John A. Georges, a 1951 Illinois Chemical Engineering graduate and former International Paper CEO, was inducted into the University of Illinois College of Engineering Hall of Fame earlier this fall. We sat down with Georges during his visit and asked about his time at Illinois, his path to success, and advice for students.
“It’s interesting to see how the university and the chemical engineering department have evolved. There’s no question it’s as relevant today as it was back when I went to school, perhaps even more so,” Georges said in the interview.
After graduating from Illinois in 1951, Georges joined DuPont, where he spent 28 years in various positions, including general manager of textile fibers and chief environmental officer. In 1979, Georges was tapped by International Paper as its executive vice president. He served as president and COO from 1981 to 1984 and CEO and chairman from 1984 until his retirement in 1996.
A member of the University of Illinois Foundation Board, he served as its president from 1995 to 1997 and has served on numerous other boards. He is a former director of the New York Stock Exchange, former director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, former chairman of the National Council on Economic Education and former chairman of the American Paper Institute. As Operating Partner at One Rock Capital Partners, he focuses on chemicals and process industries. He also is a principal at Greenwich Chemical Partners.
Georges, who grew up in Chicago, said while he was a senior at McKinley High School, his chemistry teacher told him if he liked chemistry and liked working with projects, he ought to be a chemical engineer.
He enrolled at the Univeristy of Illinois and lived at the Alpha Chi Sigma house, where he interacted with Ph.D. students in chemistry, some of them World War II veterans in their 30s. To help pay his way through school, he cooked hamburgers at Kam’s and worked the midnight shift in the lab of a Champaign metal parts company. He was among the first group of students to be in Roger Adams Laboratory, which was built in 1950.
“I had a group of professors that were really exceptional. … Dr. (Harry) Drickamer, Dr. (James) Westwater, (Frazer) Johnstone, (Harold) Snyder, (G. Frederick) Smith, (Worth) Rodebush. … All these men were giants.”
As a chemical engineer at DuPont, Georges worked to improve products, lower costs, and improve yields. Over the next 15 years, he worked on sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and a variety of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
An Illinois chemical engineering education “really was everything. What I learned, in terms of chemical engineering principles, is what I had to practice and what was expected of me. I couldn’t get there without it. I was always a chemical engineer at heart, no matter what activity I was involved in.”
Fifteen years in, he was asked to go into sales at DuPont, and later expanded his involvement, working in areas such as planning, manufacturing, and general management. He attended night school and earned an MBA from Drexel University. In his late 40s, he became an executive vice president at International Paper. During his tenure there, International Paper’s sales grew from $1.2 billion to $20 billion.
Currently he’s involved in private equity, and Georges said his background in chemical engineering has been a great asset.
“I’m involved in process industries—steel, paper, chemical or petroleum companies, that’s my bailiwick. We’re looking for companies that have some potential for a change in improvement. If you can buy one of these companies that has solid product lineup, solid technology, we can go to work on that. It’s amazing what we can do to bring fresh insights and bring fresh people to it. We can set it back on the growth path.”
As for advice for current students, Georges said they should try not to get too caught up with where they might be in 10, 15 years.
“For your first job, you’ve got to concentrate on how you do that well. How do you satisfy both the people you’re working with, particularly those above you, can you get an assignment done, and how you can bring something special to it and really make a contribution? The rest will take care of itself. In corporations, managers are looking for people to perform. They will notice whether you perform or not. They will know if you are making significant contributions or not.”