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Grace and Lubrizol name new CEOs

Bob Patel will lead W. R. Grace, and Chris Brown has taken over at Lubrizol

by Craig Bettenhausen
September 2, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 32

A photo of Bhavesh V. "Bob" Patel.
Credit: LyondellBasell
Bhavesh V. "Bob" Patel

The specialty chemical firm W. R. Grace has recruited heavyweight chemical executive Bhavesh V. “Bob” Patel to be its CEO. Separately, the lubricant and chemical maker Lubrizol has quietly installed Chris Brown, an executive from the energy industry, as its new CEO.

Patel will leave his current post as CEO of LyondellBasell Industries at the end of the year and start at W.R. Grace in January 2022. Patel’s move surprised some because, with 2020 sales of $1.7 billion, Grace is much smaller than LyondellBasell, which reported 2020 sales of $23.4 billion. Patel will succeed Hudson La Force, who has led Grace since 2018 and oversaw the firm’s sale to Standard Industries Holdings earlier this year. LyondellBasell says it is searching for its next CEO.

A photo of Chris Brown.
Credit: Vestas
Chris Brown

The change at Lubrizol is more abrupt. Brown is already in place at the firm, having taken over without an announcement on Aug. 20 from Eric Schnur, who has been with Lubrizol for 27 years and served as CEO since 2017. Schnur will stay on in an advisory role, according to the company. Before the move, Brown was CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy Infrastructure; Lubrizol is also a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary.

The leadership swaps come as Lubrizol and LyondellBasell deal with industrial accidents. On June 14, a Lubrizol-owned lubricants plant in Rockton, Illinois, caught fire, leading to a mile-wide evacuation around the site. The firm also faces litigation and a criminal investigation related to a 2019 fire in Rouen, France.

LyondellBasell had a deadly accident in July, when an acetic acid pipe burst at a plant in La Porte, Texas, killing two workers.

Though the firms didn’t make a connection between the accidents and the leadership changes, industry watchers see one. Patrick Ropella, an executive headhunter specializing in the chemical industry, says activist investors and social media are spurring corporate boards to hold CEOs accountable for lapses in safety and other forms of corporate responsibility. “We are seeing bad behavior or perceived poor behavior—or even blame for mistakes—being driven into the light of day like we have never experienced before,” Ropella says.

David Michaels, who led the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 8 years under the Obama administration, says management is the right place for such accountability to land. “Safe operational culture comes from the CEO,” he says. “I hope the boards of both LyondellBasell and Berkshire Hathaway select CEOs who understand that productivity and profits are closely linked to safe operational culture.”.



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