August 2008

Automation Founders Circle

EDITOR'S NOTE: ISA continues its tradition of honoring leaders throughout the automation industry by presenting the Automation Founders Circle awards. This year's recipients are Hans Baumann and Margaret Walker with the ISA Honorary Member award, the highest honor bestowed by the society; Tom Thomas with the Arnold O. Beckman Founder Award; Dr. Robert Moore with the Albert F. Sperry Founder Award; and F. Gregway Shinskey with ISA's 2008 Life Achievement Award. Wake Forest, N.C.-based freelance writer Bob Felton wrote all five of the profiles.

Margaret Walker honored for leadership, emphasis on safety

"And to complicate matters-the market for top talent is very tight right now.  We have to actively find, attract, and retain these people-and invest in them, so that they can excel professionally and personally. Because if both things don't happen, we won't keep them in our talent pool." -Walker

Career-long insistence upon continuous improvement of process safety, and acute alertness to the two-way relationship between owners and employees, are Margaret Walker's signatures.

"Safety has guided my decisions in every position," she said.

That is one reason why Walker is a recipient this year of ISA's highest honor, Honorary Member, for "contributions in the advancement of the arts and sciences of automation through executive leadership of a major corporation and as an advocate for process safety."

Walker joined Dow Chemical Company as a research engineer in Freeport, Tex., in 1974, immediately following graduation from Texas Tech with a degree in chemical engineering.  She began her career sampling cattle feed, moved to chlorine production, and kept moving.  Today, she is still with Dow and serves as vice president of engineering solutions, Technology Centers and Manufacturing & Engineering Work Process.  Along the way, she worked in chlor-alkali, Performance Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals.  In 1995, Dow put her in charge creating a new business: Contract Manufacturing Services. Since then, she has assumed responsibility for process automation, work process, and learning for manufacturing and engineering. Her portfolio expanded in 2004 when she picked up the Technology Centers and Design and Construction.

She earned Dow's highest recognition for leadership, the Dow Genesis Award, in 1997. Walker's ability was also recognized outside the company when in 1996, Texas Tech University honored her as a Distinguished Engineer. In September 2005, she served as chairperson for the Board of Governors of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA). She received the SOCMA Leadership Award in 2004.

The people side of success

Walker said she believes one of the keys to a successful business is attracting good people; not just employees, but suppliers and community representatives as well, and creating relationships that each wants to continue.  About employees, in particular, she understands the best minds are restless, and that continually learning new things is fundamental to job satisfaction.  She elaborated on the idea at a conference sponsored by ABB last April: "In the past, we've often been too conservative and concerned with filling traditional roles, and so we defined too narrowly the opportunities that we had for people. This means a lot of talent doesn't get used. So what we're trying to do now is have people at each level of experience coach those at the level just below them. We're also looking at redefining our work processes and roles to make them more inclusive and take more advantage of new technologies, so they'll be more challenging and exciting."  The same reasoning underlies Dow's encouragement of staff participation in ISA: "I'm benefiting from the great work done by ISA, and our people benefit from the growth opportunity.

"You have to provide opportunities for people to grow," she said.

Walker attaches so much importance to continuous education that she enjoys telling a story on herself, of her conflicting reactions when one of her two sons, a New York University graduate with a degree in finance, graduated and went to work for a web site designer at a salary of … nothing.  Raised with a strong work ethic, she was shocked; when the son explained that working for free was the best way for him to learn HTML just then, mom and dad continued to ante up, and today their son is in Africa, financing start-ups.  The other son is at the University of Wisconsin, pursuing dual degrees in physics and economics.

Global but local

Fresh off the $15 billion plus purchase of Rohm and Haas, Dow, a global company with $40 billion in annual revenues, and 156 manufacturing facilities in 37 countries, is keenly alert to global demographic shifts. "We've tried to position ourselves where the talent is," she said, describing Dow's technical know-how as a world-girdling archipelago, including a recently opened engineering center in Chennai, India.  Finding and keeping talent can be a tricky business, a double-edged sword.

"We've discovered in India and China that being an employer who uses state-of-the-art technology attracts top talent.  The downside is that it also enhances the marketability of our employees.  We understand that we may lose some employees to other companies, but this just gives us more incentive to make Dow the preferred employer in other ways.  In China, Dow has been recognized by the media and external organizations as a premium employer with best-in-class training and development programs. We know that this makes our employees attractive to other companies; but we must implement these tools to be successful."

Career, family

Walker's career at Dow, and her emergence as an inspiration to young women ambitious to climb the corporate ladder, is itself an exemplar for the flexible something-for-everybody management principles she advocates.  In 1989, her husband Don, also a Dow employee, was offered a job in Europe.  As she told Chemical Engineering Progress in a 2003 interview: "As it turned out, we decided that it just wouldn't work out for our family to move to Europe.  Among other factors, the job did not meet my development criteria, so we decided that the family would stay in Freeport while my husband took the job in Switzerland.  We commuted back and forth for two years. It turned out to be the right thing for us to do. Our family grew even stronger because of it.  It made for some unique and interesting challenges, but we viewed the experience as providing opportunities to learn and do things differently and grow together as a family.  My spouse was able to make a career move that was important for him, and l was able to continue where l needed to be and where our family needed to be."

In 1992, the Walkers moved together to Midland, Mich., Dow Chemical's headquarters, where they both remain. Off the road and out of meetings, a good time is low-key: "I like to keep up with my boys, bicycle, read a book near the water."