Issue Date: January 19, 2009
Robert S. Wedinger
LOTS OF industrial chemists cross over from the lab to the business side of their companies. But few of them climb the corporate ladder as high as Robert S. Wedinger has. Fewer still are as passionate as Wedinger is about bringing more scientists into the executive suite.
As chief business officer of Chemtura, Wedinger is a top executive at the Connecticut-based specialty chemical company. He was named to the post in December 2007 by Chemtura's then-chief executive officer, Robert L. Wood. Wood left abruptly last month, but so far Wedinger's position seems secure under Chemtura's new leader, former Hercules CEO Craig A. Rogerson.
Whatever happens, Wedinger, 50, has come a long way from his days as a kid in blue-collar Staten Island, N.Y., where he was the first member of his family to go to college. His parents didn't want him to go far away, so Wedinger settled on Wagner College, a local liberal arts school. He was home for dinner every night.
Having done well in the sciences in high school, Wedinger pursued majors in chemistry and biology at Wagner but without much sense of where it would take him. The economy was poor in 1979, his final year of college, so rather than try his luck in the job market Wedinger followed the advice of his professors and applied to graduate school.
He got married that summer and in the fall showed up at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. There he embarked on a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry under William J. le Noble, the then-senior editor of the Journal of Organic Chemistry.
In 1984, Ph.D. in hand, Wedinger looked for work but learned that he would do better with postgraduate experience on his résumé. "I didn't really want to postdoc so I only applied to one place," he recalls. "I thought, 'If I'm going to do it, I'm going to make it worth my while.' So I applied to work with E. J." The plan worked, and he was off to Massachusetts to study under the famed Harvard University synthetic organic chemist E. J. Corey.
Although the academic life had its appeal, after a year at Harvard, Wedinger responded to FMC Corp.'s offer of a lab position at its Princeton, N.J., agrochemical research center. "I loved it there," he says. "The chemists were on the second floor and the biologists were on the first floor." Wedinger spent his days developing potential insecticides and sending them downstairs for screening.
Around that time, FMC acquired Lithium Corp. of America, and Wedinger's bosses asked him to move to Bessemer City, N.C., to lead an R&D group there. Under the guidance of Lithium's founders, Harold Andrews and Jerry Orazem, Wedinger started to learn about business.
"We'd develop a new molecule for a new application and they'd say, 'That's a great idea, Bob. Now go figure out whom to sell it to,'" Wedinger recalls. "Their attitude wasn't, 'You are technical so you can't do this other stuff.' It was, 'You are the better one to do it.'" Soon Wedinger was running the lithium business' synthesis arm, guiding the development of molecules such as a stable lithium hexamethyldisilazide, used to produce the Merck & Co. HIV treatment Crixivan.
In 1998, Wedinger joined AlliedSignal as director of technology for its fluorine division. He eventually became head of the firm's fine chemicals business, his first purely business role, and later was a business manager at J. M. Huber. Yet Wedinger kept an interest in the science behind the businesses he ran, and in the scientists who carried it out. In fact, his name is on patents or patents pending from all the companies he has worked for except Chemtura.
Although he enjoys the science, Wedinger's interest in it has business logic. "We're a specialty chemical company," he says. "When I talk to customers, my counterparts generally have technical degrees. I understand our chemistry and competing chemistries." Particularly in Asia and Europe, Wedinger adds, he gets instant respect when executives see Ph.D. on his business card.
HE BELIEVES his training pays off inside Chemtura as well. The firm's R&D people know Wedinger talks their language, and they like that. As he puts it, "When they do a presentation for upper management, they know someone understands what they are saying."
Wedinger's respect for scientists is reflected in his hiring decisions. Four members of his leadership team have Ph.D.s, and he actively encourages laboratory scientists to try their hand at business.
"I like to take people out of the lab, especially tech service, and bring them into a role like commercial development where they interact with customers," Wedinger says. "We focus on a few customers and see who has the aptitude for it, who the customer likes and interacts with."
He points to Chemtura's recent development of Adiprene Duracast, an elastomeric urethane with a long pot life that enables customers to mold large parts without fear of premature curing. Two of the chemists who helped develop the new product, Phani Nagaraj and Christopher Maupin, are now marketing managers in the urethanes area.
Wedinger contends that scientists like Nagaraj and Maupin are ideally suited to understanding the chemistry needs of customers and, perhaps more important, of customers' customers. After all, Chemtura is of most value when it anticipates a customer's needs before the customer even realizes it. "If a customer can articulate what they want, it's too late," he says. "They will already be shopping around."
In the specialty chemical industry, managers need to understand markets, competitors, indirect competitors, customers, and customers' customers. Many smart people from both business and science backgrounds can do that. But as Wedinger says, "It's a lot easier to teach business to a technical person than to teach technology to a business person."
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