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Starting Over


    FTC Clears Dow/Union Carbide Merger

     The company I have worked for since 1973 is no more. They also employed my dad his entire career, until retirement in 1986. Aside from grocery clerk type stuff in high school, it's the only job I've had. In August, 1999 Dow Chemical proposed to shareholders the purchase of, and merger with, Union Carbide Corporation (my company) for more than $7 billion. The stockholders of both companies agreed early on, a good deal for each. If you've followed my weblog perhaps you've seen the occasional hint, but I haven't given much detail simply because I couldn't.

     Well, now I can. The past 18 months have been irritating at best, depressing and unnerving on most days. It seemed like regulatory approval would never be granted, a torturous situation to be sure, but finally on February 5, 2001 the FTC cleared the deal. As I'm sure you know, the smaller company in these affairs rarely has much say about what happens, so today (Feb. 7, Day One) we were told by "The New Dow." The Carbide corporate data center here in South Charleston, WV will be closed in 12-24 months. This world-class facility has been my home away from home for 27 years. Our other IT support staff location in Clear Lake, Texas will close immediately.

     Here are my options, as I understand them from the whirlwind of communiques that bombarded our senses today. It looks like at least 50% of former Union Carbide Information Technology professionals will be severed almost immediately. There are, at present, about 450 total IT jobs within Carbide. Less than 20% will be offered permanent jobs at Dow headquarters in Midland, Michigan; hard between Lakes Huron and Michigan, deep in the ice belt. The remaining 30% will be asked to accept short-term transition jobs — essentially caretaker positions necessary to merge the facilities, then close our own making it available for sale. That latter option looks like my best bet. It puts me within an eyelash of full pension eligibility.

     In a strange irony, it was but a few weeks ago I wrote for Jeffrey Zeldman's A List Apart, "fallback security engenders serenity." Apparently I have been deluding myself these past months about that security. In fairness, the news today was quite stunning — considerably more draconian than anyone expected. It is said, however, change offers opportunity. Just the other night, my mom and dad reminded me, "try to keep a positive outlook no matter what happens."

     A lot of good work was done in our data center over the years. We developed and implemented an OLTP order entry system (designed, oddly enough, by my dad) in the 1970s that became the envy of the chemical industry. We expanded and grew by leaps and bounds throughout the eighties as interactive systems and personal computing improved productivity exponentially, and more thoroughly integrated all the company's business functions. Our latest major project, implemented through a large portion of the nineties, was the conversion of our entire corporate infrastructure to distributed systems operating the SAP/R3 ERP.

     Of course Union Carbide wasn't a computer company, we sold commodity chemicals and plastics. Many of the world's great polyolefin products were invented and developed right here on our Technical Center campus in the hills of West (by God) Virginia. The reactors and plant processes you may have seen scattered up and down the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast were engineered here as well. Through the work of these community oriented professionals, we have one of the top safety and environmental records in the entire industry. R&D, fortunately, will remain here. So the state of West Virginia — already desperate for jobs — won't be completely abandoned.

     In spite of what we were doing with science and IT, along the way a series of untoward events and poor executive decisions spelled the ultimate doom of Union Carbide, an 80 year old company. Each of them, like box cars crumpling in a train wreck, led to the eventual takeover by Dow:

  • 1984. In an act of notorious industrial sabotage, a lone digruntled employee released a deadly cloud of MIC gas over Bhopal, India killing and injuring thousands. Those of us who have been with the company before and since will never be able to forget the senseless human suffering and will carry this stigma throughout our days.

  • The GAF Corporation, in 1987, unleashed a hostile leveraged buyout that eventually resulted in the unloading of all our consumer products businesses — including the Glad, Eveready, and STP brands — and left the remainder billions of dollars in debt. Operating for the next decade with purely commodity business, our growth stagnated.

  • A number of joint-venture boondoggles in Europe and Asia that proved both costly and non-productive chewed away capital and profit margins.

  • The aforementioned SAP R/3 enterprise systems architecture "upgrade" cost the company $500 million and is still not entirely complete. All for naught now, as Dow will be converting us to their infrastructure. Que sera, sera. That's another story for another time.

     As I've reminisced about my career this evening, I'm left with an empty feeling. Many coulda's, shoulda's and unfinished goals. But I harken to the advice from my parents. There are possibilities for EDS and Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) to come into this mix. I could be offered one of the transition jobs and dazzle them with my brilliance. The headhunters will eventually get wind of all the unemployed, highly-skilled technicians and begin circling like vultures. Consulting and the Web skills I've developed as founder of Internet Brothers are always on the horizon. Most of all, this is an opportunity for starting over. Day One, in many ways.

     Be good, but not too,

     Jeff

 

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