Carol Jackson steers HarbisonWalker International through the chaos of change

A bright future

This year is looking even better. It helps that North American steel is doing well, which drives volume in refractories. But that doesn’t account for all new customers.

“It’s a combination of growth today through market growth and share increases, but we also see real opportunities for the future,” Jackson says.

Groundwork laid by improved processes are coming to fruition — processes like rapid technology advancement to accelerate innovation. Others are in the works like implementing a different enterprise resource system.

The new plant, which opened last spring, is a nod to a group of engineers who’ve been experiencing the way HWI makes products for years, thinking, “If I could do this over and have a chance to build my own plant, here’s what I would do differently.” For example, its innovative packaging technique has already proven to extend the shelf life of products.

However, Jackson says, the new construction meant HWI pulled back in other areas.

“Part of the challenge is balancing those inevitable tough decisions with the needs of the business for the future, and we’re trying to build a sustainable competitive business for the future,” Jackson says. “And as you can imagine, we’re competing against European companies that have invested in capital improvements and efficiencies and automation for years and years, not to mention competitors in refractory from China, India, lower-cost regions that are nipping at our heels.”

She says the new plant accelerates HWI’s efforts for geographic expansion and industry diversification. The company’s leadership team wants to weather steel industry cycles and enhance HWI’s ability to support customers in petrochemical, chemical, paper, etc.

But just because HWI is focused on its people and embraces its culture, Jackson says that doesn’t mean the company is soft.

“We have ambitious business goals, and we’ve got a lot of stuff to do to take this business to the next level and to achieve the kind of earnings growth and just overall business growth and value creation for our shareholders that we’ve set for ourselves,” she says. “But I’m a believer that part of the way we’re going to get there is through our people.”



  • Manage the chaos of change with a clear purpose.
  • Put a stake in the ground; cascade business goals down.
  • You can never communicate enough.


The file:

Name: Carol Jackson
Title: CEO and chairwoman
Company: HarbisonWalker International

Born: Uniontown, Pennsylvania
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration logistics, Duquesne University; Master of Science of Industrial Administration (now called MBA), Carnegie Mellon University; law degree from the University of Pittsburgh

You speak French and Spanish. How did that come about? Spanish was the first, and that was five years in school. When I started at PPG, I was always in global roles, so I got to travel to Mexico and speak Spanish. But PPG, at the time, had European headquarters in Paris and I fell in love with Paris the first time I went there. So, I came back and convinced my boss to put me through a program with a tutor to learn French.

Now, for example, if I hear Portuguese, I can speak what they call Portunhol, which is a Spanish kind of Portuguese. I find that knowing Romantic languages you can get along and pick up things. But for me, it’s as much because I am traveling globally so much.

I have to engage customers, suppliers and employees at a global level — so it’s having cultural sensitivity and just being aware of what I say. I try to learn. I didn’t try to learn all of Chinese, but I tried to learn the basics, ni hao (hello) and one to 10. I find if you try and if you begin to engage folks culturally in such a way that is sensitive and respectful, that goes a long way.

Where might someone find you on the weekend? I’m either at the gym or the spa.

My business philosophy is … I have a Post-it that I have carried with me since the beginning of my career. It’s an anonymous quote, but it says, “Become a student of this business. You’re smart, but you don’t know everything,” and I firmly believe that.