March 9, 2009 marked an important milestone in the life or Raj L Gupta.
That was the day when the U.S. and global markets had hit a low point, and his company Rohm and Haas reached agreement to sell to Dow Chemicals for over $19B in cash. Even in the world of (sometimes over-hyped) technology unicorns today, it was a big deal.
Today, Gupta serves as the Chairman of Delphi Automotive PLC and Executive Chair Avantor Materials Inc. In addition, he serves on the boards of HP, The Vanguard Group, IRI and Tyco International
If the above accomplishments seem astounding, the journey to get there is even more fascinating.
It all started in 1968.
Gupta was 22 years of age.
When Gupta arrived in the US, he had $8 in his pocket and a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Bombay.
With full of hope, energy and enthusiasm, Gupta completed his graduate degree in Operations Research from Cornell University.
His American dream journey began at 24 when Gupta joined Scott Paper.
Gupta was still hungry to learn so he enrolled into an MBA program at the night school at Drexel University. Working a full-time job and a young baby at home, this was not easy. Upon completing his MBA, Gupta got an entry-level job at the specialty chemicals company, Rohm and Haas.
Over the next four decades Gupta rose through the ranks to hold the highest position in the company as the Chairman, President and CEO to ultimately reaching an agreement to sell to Dow Chemicals in 2009.
Here is how it all happened:
The First Decade: Observation
The First Decade of Gupta’s life was a time of change and a time of observation. It was a time where he graduated from IIT Bombay, and obtained a visa in order to travel in pursuit of higher education at Cornell. Gupta eventually had 5 jobs right off the bat after graduating from Cornell. Although he had offers from the likes of IBM, he decided to take the offer from Scott Paper.
What was the logic behind that choice?
Scott Paper was located in the warmest place out of the 5 offers he got. And, with their first child on the way, Gupta felt that joining Scott Paper will be the best decision for his family.
This time period was also a time of observation. During Gupta’s tenure with Scott Paper, something happened that changed the marketplace dynamics for the paper industry completely – Proctor & Gamble (P&G), the Consumer Products and Goods (CPG) giant released their Charmin line of tissues and papers. Until then, Scott Paper had a near monopoly on this sector.
Scott Paper was on the receiving end, at least that’s what it looked like.
Gupta saw the panic start to form within Scott Paper, as the company felt they might unravel when this new competitor came in. This observation of how organizations and people behave in crisis situations was valuable experience for Gupta, and gave him important exposure to the problems at the top.
Scott Paper eventually started to lay off employees, and Gupta got somewhat panicked. He thought that since he was one of the newest employees, his job might be in jeopardy first.
After finishing his MBA, Gupta found out that his father wanted him back in India. Scott Paper had no business being in India, but Rohm and Haas did. He interviewed for a job with them, and was accepted. Scott Paper tried to convince him to stay, but it was too late: Gupta had already made up his mind.
Rohm and Haas would eventually become the place where he would spend the next 39 years of his life.
Before you read further, here are some insights from Gupta that you can share on Twitter
The Second Decade: Problem-solving
One big thing that Gupta learned over this time period of his life was about finding problems and opportunities for his company. Through his time at Rohm and Haas, he became so good at this – that people began to see him as someone who could connect the dots and identify solutions for problems where the stakes were high.
It was clear that Gupta was someone who saw things in the bigger picture and find opportunities to make them better. Instead of running away from problems, running towards problems and trying to solve them helped. Gupta become a better business person and made a lot of things happen.
When Rohm and Haas told him that they needed to do something in Asia, Gupta took on the challenge head on, and led the development of 10 plants in Asia. When they finally sold to Dow Chemicals, a big portion of their sales ( around 30%) was coming from Asia.
Gupta spent this time period of his life in different countries, and experienced different cultures in the process. It wasn’t always good, but Gupta continued to work and make an impact, and this convinced him that he could make an impact under any situation, also making him a more confident business person at the same time.
The Third Decade: Responsibility
Gupta returned to the U.S. after 15 years, and his success in Asia brought him the opportunity to lead the Electronics Materials business. He was given global responsibility of this part of the business, another example of how taking more and more responsibility played a big role in moving up in the company.
Both Electronics Materials business and the Asia Pacific region that he ran became the fastest growing and highest margin of the company. This furthered his already strong case to take over as the CEO when the opportunity would come.
in 1998, Mr. Gupta was named chairman and CEO of Rohm and Haas Company, by then a Fortune 500 company. He was the first foreign-born executive and person of color to lead the century-old company, that was still owned to a significant degree by the founding Haas family. He broke barriers at each step on his way to the top and pushed himself to be the very best he could.
The Fourth Decade: Growth and Exit
Gupta’s first dream when he was studying at college was to complete his education, go back to India and take up a teaching position.
As you can see, a LOT changed from the earlier dream, but one thing did not change – the hunger to learn, adapt and grow both personally and professionally.
That approach to life and work paid big dividends throughout the journey.
Rohm and Haas grew from a mid-size hybrid chemical company in 1988 to a global leader in specialty chemicals and electronic materials by 2008. Total shareholder return outpaced industry competitors and overall market performance during Mr. Gupta’s last five years at the helm, achieving a Total annual Shareholder Return of 17.3 percent compared to the S&P 500’s -4.8 percent.
Beyond Rohm and Haas: Post 2009
Gupta contributes nowadays by advising, whether it be on the company level or individual level. He has stepped away from taking on any executive position in the corporate world, but remains busy with several high-profile board positions.
Today, Gupta loves spending time with his grandkids, and hopes that they one day remember him like he remembers his elders.
Gupta’s Partial Reading List
Here are some books that resonated with Gupta:
( in no particular order )
Good to Great by Jim Collins
Why: One of the first books that talked about what it takes to survive and thrive over a long period of time. Not an easy feat to accomplish.
Built to Last by Jim Collins
Why: Built on the first book but recognized some of the heroes of the past did not continue to thrive. Notion of reinventing the corporation.
The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
Why: How once successful companies get too cautious and defensive and miss bend in the road and become obsolete.
How Will you Measure your Life by Clayton Christensen
Why: For incredibly candid reflections on the the life of a leading business thinker after his serious bout with cancer.
The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb
Why: How we are never prepared for events that have low probability of happening but suggesting way to deal with them if they happen.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
Why: When you compete with giants you have to set new ground rules and new approaches as this is the only way to ups end the incumbents.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Why: How one man’s not so pleasant family experiences,survival instincts and always thinking out of the box changed our world.