DuPont CEO speaks at women’s leadership event at Duke

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 07:28 PM

In response to a question about how she finds a work-life balance, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman said she doesn’t believe that balance exists.

“I think the word ‘balance’ is a terrible word,” Kullman said Wednesday at a women’s leadership-focused series of talks at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.  The event was co-organized by the Duke MBA Association of Women in Business and the Committee of 200, a nonprofit group of female entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Kullman said there are times when “life happens” and doesn’t fit into a calendar item. She said it’s more about being flexible and working, and delivering, in time that’s available.

She described leaving the office to attend the sports games of her children – she said she has three - during the week, and coming back to work or working from home. She said she never worked for someone for whom that type of flexibility was not OK.

When she’s on the road, she said people she travels with “will tell me I’m evil.” She said she tries to work hard so she has more time for her family when she returns.

“Work happens, and home happens, and you’ve got to figure it out,” she said.

Kullman became CEO of DuPont, a company that reported net income of about $2.8 billion on revenues of about $35 billion last year, in 2009. She also chairs the company’s board.

She studied mechanical engineering at Tufts University and later got a management degree from Northwestern University. She worked at General Electric before starting at DuPont, according to the website.

She spoke Wednesday about work-life flexibility, the importance of science education, company hiring expectations, and DuPont acquisitions and segment sales.

Kullman said that what keeps her up at night is the question of where the next generation of scientists and engineers will come from.

She called for the introduction of science and mathematics for children early in their education cycles, and said students need a basic science education to build off of.

She also spoke about the need for relevance in science education – using the example of a volcano science project as an example of a non-relevant project.

“(We) all made one,” she said. “Why aren’t we teaching kids about how to get clean water or how solar energy works? … That’s the kind of thing we need to be engaging with today.”

Change needs to be continual, she said, describing mergers and acquisitions made by the company. “The world’s change is continual.”

In 2011, the company purchased the Danish enzyme company Danisco for about $6 billion. She said the acquisition was expected to create avenues for the company into areas such as food, nutrition and personal care. She said the move created trajectory for the company, rather than just increasing its size.

She also spoke of the sales of the company’s long-time automotive paint business. They made quick-dry paint that she said had aided American auto makers in speeding their manufacturing processes.

In the third quarter of last year, the company sold the Performance Coatings business for about $4.9 billion in cash and the assumption of certain liabilities.

Kullman said the marketplace was becoming consolidated and the business was producing lower margins. She said business leaders thought there could be more value for the company in selling the business.

She had some “very tough” meetings with the leadership of the business who, she said, had thought they would finish their careers at DuPont. She said it wasn’t a responsibility she could delegate.

She also described a demographic shift in which she said a number of people will retire. She described a need to hire thousands of employees in the next five years, including engineers.

“The number is quite substantial,” she said.

Justine Hong, a senior at Duke University majoring in public policy with a certificate in markets and management studies, honed in on Kullman’s comments about change. She said that she’s learned at the university to create a long-term strategic plan, but she said that in any technology sector, she has to embrace change and disruption.

Kendall Murphy, also a senior at the university who’s majoring in sociology with a certificate in markets and management studies, reacted to Kullman’s comments on work-life balance. She said that she felt it was about how to deliver on a flexible schedule, and thought it would be relevant to her future career in consulting.

DuPont was founded in 1802 and incorporated in Delaware in 1915, has 13 business segments including electronics and communications, industrial biosciences, chemicals, materials and pharmaceuticals. It employed about 70,000 people globally as of Dec. 31.

The company has an electronics and communications facility in the Durham County side of the Research Triangle Park, as well as plants in Kinston and Fayetteville.