, "Why?"

Years later, her advice remains pivotal to his thinking about his life, his career and his involvement with Purdue.

"If we just keep doing the things we're doing, we're not going to get any better," he says.

Jim and Shari's gift will ensure that the School of Industrial Engineering continues to inspire the next generation of leaders — students who challenge the status quo by asking the right questions.