Improving business with philosophy

By

Rachel Bunning

Tom Fournier had a successful career in engineering and business management and after co-founding and selling a company that measured automotive pollution for governments, he was able to retire early at 55 years old.

The following two years were spent dabbling in hobbies as a private pilot and a skydiver and volunteering at Tucson’s Community Food Bank and Literacy Connects. Despite keeping himself busy, Fournier felt something was missing.

“It was a lack of challenge, or maybe lack of personal growth,” Fournier said. “I began wondering whether 57 years old was too old to go back to school and found myself leafing through the community college catalog for courses unrelated to my prior degrees in engineering and business administration.” 

Fournier found himself hooked on philosophy just two weeks into a course in introductory logic and philosophy. After a few more beginning courses, he transferred to the University of Arizona for more extensive classes until he was ready for graduate-level work and applied to begin his master’s degree in philosophy from Arizona State University.

“Logic and critical thinking are comfort food to an engineer and the ancients' musings on the meaning of a ‘good life’ are a gravity well to someone who’s halfway through,” Fournier said.

He directed his research on emergence and mental causation and was pushed to challenge himself in new ways by his thesis adviser and Emeritus Professor of philosophy Bernard Kobes.

“(He) prodded me with resource suggestions while gracefully wielding his respectful demeanor in critique of my occasionally naïve assertions,” Fournier said. “Successful defense and committee acceptance of the final 34,000-word document was a high point in my master’s studies.”

Fournier had another great success while pursuing his master’s degree when an earlier paper was published in the second edition of "Environmental Ethics,” a college textbook by David Schmidtz and Elizabeth Willott. That paper was on the moral issues involved in pollution abatement. 

“Tom brings to any inquiry a unique blend of confidence and humility,” Kobes said. “This makes thinking with him not only productive but also a distinct pleasure. I am fortunate and grateful to have been able to work with Tom in the development of his ideas. A philosopher is, etymologically, a lover of wisdom. Tom exemplifies this ancient ideal and makes it relevant to new frontiers in business and engineering.”

As he was wrapping up his degree at ASU in 2013, Fournier was having dinner with a friend whose company was about to expand. By the end of the dinner he offered to manage the expansion of the engineering facility in Tucson and became the chief technology officer of Opus Group.

“It’s interesting to note that, due to training in philosophical discourse, my role in that position quickly swelled from managing technology development to include strategic business development,” Fournier said. “When we chase multimillion-dollar government contracts to inspect vehicles for emissions or safety defects, it’s my job to write the multipage executive summaries that pitch our organization.”

He attributes the expansion of his career role to his academic development in the philosophy program in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“My abilities to form a cogent argument, anticipate rebuttals and forestall them in advance were incomparably better than the earlier days of my career, and so too were my abilities to communicate those points in writing,” Fournier said. “I had not anticipated that skills gained in the study of philosophy could improve real world performance in business.”

While Fournier worked as the CTO of Opus Group he continued to write and submit philosophical papers for publication. As he approaches retirement again, he finds his research in philosophy to still give him personal growth, and philosophy allows him to explore many different genres. 

More specifically, he enjoys applying philosophical concepts and analytic techniques to contemporary issues and his publications can be found on his website.

“For example, those Philippa Foot trolley problems that we study in intro ethics are playing out now in the software designs of fully autonomous vehicles,” Fournier said. “Similarly, the fallacies of the ancient Athenian Sophists are still in play and ubiquitously employed by our cable news channels on both the right and the left.”

Fournier wants to encourage all students to never stop thinking of themselves as students. Given his start as an engineer, his interests moved to the humanities as he moved through life.

“My advice to humanities students is don’t let the STEM trend weaken your commitment to the humanities, especially in light of our current global situation,” Fournier said. “The humanities are relevant now more than ever. STEM might be the engine propelling much of our modern society, but the humanities have the steering wheel.”

Fournier graciously supports the philosophy department, allowing students to have the same experience he did. 

“ASU welcomed me,” he said. “In fact, throughout my coursework at ASU, I didn’t have a single bad experience with a professor or a fellow student. Given my age relative to the student body and most of the professors, that speaks well of the people who ASU attracts.”