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Alumni profile: Jeff Allen, S.B. ’06
Managing smooth operations at global razor brand
With dozens of component manufacturing facilities spread around the globe, Gillette’s supply chain requires razor-sharp attention to detail. Keeping production running smoothly is the job of Jeff Allen, S.B. ’06, Gillette global program manager at Procter and Gamble.
Though Allen, a mechanical engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has worked for P&G his entire post-college career, it’s not a role he would have imagined when he first arrived on campus.
Growing up in suburban Detroit, Allen, like many of his peers, was mechanically inclined from a young age and expected to work in the auto industry.
“I broke a lot of things when I was younger, so I was always having to put things back together quickly before my parents got home,” he recalled. “So some of my mechanical skills were born out of necessity, but I’ve always had a general curiosity about how things work.”
He was recruited to play football at Harvard, and was a defensive back for three seasons—including the Crimson’s undefeated 2004 season. While he enjoyed the camaraderie on the gridiron, his real passion was mechanical engineering.
For Allen, who thought all mechanical engineering involved using a wrench, it was eye-opening to learn the theoretical side and the science behind different techniques. One of his most transformative academic experiences was collaborating with classmates in Engineering Design Project (ES 96) to optimize the HVAC system in the Harvard football team’s weight room.
A friend whose father worked for P&G encouraged Allen to apply for a job there after graduation. But he didn’t seriously consider taking a job at what he thought to be a company focused more on marketing than engineering. But a unique opportunity in chemical engineering at a Pringles facility in Tennessee piqued his interest, and he found himself working as a technical engineer and project manager for the popular chip brand.
He managed the engineering processes for about $100 million of equipment in the Jackson, Tenn., plant that turned liquid and dry raw materials into Pringles (the chips are cut from a dough and then fried in oil.) Allen impressed his supervisors, who sent him to a plant in Ohio to design a new Pringles mixing system.
“One of the things I enjoyed the most about working in a manufacturing facility was being hands-on with what I was doing,” he said. “If I needed to understand something, I would get up from my desk, go to the machine, and troubleshoot right there on the spot.”
Those experiences as a problem solver proved invaluable in Allen’s next role at the company, as lead engineer at a manufacturing facility being designed to produce Tide Pods, then a new-to-market technology. Allen spent time in Louisiana, Belgium, and China as he oversaw production line implementation, manufacturing facility construction, packaging development, and supply chain startup for what would become a multibillion-dollar business.
“The biggest challenge was the fact that this product was something brand new. It had never been done before, so we couldn’t draw on any other examples from industry,” he said. “It was exciting, new-to-the market technology, and we knew there was going to be some time before any of our competitors were going to catch up.”
From working on new technology, Allen moved to one of P&G’s oldest brands, Gillette, a storied company founded in Massachusetts in 1904. With such a long history, and an even longer supply chain, overseeing the global obsolescence strategy for the brand’s equipment is challenging work.
Allen determines how to transfer the right equipment across Gillette’s supply chain to optimize production and increase efficiency, while developing strategies for new capacity around the world. He also sits on functional teams, lending his engineering expertise to supply chain plans as the brand brings new initiatives to market.
Working with marketing is one of the biggest challenges he faces.
“The skill set it takes to be very successful in marketing can be significantly different from the engineering skill set. Engineers are much more focused on the analytical side, hard data, and numbers, while marketers tend to look more at what their guts tell them,” he said. “Translating the technical portion up to marketing so they understand the boundaries of their ideas is a challenge. Successfully meshing the two disciplines is the hardest part of the job.”
The skills he developed at SEAS help him think critically about problems, tackle very nebulous questions with concrete strategies, and convey technical ideas to individuals who lack engineering expertise.
Those skills will become even more relevant as P&G continues to implement new digital technologies that increase the speed of work, and the time pressure for producing results, he said.
But for Allen, who still feels at home on the factory floor, the people he works with make his job fulfilling.
“I take a lot of pride in coaching my project managers through problems and raising the bar for expectations as they continue to learn and grow,” he said. “Being able to take more ownership over the work I’m doing, and helping the organization grow and move in a better direction, is rewarding.”
Working with the community has also been a very satisfying experience for Allen, who serves as president of the board of directors at the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, a settlement home in Cambridge, Mass., that also provides a food pantry, elderly services program, and youth program for some of the city’s most underserved residents.
The City of Cambridge has one of the largest wealth gaps in Massachusetts, Allen said, and during his time at Harvard, he never realized there was such an impoverished neighborhood right down the road from the University. Being able to give back now is the fulfillment of a goal that goes back to his college days.
For Allen, something as simple as watching at-risk youth playing on the organization’s playground is often even more gratifying than managing half a billion dollars of manufacturing assets.
“I’ve been blessed to go to Harvard and have the career that I’ve had. I wanted to be able to have an impact on the community—not just at a surface level by writing checks—but really do good,” he said “At the Margaret Fuller House, I help set the direction for a beacon that can really help this community. This community is desperately in need of the right support, and I want to be a part of that.”