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BE Corporation
Do ‘Megatrends’ mean ‘Megabucks’ for DuPont?
Post economic meltdown, Ellen Kullman, CEO – DuPont, has focused the company around innovation through science. The idea is to use DuPont’s formidable research capabilities to meet the needs of diverse growth markets. And that’s where the real challenge lies.
Issue Date - 01/03/2012
It’s not easy to manage a 210-year-old company – a company that is credited with having invented the modern business model. From an explosives maker to a chemical company, DuPont has reinvented itself twice since 1802 and is yet again in the process of doing it for the third time as it moves towards becoming what it calls “a science based discovery business”. But if one looks at the way employees are groomed at the Delaware-based innovation giant, it becomes clear how such a diverse conglomerate is stably managed.

Take the President, Chair and CEO – Ellen Kullman – for instance. Her ascent to the top has been quite unusual. As an amateur in the industry, Kullman joined GE where she got the chance of observing Jack Welch while working under the then GE Vice-Chairman Edward E. Hood Jr.. After selling CT Scanners for the US based multinational, Kullman moved on to DuPont in 1988. Within a decade, she was running the company’s titanium dioxide business. In fact, she became the first woman Vice President ever at DuPont, managing 6,000 employees and a business generating $2 billion. In August 1998, Kullamn was summoned by Chad Holliday (then CEO). He discussed the possibility of setting up a consulting business around DuPont’s safety practices and suggested that Kullman spearhead it. On the face of it, asking her to leave a key position and initiating something that was completely unrelated to DuPont’s core business areas was like saying, “We don’t need you here. In the meanwhile, try this new project till you get a real job.” After giving considerable thought (and despite her close associates advising her not to take the plunge), she accepted the offer and made the project a $6 million business. It is perhaps this sort of experience that made her an ideal candidate for the top job.

However, when Kullman became CEO in January 2009, the financial crisis had gobbled up growth prospects around the globe. In fact, the economic meltdown revealed that despite catering to a distinct set of customers, there were formidable cracks in the company’s business model. Net income for 2008 fell to $2 billion as against $2.98 billion in 2007. As the crisis unfolded, sales declined by more than 50% in some divisions. First quarter earnings per share in 2009 declined by 59% to $0.54 (compared to the same period last year) . From a high of $52.62 in July 2007, the stock fell to an all time low of $16.87 in March 2009. As a response, Kullman attempted one of the most radical restructuring initiatives in the company’s history. Through 2009, DuPont’s 23 business units were integrated into 13. The initiative resulted in a reduction of 2,500 jobs (primarily in the the motor vehicle and construction related businesses in Western Europe and US). By the end of the year, DuPont had achieved $1.1 billion in fixed cost productivity. Although it was a bitter experience, it gave management a chance to look at new opportunities. As Kullman puts it, “When we looked at the strategic level during the financial crisis we asked ourselves, where are we headed as a company?” One key observation was that the agriculture and nutrition business contributed $8.3 billion to revenues (amounting to 31% of total sales volume). Encouragingly, it was more or less insulated from the after effects of the financial crisis. As a result, DuPont decided to diversify from its key products – Kevlar fabrics (used to manufacture a wide array of blades) and titanium dioxide pigment – to heavily focus on the food and nutrition business by acquiring Danisco (a Danish producer of nutrition and health-related products and enzymes) for $6 billion. It also forayed into innovative markets like solar energy, enabling materials for electronic components, and enzymes that help turn crops, like switch grass, into energy. So what is it that is forcing a 210-year-old chemical giant to initiate such a big shift?

Perhaps, the company is making such decisions based on what it calls ‘Megatrends’ – macro trends that will shape the future of our world. For instance, the global population is expected to grow by over two billion by 2050. These two billion people are going to need food and fuel and this is where DuPont sees an opportunity.

So far, Kullman has restored confidence at Wall Street. She delivered seven quarterly earnings that surpassed analyst estimates. In 2010, the stock rose 48% in value. But the greater challenge is to sustain this performance. That can only be possible if the company starts heavily directing its resources to developing markets. China is a case in point. DuPont is a strong partner in China’s drive to implement green technology. From wind turbines to coal mine ventilation pipes, the company’s components and materials are a key element. As of 2010, developing markets today make up for 32% of DuPont’s net sales ($10.21 billion) – a 21% increase compared to 2009. By 2015, these markets would be contributing 36% of the company’s total revenue.

No doubt, DuPont is betting its future on ‘Megatrends’, but then it will have to be more selective and take a closer look at macro trends that are driving different economies. What drives China does not drive India. It is this understanding that will eventually ensure the continued growth of DuPont. And it is this focus which makes all the difference between great companies that go bust and great companies that become greater.

Amir Moin           

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