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Business

Generation X Revisited

C&EN catches up with chemists profiled in 1995 to find out how their predictions panned out

by Susan J. Ainsworth
November 6, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 45

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Credit: Michel Leroy
Displaying the flexibility that is key to their success, some Generation Xers at Lonza's Williamsport, Pa., plant, Randall Spayd (from left), Joshua Mensinger, Joe Herman, Cynthia Bower, and Harvey, work despite turbulent weather.
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Credit: Michel Leroy
Displaying the flexibility that is key to their success, some Generation Xers at Lonza's Williamsport, Pa., plant, Randall Spayd (from left), Joshua Mensinger, Joe Herman, Cynthia Bower, and Harvey, work despite turbulent weather.

Eleven years ago, a lot of hype centered around Generation X-that post-baby-boomer generation loosely defined as people born between 1963 and 1975. At that time, Generation Xers—then in their 20s and early 30s—had begun to infiltrate management ranks at many companies, including those in the chemical industry.

Having grown up hearing about the civil rights movement, Watergate, Wall Street greed, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Xers were destined to shake things up, challenge the status quo, and obliterate illogical conventions in business.

In 1995, C&EN profiled 11 Xers at a number of companies, recording their views on how they and others of similar age might impact the chemical industry in the years to come (C&EN, Oct. 23, 1995, page 42). Riding on a wave of Internet technology, these Xers promised to foster more open communication up and down the corporate chain of command, promote diversity, carve out more time for family and outside interests, and aggressively manage their own career paths.

I recently went back to eight of these Xers, who are now leaders in their late 30s and early 40s, and found that many of the predictions they made about their generation were right on target.

"It's almost like the changes that we saw coming 10 years ago have happened exponentially," observes John F. Kill, 43, director of butylenes sales at Houston-based Texas Petrochemicals. "And they are continuing at the same rate. They are almost feeding on themselves," adds Kill, who in 1995 was a product specialist for normal α-olefins at what was then Chevron Chemical.

Generation X has evolved into "a group of people with a drive to do things better and faster. I call it the McDonald's philosophy. This generation is saying, 'I want my Big Mac and I want it now,' " says Sheri Roberts-Updike, 40, who has been promoted within the same corporation over the past 11 years and is now Americas business manager for Shell Chemicals' ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol business. "Our generation is always asking: 'How can I be bigger, faster, and more efficient? How can I do this a different way? How do I cut through to the heart of what matters?' "

That tenacious business approach has served Xers well over the past 10 years, which have been particularly taxing for the chemical industry. "As people who were young, bright-eyed, and coming into the industry with all this enthusiasm in the mid- to late '90s, we have just been crushed, literally and figuratively, with a tsunami of change," observes Huntsman Chief Executive Officer Peter Huntsman, 43, who considers himself more of a late baby boomer than an early Xer.

"Those people who are still managing, still looking out, still merging and being innovative—they've been the ones to be able to survive record high raw-material costs, lack of exports, noncompetitive labor costs, operating rates down around 70%, globalization, customers moving overseas—all of which hit us at about the same time," Huntsman says. And there are "very few companies that have not gone through some sort of assimilation" since 1995, he observes. As a result of all these factors, "we've gained about 30 years of experience consolidated into the last 10 years. I believe that more today than ever."

In the midst of all of this industry unrest, Generation Xers have become savvy not only in running their businesses but also in managing their own careers.

Kill is a case in point. Disenchanted with the downsizing efforts and large-corporate culture of Chevron Chemical, Kill accepted an offer in early 1996 to work for the former Haltermann Custom Processing, a family-owned German company that had been a supplier to Chevron. In what he called "an absolutely fantastic move," he was promoted over a four-year period to his "dream job" as a vice president of sales and marketing "in a very dynamic organization."

But in 1999, the Haltermann family sold the company to Ascot, a British contract manufacturer. And then, about two years later, the entire Ascot organization was purchased by Dow Chemical.

At that point, Kill was forced to relinquish the seniority he had earned in a smaller company and transition back into a large-company culture. "The folks at Dow were very up-front and honest. They explained what it would take to find my way into an upwardly mobile track."

Returning to a big organization and the likelihood of out-of-town transfers "did not feel like the right move for me, personally," Kill says. Instead, he decided to accept a job with another small company, Houston-based Dixie Chemical, which had recruited him.

Kill stayed at Dixie for just over a year before he moved into another sales and marketing role at Lonza, also in Houston, in April 2003. Next, he accepted an offer in January 2004 to become vice president of manufacturing at South Hampton Refining, a Silsbee, Texas-based producer of specialty petrochemicals. But after only 18 months in the manufacturing realm, Kill decided that he was better suited for sales and marketing roles. That decision led him to join Texas Petrochemicals in February of this year.

Although he would rather not have had so much turmoil in his career over the past five years, he says he does not regret his choices. When he discovered that a particular job was not going to positively impact his career, he "tried not to be afraid to take that next opportunity," Kill says. "I think it is important not to be complacent and not to have a wait-and-see attitude but to take action early on."

Kill's résumé dovetails with career path predictions that Xers made about their peers back in 1995. Xers had said they didn't expect to remain at the same company for their entire career as their parents might have. Instead, they thought they would be more likely to make stops at a number of companies in search of jobs that offer better benefits and more opportunity for professional growth and personal fulfillment.

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Credit: Gary Bublitz Photography
Gen Xers at Dow Chemical's Midland, Mich., headquarters—Justiniano (from left), Patterson, and Maxey—embrace new Internet technologies.
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Credit: Gary Bublitz Photography
Gen Xers at Dow Chemical's Midland, Mich., headquarters—Justiniano (from left), Patterson, and Maxey—embrace new Internet technologies.

But ironically, a majority of the Xers profiled in 1995 have remained within the same company or the merged entity that it became. "I don't think the job-hopping reputation that Gen Xers had a decade ago applied to everybody at the time," says Kendall Justiniano, 38, who was a senior process engineer at Dow's bulk pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Midland, Mich., in 1995 and is now market manager within the company's performance fluids business.

Roberts-Updike makes the same observation. After stints in Europe and Africa, she was surprised to see many of the same faces at Shell in Houston upon her return to the U.S. "I remember having discussions back in 1995 about how employees no longer felt loyalty to a particular company, but yet it seems in the oil and chemical industry, people tend to stay, especially if they fit with the corporate culture," she says.

Even in the midst of consolidation and downsizing programs that threaten to shake them loose, Generation Xers seem to be finding ways to cling to the organizations that they value. "I think anyone who has gone through a merger or a job change has found that you have to be adaptable and willing to change to succeed and be competitive," says Leah Patterson, who worked in acrylates R&D for Union Carbide in South Charleston, W.Va., in 1995 but is now a Dow employee following Dow's acquisition of Carbide in 2001.

"And I think a big part of that is not only adjusting to the things that are new in a corporation but also being willing to let go of the past," says Patterson, 42. "You lose your corporate identity. People no longer know you. You pretty much have to start fresh, and that's really difficult, especially if you are a fairly senior employee."

In the wake of the acquisition, Patterson felt the same sense of displacement that Kill faced when Dow acquired his then-employer, Ascot. For example, Patterson was surprised to learn that in the Dow system, she was considered almost too experienced for certain roles—such as an entry-level technology manager—positions that she was deemed to be too inexperienced to take on at Union Carbide.

Willing to be flexible and patient, Patterson took on a part-time "change management" role, which focused on helping Carbide's R&D employees adapt to the new culture and company. She says it was a good opportunity for her to learn about Dow and begin rebuilding her network.

Then, in 2002, taking advantage of a broader array of opportunities in a larger corporation, Patterson moved into a technology manager role in a local R&D group in West Virginia that was still part of Union Carbide, then a Dow subsidiary.

Ultimately, in June 2005, she landed her current position as a technology manager of a global corporate R&D group—Dow's Fluid Mechanics & Mixing Discipline— which required her to move to Midland.

Like Patterson, Scott B. Harvey, 39, a production leader for Lonza's Williamsport, Pa., facility, was willing to relocate to remain in the same company. Shortly after his 1995 stint as a research engineer at Lonza's research facility, which was then in Clinton, N.J., Harvey transferred to Williamsport to take on a series of process engineering positions. He then accepted a job supporting integration planning for an acquisition of a facility in Lonza's nutrition business before moving into his current role.

And Xers like Harvey may have to remain open to change in the future as companies continue to merge and make big acquisitions. Late last month, for example, Lonza agreed to buy Cambrex's biopharma and bioproducts businesses for $460 million (C&EN, Oct. 30, page 9).

Despite industry consolidation, "if you are valuable to the organization and you contribute, there's going to be a spot for you," Harvey says. "Education is one piece of that," he says, adding that it is increasingly important for chemists, engineers, and other technical types to get an M.B.A. or to find ways to grasp the business aspects of their operations.

"But I think it all goes back to your performance and flexibility," Harvey stresses. "As organizations thin out, your ability to be innovative, to change, and to handle broader areas of responsibility definitely adds value."

Being versatile has been the key to success for those within Huntsman, too. "I have many of the same direct reports that I did in 1995, but few of them are doing the same job," observes Huntsman, who was promoted to CEO from chief operating officer in 2000. "We've increased our sales and our international presence, yet we have 30% fewer people today than we did just five years ago. As a result, people have to take on more with less support."

In addition to wearing more hats, employees have to be attuned to changes in corporate strategy to buttress their job security. For example, nine years ago, Justiniano sensed that Dow was "significantly streamlining its manufacturing function" while "continuing to emphasize commercial strategy." Anticipating that the number of job opportunities in manufacturing would eventually shrink, he mapped out a series of job moves within Dow that would redirect his career path toward marketing and sales.

As a production engineer and manufacturing specialist at Dow, Justiniano started work on an M.B.A. and transferred into a manufacturing analyst role. From there, he moved into customer project management and then into a sales position, followed by a marketing job and a business development role, all in Dow Pharma, one of the company's developmental businesses. And now in this last move, he is where he aspired to be—in a marketing function in one of Dow's established businesses, performance fluids.

Justiniano opted to make some gallant, but well-calculated, job changes rather than stay in a place that "was not necessarily fulfilling, intellectually, in the way I wanted it to be."

Roberts-Updike is another of the Xers profiled in 1995 who has made some intrepid moves within one company in order to sustain personal job satisfaction. From her position in 1995 as a product manager for Shell Chemicals' alcohol and alcohol ethoxylates business, she moved into a global sales job for the company's polyethylene terephthalate business, which was eventually sold.

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From there, Roberts-Updike took a job at Shell's corporate headquarters in The Hague that sent her to Shell businesses and operating units around the world "to help them improve their business performance while developing their people at the same time." In addition to being intellectually challenging, the job indulged her love of travel, she says.

In 2002, further satisfying her wanderlust and her desire for professional growth, Roberts-Updike moved to Mauritius, an island east of Madagascar in Africa, to become CEO and country chair of Shell Mauritius. A publicly traded company in which Shell holds a 75% share, Shell Mauritius markets and distributes oil products, fuels, and lubricants.

The Shell Mauritius role offered Roberts-Updike the chance to expand her skill base. "I negotiated with government, helped improve national corporate governance and board structures, ran annual general meetings, engaged with financial analysts, divested a business, and drove the writing, editing, and publishing of our award-winning annual report," she says.

Her new leadership position in Shell Chemicals' ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol business in Houston is yet another step toward Roberts-Updike's career goal of taking on "increasing levels of responsibility for profit-and-loss and for people." In this job, "I have the opportunity to further expand my knowledge base into other chemical products for a bigger geographical area and much greater revenue base," she adds.

In addition to being able to carve out satisfying in-house opportunities, Xers may be motivated to stick with one employer because "organizations have modified themselves enough to be a little more sensitive to the needs of their employees," notes Dow's Justiniano.

"Companies today no longer question whether employee satisfaction and engagement contribute to the bottom line," says Catherine Maxey, 40, business public affairs director, who was communications manager for human resources issues at Dow 11 years ago. "Back in 1995, there were still a lot of skeptics who questioned the value proposition of employee satisfaction. While our goal today isn't described as happiness or loyalty for its own sake, we do talk a lot about employee alignment, engagement, motivation, and passion. We also have clear targets around retention rates, which tie directly to employee satisfaction and motivation."

Some companies are taking an active role in helping employees better balance their work, family, and personal pursuits—a top priority for many Xers. Dow, for instance, has developed an employee development process that "provides tools and mechanisms for employees to introspect about what is important to them, where they really want their career to end up, what they will have to commit to meet their goals, and how they can balance that with their outside interests," Justiniano says.

For example, Justiniano says that he "thinks hard about how to complete my work and achieve work goals in a way that allows me time for my many outside interests and activities," which include spending time with his wife and 13-year-old son, running, biking, sailing, and dog training.

And as Xers age, some admit that their priorities are changing. "Maybe we won't always live by the McDonald's philosophy," Roberts-Updike says. "I have the perception that as you get closer to retirement age, things will start to slow down, and you will take care of those things that you should have been tending to your whole life. You might think about how you'd want to be remembered—for working really long hours or for your contributions to society or for how you were as a mother, a daughter, a father, or a son."

Since the 1995 article, Roberts-Updike has married and given birth to two boys, now ages four and one. As a result, she says, she has a much greater appreciation for "the folks that I have working for me and the sacrifices they make," noting that most have young families or aging parents. "I know that I need to have the flexibility to allow them to do what they need to do at home so that they can contribute at work."

In true Xer style, Roberts-Updike was the first to bring family-friendly, flexible work policies to the Shell employees in Mauritius. Among other things, she designed and instituted an optional maternity plan that allows mothers to phase back into work after having a child. Instead of being away for a three-month maternity leave, new mothers can choose to come in and work part-time after six weeks for a more extended period of time.

Upon her return to the U.S. in August, Roberts-Updike was encouraged to find that companies are still providing programs such as flexible workhours, part-time work, day-care assistance, and job sharing.

Some firms continue to offer a 9/80 work schedule-in which employees work 80 hours in nine days, taking off every other Friday. Chevron Phillips Chemical, the entity that resulted from the 2000 merger of the petrochemical businesses of Chevron and Phillips, does so at many of its locations. "I have enjoyed working that schedule for the past six years," says Arthur E. Orscheln, 42, who was a quality services supervisor for Phillips' Houston chemical complex and is now a unit supervisor for Chevron Phillips' Cedar Bayou plant in Baytown, Texas. "It provides the flexibility of taking off every other Friday, although I do find myself working at least a few hours" on many of those designated days off.

Other companies, however, have experimented with similar flexible programs and decided to drop them. For Huntsman's part, the 9/80 program did not fit with the growing need for employees to be available and engaged every business day.

International companies like Huntsman, which now generates more than half of its sales overseas, as well as U.S.-focused firms have to keep their finger on the pulse of the industry at all times, Huntsman says. "Events in the Middle East or China, for example, will affect this industry more so today than at any other time in history. You have to be acutely aware of any changes in exports, raw-material pricing, or supply-and-demand balances."

While Huntsman does not offer a 9/80-type program, it has become more relaxed in allowing employees to take personal time off. Fifteen years ago, if someone wanted to take a day off, they would have had to fill out forms and go through a more formal process, Huntsman recalls.

Dow has adopted a similar stance. In addition to "one-size-fits-all solutions," like the 9/80 schedule, Dow has more individual flexibility such as flexible hours, Maxey says. "For me, as a single parent, sometimes I want to be able to leave early to see my daughter's swim meet or attend another school activity. Then, after she goes to bed, I can have conference calls with Asia or catch up on e-mail. I'd rather have individual flexibility than a prescribed schedule like 9/80."

Some say the evolution of these flexible work options are attributable less to corporate goodwill than to the accelerated development of computer technology and the Internet.

To be sure, Xers were a driving force behind the widespread use of these tools. While their boomer bosses were still writing notes by hand and waiting for their secretaries to print out their e-mail messages, Xers were eagerly expanding their capabilities via their personal computers. Kill recalls being the first to champion the use of laptops and Palm Pilots at Haltermann. "After my boss saw me using them and realized how much I could accomplish while traveling, he got hooked, too."

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Credit: Jerome de Souza
Roberts-Updike, who formerly served as CEO of Shell Mauritius in Africa, now runs Shell Chemicals' ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol business for North and South America.
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Credit: Jerome de Souza
Roberts-Updike, who formerly served as CEO of Shell Mauritius in Africa, now runs Shell Chemicals' ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol business for North and South America.

Still, "we didn't have a sense of what was coming—e-commerce, e-mail overload, Web-based everything, the technology-enabled virtual offices, online training, job searching via the Web, and the benefit—or curse—of being always connected and always reachable," Dow's Maxey says.

While the technology advances "have increased our productivity, they've also raised the bar on what is expected of us," Patterson says. "Because technology has allowed us to work easily from any location, I think it is now too easy for people to spend lots of extra hours working from home and working when you are on vacation. It's hard to disconnect."

The arrival of the BlackBerry has further exacerbated this problem. People can't help but work more hours now, Roberts-Updike says, "because your work is on your hip."

As the industry becomes more global, the need to be connected at all times only seems to intensify. "In fact, that's probably been the biggest difference between 1995 and now—the amount of global communication," Roberts-Updike says. "The majority of my teleconferences are bright and early in the morning so that you can accommodate the folks who are almost asleep in Asia and those who are finishing their workday in Europe in one call," she adds. "As a result, we are working stranger hours—that's for sure."

Huntsman agrees. "I'm busier some Saturdays and Sundays reading or sending e-mails about issues that are taking place in the Middle East or Asia or Europe than ever before."

And the urgency of these time-zone-insensitive communications is only increasing. In fact, the continued globalization of the industry may be Xers' greatest worry for the future. "I am concerned about how the flattening of our global economy is going to challenge companies, especially those based in North America," Patterson says. "Primarily, we are going to have to deal with more complexities, accelerating technology advances, and increasing competition."

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Credit: cover photo by terry blackburn/tbp houston
C&s 1996 Employment Outlook issue featured Generation Xers at Phillips Petroleum's chemical complex in Pasadena, Texas.
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Credit: cover photo by terry blackburn/tbp houston
C&s 1996 Employment Outlook issue featured Generation Xers at Phillips Petroleum's chemical complex in Pasadena, Texas.

In light of these global challenges, organizations have had to be even more open in their external communications and business deals such as joint ventures and partnerships than Xers predicted in 1995. And companies will need to keep reaching out and cooperating with other entities to a much greater degree in the next 10 years, Huntsman conjectures.

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"If you are a stand-alone U.S. or European company and do not have economic ties to the Middle East, China, and India, you will be behind the curve. And very rarely is it possible for a company to exploit these foreign opportunities alone," he says. "So you have to be open-minded and willing to work with people from other companies and other cultures."

In just such a collaborative effort, earlier this year, Huntsman teamed up with BASF and three Chinese companies to build a $1 billion integrated isocyanates complex in Shanghai, China (C&EN, Aug. 28, page 18). The complex has a capacity of 240,000 metric tons per year of crude methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, a precursor for polyurethane products. "While we are manufacturing our products in a jointly operated facility, we will be competing against each other aggressively in the rapidly growing market in China," Huntsman says. "I don't think this would have been done 10 years ago."

Xers have also worked to break down barriers within their companies, promoting more open communication up and down the chain of command. "Things have changed," Roberts-Updike notes. "I think you find far fewer dictators running organizations and much more engagement."

Leaders recognize that in the face of intense competition, they need to encourage employees to voice their opinions—something their reports might have been afraid to do in the past when things were done in a "direct-in-command" manner, Kill observes. "Now, if you don't speak up, if you don't have an opinion on something, if you don't show that you are providing some input, then it's very possible that you will find yourself out of a job," he adds. "The tables have turned."

By sharing details of strategic plans and financial results across their organizations, more companies are empowering employees to make valuable contributions. This kind of communication, Lonza's Harvey says, "keeps everyone informed about how what they are doing is going to impact the overall organization. It helps employees prioritize and make decisions that better support the companies' goals."

As companies develop more sophisticated methods for measuring employee productivity, there remains little room for discrimination. Such methods have helped to "level the playing field so that the best person for the job is the one who should get the next promotion," Kill says.

Asked about the "perceived glass ceiling for women in corporate America," which was the biggest career concern for Roberts-Updike back in 1995, she says that it is simply "gone," particularly in the U.S.

Diversity "is now a requirement for success in our organization," Patterson says, noting that a majority of the younger employees in her R&D group hail from other countries. As the industry continues to defy geographical boundaries, "our industry has got to be more attuned to global trends, politics, and policies, as well as economic and social issues to be competitive."

As they had hoped, Xers report that the workplace focus on diversity has come a long way since 1995. At least in the U.S., "we are well beyond the issues of race and gender and are focusing on respecting diversity of thought and personality," Orscheln notes.

The same is true at Dow, where diversity also includes disability, sexual orientation, thinking style, cultural background, and nationality, Maxey reports. "We call it 'diversity and inclusion,' because it has to go beyond counting people to creating an environment where everybody can contribute. Generation X and Generation Y expect this in the workplace, and it's something they look for in choosing where they work."

Indeed, Generation Y—the cohort of people born in the 1980s and 1990s—seems to value many of the same things their Generation X predecessors do. "In the past 11 years, I have managed dozens of chemical engineers and chemists in their 20s and 30s," Orscheln says. "I have seen the same passion for change that exemplified the Xers in 1995."

It was that desire to challenge the status quo that led Generation X to mold corporate policies to fit the changing times. The ideas and ideals that were touted as unique to their generation have now been assimilated into corporate cultures.

"Looking at our company, I think that Generation X no longer exists as a distinct subset of employees in our workforce," Patterson says. "The characteristics we used to define Generation X back in 1995-like those relating to computer expertise, work-and-family balance, open corporate environment-all have come to pass and fit the entire workforce now."

For this reason, many of the people profiled in the 1995 story now feel uncomfortable wearing the Generation X label. "In general, I don't think about it, and I don't think of myself in a category called Generation X," Roberts-Updike says.

Instead, Generation X is focused on the future and the challenges it will bring. And they fully expect that today's 20-somethings will continue to build on their momentum. Most likely, Maxey says, Generation Y will "challenge us to move faster and think differently. They'll get us to be more multicultural in our view, and they'll probably make us use instant messaging whether we like it or not."

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