L . Louis Hegedus, an Atofina senior vice president of R&D, knows a thing or two about how to succeed under challenging circumstances. In 1965, when Hungary was still behind the Iron Curtain, he escaped his native country. He subsequently got a job in Germany, landed a spot as a chemical engineering Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, and began to build his career.
His employer, Atofina, is about to confront its own serious challenges. Come this fall, France's petroleum giant, Total, plans to carve out an as-yet-unnamed plastics and intermediates unit from its Atofina chemicals branch. Hegedus will head the new unit's U.S. research and technical service operations, based in King of Prussia, Pa.
Though Atofina is in flux, Hegedus, 63, is keeping a calm head because, he says, research will remain a constant need. A chemical business needs solid, well-directed research if it is to be financially viable, he says. While these may be challenging times for Atofina and the new unit to be created from it, "it is also a time when the need for new technology is great. It is a time when R&D can add real value to the chemical enterprise," Hegedus says.
Atofina, now a $20 billion-a-year, vertically integrated chemical operation, is experiencing the same conditions as other chemical enterprises. Overcapacity and high energy and raw material costs are squeezing profits. And so in February, Total decided to create a stand-alone chlorochemicals, intermediates, and performance products business that could be sold or spun off in the next few years.
Hegedus' research organization will be part of a global enterprise that had sales of more than $6 billion last year--about 30% of Atofina's total sales--and includes operations such as thiochemicals, fluorochemicals, oxygenated products, acrylics, and engineering polymers. Hegedus says his job is to help direct research that will give the company technology options that "provide opportunities to grow, improve earnings, and boost our competitive posture."
He will do the same job in the new enterprise as he now does within Atofina, where he has a budget of about $40 million, 220 researchers, and another 40 process development experts in King of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. There, most of the research is on engineering polymers and coatings additive developments for automotive industry customers. Research groups in the U.S. will continue to play their part, Hegedus says, in a global link with other outposts of the new chemical enterprise that today operate out of laboratories in places such as France, Belgium, and Japan.
"A large part of our research deals with future needs," Hegedus explains. The difficulty is in determining what those needs are. Consulting customers early on in the design of a research project is important, he says. "We need to have a vision about the future of a technology for it to succeed." Hegedus goes on to explain that, like the hockey player Wayne Gretzky, the idea is not to skate to the puck but to anticipate where the puck will be. Targeting is as challenging as the execution, he says.
It is not easy to see so clearly into the future, admits Hegedus. To prepare for the future and to adjust research as needs change, his group has accelerated joint development programs with customers. Where the group had three such programs with customers in 2001, it now has about 20 such projects.
Research will give the company technology options that provide opportunities to grow, improve earnings, and boost its posture.
Hegedus and his group are also exploring new techniques to speed research and thus get new technology to market more quickly. "The half-life of technology is getting shorter, and we need to work faster," he says.
One way to do that is to harness the high-throughput techniques of the pharmaceutical industry for industrial research. "We spent $500,000 to buy parallel equipment last year." Unlike pharmaceutical high-throughput techniques, which run thousands of parallel experiments, Hegedus says his more modest equipment runs nine to 10 experiments at a time.
Other aids to productivity include computers that monitor experiments and e-mail results to researchers. The labs also use robots to handle materials and reduce errors. And they use miniaturized reactors and extruders to speed sample preparation and testing. Time-savers such as these do not mean researchers will run out of ideas. "The faster you work, the faster you get new ideas," Hegedus says.
Challenging circumstances have always seemed to beget new ideas for Hegedus. After he received his M.S. in chemical engineering from Technical University of Budapest, he used a tourist visa to leave then-communist-dominated Hungary and found a job managing a chemical lab at a Daimler Benz--now DaimlerChrylser--factory in Mannheim, Germany. Eager both to learn English and to earn a Ph.D., he managed to find his way to the University of California, Berkeley.
His career has taken him to General Motors, where he worked on the development of the automotive catalytic converter, and to W.R. Grace, where he was a research director in inorganic chemistry and later a vice president of research. A high-flier, he pilots his own single-engine airplane. He has flown to air shows in places such as Oshkosh, Wis., and Orlando, Fla., to meet fellow flying enthusiasts, kick the tires on their planes, and then fly back home--just for the challenge.