By Wesley Wells
When Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Board of Directors selected Kari Wilkinson to serve as president of Ingalls Shipbuilding in March, HII Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Chris Kastner knew what he was getting. Wilkinson replaced former Ingalls President Brian Cuccias, who retired on April 1, and became the first woman to lead the Pascagoula facility.
Wilkinson, who also serves as an executive vice president of the parent company, assumed her role in April and reports to Kastner, who well knows what she offers to the industry.
“Kari is a respected leader with an impressive 25-year record of success managing programs and overseeing major shipbuilding initiatives at Ingalls,” Kastner said. “Her focus on operational excellence, exemplary leadership skills and ability to build effective customer relationships well positions her for this new role, and I look forward to working with her to continue the Ingalls Shipbuilding legacy of success.”
Wilkinson began her career with Ingalls as an associate naval architect in 1996. Since that time, she has supported major shipbuilding production events and milestones from positions in Engineering, has worked closely with Business Development on requirements and preliminary ship designs for both domestic and international customers, and also coordinated the prioritization of equipment and processes in Operations during the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort.
“It’s a privilege to lead this organization of talented shipbuilders,” Wilkinson said when asked if there was any added pressure leading the state’s largest manufacturing employer. “Turning any external pressure I may feel into internal drive pushes me to work harder to enable the outstanding team we have here at Ingalls.”
Originally from Jenison, Michigan, Wilkinson earned a bachelor of science in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Temple University. She feels her previous roles at the company have prepared her well to lead.
“Program management sees across functional organizations and programs in a unique way and provides an opportunity to touch every element of the business,” Wilkinson said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better lead-in to what I am doing today, nor better people from which to have learned.”
Wilkinson acknowledges the first few months have been really busy, but that she remains focused on the tasks ahead.
“The business is the business and we have continued to focus solidly on program execution, but shipbuilding is a team sport and necessitates relationships and collaboration,” She said. “Making new connections has been a critical focus over the past few months, as well as embracing the responsibility we have to our shipbuilders and our communities in addition to our customers.”
Those tasks haven’t been made easier as Wilkinson took over at a time when the state, as well as the remainder of the country, continues to face one of its most difficult challenges ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many companies to change the way they conduct business.
“Being emotionally intelligent during a conversation can make or break a relationship,” Wilkinson added. “Working virtually has taught us that while we can be agile and adaptive to this new environment, it in some way inhibits our ability to communicate (for example, through body language and facial expressions). Learning how to truly listen to one another on important and emotionally charged issues is a skill set we must deliberately strengthen and sustain.”
That’s the same attitude Wilkinson speaks of when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“I think that being heard and acknowledged is a fundamental human need,” she explains. “I consider providing everyone within the organization an opportunity to contribute their individual skills and perspectives to our collective strategy as one of my responsibilities. Without collaboration, we are only as good or strong as a few people. Shipbuilding is extraordinary and complex, and absolutely a team sport.”