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RTI Stories

George R. Herbert Passes the Torch

"When you become a manager, your own success depends on the success of others"

In June 1989, after more than 30 years leading RTI, George R. Herbert announced his intention to pass the presidency on to a successor. In his last years at the helm, Herbert had much to be proud of. Several new buildings had been erected on the RTI campus, and revenue had reached a record $84.6 million in 1988. A decade that had begun with steep layoffs ended with a staff of nearly 1,500–400 more than in 1980–an astonishing metric for Herbert, RTI's first employee, who had once shared a bare "headquarters" with an assistant and a secretary.

Herbert had also achieved his longstanding goal of increasing RTI's private-sector business, non-government revenue growing from $1.5 million in 1980 to $7.7 million in 1988. The Institute provided a wide range of services to more than 120 companies in the energy, agrichemical, and consumer products sectors. While many factors over the years contributed to RTI's success, Herbert often said the most important was reputation. Scientists the world over had flocked to RTI, confident that the Institute had the resources to address the world's problems–not in a vacuum, but in collaboration with other experts impelled by the same cause.

As Herbert put it, "There are several fine research institutes older and larger than RTI, but none surpasses RTI's reputation for professionalism, objectivity, and the highest standards of performance and ethics." As president, he had liberated staff members to develop their own scientific interests and market them accordingly, a decision not lost on his top lieutenants. "George created a flexible work atmosphere where you were expected to do a lot, but you wouldn't be tied down as one would be in a corporation," says chemist F. Ivy Carroll. "As long as I kept bringing in projects and did things ethically and within the goals of RTI, he didn’t bother me; he just clapped his hands."

Herbert's hand-picked successor, Thomas Wooten, had both the organizational skills and the scientific credentials to lead RTI into the 1990s. An engineer, Wooten had managed the Biomedical Applications Team for seven years and was one of the Institute's 10 vice presidents following the 1983 restructuring, managing electronics and systems. "Tom followed George's philosophy, which was to let scientists from the bottom up suggest areas of opportunity and then liberate them as true entrepreneurs to chase that business," says environmental scientist Edo Pellizzari. As Wooten himself once wrote, "When you become a manager, your own success depends on the success of others."