2014 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Be willing to take a chance, don’t confuse activity with results, treat everyone with respect, and above all, enjoy your life."
David Cote, the oldest of five children, was born in New Hampshire on his mother's nineteenth birthday in 1952. His father, who attended high school for only six months, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When he returned home, he ran a service station and then later bought a small garage. At first the family lived in an apartment in a village called Suncook, which was predominately populated with families of French Canadian ancestry. For the first three years of his life, David spoke only French. His mother, who at the time had only two days of high school (she later received her high school diploma by going to classes at night) and a two-year secretarial degree, observed that people who spoke English with a French accent did not go very far in their careers. She encouraged her husband to move the family to an Englishspeaking neighborhood, which he did. From that point on, English was the only language spoken to David, and his parents only spoke French to each other when their children were not present.
"There weren't a lot of success stories coming out of my community," says David. "There were few role models. But my parents were determined I would do better than them. My father used to say he didn't care if I dug ditches afterward, but I was going to go to college."
David's father worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, which meant he was unavailable to teach David things like hunting and fishing. "I taught myself how to do those things," says David. "I was a curious kid and I read a lot. I learned how to tie flies from reading a book. I would read anything put in front of me, including a cereal box."
David describes his father as hard working and driven to ensure that his family was taken care of financially. "My dad offered advice from time to time, but most of what I learned from him was gleaned by just working with him at the garage when I was a little older. My mother was a sweetheart, but she believed in discipline. She gave me a lot of freedom, but she expected me to show up on time, get my homework done, and not get into any trouble. There were repercussions if I did. But both of my parents encouraged independent thinking and leadership."
An example of David's mother teaching her son to be independent happened when he was 11. She asked him to take the bus into Manchester, which was 10 miles away, to pay their bills. "She gave me all this money, and I went from store to store paying our bills," he says. "It was up to me to not lose the money and to get receipts. I think I was a little intimidated to do that at first, but once I learned I could do it, I gained self- confidence."
David didn't spend too much time dreaming about what he wanted to be when he grew up. His town being so isolated from the rest of the country, he had few vocations to observe. When he was in grammar school, he thought about becoming a teacher. But by the time he reached his eighth-grade graduation and realized he was only halfway through school— including college—he felt that his life would never begin. "I was anxious to get my life going," he says. "I didn't have a plan, but I wanted to get out of the classroom and get on with my life."
During his senior year of high school, David was accepted to the University of New Hampshire (UNH), but that summer he decided he wasn't going to go. He worked with his father in his garage and thought about joining the business. "My father didn't like that decision," says David, "but at 17 he thought I was old enough to make the choice. But after a couple of months of working full time in the garage, I realized I didn't have the aptitude for it."
David then went to Michigan and worked with his uncle as a carpenter's apprentice but soon discovered he wasn't skilled with his hands. He returned home and enlisted in the Navy, but called the day prior to being sworn in to decline. He also called the UNH to see if his acceptance was still good. Hearing that it was not, he drove to the school, waited hours to meet with the director of admissions, and finally convinced him to let him start in the fall rather than waiting until January. "I left his office and never said thank you," says David. "Twenty-five years later I found someone who was able to tell me that admission director's name, and I wrote him a thank-you note. We ended up corresponding with each other over the next 10 years. Before he died, he was given a medal for his lifetime commitment to New Hampshire. I was the keynote speaker at his ceremony and had the chance to publicly thank him. That was really special."
David attended UNH and also had a few jobs at night, including a stint at Sears and at a General Electric (GE) plant. After his sophomore year, he was not allowed to live on campus any longer because he was considered a "general troublemaker." Following his junior year, he bought a fishing boat with a friend and spent much of that year fishing off the coast of Maine. He also married at that time, and he and his wife were soon expecting a baby. "That's when I began to panic," says David. "I couldn't even support myself, much less a family. I realized the fishing thing was never going to produce the fortune I hoped it would. I returned to school for my senior year and finally got serious about my studies. I got a 4.0 that year."
After graduating with a degree in business in 1976, David accepted a salaried position with GE in Lynn, Massachusetts. He worked as an internal auditor and joined the company's financial training program. He spent the next 22-plus years moving up GE's corporate ladder in finance, marketing, and general management positions. His last position at GE was senior vice president of major appliances.
"During the course of my career, my goals changed as I realized I was capable of more," says David. "I had gone from manufacturing to finance and then began wondering if maybe I could be a general manager. It took a number of years for that to happen, and by then I was nearly 40. That's when I began to wonder if I could be a CEO."
In 1999 David left GE to serve as COO for TRW, Inc. One year later he was named the company's CEO, and in 2001 he added the chairmanship to his responsibilities. In 2002 Mr. Cote left TRW to serve as chairman and CEO of Honeywell, a Fortune 100 diversified technology and manufacturing leader that addresses some of the world's toughest challenges linked to global trends in energy efficiency, clean energy generation, safety and security, globalization and customer productivity. Under Mr. Cote's guidance, Honeywell has gone from a $22 billion company that lost money two years in a row to a $40 billion global, highly profitable company with more than 130,000 employees.
David has experienced tremendous success for much of his career, but he has experienced some failures along the way that have taught him some valuable life lessons. Recently he gave the commencement speech at the University of New Hampshire, and he shared with his audience some of those lessons. Specifically, his condensed advice fits into four major areas. "First," he said, "is to be self- aware. You can't control the skill set with which you were born, but what you can control are your behaviors—how you look at life, and how you maximize the skills you do have. Be aware of your impact on people around you. Stand for something and have values. Be open to new ideas. And if a decision doesn't seem right . . . change it!"
David's second point, "Get out of your comfort zone. Push yourself. Be willing to take a risk with something new. Learn how to handle rejection and failure. Rather than being discouraged by failure, learn from it."
The third point he made is to "be results oriented. The one thing I learned from my fishing boat experience was that hard work does not always pay off. If you are working on the wrong thing, it doesn't matter how hard you work. Being smart is not enough to achieve results. Take responsibility for yourself because you are not entitled to anything. No one is."
David's fourth point is to "enjoy your life. Discover what you want out of life and go after it. Remember the significance of family and friends— they are what make life worth living. Don't dwell on what's wrong with your life, and don't hang around with people who do."
Looking back over his life, David says he measures his success in ways that are personal to him. "I have two terrific sons and they are the pride of my life," he says. "Professionally, my accomplishments have given me an interesting life. I remember when I was a kid, reading about places all over the world I thought then I would never see. Now it is remarkable for me to realize I've been to more than 100 countries. I've taken some risks in my life, and they didn't all work out, but I'm happy to say I have no regrets."
In 2012-13 David Cote served as a founding member of the steering committee of the Campaign to Fix Debt, a bi-partisan effort to build support for a comprehensive U.S. debt reduction plan. Cote was named vice chair of the Business Roundtable (BRT) in 2011 and chairs its Energy and Environment Committee. In 2010 Mr. Cote was named by President Barack Obama to serve on the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Cote was named co-chair of the U.S.- India CEO Forum by President Obama in 2009, and has served on the Forum since July 2005.
In 2014 Mr. Cote was named Institutional Investor's Best CEO in the Capital Good/Industrial – Electrical Equipment & Multi- Industry category. In 2013 Mr. Cote was named CEO of the Year by Chief Executive, recognized as one of the World's Best CEOs by Barron's, and listed as one of the 100 CEO Leaders in STEM by StemConnectors.org. He also received the Australian Association's Award for Excellence; American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Excellence Award; and TechAmerica Foundation's Corporate Leadership Award. He received the Asia Society's Global Leadership Award and the Peter G. Peterson
Award for Business Statesmanship from the Committee for Economic Development in 2012, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from B'nai B'rith International in 2011. Mr. Cote also received the Corporate Social Responsibility Award from the Foreign Policy Association in 2007.
In 2011 the University of New Hampshire presented him with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. In 2009 Mr. Cote was made an honorary professor at the Beihang University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Beijing, China. In 2001 Cote received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the Graziadio School of Business and Management, Pepperdine University.
Since becoming the chairman and CEO of Honeywell, the company's philanthropic approach has changed significantly. The Honeywell Hometown Solutions has won more than 80 awards over the past five years for effectiveness. The company focuses on middle school math and science education, disaster relief, family safety, rebuilding homes, and environmental education.