WASHINGTON — Ron Yocum's career in the chemical industry has followed a diligent, well-trod path to the top: steadily increasing responsibility in traditional jobs.
Until now, that is. The 58-year-old former president of Millennium Petrochemicals Inc. is taking on a very different kind of challenge March 1: president of the Washington-based American Plastics Council.
As president, Yocum will oversee the industry's $17 million advertising campaign and the group's resource conservation and recycling activities, including tangling with environmental organizations over recycling politics.
Yocum replaces veteran Washington trade association executive Red Cavaney, who left APC in September to head the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. Yocum readily acknowledges his lack of inside-the-beltway experience, but he is very familiar with APC, serving as its chairman until he was appointed president, and guiding the group through budget cutting in recent years.
One of his first tasks, he says, will be to visit every member company for suggestions. But he has a few ideas of his own.
He wants one of his legacies at APC to be building stronger alliances with other trade groups, such as the Society of Plastics Engineers, the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
He said he sees forming a partnership with SPE to get its 30,000-40,000 members involved in ``preaching the gospel.'' NAPCOR and APC should work more closely on recycling, and APC's relationship with GMA, while good now, ``almost became adversarial'' several years ago over some recycling issues, he said.
Yocum said he and Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. President Larry Thomas have instituted monthly meetings of senior staff from APC and Washington-based SPI. APC and SPI, its one-time parent, feuded last year over contentious merger talks that eventually broke down.
Yocum said both groups plan to develop other areas for cooperation, but he declined to be more specific.
``I don't see short-term how you bring [APC and SPI] together, but I don't want to rule it out long-term,'' he said.
One high-placed SPI official said the choice of Yocum to run APC will make it easier to form one trade association. Yocum has said he would step aside if he became a stumbling block to any merger.
``Had APC selected another trade association professional, it might have made it more difficult to form a single trade association,'' said H. Patrick Jack, SPI president and senior vice president-chemicals for Fina Oil & Chemical Co. in Dallas.
Yocum, who said he will stay at least three years, is well-positioned to guide APC, industry observers said.
Some observers have faulted Millennium for not being aggressive enough on its pricing under Yocum's tenure, but they noted he inherited some financial problems. Generally, he is praised as a capable executive.
``He is not panicked by rumor and innuendo,'' said Rob Harvan, a consultant with Bonner & Moore Associates in Houston. ``You found with his tenure a company — a pure petrochemical and plastics company — that managed to not be buffeted as much by the forces of their integrated competitors as might be feared.''
Yocum left Millennium after its ethylene, polyethylene and propylene business became the junior partner in a joint venture with Lyondell Petrochemical Co.
``Now we are in a period of having to run APC as a business,'' said Don Olsen, senior vice president of public affairs for Huntsman Corp. in Salt Lake City. ``He knows how tight things are. He can speak about economies and talk about efficient use of funds.''
APC officials declined to release Yocum's salary.
One area that APC officials had speculated could use more money was advertising, after polling results late last year found growing negative public sentiment.
But some updated polling completed last week indicates ``we more than made up for what we lost'' and that APC may not need additional money, Yocum said. APC officials declined to release more specifics until they have analyzed the new polls further.
Yocum's tenure at Millennium also included an ultimately unsuccessful bid at running a high density PE recycling facility. Millennium lost money for several years before selling it, an experience that Yocum said convinced him entrepreneurs are better-suited for recycling, not resin manufacturers.
``I think we [resin companies] can play a role in helping people get set up and in technology development,'' he said.
Yocum said APC can continue to work with communities, ``showing them the various economics of the options.''
``I'm not sure how much beyond that we can really do,'' he added.
The problem in recycling today is collecting materials, not finding markets, Yocum said. California regulators in January, however, said markets must be stimulated when they declared plastics out of compliance with the state's recycling guidelines.