Reid Plumbo: Right on target

Eight years into a career with aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Reid Plumbo (Aero ’05) suddenly switched jobs. One day he was working on a propeller for a British army surveillance drone. “Two weeks later, I was meeting with a vendor talking about the glass thickness of a picture frame,” said Plumbo, now the lead product development manager for housewares at Target in Minneapolis.

The leap from aerospace engineering to housewares wasn’t as great as it would seem. Whether engineering unmanned aircraft or designing cookware and fireplace tools, Plumbo said the job begins with a question: “What does this product have to do?” The British military aircraft had to fly and perform in subzero cold, broiling heat, and rough use. Target cookware had to survive—the dishwasher.

“Serendipity combined with flexibility has been an incredible enabler in my career.”

–Reid Plumbo

“These things needed to function, they needed to do what they said they were going to do on the label,” Plumbo said. “And so when I came to Target I found that very natural.”Plumbo had piloted a course toward aerospace engineering ever since he was a kid, building models and flying radio-controlled aircraft. When he entered the College of Science and Engineering in 2002, he imagined he would be designing the next generation of fighter jets or commercial airliners.

“I was sure I could do it all by myself out of my notebook, just like a problem in my aerodynamics textbook,” he said. “In reality, when I got there, it was way more collaborative than that.” When he started at Lockheed Martin’s Eagan, Minn. plant in 2005, he said, “I was designing the coupler for a pipe for a computer system for a rack of computer systems for an airplane.”

He was taken aback by the project’s narrowness but undeterred. His coupler project was short-lived. Soon he found himself on a team designing unmanned aircraft. For eight years, he worked with “a really talented group of people” developing drones with wingspans up to 16 feet, used for a variety of commercial and military purposes.

He discovered as much as he liked designing planes, he enjoyed leading people even more. “I like the more collaborative end of engineering rather than the heads-down, the grind-it-out-at-your-desk kind of engineering,” Plumbo said.

Unfortunately, in 2010, Lockheed announced it would move its unmanned aircraft program to New York. “Being a Minnesota guy and having connections—I have family here and everything—I just didn’t want to move,” said Plumbo. “My wife, the same thing. Her family is here.”

So he looked close to home, including Target, where his wife already worked. He liked the company and knew it needed engineers. “The big reason I wanted to do that was to learn something new and to explore that more collaborative side of engineering.”

He landed a job with Target in 2011. Now he leads a team that designs kitchenware, fireplace tools and accessories, storage and organization products, and decorative hardware.

The challenge, he said, is not the difference in products, but the difference in working culture. Where once he was surrounded by engineers, now he is joined by industrial designers, marketing people, designers who specialize in sourcing and packaging, and others with their own language.

“When you’re at an engineering company, you know how to communicate with other engineers,” said Plumbo. “It’s easy because you went to school with them, you grew up with them. We just get each other. You can show each other math and spreadsheets and things become obvious. When I came to Target, I realized those tools were not necessarily the right ones to use to communicate messages.”

“Serendipity combined with flexibility has been an incredible enabler in my career,” Plumbo said. “When I came to Target I had to learn to be flexible in new ways. I had to learn that there are people out there who aren’t exactly like me. And I needed to learn to communicate with them.”