CEO spotlight: Carlo Zaffanella, vice president of maritime and strategic systems, General Dynamics

Carlo Zaffanella is the vice president and general manager of maritime and strategic systems for General Dynamics Mission Systems in Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD Carlo Zaffanella is sure his mother wanted him to be a musician. But his father was a scientist, and Zaffanella always liked mathematics and science. He attended the Berkshire Community Music School, but followed in his father's footsteps and became an engineer.

Today, Zaffanella heads General Dynamics' Pittsfield operations as vice president of maritime and strategic systems for General Dynamics Mission Systems, the county's second largest employer. It's a position the Pittsfield High School graduate has held for five years.

We met with Zaffanella recently to talk about his background, what General Dynamics does in the Berkshires, and how the company finds qualified employees.

Q: Without giving away any trade secrets, how state-of-the art is the high-tech platform that General Dynamics works on in Pittsfield?

A: The things that we do for our programs of interest are extremely high-tech. ... What we really focus on is getting the best technologies and the best ways to implement those technologies, but they get implemented when they're sufficiently mature and we know they're going to work.

Q: What does mature refer to?

A: Take any state-of-the-art technology. You always run the risk that you can get ahead of the point where you know that everything is going to work correctly. One of the most important, valuable traits that we provide for our customers is to provide them with things that absolutely work every time. ... High-tech and high assurance. That's a really good motto.

Q: I recently learned that you were born in Italy. How old were you when you came to the United States?

A: I was 3 1/2. It was in the mid- to late 1960s. My brother and I and my parents came for a one-year experiment. My dad (Luciano Zaffarella) was a scientist who was recruited by GE. So we came. I think it was deliberately temporary, and it became quite permanent.

Q: Tell me about your background.

A: I went to Pittsfield High School and graduated in 1982. I did my undergrad at MIT and while I was there I got a co-op assignment with GE Ordinance in Pittsfield, so I got to live at home and that was pretty cool. GE then offered me a job and offered to pay for a master's degree for me at RPI. That program that GE created was called the Edison Engineering Program and now GD maintains it as the Engineering Leadership Program, which is one of our top programs to help teach and educate young engineers.

Q: Did your experience in GE's co-op program give you insight into what young employees need to go through to develop a career?

A: I would say that I put as much energy into hiring and retaining talent than in any other aspect of my job, maybe more. It's really interesting that we have had the good fortune in Pittsfield where we've grown almost every year for (23) years.

Q: Why has General Dynamics been able to grow like that here?

A: A big part of it is defining what it is that we're really good at and keep doing those things until we get better and better and are the best in the world at it. ... What we're good at is designing and developing things that go on ships and go on submarines ... and our costs are attractive. Our talent pool is awesome.

Q: Why is hiring such a high priority for you?

A: We're not a business that relies on patents and a lot of physical assets to win. We rely on people to win. ... If you think about what we do for the nation, especially on the side of the strategic deterrent, we have many people who are literally national assets. These are people whose expertise over the decades in unrivaled. ... We're now under contract for the design of the next generation of submarines by Columbia. Those submarines will be in the field until the later stages of this century, which means that part of our job is making sure that we develop the experts who in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from now will still be here providing the expertise.

Q: Where do you recruit most of your workers from?

A: By and large we draw a circle around Pittsfield that's roughly two hours of driving. ... For those people whose college or home is within that circle the likelihood that they're interested in coming here and interested in staying is way up.

Q: How many of your employees come from within that two-hour circle?

A: I would say about 80 percent.

Q: So is all the talk about not being able to find qualified employees in this area not true, or are you just in a different situation than other businesses?

A: I really can't speak for any other business except mine. We are an engineering heavy employer in Pittsfield. ... We're starting to hire more in manufacturing. At the end of this year. it's going to pick up again and next year we'll probably see more of that.

Q: Will the Berkshire Innovation Center help develop jobs in the Berkshires?

A: I think so. I'm going to put it in the category that it absolutely won't hurt. The visibility is great. I think if the BIC really evolves into what everybody believes where small businesses and big businesses can work together and share ideas and maybe there's some incubator and small companies that evolve that's masterful. We will certainly use it for things like classes and symposiums.