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Felek Jachimowicz

W.R. Grace R&D executive heads for China in search of business opportunities

by Marc S. Reisch
July 13, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 28

Credit: W.R. Grace
Credit: W.R. Grace

Getting through lean times takes fortitude. In the case of Felek Jachimowicz, vice president of R&D for W.R. Grace’s construction products business, that means assuming an expanded role in the firm’s plans for Asia during these difficult economic times.

Jachimowicz, 61, has taken on what Grace calls a “bubble assignment,” in which he spends up to two months in Asia, comes home for a few weeks to his Cambridge, Mass., base, and then redeploys to Asia for another two months. This special assignment, which other Grace researchers have also taken on, is a new element in the firm’s efforts to assign experts from its Western research centers to faster-growing markets in Asia.

Among the 100 or so Ph.D. researchers in the construction products business, several in the U.S. and Europe have accepted traditional long-term relocations to Asia. Others have signed up for “virtual assignments,” in which they remain at their home base but telecommute to work in Asia. However, Jachimowicz’ novel two-year-or-so bubble assignment allows him both to keep tabs on Grace’s advanced research, centered in Cambridge, and to connect with the firm’s young and growing R&D staff in Asia.

Back in the U.S. after the first of his stints in Asia, Jachimowicz talked to C&EN about the approach. With less to do in North American and European research and technical labs because of the construction slowdown, “we wondered how we could creatively use and deploy our resources,” he says.

Jachimowicz ended up with a bubble assignment in Beijing because that is where Grace has its largest Asian construction chemicals lab. China, Jachimowicz explains, is a large, complex, and growing market for Grace’s cement, concrete additives, and specialty building materials. The country produces about half of the world’s cement and has about 5,000 cement plants. Some of those plants are large and modern; others are small and antiquated. In contrast, North America has only about 123 cement plants, he says.

As a developing country, China uses cement and concrete in applications that range from primitive to sophisticated, Jachimowicz says. And the country continues to build its infrastructure, albeit less rapidly than before the global slowdown.

Although he will spend the bulk of his overseas time in Beijing, Jachimowicz will also visit Grace sites in other developing Asia-Pacific countries, where he will talk to customers, academicians, and government employees about construction material innovations. He is also there to teach the many young people hired in the region about Grace’s values and global resources. “I’m there to elevate the quality and importance of our technical activity in the Asia-Pacific region,” he says, as well as to learn from Asian colleagues and improve communications among researchers.

Jachimowicz acknowledges the difficulty of working in a part of the world where cultural norms are different. For instance, “In China, whatever the boss says goes,” he explains. “But in our company, it is all right to challenge a superior because we want a dialogue.” Even though the boss ultimately takes responsibility for a decision, Grace wants all employees who can contribute to have a say in what the firm hopes will be the best solution to a given problem.

Language is a bigger challenge than Jachimo­wicz expected. Although the universal language of chemistry helps break down barriers during technical discussions, business and social situations can be problematic. “Most people outside China underestimate the problem,” Jachimowicz says. “You can easily miss the message if you rely only on a translator. To understand, you must improvise, depending on the situation, and try to read some of the more subtle behavioral signs.”

Jachimowicz himself is no stranger to working around cultural and language barriers. A native of Poland, he left at the age of 20 for Switzerland. There he matriculated at the University of Basel, where German is the common parlance, and received a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry in 1975. He then came to the U.S. for a postdoctoral position at the State University of New York, Syracuse, where he learned English and U.S. culture. He has worked in a variety of research positions at Grace since 1978.

One of Jachimowicz’ mentors at Grace was L. Louis Hegedus, another Eastern European who made his way West—in his case to play a role in developing the automotive catalytic converter. “Hegedus convinced me to work in construction chemicals,” Jachimowicz says. Hegedus ultimately left Grace and retired a few years ago as a senior vice president of R&D for the French chemical maker Arkema.

In an effort to adjust to Chinese culture during his current assignment, Jachimowicz is trying to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese. He has taken on that task with characteristic good humor. Jachimowicz recalls a comment one of his then-young children made to a playmate many years back: “My father speaks many languages, all in Polish.”

On a personal level, Jachimowicz says, his extended trips to Asia will mean he is away from his family longer than he would like to be. His wife, he explains, cannot join him in China because she has her own job responsibilities. And although his children are grown, he misses them while he is away.

Still, Jachimowicz says his bubble assignment has been professionally enriching so far. It is a tough assignment and one he never expected to be taking on at this late stage in his career. But it has been valuable, he says, for the insights, both technical and cultural, he has picked up about the growing Asian construction chemicals market.



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