She’s Got Game
Former college hoopster Ellen Kullman became DuPont’s CEO during the nation’s worst financial crisis in 75 years. It nearly overshadowed the fact that she is the first woman to lead the company—and she’s taking it to the boards.
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Fourth-quarter losses of $629 million; consolidated net sales 17 percent lower than the prior year; plummeting auto sales and housing starts stifling demand for the company’s coatings and construction products; shaky employee morale, thanks to 2,500 layoffs, salary freezes and cost cutbacks; a stock price dropping like a rock in the deepest part of the Brandywine.
Welcome to your new job, Ellen Kullman.
The extraordinary circumstances that greeted the DuPont Company’s 19th chief executive officer on January 1 nearly overshadowed the fact that she was the first in the company’s 206-year history to have two X chromosomes. Making her gender even less remarkable was the widespread knowledge that Kullman had long been the likely successor to Charles O. “Chad” Holliday Jr. Indeed, Kullman had been on the proverbial corporate fast track since she joined the company 21 years ago.
The DuPont of 2009 is significantly changed from the DuPont of 11 years ago, when Holliday assumed office. During his tenure, the company shifted its focus from traditional chemicals to science and biotechnology. It did so by completing about $60 billion worth of transactions—divestitures, acquisitions or joint ventures. Among the most significant were the 1999 purchase of the remaining 80 percent of seed producer Pioneer Hi-Bred, the 2001 sale of its pharmaceuticals business to Bristol-Myers Squibb, and the 2004 sale of the company’s fibers business to Koch Industries.
The result was to reshape the company’s portfolio from a traditional $45 billion-per-year oil and chemicals firm to a $30 billion-per-year science-based company concentrating on agriculture and nutrition, performance materials, and safety and protection.
It was the latter business that helped prepare Kullman for the top job. She told Fortune magazine that when Holliday asked her in 1998 to start a new unit focused on safety products, “Absolutely everybody, including my husband, told me I’d be better off staying in my current job,” which was leading the highly successful $2 billion titanium technologies business. But she accepted the challenge “to take the power we have in safety and figure out how we can create a stronger franchise there.”
“I started with five people over in Barley Mill Plaza,” she said at her first news conference as CEO-in-waiting, “and I learned more about myself as a leader, and I learned more about the strength of this company, and I think I learned more about teamwork. The experiences I had there were the most impactful.”
Kullman and her husband, Michael—currently director of corporate marketing—moved to DuPont from General Electric in 1988. Returning to Wilmington was a homecoming for Kullman, who is the first native Delawarean to lead the company since Lammot du Pont, who stepped down as president in 1940.
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