How has Jan Suwinski been faring since graduating from Park School in 1959? Oh, he manages.
First, he managed thousands of employees during a 31-year career at Corning Inc., in which he became one of the company’s top 10 executives.
Today he prepares the next generation of business men and women as a Clinical Professor of Management and Operations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.
He also sits on the board of five corporations and is an accomplished competitor on the polo field. He has come a long way from his childhood in Elma, NY, which “back then was a long-distance call to Buffalo.”
A distinguishing feature of Suwinski's career has been his penchant for embracing adventure and trying new things. His intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure began to take shape at Park, which he attended from first grade through graduation in 1959.
“There were 32 people in my graduation class,” Suwinski says. “The classes were really small and you got a lot of attention and a lot of stimulation. I remember I took German for three years. Our instructor was from Germany and there were three people in the class. So it was essentially like being tutored, or having private instruction. And the instructors were absolutely fabulous.”
Suwinski earned a Bachelor’s degree in engineering at Cornell in 1964, then received his Master’s in business administration there a year later.
He felt well-prepared for the rigors of Cornell after his Park education, particularly his math instruction from Raoul Hailpern.
“When I came to Cornell,” Suwinski says, “I ended up going into engineering and the foundation that I had from him was fabulous. I was way ahead of typical high school students in terms of math.”
After Cornell, Suwinski went to work for Corning, where he occupied a number of positions. Among his titles were Vice President and Area Manager for Asia, Vice President of Corning Latin America/Asia Pacific, and Executive Vice President of the Opto-Electronics Group, which included all of Corning’s fiber optics-based businesses.
“I spent seven years in the Latin America-Asia Pacific area,” he recalled. “Being responsible for Asia when China was opening up back in the ’80s was really exciting. Asia was booming then and it’s still booming today.”
His last 11 years at the company were spent running the fiber optics business when this revolution in communications was taking off. “Fiber optics are what gives us the high-speed networks that allow our TVs, smart phones, and computers to provide capabilities we have today,” he says. “Corning was the inventor of fiber optics. During that 11-year time period when I was responsible for that business it grew dramatically and became the biggest business sector in Corning, and the most profitable.” He retired in 1996.
The chance to join the Johnson School came about unexpectedly. A former colleague from Corning who was co-teaching a course in manufacturing developed some serious health problems and could no longer teach, so he recommended Suwinski for the job.
“And 17 years later,” he says, “here I am. I still co-teach the Operations course, but my primary focus has evolved to teaching Business Strategy”.
One of Suwinski’s passions outside of the classroom and the boardroom is playing polo. He began riding horses at age 7, his grandmother bought him a horse of his own at age 12, and at Cornell he took up the game of polo. He played on the Cornell team that won the national championship in 1963 and his name is on the university’s Polo Wall of Honor. This year is his 53rd participating in the sport.
Athletics are among Suwinski’s fondest memories of Park.
“A unique aspect of Park was that everyone was on a team and everyone got to play. What you have now in high schools are very large classes where only a handful of gifted athletes make the teams and play most of the time. And so the other people who maybe aren’t as talented never get a chance to experience team play and competition, and the camaraderie that comes from actually playing on a team as opposed to sitting on the bench or not participating at all.”