Founder & CEO, Diagon
The Making of a Supply Chain Aficionado
Will Drewery has manufacturing in his DNA. He was born into a manufacturing family. He's helped build factories in Baghdad, manufacturing lines for Tesla, and the supply chain for rocket manufacturer, Astra. Now he's reimagining equipment sourcing. He'll be attending IMTS 2024 to build relationships with capital equipment manufacturers and service providers. Not yet 40, Drewery's story is one of inspiring the extraordinary.
When Will Drewery had to choose between dream jobs at Facebook and Tesla, his dad thought he was crazy for choosing Tesla. Coming from a steel background in Pittsburgh and driving an 18-wheeler for a living, his father viewed manufacturing through an old-fashioned lens of misperception.
“I told my dad, ‘These guys are really building something different. It's really cool. I love that I get to see the product that I'm making,'” Drewery says. He went on to become head of capex global supply management at Tesla. “When you see the brilliant white epoxy floors and the perfectly orchestrated robotic automation, you get the feeling that you're in a different kind of manufacturing facility. When my dad finally had the chance to visit Tesla, he said, ’Okay, I get why you did this. I've never seen anything like this.'”
Today, Drewery is doing “different” all over again. After a five-year career at Tesla, he moved on to executive leadership positions that included vice president of supply chain at Astra, a 2016 startup that builds rockets to offer low-cost orbital launch services for small satellites, and a board directorship roles that include Mitra Chem, a venture-backed battery cathode material startup that is accelerating the lab to production lifecycle of new battery chemistries. Drewery has parlayed his first-hand appreciation of manufacturing supply chain problems to help manufacturers across the industry achieve their in-house manufacturing goals.
“I founded Diagon to help companies source manufacturing equipment in less than half the time of doing it on their own. Our platform saves customers time and money by accelerating equipment specification definition, illuminating product discovery, and simplifying supplier selection,” Drewery says. “We are building the platform I wish I had when I was an equipment buyer. With our online platform, procurement efforts that once took weeks or months can now be completed in 15 minutes!” (Learn more about Diagon and Drewery's co-founder and CTO, Shridharan Muthu.)
Education and Self-Advocacy
The road from old-school East Coast manufacturing to CEO of a San Francisco tech start-up began with one word: education.
“The departure of the steel industry left my city in pretty bad shape. My parents are the hardest working people I know, but we were a low-income family back then. However, education was always highly regarded in our house,” Drewery says. “My parents never had the opportunity to get a higher education, so my they were constantly impressing upon me that education was my ticket out.”
Drewery enrolled in advanced placement (AP) classes in high school and took the hardest math and science courses offered. When the school couldn't offer a chemistry course he really wanted to take, he and a few classmates lobbied the school to allow them to take the class at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We would also go to University of Pittsburgh and take some of their engineering-level math and science courses,” he says. “I learned early on that if I advocated hard enough for myself, nothing could be withheld from me. This is a value I maintain to this day.” In a world where most parents get their kids up for school, Drewery used to wake his parents at 5:30 a.m. before he left the house to catch the early buses across town to school.
If there's something that you want, it's your job to go after it. Nothing in this life is given, and none of it is fair. The harder you push for things to happen, the more likely other people will be to help you along the way.
From Bagdad to Harvard
Drewery earned his B.S. in business administration from Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business in 2006. He served as an officer for both the National Society of Black Engineers, creating programs to tutor inner-city youth, and the SPIRIT Black Student Union.
After graduation, he worked as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where he served federal government clients, including NASA (fun fact: he's been to all 11 space centers, including Stennis, Mississippi), the Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense. While staffed on a project for the Department of Defense, a partner at the firm approached him and asked if would be interested in a high-profile international assignment in a peculiar location.
“I loved to travel, so I said yes before knowing where I was even going,” Drewery recalls. “As a result, I lived and worked in Bagdad, working with state-owned factories, including a cement factory, a fertilizer plant, and a leather tannery. We worked with 15 factories in every province of the country. Most were in various states of disrepair due to looting, neglect, and damage from the war. We provided procurement support, buying manufacturing equipment to help them restart their operations after the conflict.”
After a year in Bagdad, Drewery gained an elementary proficiency in Arabic and Kurdish (a regional language spoken in the north of the country), as well as a major appreciation for manufacturing.
“I realized that manufacturing could be used as a powerful tool for economic development. Cement factories provided building materials for the construction industry; rubber tires could be used to support the booming trucking industry shuttling in goods from Turkey and Saudi Arabia; and uniforms from the textile plants were used by first responders, including police officers and firefighters,” he says.
“Most importantly, once people were back to work, they could financially support themselves and their families, so violence levels fell in areas that once experienced heavy fighting. The situation was eerily reminiscent of the depression and revitalization that I experienced in my hometown of Pittsburgh. There were ancillary effects that made a very positive impact on the economy. I fell in love with manufacturing from that project and decided to follow it as my career passion.”
Will's next leap came when a PwC partner suggested he pursue an advanced degree in business and offered to write a recommendation.
“I applied to Harvard from my dusty old trailer in Baghdad,” Drewery says. “Honestly, I thought it was waste of my partner's time. I didn't really think I had a fair shot at getting into the school. But to my surprise, I got a call back. Harvard said that they were inviting prospective students to interview in Dubai. The interviewer asked me about what I had been up to over the last few years. I unloaded story after story about my time in manufacturing in Iraq. That's really the first time I realized the impact of my work and my story.”
Drewery obtained his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2012, fully appreciating the business school's case study-based teaching method and having people in the class lead the discussions.
“There is almost no problem that manifests itself in isolation. You are always learning the problem in the context of a real-life situation, and there is never a right or wrong answer. When it comes to the tools that have helped me in my career, I realized no one really knows the right answer. In an environment where you and your classmates teach the class, diverse viewpoints make Harvard a rich environment for learning. My classmates had worked as journalists, teachers, doctors, and manufacturing leaders. It was an honor and a privilege to learn from them. I hope they felt the same about me.”
Joy Ride to Excellence
Drewery was first introduced to Tesla when a business school classmate offered to give him a ride in his brand-new Model S.
“He brought the car to a park in San Jose, where we were celebrating my wife's birthday. We never even got to the cake. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking joy rides up and down the parkway until it was time to leave. He told me that they were still hiring, and he offered to give me a tour of the factory the next weekend.”
“While on the tour, I learned that Tesla's procurement function was primarily tasked with sourcing parts and raw materials that became part of the vehicle. However, at the time there was nobody tasked with sourcing the equipment that became part of the factory. It became my job to source the stamping presses, injection molding machines, and integrated robotic systems that were used to manufacture the vehicles,” Drewery recounts.
He reminisces how Elon Musk would ask his team questions, and he found it fascinating how Musk broke down problems and learned about things using a first principles approach. He learned never to take &ldsquo;no' for an answer.’
“There was something cool about the idea that there are things that I know that other people in the room don't know,” Drewery says. “It was my opportunity to help teach, not only my boss but also engineers, suppliers and others that I worked with, what's important to the company, and what's important to me.”
Following the completion of Tesla's Model X, the manufacturing team turned its attention to the Model 3, and the conversation turned toward improving assembly efficiency.
“It was clear to everyone that Elon was much more interested in the manufacturing process for Model 3. This time, there was much more of a two-way conversation, where Elon was now obsessed with making the car easier to build,” Drewery says. It was an intense 18 months for Drewery, who saw every step of how they were able to simplify a vehicle. “Elon made us spend one minute for every million dollars of manufacturing equipment that was being proposed. It was not unlike defending a PhD dissertation. We spent countless hours hashing and re-hashing our plans for the factory.”
All told, Drewery's team of 30 managed over $3.5 billion in capex spending during the five years he spent with the company.
“We all went through learning moments during the Model 3 manufacturing process,” Drewery says. “I know that the manufacturing and design engineers and supply chain managers that worked on the Model X and Model 3 programs have taken those lessons with them to wherever they are.” (To learn more about Tesla design simplification, watch Manufacturing Explorers Season 3, Episode 1.)
Former Tesla employees have gone on to start 60-plus companies in various industries. When considered considering the more than 95 companies started by SpaceX, it is very clear that Musk's greatest legacy is likely to be the talent network he has fostered across the tech industry.
Cars to Rockets
When Drewery started at Astra as vice president of supply chain, there was no definitive supply chain function.
“The mandate that came from the CEO at that point was, ‘We need to build lots of rockets, and we need to have a real supply chain function to support that,'” Drewery says. His day-one impression of Astra reminded him of being back at Tesla on day-one.
“I knew where we were, and I knew where we were going. Knowing all the things I know today, what would I have done at Tesla in those early days? That is exactly what I set out to do at Astra. It was extremely difficult to build a supply chain function in the middle of a live launch program. I was constantly trying to determine which fire was most important to put out – sometimes literally!” Drewery says. He assessed the rocket bill of materials and made methodical decisions on which things to insource and which to outsource. He also became proficient with metal 3D printing and CNC machining.
Astra was building its manufacturing facility at the former Naval Base in Alameda, California, so Drewery again needed to source capital equipment for fabricating and assembling the rockets. In addition, Astra needed a logistics function to send the rockets from the manufacturing facility to launch sites in Alaska and Florida. By the time he left Astra, the company had full supply chain procurement, planning, and logistics functions.
“The coolest thing about that job was actually watching something that you had a hand in building get launched into space,” Drewery says. “I had butterflies in my stomach. I reflected on all the things that needed to happen in order for the rocket to even leave the launch pad. When I saw everything come together and the rocket finally deployed from the pad, it was magical. Everyone was caught up in the euphoria and proud of the thing that we got to do together.”
A Super-Tool for Equipment Buyers & Sellers
Now as CEO of his own supply chain company, Drewery is a highly trusted advocate for equipment buyers, especially family-owned businesses and growth-stage startups that do not often have large supply chain teams to source machinery and equipment.
“Diagon is a procurement platform that helps companies source manufacturing equipment in less than half the time of doing it on their own. Our platform saves customers time and money by accelerating equipment spec definition, product discovery, and supplier selection,” Drewery says. “It was important to me that when I saw this problem, I did not just take it at face value and believe that I could not do anything about it. That is one of the things I admire about Silicon Valley. When people see a problem, they reframe it as an opportunity. Billion-dollar companies have been built off these problems.”
To continue to build Diagon's portfolio, Drewery has three goals to accomplish at IMTS 2024.
My first goal for IMTS 2024 is to meet as many cutting-edge manufacturing technologists as possible,” he says. “The landscape of manufacturing is changing, and I want to make sure that we can get technology into the hands of the manufacturers that need it.
“Secondly, I want to reach a broad audience of manufacturing and supply chain leaders by facilitating conversations about the equipment procurement process. I think we can all learn from each other's mistakes and successes. Conversations like these can bring an understanding that goes beyond what you had read in any brochure.”
“My third goal for IMTS is really to have fun,” he says. “I think the way that we build the strongest relationships is getting together without an agenda and actually [getting] to know each other. What are our goals? What is our vision for the future? Those are the best times that I have had at IMTS.”
To learn more about Diagon, read the story featuring Will and co-founder CTO Shridharan Muthu.IMTS Rockstars