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IISRP's McGraw reflects on career as retirement nears

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Jim McGraw IIRSP
Jim McGraw retire in June from his post as IIRSP's managing director.

HOUSTON—The International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers is searching for a new managing director, a candidate with SR industry experience, a technical bent, a good understanding of the issues the business faces, a person ready to tackle a second career.

In other words, the IISRP wants another James McGraw, circa 1999.

McGraw's decision to retire in June 2015 launched the hunt for a successor to the man who has served as managing director and CEO for 15 years. He said the goal is to have a replacement come aboard at least six months before he leaves, to provide adequate time to learn the position before McGraw and his wife, Pat, begin heading back to their roots in Indiana.

It has been a fascinating “second career,” said McGraw, whose first career at American Synthetic Rubber Co. prepared him for the journey.

A 40-year veteran of the SR business, McGraw grew up near Corydon, Ind., a small, historic town 30 miles west of Louisville, Ky., where ASRC was located. Living on a farm, McGraw said, helped feed his interest in anything mechanical.

“To my dad's despair, I would tear apart lawnmowers and tractors,” he said. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Purdue University. While working at ASRC from 1975, he attended night school and obtained a master's in engineering management from the University of Louisville.

Starting off in utility engineering at the SR company, McGraw oversaw the construction of a wastewater treatment plant, so ASRC would be in compliance with an Environmental Protection Agency order. The new Clean Air Act was bringing with it new regulations, and since ASRC had no regulatory officer, McGraw suggested the firm create such a position.

“They said "OK kid, you got it,' “ McGraw said, and he began his education in regulatory affairs. That gave him his first experience in the IISRP, when he joined the group's Environmental Health Committee in 1979. He ultimately became chairman of that committee, during a period of much regulatory action via the Clean Air Act.

“We basically took on the EPA to make sure regulatory programs would actually be cleaning up the environment, but would be something the industry could work with and implement, and not be a burden on the industry,” he said.

The EPA initially planned to create “a one-size-fits-all” regulation, McGraw said. “You can't do that in this industry,” as SRs differ from each other. The IISRP invited the agency's staff and contractors to visit SR plants to see and learn how they operate.

The cooperative effort succeeded, McGraw said. “They developed a different regulatory program for each elastomer type, which has been very successful.”

Maintaining members

Another example of the value of cooperation occurred over a workplace exposure standard for butadiene, a key ingredient in a number of synthetic rubbers. The IISRP and the United Rubber Workers union worked together in the 1990s and jointly proposed a standard—the first time industry and labor worked in tandem to address Occupational Safety and Health Administration rulemaking.

“As it turned out, the workplace standard withstood the test of time,” he said.

McGraw retired as ASRC director of human resources and regulatory affairs in 1997 and began his second act in the industry as deputy managing director of the IISRP. Two years later, he was named managing director. It was the first time someone with a technical background took the helm at the group.

The executive said the biggest challenge the institute faced during his tenure involved keeping up membership levels in the early 2000s when the industry was rocked by huge price-fixing scandals. Some executives ended up in jail, massive fines were levied, and the reputation of companies and the industry was sullied.

But not the IISRP's reputation.

“During all those series of investigations, not a single regulatory official or investigator came to our door,” McGraw said. The IISRP was well-known to the authorities, who knew “we run a clean shop.”

The group has a strict antitrust policy, which its legal counsel reviews at each Annual General Meeting. “If anyone strays from that, we remind them about it and get them back in order,” McGraw said.

Today the IISRP has 33 full member companies that represent 80 percent of the world's SR output, and another 37 affiliate members, suppliers to the SR producers and related businesses. The group created the affiliate class after discussions at its New York convention in 2009, and “it turned out to be quite popular,” McGraw said.

He said most of the affiliates are U.S.- or Europe-based, although a few new ones are from Asia. “We have identified some producers that could be members, and as they join, some of their suppliers can be targeted as affiliates.”

Companies join the IISRP for a variety of reasons, McGraw said, to take advantage of the services the group offers, ranging from its statistical program to research on health and safety issues. Each company has its own reason for joining, he said, and for many it is to be part of the global SR community.

“There is a finite number of SR producers around the world, and some of them are really quite small,” he said. “It's understandable if you're a very small company, you have to sell quite a bit of rubber to generate the money needed to pay dues to be a member. If you're a large company, the cost of the dues isn't as significant to you.”

However, from McGraw's experience, a smaller SR firm can get its money's worth at the IISRP. “ASRC was one of the very smallest members at the time, when you look at production capacity,” he said. The firm didn't have experience in environmental and safety issues.

“The other, big companies had resources in those areas, and we captured and used that to our advantage.” Smaller SR producers can do the same today, he said.

As SR industry output shifted to Asia, and in particular, China, the IISRP has responded by opening an office in Beijing, adding to its presence at its Houston headquarters and offices in Milan, Italy, and Tokyo.

A busy future

McGraw keeps abreast of the regulatory activities in the U.S. and Europe, but he said language barriers and local differences in regulations have left the IISRP's Asian members to fend for themselves on such issues. With that in mind the group is recruiting a regulatory specialist for Asia. “That's been on my "to do list,' and I've been working at this for some time,” he said. He might have a candidate later this year.

Among other activities the institute currently is involved in are co-hosting a “Health Risks of Lower Olefins” symposium in Austin, Texas, Nov. 5-6, and running a session at the ACS Rubber Division meeting in Nashville, Tenn., in October.

“One of our strategic initiatives is partnering with other associations,” McGraw said. The IISRP executive also is preparing for the group's 2015 Annual General Meeting, to be held in South Africa.

His wife, Pat, always has been very involved in the social program at the group's meetings. “After the Kyoto meeting, a couple of directors told me, "It might be tough, but you can be replaced. But Pat, I don't think we can get a replacement for her.' It made me feel good,” McGraw said.

After the couple eventually relocates from Houston to Corydon, McGraw said he'll enjoy his three hobbies—car restoration, woodworking and “my first hobby, Pat.”