Dow-DuPont owes Kullman thanks

Sam Waltz
Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

It’s unlikely that the folks who will run the new ag spinoff business (likely now to carry the DuPont brand) from the Dow-DuPont merger will name their Wilmington headquarters building after DuPont’s unceremoniously deposed CEO Ellen Kullman, but perhaps they should consider it.

Of course they won’t. But perhaps DelDOT should add an “Ellen Kullman turn lane” off Del. 141 at the front gate of DuPont Chestnut Run – the most obvious site for the ag business headquarters

That’s because Ellen Jamison Kullman (CEO 2009-2015) and her predecessor, Charles “Chad” Holliday Jr. (1998-2008), the two most maligned CEOs in the DuPont Co.’s last century, likely made it possible by their attention to building DuPont’s life sciences, ag, food and nutrition businesses.

And, inside the headquarters, four wings of it, or four floors, should be named for Sen. Carper, Sen. Coons, Rep. Carney and Gov. Markell, because they likely can lay claim to exercising the tie-breaking influence on the decision which became widely public last week.

“Stunning.” “Remarkable.” “Astounding.” “Unforeseen.” Those are the words that come to mind as reactions to the announcement from those guiding the DuPont-Dow merger.

Frankly, as a 40-year DuPont Co. watcher, and a former DuPont external affairs guy, I’ve been called a prognosticator for my forecast 14 months ago that “DuPont as we know it will cease to exist by 2020,” an announcement that occurred only in December. And earlier, I’d predicted two years in advance that DuPont would move its corporate HQs from the DuPont Building to Chestnut Run.

But, given four obvious alternatives, I would have regarded Wilmington as No. 4 on the list to be home for the ag HQ. Great cases could be made for two of the other three, and a better political case for the third.

Much of the heart of DuPont’s field operations is located in Johnston, Iowa, home to DuPont Pioneer, which DuPont acquired in 1999. Iowa looked to me to be a strong finalist because of that, plus it’s in the middle of the country, and, more importantly, in the middle of “grain crops” market that makes the Midwest the breadbasket of American agriculture. And it’s central to the Midwestern land grant universities where crop sciences are the anchor of their agricultural studies programs.

Indianapolis would have been the strong No. 2, or in a tie for No. 1, because it is home to Dow’s ag business, plus it too is close to the middle of the country. And, because in a marriage of equals, Dow’s influence seems just a bit stronger, its Midland, Mich., headquarters would have been the third strongest candidate, I thought. (Instead, Midland is the loser, Johnston and Indianapolis keep large operations, and Wilmington becomes the headquarters.)

Stine-Haskell, an extraordinary greenhouse and ag research facility off Elkton Road in Newark and across the street from the University of Delaware’s STAR campus, gave DuPont watchers some hope, particularly given millions and millions in new investment underway when the merger was announced. In addition, some residue of the “blue skies” research group at the Experimental Station in Greenville may well remain intact.

The “Ex Station,” as it’s known, is home to scientist George Levitt’s 1975 discovery of DuPont’s ground-breaking sulfonylurea organic chemistry compound that moved ag products in the 1980s from the age of poisons to life sciences / bio-engineering by interrupting the photosynthesis necessary for targeted weeds to grow. A spoonful of certain formulations of the sulfonylurea products could kill weeds on an acre or more of farmland. And yet they were safe enough to sprinkle on your morning cereal without harm to the eater. And to go into the earth without harm to water or soils.

When I worked with DuPont Agricultural Products, as it was known then, in 1986-89, it was with a triumvirate of the company’s best known leaders. Dale Wolf orchestrated the acquisition of Shell’s pesticide business, then went into government as DEDO secretary, lieutenant governor, and then governor. Jack Krol, who built his DuPont career in fibers, made ag leadership his last stop before becoming CEO. And Bill Kirk, like me an Illinois farm boy and University of Illinois grad, was a lifelong ag guy who navigated the business as a consummate professional.

The Shell acquisition made the ag business a $2 billion business at the time, certainly substantial, but nowhere nearly the well-advertised $11 billion or so that it was at the time of the DuPont-Dow merger announcement. Credit for the growth goes to the investment by Holliday and Kullman, as well as Krol, including such things as the Pioneer acquisition, as well as others, as Kullman made ag and nutrition the fair-haired child of her CEO tenure.

The tough thing about leading change is that you tend to get the arrows and bullets in full frontal.

Kullman did a nice job of communicating her strategy publicly; Holliday not so much, but such reinvestment in turning a Titanic-sized company like DuPont takes time, and her strategy could not survive Wall Street earnings impatience and dissident investors, and it cost her the CEO’s job. Whether better communications would have helped never will be known.

But, as Delawareans enter springtime, when they encounter Kullman around town, they need to give her a hearty thanks for the focus on ag, food and nutrition that appears to have kept the leadership of that business in Delaware. With a thanks, as well, to the political class for its intervention and support.

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