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Remembering James N. Little, 1940-2011

Let's remember and celebrate a very special person – James N. Little.


By Frank Zenie
Friend and colleague

Jim was born July 3, 1940 in Kansas City, MO. He began his successful career by earning a B.S. degree in chemistry from the University of Kansas in 1962 followed by his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967. Jim then joined Hercules Powder Company in Wilmington, DE, and shortly thereafter, he moved to Waters Associates (now Waters Corporation). I met Jim at Waters when I joined the company in late 1968, thus beginning almost 30 years of close collaboration, personal friendship and business partnership at Waters and the Zymark Corporation.

Jim died September 14, 2011 after months of battling cancer. During my conversations and e-mail exchanges with Jim, it was clear that he never gave up. With each new setback, he became determined to fight harder. The great football coach, Vince Lombardi, once said: "We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time." I believe this is how Jim felt as his cancer treatment overwhelmed him.

When I joined Waters, it offered gel permeation chromatography instruments and a portfolio of niche analytical instruments – each selling a few units annually. Even then, Jim recognized the potential for HPLC (high pressure liquid chromatography) and was advocating his vision to our leadership team. Fortunately, he succeeded and we transformed ourselves into our future company with the tagline, "The Liquid Chromatography People." Jim moved first from research to sales and marketing and then to senior vice president. Very likely, Jim was the most powerful voice linking technology vendors to the scientific academic and industry communities.

Jim joined Zymark in 1981 as senior vice president of sales and marketing. Our products were in early development, and we faced the challenge that virtually no potential customer visualized robotic automation becoming a vital part of their future laboratories. We needed a catalyst to powerfully convey the Zymark vision and its benefits to the scientific community. As soon as we had a working prototype, we introduced it at Pittcon 1982 where we filmed an 8mm movie. Fortunately, we didn't break too many test tubes there and drew a crowd to listen to and see a primitive demonstration of our vision.

Jim again became the catalyst overcoming resistance to laboratory robotic automation and then building an image of a better future combining powerful scientific instrumentation with automated laboratory sample preparation. Led by Jim, we traveled along the east coast with our movie, an 8mm projector and a screen to visually introduce our new automation. Enough were convinced to try it; that meant we had real orders to deliver when we were ready and enthusiastic customers willing to work with us and our current limitations. In later years, our presence at ISLAR (International Symposium on Laboratory Automation and Robotics), also led by Jim, helped transform the vision to reality.

On a more personal note, I'd like to share four examples illustrating Jim's character.

Loyalty – Just mention Jim's name to colleagues, customers or others who knew him and they would describe some way that Jim helped them. Jim earned their loyalty by being loyal to them. Our customers trusted Jim and, consequently, they trusted our company.

Tenacity – For most of our almost 30 years working together we had adjoining offices. Jim loved using the phone and believed that you need to speak loudly to be heard and even louder when speaking internationally – so I heard his side of many phone conversations. When Jim tried to reach a potential new customer, the administrative assistant often rejected him. Jim never quit – he would call back, again and again, building rapport with the assistant. It might take 10 or more calls, but Jim would finally reach the principal and develop another new relationship. He was determined to share his insights. Yes, we wanted the business, but we also believed we were delivering real value to our customers.

Memory – Everyone who knew Jim marveled at his memory. After meeting someone only once, Jim would recognize them and call them by name when meeting again several years later. With those he knew better, he would know family members' names as well as their educational and work history. He amazed me by even remembering many telephone numbers. Yes, he was gifted, but I knew Jim to be the Ted Williams of memory. The Red Sox baseball great Ted Williams possessed exceptional vision and natural athletic ability, yet he passionately studied hitting and opposing pitchers to, arguably, become the best hitter in baseball history. Like Ted, Jim augmented his natural gifts with hard work and memory development.

Energy and enthusiasm – Jim was our Energizer Bunny; he was always proactive and enthusiastic. Problems simply became challenges to overcome.

After Zymark, Jim moved to Cetek Corporation, serving later as its president. Following Cetek, he consulted and served on several emerging company boards of directors. I never heard him utter the word "retirement."

Colleagues, customers, family and friends all were enriched through their relationship with Jim Little. Our entire industry enjoys greater success due to his work and legacy. It won't be quite the same without him.

Jim, I miss you already!

October 3, 2011