Influential Leaders

James Owens

James Owens

North Carolina State University, Poole College of Management

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Jim Owens served as chair and CEO of Caterpillar, Inc.—a leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, and industrial gas turbines—from 2004 through 2010 and executive chair from June to October 2010, when he retired from the company where he began his career as corporate economist in 1972. Throughout his career, Owens has shown how one individual can apply his knowledge and business acumen to serve in multiple arenas, providing visionary leadership for his company through difficult economic cycles as well as through involvement with local organizations, national business and industry councils, the national government, his alma mater, and other academic institutions.

A long-time advocate of free trade, Owens was quoted in a pre-retirement interview with a local newspaper as saying that he “saw economic history unfold” while representing Caterpillar in China in 1983. He also stated that he considers the highlight of his career “to be the people he has worked with and come to know within his corporation—the people from the shop floors to the executive offices who have helped him steer Caterpillar to new heights.”

Both are reflected in Vision 2020, the long-term corporate strategy that Owens launched in his final five years as Caterpillar’s CEO. The strategy focuses not only on the economics of running the company’s global operations but also on the people, including plant safety, employee satisfaction, workforce engagement, and sustainability.

Owens has extended his leadership and global expertise beyond the corporate office, serving on local boards and as executive in residence at a local college in his community of Peoria, Illinois, where Caterpillar is headquartered. Nationally, his service has extended from the White House to national and international trade and business organizations. Internationally, he has advocated for free trade in China and elsewhere.

In 2007, the National Foreign Trade Council awarded Owens its prestigious World Trade Award, stating in a news release, "Jim is one of the U.S. business community's leading voices in the trade arena, and has demonstrated an unwavering dedication to advocating for the expansion of an open, rules-based global trading system.”

Owens also shared his global perspective and leadership through service on The Business Council, the Business Roundtable, the Manufacturing Council, and the Global Advisory Council to The Conference Board. He has also served as committee chair for the Peterson Institute for International Economics and director of the Council of Foreign Relations, and he is member of President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, among other roles.

A May 2010 Reuters article states, “When Jim Owens, the CEO of Caterpillar Inc., retires next month, it will mark the end of a long career bookended by corporate crises and displays of a tough-love approach to leadership and the company's workforce … . He's also probably the smartest guy who's ever been in the job, with a broad view of the world. And he's a great leader. He doesn't dictate. He gets people to follow him because they want to."