Issue Date: June 4, 2012
Add chief executive officer to the roles in life for which a Ph.D. in chemistry can prepare a hardworking person. David Cartmell, 50, executive chairman and CEO of water treatment chemicals firm BWA Water Additives, says the discipline and rigor required to get his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from the University of Leeds, in England, taught him how to think on his own and how to do things properly without cutting corners.
Chemistry, Cartmell explains, satisfies his hankering for practical answers to troubling questions. “I’m not an artist. I can’t interpret poems. Science and logic are what matter to me,” he says. And so when he was offered the chance to get a Ph.D. by studying the corrosive effects of radiation in nuclear power plants, he took on the challenge.
Cartmell completed his Ph.D. in 1985 and soon after got two job offers. One was from the water treatment chemicals business of the Swiss firm Ciba-Geigy. The other was from a chocolate maker. “My wife wanted me to work for the chocolate maker, but for me the chemistry side of chocolate was not as appealing as corrosion chemistry.”
After three years in Ciba’s Manchester, England, labs developing corrosion test methods, Cartmell became a sales manager. He traveled widely and worked with customers who needed additives to prevent clogging of then-new membrane-based water desalination systems.
But his real education in business started in 1992 when Ciba sold its water treatment business to FMC. Ciba, Cartmell says, focused heavily on technology. FMC valued technology but emphasized the bottom line. He credits Jacqueline M. Renner, the FMC executive in charge of the water treatment business, with “teaching me about operating cash flows and balance sheets.” In 1994 Renner appointed Cartmell to head marketing for FMC’s water treatment business. Three years later he became the business’s managing director.
“I found the responsibility energizing,” Cartmell tells C&EN. “It wasn’t the status that appealed to me. I liked the responsibility. It’s what my Ph.D. prepared me for.” Though he had a support team, he found that leading a business was a lonely job. Ultimately, he was the final decisionmaker. “Three years on a Ph.D. research project give you the mentality to do that,” he says.
In 1999, FMC sold the water treatment business to Great Lakes Chemical. There, Cartmell became executive vice president of BioLab Water Additives. In 2002, as Great Lakes’ profits came under pressure, he unsuccessfully tried to buy the business he led.
At the end of 2004, shortly before Great Lakes was acquired by Crompton, now Chemtura, Cartmell left to join the fuel additives maker Innospec in Ellesmere Port, England, as an executive with an eye to eventually becoming CEO. But he left within a few months after a change in the firm’s leadership.
Jobless, he again offered to buy the water additives business, this time from Chemtura. “It was a business I knew and cared about,” he recalls. “I had to try and buy it.”
By May 2006, Cartmell had succeeded in making a deal to buy the business for $85 million with backing from the London-based private equity firm CBPE Capital. At the time, BWA Water Additives, the name selected for the former BioLab Water Additives operation, had annual sales of about $80 million to water desalination, industrial water treatment, and oil-recovery customers.
Calling on the discipline and attention to detail he learned as a chemistry student, he set about assembling all the support functions an independent business needs, including accounting, information technology, and personnel management. “For the first three months, my head was spinning, but I loved it. It was exhilarating,” he says.
Seera Investment Bank, a private equity firm based in Bahrain, bought BWA for $200 million in 2008. Then in June 2011, a Philadelphia-based investment firm, Berwind, bought BWA for $300 million. Today, BWA operates out of Manchester, England, and Atlanta. It counts 100 staffers, 25 of whom are in R&D, and has annual sales of roughly $150 million.
Like the two private equity firms before them, the new owners give BWA a high degree of freedom “as long as we deliver cash and stick to our business,” Cartmell says. The company had the operating latitude during the civil conflict in Libya last year to supply treatment chemicals needed to keep desalination plants running in the rebel-controlled area of the country.
Cartmell says he agreed to supply the plants so that people would continue to have drinking water, even though he wasn’t sure when the company would be paid. “There is a humanitarian angle to this business; it is not just about making short-term profits,” he says. “They asked us to trust them. We did. They paid us in February.”
Among all of BWA’s deal-making, Cartmell says, “probably the most important decision we made was not to manufacture our products.” BWA bought patents, trademarks, and intellectual property from Chemtura, but left the manufacturing to Chemtura and others. “I know that it is technology that matters, and technology changes over time. Plants don’t change without investing a fortune,” he says.
As Cartmell sees it, “It’s the recipe and not what you cook it in that matters.” More than 25 years after getting his Ph.D., he says, “my passion is still the chemistry and getting it to work in the field.”
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