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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

UI grad, former GE VP Walt Robb on taking risks in business, life

The University of Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering this week welcomed back Walt Robb, who received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering under Harry Drickamer in 1951.

Walt Robb and Department Head Paul Kenis in Robb's book signing at Roger Adams Laboratory on May 14.
Walt Robb and Department Head Paul Kenis in Robb’s book signing at Roger Adams Laboratory on May 14.

Robb, a retired executive with GE, visited with undergraduate and graduate students, met with faculty and staff and toured his old stomping grounds in Roger Adams Laboratory. The department also hosted a book signing and reception for Robb. He is the author of the new book, “Taking Risks: Getting Ahead in Business and Life.”

The book delves into Robb’s approach to life and business. He offers advice for students and new graduates, technology start-ups, and managers at all levels. He also shares insights on his 20 years of working under fellow UI graduate and GE’s longtime CEO Jack Welch. What prompted Robb to write the book, he said, was his concern that corporations have become too risk adverse and reliant on buying startups to acquire new technology.

“As I look back on my own career, all of my real successes were because somebody took a risk with me and I took a risk doing something to be different,” Robb told the crowd gathered in Roger Adams Laboatory.

Robb said he has deeply appreciated all his teachers and professors.

“But Harry Drickamer was special and he challenged me and I always responded to his requests, if it was to sit up in the Boneyard Creek shack and watch the thermal diffusion experiment. … I was there from midnight to 4 a.m. and then (the late-Klaus) Timmerhaus would come in from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Drick appreciated the people who would respond to his requests,” Robb said.

Robb earned his Ph.D. from Illinois in three years. At the book signing, he recalled working 72 hours a week on his thesis and doing whatever it took to gather the data, including sleeping on a cot in the lab for short periods of time.

Robb joined GE after he graduated from Illinois and had a long career with the company. In 1973, he saved GE’s struggling medical imaging business. As the CT scanning revolution got underway and MRI technology took off, Robb oversaw the business expand from a break-even, $100 million business to a highly profitable and growing enterprise. In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented Robb with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his foresight and leadership in the MRI and CT imaging industry. He is a recipient of the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award and the President’s Medallion.

Walt Robb greets students at the book signing in Roger Adams Lab
Walt Robb greets students at the book signing in Roger Adams Lab.
Walt Robb visits with Professor Ed Seebauer
Walt Robb visits with Professor Ed Seebauer.
Walt Robb and Lecturer Jerrod Henderson
Walt Robb and Lecturer Jerrod Henderson.
Robb with undergraduate student leaders at Illinois.
Robb with undergraduate student leaders at Illinois.

 

Robb and Professor Bill Hammack
Robb and Professor Bill Hammack.
Walt Robb and Professor Richard Alkire
Walt Robb and Professor Richard Alkire.
During the reception, Robb reflected on his time on campus in the early 1950s.
During the reception, Robb reflected on his time on campus in the early 1950s.
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