Is the leading edge really the bleeding edge? A lot of major companies would rather be “early adopters” instead of the undisputed champion. They wait until someone else has invested in a new technology before stepping up. They see this as a strategy that’s less expensive, less risky.

Sara Lee knows the secret, though: Be first. Be fast. Be fresh.

This philosophy was blatantly obvious at the official opening of The Kitchens of Sara Lee on Friday, April 17. The 120,000-square-foot research and development campus in Downers Grove, Ill., consolidates all of the company’s North American food and beverage R&D staff in one location, which includes more than 100 chefs, scientists, engineers and packaging designers.

The company’s main objectives are to develop product and packaging innovations and get them to market fast. Collaboration among all departments and rapid prototyping for plastic and paperboard packages in the packaging lab will help them achieve these goals.

Once attained, these accomplishments pay dividends because:

• Leaders get free publicity! Editors love to write articles about really new, really cool stuff. Take advantage of this. Don’t hide your light under a bushel because you don’t want your competitors to know what you’re doing. Once a product is on the shelf, believe me…almost anyone can reverse-engineer just about anything that isn’t protected with trademarks or copyrights. Once articles are published, you have proof that you were first with an innovation.

• Leaders become the place for attracting top talent. This success then feeds on itself. Excellence begets excellence.

• Leaders become popular in the speaking circuit for industry events, opening up more networking opportunities and reinforcing your leadership image.

• Leaders are usually rewarded with a healthy operating budget. The more sales dollars you bring in, the more R&D money might be at your disposal.