Pittsburgh—Jerry MacCleary walked into Building Four on the Pittsburgh campus of Bayer in 1979 as a young accountant.
When he retires at the end of 2019, he'll walk out of that same building as chairman and CEO of Bayer's Covestro L.L.C. spinoff.
A lot happened in the 40 years that came in between.
"I've been working since seventh grade. I never really stopped," MacCleary said in a recent interview at Covestro's Pittsburgh headquarters. "But this is the right time.
"I'll miss the people," he added. "They've been my path to success and have treated me well."
Covestro L.L.C. is the North American arm of Covestro A.G., a global supplier of polycarbonate, polyurethanes and other materials based in Leverkusen, Germany. Covestro A.G. was spun off from Bayer A.G. in 2015. MacCleary was named president of the business—then known as Bayer MaterialScience LLC—in 2012 and has been Covestro L.L.C. CEO and chairman since 2018.
MacCleary's tenure at Covestro will conclude at the end of 2019. Covestro L.L.C. President Haakan Jonsson, a 27-year company veteran, will take on MacCleary's chairman role in January.
In 1979, MacCleary had job offers from three Pittsburgh companies. He chose an accounting job with Mobay Chemical, which at the time was a Bayer unit. He soon wanted more of a challenge and was named assistant controller of the firm's plastics business. From there, he moved into sales.
Shortly after being assigned to Germany, MacCleary was called back to the U.S. to work with Bayer's polycarbonate films business, which was struggling at the time.
"We took PC films from a loss to a profit in three years," he said. "It was a good experience working with a small team. I'm proud of what we were able to do."
MacCleary was working with Bayer's North American PC unit in 1996 when the firm acquired the specialty styrenics business of Monsanto Co. There, he again worked to revive a struggling business.
"We faced challenges in manufacturing and market positioning," MacCleary said. "But we worked as a team and really dug into the process and learned how to maximize that business."
Global business, regional focus
MacCleary was leading the PU business while serving as president when Bayer MaterialScience was spun off to create Covestro in 2015.
"We became more of a global business, but with a regional focus," he said of the early days of Covestro.
Along the way, MacCleary became a strong advocate for sustainability in the chemicals industry. He credited former Covestro A.G. CEO Patrick Thomas with having faith in sustainable efforts.
"There was some resistance to sustainability at first," MacCleary recalled. "A lot of people thought you couldn't make a profit from it.
"But in the current market, sustainability is required. If you look at what your stakeholders and investors and employees want, you have to have more responsibility to societal needs. And it has to be transparent, whether it's carbon emissions or anything else."
Last year, Covestro became a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an industry group that's pledged more than $1.5 billion for sustainable efforts worldwide.
"The Alliance came together fast," MacCleary said. "The industry is taking responsibility. We have to address these needs and address negative images. It's about how to react as a global industry. We can't just say, 'We don't do single-use plastics, so it doesn't affect us.'
"And young people will want to work for you if you do the right thing," he added. "A lot of companies are doing a lot of good things, but we all can do more."
Over his career, MacCleary also has seen changes in markets served by Covestro, including automotive and construction.
"It used to be that everybody turned 16 and wanted to have a car," he said. "But that's not the case anymore, and the industry has adjusted with comfortable and lightweight materials that are a good fit for self-driving cars and other vehicles."
Changes in construction design have led Covestro to find ways to reduce the amount of material used in PU insulation panels and similar uses. "There always are going to be changing tastes in the cycle," MacCleary explained.
'Sitting on a gold mine'
In recent years, the availability of shale gas and oil in Pennsylvania and other parts of the U.S. has led to major new industry investments, including a massive petrochemicals and plastics complex being built by Shell Chemical in Monaca, Pa., just a few miles away from Covestro's headquarters.
"It's been a game-changer," MacCleary said. "We're sitting on top of a gold mine with shale."
And even though Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has expressed concern about the environmental impact of petrochemical production, MacCleary said he believes that the two sides "can listen to each other and work together."
In retirement, MacCleary said he'll remain in Pittsburgh, where he was born and raised and where he's been active with several nonprofit groups, including the United Way and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
"Pittsburgh is a very livable city," he said. "It's very family-oriented and has produced a lot of successful, blue-collar people. They know the value of work and they know the value of a dollar."
MacCleary also has championed diversity and inclusion at Covestro.
"My parents always said, 'Do the best you can and treat everyone equally,'" he said. "But when I looked around our office, most of what I saw was people who looked like me."
As a result, Covestro has changed its hiring processes. "Everyone is different, but everyone has a voice," he said.
For many years, MacCleary has been active with the American Chemistry Council, most recently serving as chairman of ACC's board of directors as well as chair of its Sustainability Committee. He'll be replaced as chairman by Mark Vergnano, president and CEO of specialty chemicals and plastics firm Chemours Co.
In an email to Plastics News, Vergnano said that MacCleary "has made an amazing impact on both the Pittsburgh community and across the entire chemical industry."
"At the ACC, over the years, Jerry has been one of the most engaged executive members on issues including TSCA reform and sustainability," he added. "In Pittsburgh, Jerry has demonstrated his same passion for sustainability by serving as co-chair of CEOs for Sustainability and leading a new sustainability committee at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
"He has built a reputation as a supportive and constructive CEO, consistently pushing his colleagues to do the right thing. I know I speak for my peers by saying that Jerry made our industry and each of us as leaders better. I wish him well in his retirement, but I will definitely miss Jerry in our industry," Vergnano added.
Bob Patel, CEO of petrochemicals and plastics firm LyondellBasell Industries, also worked with MacCleary at ACC. In an email to Plastics News, Patel said that MacCleary "has been a great leader for our industry, particularly in the area of sustainability."
"Time and again (MacCleary) had the energy, enthusiasm and passion to advance these topics and really make a difference," he added.
As he moves into retirement, MacCleary said his career "has been a great ride with a lot of great experiences."
"I've been here for a lot of years and I can say that relationships are one thing that's not going to go the way of Amazon," he said. "Face-to-face meetings still go a long way.
"I think we've changed our culture for the better. We can agree to disagree but still respect each other's views and opinions. If you have that, people will do anything for you and they'll step in and help each other," MacCleary added.
MacCleary added that he loves hearing the positive way that Covestro employees are talked about in the community.
"It's been an honor to work with them," he said.