Over a 14-year tenure as Chairman and CEO of The Dow Chemical Company, Andrew N. Liveris transformed the company from a cyclical chemicals manufacturing company into one powered by science, driven by innovation and delivering solutions to the world. By combining the breadth and depth of Dow’s scientific heritage with a new, robust portfolio of market-facing businesses, he assured Dow’s place as an industry leader for generations to come.
To accelerate Dow’s reinvention, Liveris led the company in groundbreaking transactions including the acquisition of Rohm and Haas, the biggest acquisition in Dow’s history; the creation of Sadara, a joint venture with Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest integrated chemical facilities ever built in a single phase; the assumption of full ownership of Dow Corning; and the completion of the historic merger of Dow and DuPont – one of the most significant deals in the history of the chemical industry. Liveris retired from Dow in 2018, and now serves as a board member or trustee for many organizations.
Let’s take you back to your first month on the job as Dow’s CEO. In retrospect, which requirements of the job were you most prepared to take on? And which were you least prepared to execute?
The parts of the job I was most prepared for were my knowledge of our company, our industry and a strategy to transform us to a company that was innovative, sustainable and more predictable in an increasingly unpredictable world.
The parts of the job I was least prepared for was the crushing pressure exerted by our shareholders to maximize short term profits at the expense of the long term. This trend ramped up during my tenure and is the greatest threat to the existence of publicly owned listed enterprises investing in CAPEX and R and D for the long term. It ended up taking about half my time pushing back on these forces that ended up becoming a fixture in bringing down some of America’s best companies.
In the chemical industry, it’s not uncommon for young women entering the workforce to encounter mid-career men in their organizations who don’t always demonstrate appropriate openness or respect for what these women bring to the table. What advice do you have for these women? And what advice do you have for the organizations that employ them?
Find a safe harbor in the organization, someone you can talk to and give you advice. Then solicit the support of that person as you push back. Weed out these passive aggressive behaviors by strength and resilience.
For the organizations, short circuit the layers by having listening sessions with your early career women. Senior levels “get it”... it’s the middle of organizations that need to be fixed to rid yourselves of this unconscious or conscious bias.
Reinvention is a theme you return to again and again. What advice do you have for mid-career chemists looking to reinvent their skill sets so they can continue to advance in their careers?
Being a curious learner, pushing the boundaries of the known vs. unknown, looking at the role models who can imagine and dream of turning the impossible into the possible. Being an eternal optimist. Nothing is unachievable if you set your mind to it.
How did your parents influence your leadership style?
I suppose the most impact they had on my style was to instill a hard work ethic and humility as it related to the results of that hard work. Making sure I was grounded, that I had a strong sense of family and community and being a good friend, or mate as we say in Australia. Being the son of Greek immigrants and having very little made me appreciate what I had.
Do chemists and chemical engineers differ in how they go about tackling challenges?
Not by a lot. But chemical engineers are more problem solving oriented. Chemists are more focused on the science and its possibilities.
As part of a panel convened during the World Economic Forum in January 2018, you asked the following questions: “Are we a global company based in the United States? Or are we an American company that operates globally?” With regard to Dow at least, which is it? And why does it matter?
For Dow, we have evolved from being an American company with international operations in the 60s and 70s to a multinational company in the 80s and 90s to a true global company over the last two decades. There’s no going back. We are inclusive of all the world’s cultures and ethnicities. We bring the highest standard for humanity no matter what the local standard is. Countries could be regressing from a global mindset right now. But companies like Dow can show the way that being global and raising the quality of life for all humanity is the right path.
What is the United States’ primary competitive advantage vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and what should it do to preserve it?
An entrepreneurial culture. A freedom to be creative and imagine the impossible. The strength of our universities. The diversity of our people.
On the topic of workplace culture, Tae Hea Nahm, managing director of Storm Ventures, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.” What’s your view on this definition of culture?
Too black and white. A culture that encourages experimentation at an early stage of one’s career is one that should encourage risks, including the risk of failure. I had several negative experiences early in my career. I learned, adjusted and gained insights from these failures. This culture of taking managed risks should be encouraged. Older companies forget this once they start making money and getting comfortable.
You are an Australian of Greek heritage who spent much of your life in the U.S. Let’s say you and your wife are required to spend the rest of your lives in one of the following: Greece, Australia, or the U.S. Which one would the two of you settle on?
Hardest question of all. It’s a toss-up between Australia and the US. Can I say both?
Boss Talk with Andrew N. Liveris has been edited for length and clarity.
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