Koppers shines Featured

8:00pm EDT September 26, 2004
Walter Turner earned a degree in business administration from West Virginia's Glenville State College, attended the Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College and spent two years in the military during the Vietnam War, yet he says his most significant education came on the job.

"Most of my education came from growing up in the company," says Turner, who has spent his entire career working for a series of companies bearing the Koppers name.

In an age when CEOs often don't last long at companies, Turner has been president and CEO of Koppers Inc. since 1998 and with the company since 1969. And he's not an anomaly there. At least five of Koppers' senior managers have 25 or more years with the organization; several others have decades of experience in the chemical and related industries.

The assortment of companies that Turner has worked for, it seems, has created some confusion about Koppers Inc. Many people figure it's just one of those big-name firms that has left Pittsburgh over the past two decades or so with little more than names on buildings, like Rockwell International, Gulf Oil, and Westinghouse.

That view is so pervasive that Randall Collins, Koppers' vice president of safety, health and environmental affairs, felt compelled to write an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year that reassured readers that Koppers is very much alive and well and doing business globally from its headquarters in Pittsburgh in the landmark Koppers Building.

Some of the puzzlement may be because Koppers Inc. is a different company than the former Koppers Co., founded in 1912 by a German engineer, although its roots are in that organization. In 1988, Beazer PLC, led by British businessman Brian Beazer, acquired Koppers Co. in a highly publicized hostile takeover.

Beazer's real interest was in Koppers' road materials business, which at the time made up about 60 percent of its sales. In December 1988, a leveraged buyout led by a management group bought some of the company's assets, including the Koppers name, and created Koppers Industries Inc.

In 1996, the company was recapitalized by Saratoga Partners, a New York investment firm, and renamed Koppers Inc.

Today, the 2,100-employee private company's business involves the production of carbon materials and chemicals, and pressure treated wood products in 37 plant locations on four continents. Its products supply the steel, aluminum, rubber, railroad, utility and commercial construction industries.

If the view of the company from outside can be fuzzy, the view from the inside has been anything but. Plenty of employees -- whose average age is 45 -- have stuck it out through the changes.

It could be argued that those long-tenured employees, the experience of senior managers, a commitment to stick to the company's core businesses and develop them domestically and globally, and an emphasis on employee and environmental safety are principal reasons the latest iteration of Koppers has prospered.

Life of a salesman

Turner was hired by Koppers out of college, even though companies at the time were reluctant to hire draft age graduates. He started with the vague title of production assistant, working in the controller's office, an assignment he says was "a great place for learning about the company."

He returned to Koppers after two years in the military, and by 1976 decided he wanted to try his hand at sales, which gave him a broad view of the company that he might not have otherwise gained.

In sales, he says, you touch virtually every part of the process, an experience that provides an understanding of every aspect of the company's operations.

"When you're in sales, your job starts with obtaining an order and ends with the consumption of the product or material you're selling," says Turner. "That makes you involved with the production, scheduling, the specifications, working with engineers at the client level, working with production, working with all facets of what it takes to get a product produced and out the door."

And, just as important, Turner got to call on most of the large metals companies globally, learning about their operations and how some of their expertise could be put to use at Koppers.

Some of the ideas that Koppers has implemented in its safety programs, for instance, have been modeled after those of its customers.

Seeing it through

Turner concedes that it wasn't always easy to remain with the company as Koppers changed ownership and structure over the years. When the management group engineered the leveraged buyout in 1988, he thought about moving on, but stayed because he wanted to see it through and make the new company successful. So did others.

"Once you're asked to stay on and once you see down the road there's a new company that's highly leveraged, you really wanted to see it through and make it successful," Turner says. "A lot of people took it as a personal task to see it through."

Koppers held on to most of its large customers after the LBO, a factor that allowed it to pay down the debt it had taken on to finance the deal.

Core business, core values

Koppers' business, built around two core segments, serves markets that are growing. The growth in those segments, along with several acquisitions, have allowed the company to nearly double its revenue since 1988, when Koppers' sales were $426 million. This year, Turner predicts, sales will approach $900 million.

"We've done fairly well in growing the company and then sticking to what we know best," says Turner.

While Koppers produces mature products, they are used where demand is growing. Its treated wood products, including rail ties used by the railroads and line poles used by the utility industry, are being boosted by maintenance programs that have been undertaken after years of delays. Its coal tar pitch is used in the production of aluminum, an industry in which global demand is projected to grow at a 2.5 percent to 3 percent annual rate.

"The real challenge at the moment is the primary aluminum industry, where we're seeing a paradigm shift where primary aluminum is produced," says Turner.

That shift geographically is increasingly away from the United States, where aluminum production is at about 58 percent of capacity. To meet demand efficiently, Koppers has to coordinate production of coal tar pitch to go where the demand is.

Koppers needs to stay close to the aluminum industry, which continues to relocate facilities out of the United States and into locales around the globe where energy costs are cheaper.

"We literally follow the Alcoas and the Alcans around the world, continuing to grow that business as well as focusing on the wood treatment business," says Turner.

Globalization has had its advantages for Koppers. Its offshore business, while 35 percent of its total revenue, accounts for 45 percent of Koppers' profits. And during shifting global economic conditions, Turner says, strong markets and regions in one part of the globe have tended to counterbalance softness in others.

To grow the business, Koppers is developing new uses for its existing products. It is working on a new coal tar pitch product for use in aircraft and automotive braking systems and a carbon foam for use in heat transfer materials used to draw heat away from computers.

Turner says Koppers began a heavier emphasis on safety, health and environmentally sound practices about five years ago, at a time when the company had an "average" record in those areas. The effort has paid off, both in financial and human terms. (See sidebar, "Hitting safely")

"The real driver is that we want our employees to return home the way they came to work that day, but there is a financial benefit as well," says Turner.

While he's spent his entire career with Koppers Inc. and the preceding Koppers companies, Turner says he doesn't feel like he's missed anything.

Says Turner: "It's been a good 35 years, and I still enjoy what I do."

How to reach: Koppers Inc., www.koppers.com