AKRON-There's a way the rubber industry can overcome its growing problem of attracting young technical talent, according to a man in a position to know. “What we need to figure out is how to pay them more,” said Ed Kresge.
His opinion carries weight for two reasons: He is a renown polymer scientist, this year's recipient of the highest technical award from the ACS Rubber Division, the Charles Goodyear Medal; and he had plenty of involvement in important business decisions at Exxon Chemical Co., especially in the creation of Advanced Elastomer Systems L.P., the Monsanto Chemical Co.-Exxon Chemical joint venture that became a major force in thermoplastic elastomers.
“The problem is very simple,” Kresge said April 27 after receiving the Rubber Division's award at its spring meeting in Akron. “If you can make a lot of money as a lawyer, a physician à or a baseball player, why in the world would you want to go into science? And money does make a difference.”
Kresge himself did all right in his 32 years with Exxon Chemical Co., 15 of them as chief polymer scientist, and four as the polymer science leader for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. He was able to retire at age 58 after fulfilling the one-sentence prediction one of his college professors made in a letter of recommendation: “Hire this guy, he'll make you millions of dollars.”
He accomplished that via a number of major scientific innovations, among them ethylene-propylene viscosity index modifiers; polyolefin thermoplastic elastomers; and tailored molecular weight density EPDM elastomers, a development that took a business Exxon was on the verge of abandoning and turned the firm into the world's largest EPDM producer.
The early years
This from a person who started out as a student in a tiny school in a tiny town in northeast Pennsylvania, where there were nine people in his 11th grade class. A man who for years thought he'd never completed high school.
“All these years I was telling people I never graduated from high school,” Kresge said. But the Florida school he attended as a senior had mailed his diploma to his home, unknown to him. Eventually his sister presented it to him. “I even thought about getting a GED.”
He got plenty of education from that point, working his way through college and earning a Ph.D from the University of Florida. He joined Exxon in 1961.
“In contrast to today, I had 20 job offers. I probably interviewed at too many places because every place I interviewed offered me a job.”
He was given his choice of positions at Exxon, and took the advice of others at the company and began doing lab work under Francis P. “Baldy” Baldwin—who was the 1979 winner of the Charles Goodyear Medal.
Kresge started working with oil-resistant EPDM, which turned into a development project that he ran. He decided it wasn't going to work, so he ter- minated the project.
“It turns out normally that's not the culture of companies, that people working on a project terminate them. I soon learned my nickname became 'Kresge the Baby Killer,' ” he said.
“I didn't mind working on risky things, but things that are doomed to failure, you shouldn't à waste your time and effort.”
Kresge's first big success was with oil additives. A colleague from another Exxon division asked him if he could help find a stable viscosity modifier for motor oil because the current ones didn't work very well. Kresge told him that ethylene-propylene copolymer should work.
“I said that right out front. Of course, when I looked in the literature, I found that it didn't work.”
The scientist found, though, after many trials and errors and collaboration with other Exxon peers, that with the right molecular weight distribution, composition distribution, it could do the job.
He mentioned engineer Charlie Cozewith's efforts as critical to the success of the project.
Kresge gives an insight as to how things were done back in the day.
“There was no budget to do this. Then my boss said, 'Well, just do it.' Now you have to account for all your time and so forth. I had some pretty good bosses who would take the risk.”
Late in the development, Cozewith gave the presentation to the Exxon board on the project, saying a pilot plant could be built, or the firm could spend $5 million on a full-scale facility. The top vice president turned to Kresge and asked, “What do you think we should do?”
Kresge told him, why put it off, just build the plant, you'll have to do it sooner or later. “He said, 'You're right.' And it worked.”
Tailored MWD EPDM was Kresge's next big success. “That really made a big deal on the EP rubber business. It took all the growth of EP rubber for many years.”
Exxon wasn't getting a return in the business up to corporate standards. So the board told Kresge and the head of the EP business to take a look at it. “Either fix it or get rid of it. Pretty straightforward,” he recalled.
About 70 percent of the market was for extrusions, and the big issue was that customers wanted faster extrusion rates.
Kresge said he knew that was scientifically possible, but no one had tried to actually do it on a commercial level. He was given control of the project.
“All you need are two reactors, and change the piping around,” he said. While lots of fine-tuning had been done, in the scheme of things it wasn't an expensive project. Exxon began with one grade, eventually added six or seven more, and ended up being the No. 1 producer of the rubber.
Kresge's next achievement was with nanocomposites for tire innerliners. He said he co-chaired an Exxon group known as the “Nightmare Committee,” involved with chlorobutyl rubber, mostly used on tire innerliners.
“It was a single market. What happens if somebody gets something better? Boom, you're out of business.” And that was the nightmare, he said.
Staff members from a variety of disciplines made up the committee, including some from marketing, industrial and research. They succeeded and Exxon won at least 30 patents in the area.
In the 1980s, Kresge initiated a long-range research group working on coordination catalysts and polymer characterization. He said the goal was to study the chemistry of coordination catalysts by looking at a polymerization site that could be characterized and chemically modified—work that led to metallocene R&D.
The AES venture
The effort that resulted in the creation of AES was serendipitous.
Kresge said it was no secret Monsanto, which had developed thermoplastic vulcanizates, wanted to get into the agriculture business. “They really didn't want to be in polymers,” he said.
Monsanto wasn't integrated in polyolefins, as Exxon—which had developed its own thermoplastic polyolefin blends—was. But Monsanto had strong development and marketing efforts, which Ex-xon lacked.
“There was a lot of resistance in our company to even work in the area,” Kresge said.
Kresge's business VP who supported the Exxon TPO operation had a heart attack and retired. “I was kind of left with no high-level sponsor for the business. I thought, 'Holy cow, this thing is going down the tubes.' ”
Then he got a “eureka” moment. “In the shower one night, I realized the only way out of this was to form a joint venture with Monsanto.”
The next day he talked to the business operatives at Exxon about his proposal, and the wheels were set in motion. Ex-xon approached the Monsanto people in Akron.
“At that level, they thought we were trying to steal their baby. And they were right. But we had our own baby to feed.”
Kresge—to his great surprise—was tasked with negotiating a possible venture, and met Monsanto board member Tom Gossage, who came to the scientist's office in Linden, N.J. Kresge said he pointed out how Monsanto could get its cash from the business by forming a joint venture, and that “you have great marketing, and we have no marketing.”
“I remember Gossage saying 'Ed, is this going to work?' And I said, 'It's the only damn thing that's going to work.' He held out his hand and said, “You got a deal.”
Kresge's long-range plan was for Ex-xon to take full control of the business someday, and it did, 12 year later.
Kresge left Exxon when he was offered a buyout—two years salary—because his group was moving to Texas. “I thought, two years of salary for not working? That's a no brainer.”
He knew he'd do consultant work, anyway, and served on several committees of the American Chemical Society. He spent nine years as a member and three as a consultant for the ACS Committee for Professional Training, which meets 20 to 30 days a year and sets standards for undergraduate degrees for chemists.
Besides being the Charles Goodyear Medalist, Kresge has won many other accolades, including the Melvin Mooney award—which Al Gessler, another of his mentors, had won—the National Inventors Hall of Fame Medal, and the Midgley Award for the development of TPO blends, which are used on bumpers on just about all vehicles today. He was quite involved with the Rubber Division, and received the Arnold Smith Award for those efforts.
Besides the opportunities and financial awards he got from working at Ex-xon, Kresge also found his wife of 47 years, Dolores, because of the company.
They met at a company-sponsored get together. “The chemical division I was in was mainly male,” he said. So people from public relations were invited, to bring some women to the event.
Dolores at the time was a community relations officer for Exxon Research and Engineering.
“I met her at the party. And that was the last date I ever had.”