Carol Jackson steers HarbisonWalker International through the chaos of change

 

There’s a different feel in the air at HarbisonWalker International. Whether you’re walking in its first new plant in 40 years, a state-of-the-art $30-million facility in South Point, Ohio, or the corporate headquarters, which is newer and features open spaces, glass, coffee bars and a fitness center — the employees are engaged.

Here’s one small example of that excitement: an employee was proud of the improvements at his workstation; his co-workers recorded him talking about it and posted it to the company’s intranet. Videos like these, in fact, are no longer unusual to see.

CEO and chairwoman Carol Jackson says this palpable energy has sprouted from years of hard work.

“I can’t tell people you’re going to be open and you’re going to be engaging with your fellow employees. They have to feel it. They have to own it,” she says. “I would submit that we’re still on a journey and that this change didn’t happen overnight, but in the four years that I’ve been here. It’s a world of difference and it’s across the board.”

Jackson joined HWI in 2014 to run the commercial operations after spending much of her career at PPG. She knew if she improved the commercial organization, she had a good chance at the CEO spot.

HWI, one of the leading suppliers of refractory products and services, employs more than 1,800 people across 19 plants. Refractories are heat-resistant materials that line furnaces, reactors and other equipment.

Despite the fact that Jackson’s career has always been in businesses that use refractories, her career move was all about the business opportunity. Jackson has managed restructuring and cost-cutting. She can do it, but she doesn’t enjoy it. She enjoys growing a business, first and foremost.

“I’ve been in cost-cutting businesses where you try to cut your way to prosperity — not only is it not fun, but it’s not sustainable,” she says.

At HWI, she saw a clear path forward with ownership willing to invest to deliver improved business results. HWI had already been around for more than 150 years, but Jackson envisioned building on what was already in place, and often latent, in the business.

The company — called ANH at the time — comprised three companies, A.P. Green Refractories, North American Refractories and Harbison-Walker Refractories. The merged companies were financially stable, but had never integrated into one entity.

They also had just emerged from 12 years of bankruptcy. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the discovery of the damaging effects of asbestos used in refractories turned the industry upside down. The bankruptcy process dealt with that liability and restructured the business as a private entity owned by trusts.

In 2015, the entire company was renamed, choosing to build on the HarbisonWalker brand, which had the greatest equity. Jackson says it served to reintroduce HWI.

The next step was to build on that foundation, refining the culture and focusing on people, processes, technology and products.