James Farley (center) with McCormick students

For James Farley, the world is his office

Retired as chair and chief executive officer of the multinational corporation SpeedFam-IPEC, James N. Farley still travels around the world. His global perspective helped his company grow from a small U.S. firm in Des Plaines, Illinois, selling lapping and polishing machines, to a manufacturer of equipment for the semiconductor industry with outposts throughout Europe and Asia.

After graduating from McCormick in 1950 with a major in electrical engineering, Farley was a test engineer for General Electric. After serving in the Korean War at White Sands, New Mexico, he worked as a sales engineer for a Milwaukee motor control manufacturer. After Farley sold a control to the inventor of a new lapping and polishing machine in 1960, he joined the inventor's company as a minority investor. The business grew rapidly when Farley expanded it abroad, first to France, Germany, and Switzerland and then to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and India.

When the company reorganized in 1974, Farley took ownership of the machine-tool side of the business, then named SpeedFam Corporation and later SpeedFam International; it was named the Chicago-Area Best Small Business in 1987 by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Arthur Andersen. To accommodate the growing demand for semiconductor equipment, Farley opened an Arizona office in 1980. In 1999 SpeedFam International merged with IPEC (Integrated Process Equipment Corporation) to become SpeedFam-IPEC, which Farley led until he retired in 2002.

Farley lives in Arizona with his wife, Nancy. They have five children and 16 grandchildren. His daughter Sarah earned a master's degree in audiology from Northwestern, and his granddaughter Meghan Farley graduated from Weinberg College in 2005. The Northwestern University Alumni Association honored Farley with its Alumni Merit Award in 1996.

What brought you to Northwestern?

I was a Kansas farm boy who was good in math and science. A half-tuition scholarship — $75 every quarter — made it possible for me to attend.

You've paid back the scholarship and then some, haven't you?

Northwestern played a big part in my success, and I'm happy to contribute. When I joined the McCormick Advisory Council in 1986, I noticed that not much had changed in Tech since the 1940s. In 2001 my wife and I named a wing in Tech and donated 10 machines to establish the Undergraduate Machining and Prototype Lab (now in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center). We also endowed a professorship in manufacturing and entrepreneurship.

What about the McCormick scholarship in your name?

That was a complete surprise to me, a gift from our five kids. I was more than pleased.

What prompted you to take your business international in the 1960s?

We decided we had to be in the world, not just in the United States. We went to Europe first and made some mistakes, but we learned from them and moved into Asia. We ended up selling more out of our joint venture in Japan than in the United States.

How did you foresee the growth of the semiconductor industry?

We made machines to polish raw materials, including the germanium used in the first semiconductors before silicon became the material of choice. The machines were capable of producing very flat, smooth, accurate materials, which I knew would be important as the demand for memory disks grew.

You're retired. Why are you still accumulating frequent flyer miles?

I rarely had time to sightsee on business trips. Since I've retired my wife and I have toured Africa twice and taken a trip around the world.

What's your advice for engineering students?

Take as many business classes as you can, fit in as many extracurricular activities as you can, and develop your people skills.

—Leanne Star

Northwestern University