Learning from those "failures" has benefited the 2020 Executive of the Year, however.
"As a startup, you are not diversified enough to be able to make it if things go wrong financially," Pitstick said. "Larger companies have a specific, designed outcome, but you do not need to get it all right.
"I really enjoyed the entrepreneurship and the tech, but I missed the resources of larger companies. I was able to find the best of both worlds at Gates."
Part of the allure at Gates, Pitstick said, is the materials construction and innovation surrounding the processes to make the power transmission and fluid transfer products, such as ethylene elastomer products.
"Their benefits are environmental, but there are also performance advantages," he said. "We have innovated the material—and the process around it."
Pitstick cited a kind of performance triangle between advanced materials and product constructions (the mixture of materials, reinforcements and fabrics) and the processes used to make the products.
"The way we're looking at innovation is that all three are required to really have a significant impact on new product performance," he said. "You might need the new material to enable some new performance, but maybe the existing processes don't work with that material so you need to innovate the process, too."
Besides his father, Pitstick said he has taken professional inspiration and leadership traits from Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Richard Groves Jr., all of whom were essential to the work on the Manhattan Project, the development of the first atomic bombs in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Los Alamos, N.M.; and Hanford, Wash.
"These were the engineers who pushed the frontiers of science," he said. "There was sheer excellence in the way they approached their problems. And these were immigrants, whose stories were essential to the story of America and entrepreneurialism."
Stepping up, staying informed
When a situation is complex and constantly changing like the current pandemic, the message and communications should be simple, especially in a company with thousands of employees like Gates, Pitstick said.
"Any time you can make things more basic, that is important," he said. "Communication is key. With a startup company, it's real easy to communicate with a few people—not so with a larger company. So we overcommunicated any time we saw something."
And that goes for all forms of correspondence—from email, to weekly leadership meetings, to Zoom calls. In total, Pitstick spearheaded more than 100 communications with employees, internal and external stakeholders, customers and suppliers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, Tom demonstrated effective leadership, coordinating Gates' worldwide senior leadership teams in a series of weekly global pulse calls with more than 250 leaders representing more than 100 Gates facilities in 30 countries around the globe," his colleagues noted in the nomination letter. "Moreover, Tom oversaw successful multi-channel communications efforts to Gates' customers and partners across the web, social platforms, media engagements and customer and supplier letters."
And while no one at Gates has been through a pandemic before, the 109-year-old company certainly has with the 1918 Spanish flu.
"In crazy times like this, the executives and floor folks alike are all learning together," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are, none of us have been through this before. Core philosophies are important."
Though specific procedures from 1918 may not have been practical for the coronavirus pandemic, Pitstick said the global nature of the company today has been a guiding asset.
"I called it an advantage, having 100-plus locations in China, India and throughout Europe and the Americas," he said. "We watched the progression of the virus from mainland China and implemented what they learned there. But news from local health authorities didn't flow perfectly. We were implementing procedures in China, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, all while the U.S. was behind, wondering what this was."