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Movers And Shakers

From Lab Bench To Executive Suite

Palladium Medalist Stephanie Burns reflects on her path to the helm of Dow Corning

by Marc S. Reisch
May 2, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 18

Credit: Jeff Glenn/Dow Corning
Credit: Jeff Glenn/Dow Corning

“I loved research,” says Stephanie A. Burns, 56, chairman and chief executive officer of silicon-based materials maker Dow Corning. “And I think I could have had a very rewarding career had I stayed in research because I really did enjoy it. But I was more drawn to business leadership.”

During the first years of her nearly three-decade tenure at Midland, Mich.-based Dow Corning, Burns was awarded three patents. But instead of establishing her career in research, her work opened doors that led to the top job at Dow Corning, a nearly 70-year-old joint venture between Dow Chemical and Corning. There, she led an expansion that has seen profits nearly quintuple. And her job has placed her in a position to champion the benefits of chemistry and scientific literacy.

To acknowledge Burns’s accomplishments, more than 300 people involved in the chemical enterprise will gather on Tuesday, May 3, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, where she will accept the International Palladium Medal. Burns will be the 26th recipient and the first woman to receive the medal, awarded since 1958 by the New York City-based educational group Société de Chimie Industrielle.

The award recognizes her as “a hardworking and innovation-minded chemist and promoter of the industry,” notes Sunil Kumar, chairman of the International Palladium Medal Award Committee. Other recipients have included industry leaders such as Charles O. Holliday Jr. of DuPont, Jeffery M. Lipton of Nova Chemicals, and Jürgen F. Strube of BASF.

In 1983, Burns, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Iowa State University with a specialty in organosilicons, began doing fundamental research at Dow Corning. That work led to two patents for heat-resistant silicone rubber and a third patent for a silicon-containing polymer, according to Chemical Abstracts Service.

However, Burns soon moved out of the lab and into roles where she worked more closely with customers. Those jobs “got me energized about business leadership,” she says. Burns found great satisfaction influencing the development of new products, including electronic devices and personal care goods, that depend on Dow Corning’s silicon wafers and silicone additives.

But her time in the lab taught Burns some important lessons. First of all, she gained a deeper understanding of the chemistry behind Dow Corning’s products and the research that goes into developing them. She terms innovative research as the firm’s key driver for growth and notes that Dow Corning annually spends 6% of sales on R&D.

Second, she came to appreciate the length of time it takes to commercialize totally new technology. “You can’t bring new technology to the market in three years; it’s a 10- to 15-year investment,” she points out.

“The challenge in being a good leader is in knowing when to double down on innovation investments,” Burns adds. For instance, she has been a proponent of the firm’s investment in silicon carbide wafers for high-end electronics applications.Dow Corning began developing high-purity silicon carbide in the late 1990s and stepped up the effort under Burns’s watch. As a substitute for traditional silicon wafers in semiconductor applications, silicon carbide wafers are particularly useful in hybrid vehicles, where their ability to operate under high-temperature and -voltage conditions is a real benefit. The firm is now in the second year of its effort to bring them to market.

Burns’s zest for research and understanding how things work began early in life. As a child, she says, she was fascinated by the physical world around her. “My father reminds me that I was constantly trying to dissect frogs and snakes,” she says.

In junior high school, at a time when many children lose interest in science, Burns did well in science and math classes. “The two combined to lead me toward chemistry. I declared chemistry as my major my very first day of college,” she says. “I knew I’d love it, and I did.”

Neither of her parents were scientists, but both encouraged her career choices. Her mother was a real estate agent and her father, who taught English and history, served as dean of continuing education at Florida International University in Miami. Burns’s father instilled in her the importance of education and challenging herself.

She grew up in the 1950s and ’60s when girls were not often encouraged to pursue careers in science, but her father wanted her to have all the opportunities that a boy would have. “Of course I wanted to please him and take some of the hardest classes I could to show him I could make good grades,” Burns recalls.

At Florida International University, it was her organic chemistry professor, Arthur Herriott, who first got Burns excited about organosilicon chemistry. He taught an organic chemistry class that included a segment on organosilicons, “and that just got me hooked,” she says.

For graduate studies, Herriott directed her to Thomas J. Barton, a specialist in organosilicon chemistry at Iowa State University, where she received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry. It was during her doctoral research that she became acquainted with Dow Corning.

The company not only funded some of her research, it also sponsored organosilicon symposia that she attended. “From my perspective, if anyone wanted to continue to do high-quality research in silicon chemistry, Dow Corning was the top-tier company to go to,” Burns says.

Following postdoctoral studies at the Université des Sciences et Techniques du Languedoc in Montpellier, France, Burns joined Dow Corning to continue what she thought would be a career in research. But she quickly moved on to product development and in 1994 became the first director of women’s health issues during a difficult time for the company.

Over the next year, Dow Corning would increasingly face lawsuits about the safety of silicone breast implants. Until 1992, the firm had supplied silicones for implants used in both cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery for cancer survivors. When Dow Corning filed for bankruptcy in 1995 because of the cost and complexity of dealing with implant claims, Burns was on the company’s bankruptcy management team.

She remembers those days vividly. “You know, we had very good science around the breast implant issue,” she says. “The opportunity and the challenge was to get that science out to all of our key stakeholders—regulatory bodies, women’s groups, customers—so that everyone understood it.”

To this day, Burns notes, scientific studies show no connection between the implants and disease. And regulatory authorities again allow use of the implants. But the controversy at the time forced the firm to pay $3.2 billion to settle women’s lawsuits. The firm emerged from bankruptcy in 2004.

“We had a unique situation,” Burns explains. “The company was financially strong, but it was the potential risk from all the litigation that forced the company to file for reorganization.” However, rather than making business difficult, the bankruptcy freed Dow Corning to concentrate on the 99% of its operations unrelated to implants.

“Almost from the moment we filed, we were able to operate the company as we had in the past. For most people, it was business as usual,” Burns says. One reason the firm came through that period so well, she contends, was that aside from a small group who managed the bankruptcy issue, Dow Corning’s employees could focus “on our core essence.” And most important was the firm’s continued investment in new product development.

In 1997, Burns shifted jobs and moved to Brussels as director of science and technology for Europe. Subsequently, she became global director for the electronics and life sciences businesses. She returned to the U.S. in 2000 to become executive vice president responsible for global operations. By 2004 she was CEO.

Since 2003, Dow Corning’s revenues have more than doubled to reach $6.0 billion last year. Earnings have soared from $177 million to $866 million. Over the past eight years, the firm has expanded its footprint in countries such as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Argentina. In expanding economies, “people are buying more cell phones and more cosmetics, and they are constructing more buildings and roads. All require our silicones,” Burns notes.

To keep up with that demand, last year, in partnership with sometime-rival Wacker Chemie, Dow Corning completed a $1.8 billion silicones raw material and fumed silica facility in China. Since 2005, Dow Corning’s Hemlock Semiconductor affiliate has undertaken about $5 billion in polysilicon expansions, fueled largely by increased demand for silicon wafers to make photovoltaic cells. Dow Corning owns 62% of Hemlock, a joint venture with Japanese partners Shin-Etsu Handotai and Mitsubishi Materials. The investment includes new capacity in Michigan and a brand-new $1.2 billion polysilicon plant in Tennessee.

Global priorities around energy consumption are also fueling growth, Burns says. Silicon wafers let scientists harness solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Silicone-based adhesives and sealants make the construction of durable and energy-saving buildings possible. And transparent silicone-based encapsulants are enabling low-energy light-emitting diode lighting.

To encourage U.S. policies favorable to silicon chemistry, Burns frequently travels to Washington, D.C., to educate Congress about the chemical industry’s energy-saving technologies. If the industry doesn’t make an effort to explain its science to legislators, “then shame on us,” she says. Last year, President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Export Council, a committee that advises the President on international trade.

The lobbying efforts are a change from Dow Corning’s hands-off attitude of the past. “I’ve been more involved with the Administration on energy matters, and I believe that led to my selection to be on the export council,” she says. “Now, two visible chemical companies are on that export council—Dow Corning and Dow Chemical—which is good news for the industry.”

Burns’s position on the council gives her an opportunity to talk about the importance of a better environment for U.S. manufacturing and the creation of an educated workforce, she notes. Although she credits the Obama Administration’s efforts to back science, technology, and engineering education, she is critical of high U.S. business taxes. She is also critical of a visa system that impedes the movement of workers and students.

On education, Burns is concerned that American children, who can be very interested in science during their grade-school years, lose their fascination and curiosity in middle school and high school. “We need to bring science to life for kids. We need to show them the wonderful applications and solutions that chemistry can bring,” she says.

Among the biggest changes Burns has seen since joining Dow Corning is the chemical industry’s “more open approach” to working with regulators, key stakeholders, and nongovernmental organizations. In the 1970s and ’80s, most chemical firms “did very sound safety science, but we kept it to ourselves.”

The new openness comes just as chemistry is in a position to answer so many of the challenges the world faces today. Dow Corning and its competitors, for instance, offer silicon-based solutions to energy problems. Other chemical firms can help meet critical needs such as food and clean water to nourish a growing population.

“Chemistry is critical to these challenges,” Burns says. “I think we have a responsibility to communicate that link.”


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