Q&A With Cummins CEO Jennifer Rumsey

Jennifer Rumsey, Cummins CEO sports a blonde bob and a black jacket in this photo studio image with a grey background
Jennifer Rumsey, Cummins CEO sports a blonde bob and a black jacket in this photo studio image with a grey background
Jennifer Hunley, Cummins CEO

You were born and raised in Columbus, left to work at a couple of other companies, but returned to your hometown to head Cummins. What are the odds?

It’s exciting, and I have to say that when I was growing up here, this wasn’t where I thought I’d end up. But Cummins played a very important part in developing me into the person I am. That was one of the reasons I wanted to lead this company during this important phase of its existence. I’ve of course lived and worked in other places, and that was a great experience that helped me appreciate what Cummins and the Midwest have to offer.

Does being a “local” have any advantages for you?

As we enter into the company’s next period, we’re focused on decarbonizing our industry and positioning Cummins for the future. Certainly I think it’s motivational for our employees and the community that you have a hometown girl. And also an engineer. I spent a lot of my career in engineering, which obviously is an important part of the work we’re doing and will be doing.

What are your major objectives during your tenure as CEO?

One of the biggest goals I have is determining the role that Cummins can play in the decarbonization of our industry, which by itself contributes about 7 percent of global CO2 emissions. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it does matter. We serve applications that are really at the heart of the economy—trucks, buses, and trains, moving goods and people around, power generation for a variety of applications. This work matters a great deal, but we need to decarbonize it. And we need to do it in a way that continues to serve our customers and ensure that our world thrives. Because the need is real. When you consider the record temperatures we’ve seen around the world this year, and the increasing number of extreme weather events, we know it matters.

Columbus makes a lot of diesel engines. Is that a major problem for the company?

Cummins is really uniquely positioned to help with decarbonization because we have these engine-based solutions. We’re accelerating technologies like batteries, electric motors, fuel cells, and hydrogen production, all of which can help to get us to zero-net emissions. I think this gives us a tremendous opportunity. My goal as CEO is to make sure that we play a role as a catalyst in that change, in a way that makes sense for our planet and our economy, and for the people of the world. Doing that unlocks the potential of our own workforce and creates these tremendous opportunities. I think that is the key to our success. Of course, we need to deliver strong financial results as we do this because it allows us to return to our shareholders and invest in our communities.

What’s the timetable for all this?

The journey is going to be a long one, and whether or not we deliver results will define my success as CEO. Our environmental sustainability plan calls for us to reach zero-net emissions by 2050. I doubt I’ll still be CEO at Cummins in 2050, but during my tenure that goal will certainly be very important—essentially overseeing the transition and how it happens.

Cummins made a name for itself with diesel engines, and that’s still a big part of the company. Will you have to switch to electric in the coming years?

It will be a combination of power sources. The most important thing to remember is that our commercial and industrial equipment—things that power construction vehicles, buses, and trucks—have very different energy requirements from, say, a passenger car. Which means there’s no one technology that’s going to work for all of those different applications. For instance, a bus operates somewhat like a passenger car, and regularly returns to its home base. Whereas a mining truck or long-haul truck requires very long endurance or very high power, or both. Also, setting up an all-electric infrastructure for heavy applications could take a long time, so we need bridge technologies that can be fielded now. We can’t wait until we develop the infrastructure and make the technology capable and cost-effective for everything. We have to decarbonize engine-based emissions today, using zero-carbon fuels such as green hydrogen or a biofuel. Some of these may also be part of the long-term solution. Battery electric will play a big role in some applications, but we think we’ll need a range of solutions to solve this issue.

So you believe heavy construction equipment doesn’t really lend itself to electric systems just yet?

Exactly. There are lots of factors to consider. How big does the battery for a heavy-duty piece of equipment have to be? How much does that weigh, and how will that extra weight impact the vehicle’s payload and performance? Also, our customers are concerned about recharging times. So for some of those applications, such as mining and long-haul transport, you might need a hybrid solution composed of a battery and another power source—something that can be fueled quickly. Perhaps a fuel cell or an engine running on low-carbon or zero-carbon fuel. We’re listening carefully to our customers to find out what works best for them.

What do you make of the automobile industry’s sudden rush to develop electric vehicles?

There are two things that are happening with automobiles that aren’t the same for our industry. For one thing, electric-battery technology is more useful for that application in terms of its cost-effectiveness and the range and recharge speed it can provide. So you’re seeing the establishment of the charging infrastructure necessary to support that, and more consumers deciding to switch to electric passenger cars. You will see that happening more quickly than in our industry. When it comes to things like buses, where cities are interested in running zero-emission fleets, fuel cell–based systems might be a more practical choice. Because a pure electric recharging system would be heavier and more time-consuming than for cars.

Everybody’s also trying to build electric semis right now. How about Cummins?

We don’t make trucks. We make the power train. But we were nevertheless the first to demonstrate a battery-electric semi in 2017. Basically just to show off our capabilities with electric power trains and to show that we were embracing the future. These days we’re partnering with a number of original equipment manufacturers, along with some of our vehicle fleet customers that are wanting to evaluate new fuel technologies. So among other things, we’ve made announcements concerning heavy-duty trucks powered by natural-gas fuel cells that we’ve made with Chevron, and with Walmart as a customer. We are also partnering with a couple of truck makers over fuel cell systems. We’re investing in a range of solutions in the truck space, and some of it is at the demonstration phase.

A female Fortune 500 CEO isn’t a total rarity anymore, but it’s still pretty rare. Has it presented any special issues for you?

I get this question a lot. What I always say is that I’m the CEO of Cummins because I’m the right person. I’m sure being a female has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but it’s really less about that than about having the right background to handle the technological changes the company faces. That, and my demonstrated experience in building and leading a strong team that can deliver results.