First on Forbes’ list of the most powerful CEOs 40 and under is Google’s Larry Page, followed by Andrew Mason of Groupon and Under Armour’s Kevin Plank.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Bucksport.
“It kind of surprised me. I thought it was a joke when it first happened,” said Silvernail, a 1989 graduate of Bucksport High, where he was a football standout.
The teen who used to bomb around town in a silver Subaru packed with his buddies, who married his high school sweetheart, Shelby, and who led the football team to the Eastern Maine championship is now a certified captain of industry.
Not that his friends necessarily buy it. One, said Silvernail, laughing, joked that he wasn’t even the fourth most powerful person in his own home. Others, he said, asked, “No. 4? That’s it?”
Silvernail, now 41, is the son of John and grew up in Bucksport with three older brothers. Silvernail’s mother died when he was young.
Even in high school, his leadership qualities were evident, said his friend and former football coach Tom Sullivan.
“Through Andy, we won just about everything,” said Sullivan. “Just through his intensity, he made kids want to be better. He just did.
“He has got an indestructible spirit — indestructible.”
Leading people in business is what Silvernail has done since 1999, and he sees it as a calling.
“I’ve got this incredible responsibility. I’ve got 7,000 people I work with every day, and those 7,000 people have families. My responsibility is to help those folks do the best job they can,” said Silvernail. “And if they do that, IDEX will be successful. And if IDEX is successful, we’ll keep growing and we’ll keep providing people with opportunities.
“I think it’s important work.”
Key people, key times
Silvernail looks back on his youth with gratitude toward people who opened doors and helped him move ahead, including Shelby, who challenged him academically his junior year.
“I was not a particularly good student until I got into my junior year; [that changed] because of my wife,” said Silvernail. “She made fun of me for a horrible chemistry grade.”
In his senior year of high school, he met Steve Abbott, who was guest speaker at the Little Ten Conference league banquet. Abbott, now athletic director at the University of Maine, is the son of Walt Abbott, who was the college’s longtime football coach. Steve Abbott apparently was impressed.
After the banquet, Walt Abbott contacted Sullivan and asked if Silvernail had considered going to an Ivy League school. (Steve Abbott played ball at Harvard). Silvernail’s grades weren’t great, so Walt Abbott told Sullivan to call the coach at Phillips Exeter, a prep school in Exeter, N.H.
The next Monday, Sullivan recalled, he was driving Silvernail down to the prep school.
“He blew them away on the personal interview,” said Sullivan.
Silvernail was accepted, and then went on to Dartmouth College, and later to Harvard for his MBA.
“You look at all these different points in your life where you met the right person at the right time,” said Silvernail.
He said when he was young, the Clement family all but adopted him. Then Sullivan and the Abbotts helped him along. And while he was off from Dartmouth for a semester because of a back injury, Sullivan’s wife introduced him to the Cianchette family of Cianbro fame.
Alton “Chuck” Cianchette needed someone to help with his political campaign, said Silvernail, which he said was his first real introduction to business. It may have been through the lens of politics, but Silvernail then was in direct contact with the Cianchette brothers and the work they were doing for their company.
“From a leadership perspective, you saw people who were incredibly successful, yet were incredibly good people,” said Silvernail. “They made a huge imprint.”
Silvernail had been in a premedical program at Dartmouth but chemistry was proving a problem for him. He switched to political science, but was interested in business. Then in his junior year, he worked for a friend’s family business, McLean-Fogg, a diversified manufacturing company in Illinois that he now serves as a board member.
After college, he worked as an equity research analyst for Fidelity Investments, specializing in industrial companies, including IDEX.
After about three years, one of the CEOs of a business he covered suggested to Silvernail that he was on the wrong side of the table, that what he really should be doing was running companies. That struck a chord with Silvernail, and he returned to school, earning his MBA at Harvard.
‘I believe it’s a calling’
IDEX has a market capitalization of $3.54 billion. That valuation is the main criteria Forbes used in determining who would be on its list. IDEX is not to be confused with IDEXX, the Westbrook, Maine-based biotech company.
Silvernail notes that while he made the listing, Forbes really was calling out IDEX.
“It’s really the company that’s being recognized, because of what we do,” said Silvernail.
And what does IDEX do?
It’s an industrial company with roots in fluidics, with work now in optics and photonics as well as some air applications.
“The heart and soul of what we do is we solve these really difficult, highly engineered problems that are typically inexpensive pieces of a customer’s value chain, but very important to their success,” said Silvernail.
In 2011, according to the company’s latest releases, IDEX saw profits of $194 million, a 23 percent increase from 2010.
One of the companies that IDEX owns is Hurst, which makes the rescue tools known as the Jaws of Life.
“When Tom Brady got cut out of that car a couple of years ago, that was the biggest day in my company’s life,” joked Silvernail.
Roughly half of what the company makes is manufactured in the United States, and Silvernail is a strong believer that the country can compete as a manufacturing base.
“Not everything is information; not everything is services,” said Silvernail. “Ninety percent of what we touch in our lives is physically produced somewhere.
Over the last 30 years, manufacturing in the country had to restructure, he said. It wasn’t cost-competitive, and too many companies were involved in commodities.
Illinois poses many of the same challenges to business that Maine does, Silvernail noted. For example, he said he has a difficult time finding qualified machinists.
Once Mainers, always Mainers
Silvernail and his wife, Shelby, own a summer home in Orland; she spends the whole summer there with their three children, ages 13, 11 and 9, and he spends as much time as he can there. His in-laws and his father still live in Bucksport.
“Maine is a huge piece of who we are,” said Silvernail.
He had some advice for other kids from Maine who may be making plans like he was 23 years ago.
“You’ve got to have a sense of goal and a sense of purpose — that’s No. 1,” said Silvernail. “You have to want something that is bigger than yourself today.”
And, he said, you can’t replace hard work. In the pursuit of a goal, you’re going to get knocked down over and over again.
“When you do get knocked down, you’ve just got to get back up,” said Silvernail. “Winning, a lot of times, is [that] you’re the last guy who got back up.”