AIChE: Safety Obsession to the Core

Tuesday, April 24, 2018 @ 07:04 AM gHale

By Gregory Hale
It is tough enough to launch a start up company, but to do it in an established chemical industry is a recipe for disaster.

That is exactly what happened with The Chemours Company which spun out of DuPont in 2015. The startup faced huge financial and legal issues. But within two years it became a Fortune 500 company.

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“We had two strikes against us and the third was not too far away,” said Mark Vergnano, president and chief executive at Chemours during his keynote address at the 2018 AIChE Spring Meeting Monday in Orlando, FL. “Brand recognition is important in the industry and we didn’t have any. We were not sure how many customers would stay with us after DuPont. We inherited a strong product line and a strong safety culture. We also had strong debt and was facing strong litigation. We opened at around $20 a share and within six months dropped to $4 a share. We ended 2015 with $90 million loss.”

But two years later, but the end of 2017, Chemours ended the year $1 billion in the black, said Vergnano, who also received the AIChE Government and Industry Leaders (AGILE) Award.
He said with that turnaround he is often asked, how did you do that?

While there were quite a few reasons, a few of the top were confidence and the people at the company.

“No one on my leadership team and no one I ran into in the hallways showed and doubt we wouldn’t succeed,” he said. “We focused on our strengths. We needed a different direction. We needed a new culture.

Early on Vergnano said they created a five-point strategy where they would:
• Reduce costs
• Grow market positions
• Improve portfolio
• Optimize portfolio
• Enhance the organization knowing people are you best assets

“Success is the byproduct of a solid organization,” Vergnano said. “I witnessed first-hand the energy and enthusiasm we had. I became even more convinced (we would succeed).”

In the day to day aspect of running a business, there are quite a few market factors a company has no control over, but Vergnano said one on the areas they can control is their culture.

That is why they focused their culture to be:
Customer centered: “We treat customers as true partners because they are. Fundamentally we can’t grow if our customers can’t grow.”
Unshaken integrity: “If anyone thinks integrity doesn’t affect the bottom line, they are wrong.”
Safety obsession: “We can’t hear about safety obsession enough. We manufacture and transport dangerous chemical compounds. We don’t think of safety as a top priority, it has to be an obsession. It has got to be ingrained 24/7.”
Collective entrepreneurship: “Collective entrepreneurship means we can make decisions and problem solve like it is your own place. Since our launch, we have had thousands of ideas coming forward. In one case, we had an idea come forward that reduced hand injuries by 35 percent.”
Refreshing simplicity: “Refreshing simplicity. We strive for simplicity as much as possible. How do you make it simple to get the point across. It is about a flat organization and defined roles. It is fundamentally about accountability.”

One of the areas the company focused on was senior leadership needed to understand they were not always the experts on various subjects.

“We need to recognize the experts in the room and follow their lead,” he said. “We created a culture where people feel engaged. We tried to get away from consensus to a more collaborative environment.”

In the end, Vergnano said the success of the organization falls on the workers.

“The primary cause of my optimism is the people,” Vergnano said. “Nobody I have ever met gets tired of winning. They are not just doing their job, they are building a way to a better world.

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