An Interview with Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Nalco, Part 2

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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J. Erik Fyrwald wasn't looking for a new job when the world's leading water treatment and process improvement company tapped him to be its new President and CEO. But the more Fyrwald investigated Nalco Company's track record and potential, the more tempted he was to leave his long-held executive position at Dupont. Just months before the 2008 economic crisis, Fyrwald made the move. Along with a variety of other topics, he talked to about the timing of his decision and about the challenge of guiding Nalco's 11,500 person international workforce through the crisis without the benefit of having had time to build its trust.

Nalco recently hired a manager in Russia. How do you grapple with a different culture's complex societal problems? What goes into that as the CEO of an international corporation?

Well, the first thing that I always think about is that I'm only one person, and I'm human, and it's a big world. It's impossible to grasp all the complexities or to even keep my hand on the pulse all over the world. So, the most important thing I do is work with my leadership team to make sure that we've got the right leaders in place around the world, that we develop our people for leadership positions and, when we don't have the right people in house, that we hire people and train them.

We're very careful about who we hire. We make sure that they've got the right values, the right commitment, and a commitment to transparency. We want them to know that if they spot something that's not right, that they'll get help and deal with it, rather than ignoring it, because there are different kinds of challenges throughout the world.

So, we've got to have the right leaders in place, the right stated values and code of ethics and the right training. But then, we've got to have the right leading and managing processes so that we're all doing the right thing. Where there are problems—and there always will be problems—we make sure they get brought out into the open, put on the table, and dealt with.

Is a commitment to transparency and openness your personal conviction or were those Nalco values before you became CEO?

I think transparency had been a value, but we're putting a lot more emphasis on making sure that it gets communicated throughout the world to all employees, so that people know that if they see something they are not comfortable with or that they think might be wrong, they can report it without any fear of reprisals, and it will be looked into seriously and dealt with appropriately and in a timely fashion.

Some of our readers may be dealing with problems that you're dealing with on an international level in their small businesses. How have you developed trust with your employees that enables them to break free of cultural barriers?

You have to communicate and re-communicate. It's me talking this way; it's our head of Human Resources talking this way; it's our head of legal talking this way; it's the Asia leader; it's the country leader, etc.

So, people need to hear a consistent message and see follow-through?

Yes. Consistent message, following through, giving them multiple options that if they feel uncomfortable about something, they can talk to their boss. If they don't feel comfortable talking to their boss, there's somebody in HR or there's a website or a phone number. Also giving examples of where people have reported something, and it's been dealt with, and it was the right thing for the company and for our people. There are many ways it has to be done consistently. But I'm also not naïve. I understand that we're not where we need to be ever. We've got to keep working at this all the time.

Some people have an inherent bias against chemical companies. At the National Summit in 2009, you talked about technology as a solution to both economic decline and environmental problems, but you expressed some insightful concern about ineffective politicized regulation. How do you deal with the real-life consequences of technology? Must society accept risk in R&D?

I think there are two questions related to what you are asking. First, I think regulation of the chemical industry, of the agriculture industry, of the pharmaceutical industry is absolutely necessary and right. The government has an important role in making sure that all companies adhere to the law and have their products—when there are potential concerns—approved based on lots of data. I think all that is very good.

What we need to do is make sure that we as a company and we as industry groups and collections of companies, connect to the government to explain our views and what we think is appropriate and why. They hear from NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and universities, which is great. Those experts need to be part of the discussion. And then, the government makes a decision on what the regulatory policy and rules are going to be.

But, just as an example, we've developed a technology solution to reduce certain air pollutants as an alternative to much higher cost—both in capital and ongoing costs—higher cost technologies that have been approved before. So, when a power company is looking at the existing technology that would lower their sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions (that cause smog and acid rain), they now have, with Nalco Mobotec technology, a much lower cost option. We have to help regulators understand that, or else they're going to require the higher cost option.

In the end, if the government looks at both options and thinks the higher cost option is the way to go, they make that decision. We at least want to make sure that the new technology is considered to help government regulators make the right decision.

On the second question, it's important for people to understand how important chemicals are to our life. Water is a chemical. Fragrances, food additives that keep food from being contaminated by harmful bacteria—these are chemicals. There are all kinds of important roles that chemicals play, and as a society, we want responsible companies that do the work to ensure that the products they sell are safe and are handled safely.

The way I look at Nalco is that we're a water, energy, and air environmental services company. Included in our offerings are chemicals that we make sure are safe, but they're only part of our offering. Because of that part of our offering, we're able to do things that significantly improve the environment, that use very economical ways of cleaning water, of cleaning air, and of helping get more energy out of the ground in an environmentally safe way.

So, to me, chemicals, biology, the automation technology that we use—all kinds of technology can be used for good by ethical companies and people. Now, technology can be used for bad ends. What we want are responsible companies using technology to make the world a better place and advance economies.

So, what you do, essentially, is creation-care work.

Yes. If you look at our product line, we manufacture safe technologies that benefit the world in a major way. For example, we have an automation technology that we launched a couple of years ago called 3D TRASAR that plugs into an industrial water system and monitors the water twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It makes sure that just the right amount of additive is being put in, and no more, so that there's no corrosion or microbiological issues that are going to make people sick or foul up the system and cause the system to be energy inefficient. With continuous monitoring, fewer chemicals are needed and less water is used. Last year, in one year, this technology reduced the water demands for industry by sixty-three billion gallons.

And, Nalco won the U.S. Presidential Clean Chemistry Award.

Right. I think it should be titled "Green Technology Award." But, that's okay. I don't mind the word "Chemistry."

Your chairman's letter from the sustainability report reads like Nalco is an environmental protection company or an environmental services company. But do people ever misinterpret your work because you're associated with a chemical company?

When I was in the agriculture field, there were people who questioned pesticides and other technologies, but cleaning up water is pretty noncontroversial. If you look at our legal history, you'll see that we've had very few, if any, environmental complaints. is a site devoted to encouraging people to glorify God in their work. Do you have a personal faith that informs your work?

Yes. I believe that my work is not about me; it's about the greater good. Every day, I get up and try to do something to improve the world in some way. But, I'm humble enough to know that I'm human, that I'm one of 11,000 people at this company. There are 10,999 others that make just as much of a difference. My job is to help them make more of a difference. And, I'm always humbled by what others do that is far more than I could ever do.

It sounds like you've always had a sacramental view of work. Have you always wanted to do meaningful work?

Yeah. I realized at a young age that I enjoyed work, that it would be an important part of my life, and that I was going to spend a lot of hours in my life doing it. Therefore, I wanted to do something that I enjoyed and that would make a difference.

Is there anything else that you want to tell our readers?

I guess the other thing I would say is that I've always appreciated my family. We have a wonderful time together and we're very close. At the same time, my family understands that I have to travel and work long hours, because they are supportive of what I do.

Are your children and your wife able to go with you on trips to see the work you do around the world?

Not often for work. We will travel as a family, taking vacations and spending time together. But, as far as work, it has happened, but not often. I certainly talk to them all the time while I'm traveling, and that keeps me going—whether it's texting or email or a phone call. Staying connected with the great communication tools that we have today makes it a lot easier to travel around the world quite a few days a year.

<< Read Part 1 of our interview with Erik Fyrwald