Issue Date: September 17, 2007
On Friday nights this fall, Anne Noonan will be home in West Lafayette, Ind., watching the older of her two sons play football for his high school team. Then, as is the tradition, she will invite the senior and junior members of the team over for after-game shrimp and pizza.
Someone meeting Noonan for the first time could easily size her up as a suburban football mom. But sit down for dinner with her, as C&EN did last month, and it quickly becomes clear that she is a hardheaded businesswoman with definite plans about where she wants to take her business.
Noonan, 44, is president of Chemtura's $1.8 billion-per-year polymer additives business. During the week, she spends most of her time on the road, meeting key customers around the world and doing her share to implement a major corporate restructuring.
Noonan, however, isn't some M.B.A.-toting executive who has been groomed for top management since her college days. She was born in New York City but moved to Ireland with her Irish parents at the age of seven. Educated in Ireland, she spent her postcollege years in R&D, working for a Johnson & Johnson joint venture in Ireland and earning a master's degree in organometallic chemistry at University College Dublin.
Her job at J&J was to research a new artificial sweetener—one the world now knows as Splenda. Before long, J&J started collaborating with U.S.-based company Great Lakes Chemical on a commercial production route, and in 1987, Great Lakes asked her to come aboard to further the process.
Noonan and her husband moved to the U.S., where she spent the next eight years working on Splenda in Great Lakes labs and plants. Her work entailed a fair amount of technical service and customer interaction, and Noonan found that she liked it. In 1995, she decided to switch to the company's business team, which, as a former researcher, she jokingly calls "the dark side."
She spent five years managing a family of newer businesses such as oil-field chemicals and fine chemicals. In 2000, Great Lakes' then-chief executive officer Mark Bulriss asked Noonan to return to her R&D roots to improve the connection between the research and marketing sides of the company's flagship flame retardants business. Success led to a job as head of brominated flame retardants, which she held until Chemtura acquired Great Lakes in 2005.
Noonan won her current job in April. That was when Robert Wood, Chemtura's CEO, announced a corporate revamping that entailed combining her flame retardants operation and a plastics additives operation into a single polymer additives business while refocusing all Chemtura businesses on customers instead of product lines. More than 600 jobs, representing 10% of Chemtura's workforce, are being cut in the process.
In her new job, Noonan quickly pulled together a management team with a structure new to Chemtura. Four vice presidents concentrate completely on polymer-additive customers in the building and construction, electrical and electronics, consumer, and high-performance industries. "They don't talk about plants or worry about assets or logistics," Noonan says.
That's the job of three other vice presidents who oversee manufacturing operations and product lines such as flame retardants, antioxidants, ultraviolet stabilizers, and polyvinyl chloride additives.
At the same time, Noonan began taking a critical look at what she calls the polymer additives business' "manufacturing footprint." What followed was the June announcement of antioxidants plant closures in Italy and France that will eliminate about 200 jobs.
Noonan says more such moves are in the cards. She wants to take some of the same streamlining measures in plastics additives that were successful earlier in flame retardants, where the company went from operating 10 plants and making about 1,000 separate products in 2002 to having just four plants and 400 products today.
A lot is happening at Chemtura, and to an outsider, the results can seem mixed. At a time when most of the chemical industry is doing well, Chemtura's second-quarter 2007 earnings from continuing operations fell 13% compared with the year-earlier quarter. Earnings in polymer additives likewise fell, although they were up over the first quarter of 2007.
Noonan seems to thrive on the activity and admits to no doubts that she can transform the polymer additives business into a strong earner for Chemtura. "I was with Great Lakes for 18 years, and there was always change. Change doesn't faze me," she says. "I'm a firm believer that in any business, the world is constantly changing, so you better change with or ahead of it."
Her starring role at Chemtura makes Noonan one of the chemical industry's rare women who are top executives. C&EN's annual survey on the subject finds few such women, and most of them are in legal, financial, or human resources functions (C&EN, July 30, page 38). Noonan has just a handful of peers running billion-dollar businesses.
Yet, although she is frequently asked about it, the subject of gender doesn't much interest Noonan. "It's not something I think about day to day, and it's not something that guides how I run a business. I only notice it when I go to the Greenbrier," she laughs, referring to the West Virginia resort where the American Chemistry Council holds its annual meeting. At the event's receptions and dinners, the paucity of women top executives is hard to miss.
Like successful people of all stripes, Noonan is ambitious. A bench chemist not so long ago, she'd like to be the CEO of her own company someday. If she can accomplish in her new job what she has done in her past assignments, that goal might not be so far out of reach.
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