Finding a Niche

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How one woman went from F-16 operations in Egypt to Caterpillar operations around the globe

Kelly Orr of Catepillar, Lafayette
As general manager for operations at CAT in Lafayette, Kelly Orr oversees a staff of 1,200. Photo credit: Andrew Hancock.


By Cynthia Sequin

Kelly Orr (MS T’00) has spent a lifetime traveling around the world. She grew up in Connecticut, but she’s traveled in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, South America, and various corners of North America.

For each trek she adopted a colloquialism or practical practice to help her remember what she has learned at each stop. It seems to work for her.

Like the time in the mid-1990s when she was serving as a lieutenant in the US Air Force and her responsibilities included operations of the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft for the governments of Egypt and Bahrain.

Orr’s commanding officer told her to prepare a technical brief for a general in the Egyptian military on the ejection seats in the F-16s and possible concerns if women were flying the aircraft.

“The potential issue was that the ejection seats were designed to hold the weight of a typical male, and because women tend to be lighter weight than men, the trajectory was greater. We were working on that issue,” Orr says. “I had an outstanding brief prepared with all the possible technical information hands down, and as soon as I met with the general I went right into my brief. I thought I was ready for anything.”

The general looked at her when she began her briefing and after a couple of minutes he raised his hand and said, “We don’t allow women in our military.”

“I stammered a bit and said something about the importance of considering the weight of all individuals flying F-16s,” she says with a shake of her head. “To be honest, I think my commander set me up, but it was an important lesson — I learned that you need to know your audience before you talk to them, and I never forgot it.”

Support your team

“Another time my commander asked me to give a major presentation at the Egyptian headquarters building in Cairo,” Orr says. “If I wasn’t the first, I was at least one of the first women to be placed in a leadership position over the F-16s. I entered a room full of men, took a deep breath, and kept my fingers crossed when I approached the podium.”

When Orr finished her opening remarks, she noticed that the men in the room turned and looked at her commander — for confirmation? Affirmation? Commendation? Condemnation?

“I was already nervous and didn’t know what to think, but then my commander looked at the group and repeated word-for-word what I’d just said,” she says. “Then I gave my second statement, and the group again looked at my commander and he did the same thing. It happened a third time, but not a fourth. By then and forever after that I was ‘accepted as a member of the team.’”

She and her commander talked about it later.

“I never forgot how my boss supported me and how much it helped me become more than a team member, but a strong contributor to our team’s goals,” Orr says. “I work hard to do the same for those who work on my team.”

See all sides of the story

“One of the most deep-felt experiences I had while serving in the Middle East was in 1995 when [Yitzhak] Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, was assassinated,” Orr says. “I was in Egypt staying in a hotel and I remember coming down the stairs to the lobby and seeing a frenzy of action. We were in meetings all day with people from around the world and discussing the tragedy. This was something that directly impacted the whole region and we were talking about how the dynamics could change because of the assassination. I remember thinking ‘This is historical and what happens in the next few days and weeks could change the course of history.’ All of us from many different countries were working hard to see all sides of the story and doing what we could to help mitigate any potential issues.”

In recognition of Orr’s work in the Middle East, she was awarded the Air Force Commendation medal and several achievement medals.

Kelly and Scott Orr
Kelly Orr met her husband, Scott, in the Air Force.

Balancing life

“I met my husband, Scott, in the military where he was an engineer. After we married, we realized that if we stayed in the Air Force we would not always be stationed in the same place,” Orr says. “After four years, I left the service and began a new chapter in my life.”

In 1998, her husband accepted an automotive engineering position in Indianapolis and Orr accepted a position with Caterpillar Inc. in Lafayette, Indiana.

“Although we enjoyed our time in the Air Force, we felt we made a good choice to leave at the time we did and move to Indiana,” Scott Orr says, who now works as an engineer at Caterpillar. “It could not have worked out better.”

Orr says that Caterpillar was a good choice for her too.

“I felt it was serendipitous to join Caterpillar because in Egypt we used Caterpillar’s 3600 engine series and I knew I would be working on the same engines,” Orr says. “Caterpillar felt comfortable to me.”

Two days after 9/11/2001, while five months pregnant with their daughter, Orr learned that her husband was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.

“That year was truly a defining moment and we went through a lot. Scott was going through six months of chemo when Alicia was born. But we learned a lot too, mainly that family is first,” Orr says. “We don’t sweat the small stuff and we stay pretty grounded. We are grateful that Scott has been 11 years in remission.”

The couple shares responsibility for their busy daughter.

“Scott is a fabulous father and Alicia is so happy when we can both attend a dance class or another activity,” she says. “It’s a balancing act for Alicia too. She appreciates the time we have together. Because of our moves to different locations, she has experienced more changes than most children.”

It is a balancing act, and Orr is cognizant of her team’s need to balance their own lives.

“As a manger, I understand that people have lives outside the office, and I feel that when we provide flexibility as a company we get it back in loyalty, dedication, and quality work.”

Appreciate cultural differences

In the years that followed Alicia’s birth, Orr lived or worked regularly in Texas, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, Northern Ireland, and China with numerous short-term stops in other places around the world.

“Having served in the military, I participated in several diversity and cultural awareness programs and while I understood Middle East politics and had a grasp of social awareness; outside that region I found I had much to learn,” Orr says. “For example, when I was working in Northern Ireland, I oversaw a supplier conference in Belfast that included a luncheon. It was held on Ash Wednesday, and I had chicken served at the event. I didn’t even think about it. Then many people started asking for a vegetarian option. We scrambled to get one available, but I still shake my head when I think about it.”

Another incident that may seem minor but was greatly frowned upon occurred in Japan.

“It was another lunch, but this time at a restaurant and I just walked in with my shoes on,” Orr says. “It was a huge faux paus that was immediately pointed out to me and I had to turn around and go back to the entrance.”

Understand the needs of others

“The first time I got to run my own factory was in Greenville, South Carolina,” Orr says. “Driving up to the facility for the first time all I could think about was ‘I’m responsible for these people, for their livelihood, and for the Caterpillar presence in this community.’ It can be overwhelming but having a military background helped me move forward and do the best I could for the company and the people.”

Orr oversaw different aspects in order-to-delivery at similar facilities in Mossville, Illinois; Pontiac, Illinois; Seguin, Texas; Griffin, Georgia; and Larne, Northern Ireland.

“Each facility was a new experience but several attributes that the people have in common everywhere is that they were very polite, hardworking, diverse, and they have a strong sense of community,” she says. “I worked hard to understand the needs of these people and tried to make their jobs better while increasing productivity. When they were successful, I was successful.”

Understanding the needs of others has become even more imperative in the past decade.

“For the first time in human history, we have five generations of people working together, and each group contributes to the big picture,” Orr says. “I work at understanding how to manage generational diversity of the groups and still get the job done.”

In 2012, Orr returned to Caterpillar in Lafayette, Indiana. And today she serves as the general manger of operations for the facility. She has seven direct reports and 1,200 employees in her reporting line.

Never stop learning

When Orr decided to earn a master’s degree, she enrolled in the Purdue College of Technology Master of Science in industrial distribution program. At the time, she was the only female in the program.

“When I went to Purdue, I was out of the service and already working for Caterpillar, so I had some life experience, but Purdue helped me grow as a professional and diversified my thought processes even more,” Orr says. “The case studies of various companies that we reviewed helped me see things from a different perspective. For example, we did a study on Subway and at the time I thought ‘What can I learn from a sandwich company?’ But I learned a lot about forecasting and the importance of controlling product flow.”

Orr says she uses what she has learned in every aspect of her life.

“I tell people to never give up, ask yourself what skills you bring to the table, and make the most of those skills and always do the right thing.”

The one that got away

Although the stamps in her passport could compete with the US Secretary of State’s, there is one place she missed going by one inch.

“From the time I was a little girl, I loved astronomy and wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to go into space like Sally Ride. She was my role model,” Orr says. “Growing up in Connecticut, I spent my Friday nights on Talcott Mountain looking at the stars. I studied the sky for hours and hours. I joined the Air Force ROTC program because of all the space programs offered by the Air Force; I felt that would be the best path to become an astronaut.”

When she reached five-feet two-inches she stopped growing.

“The height requirement to be an astronaut at that time was five-foot three-inches,” she says.

Forging ahead

“After my dream of being an astronaut ended, I started looking at other options and I found I loved working with engines and engine parts and the challenges of all the products that go into building machines,” she says, the enthusiasm clearly evident in her voice. “It worked out for me. I can’t imagine doing anything different than what I am doing right now.”

Cynthia Sequin is director of Marketing and Communications for the Purdue Research Foundation.