WASHINGTON — The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has named Donald K. Duncan, former president and chief executive officer of DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC, as its new president. SPI, the industry's largest broad-based trade and lobbying group, tapped the longtime industry veteran in the hope he can help reverse declining membership and budgets.
In particular, SPI officials said they were impressed by his ability to create and manage the $1 billion DuPont Dow unit, the largest joint venture in the history of the chemical giants. They also touted his experience as president of the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers in 1995, where he helped with a restructuring.
Duncan, 58, faces some major challenges.
SPI Chairman Harry Ussery said Duncan has to keep the group's recent restructuring on track and boost programs aimed at providing more direct bottom-line benefits to members, such as a pilot satellite-based worker-training efforts.
Duncan also has to deal with the fallout of SPI's recent fights with the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va. When the two groups could not agree on a merger, about half of APC's 26 resin company members left Washington-based SPI, taking significant money and support with them.
"I have gotten a feeling among some of the remaining resin companies that they're still evaluating the benefits of SPI membership," said David Hidding, vice president of blow and injection molder Dana Molded Products Inc. in Arlington Heights, Ill.
"I believe there's hope among many board members that the selection of a president from the materials side of the business would perhaps stymie, delay or eliminate any future resignations from materials companies," said Hidding, who is an SPI board member.
Resin companies lobbied hard to name a candidate from their ranks, but Ussery said that was not why Duncan was chosen.
Hidding said he may have preferred a processor candidate, but added that Duncan is a good choice.
"If there was any concern, I would say that it's that he doesn't have processing experience of any sort. But I think they have selected an excellent person," he said.
Ussery said resin company candidates rose to the top because they have more experience working in large organizations, unlike the smaller and more entrepreneurial firms that processors tend to come from.
SPI's search committee had narrowed its choice to three candidates, but because of scheduling problems only was able to interview two of them in the final round, Ussery said. Duncan was the unanimous choice of the selection committee, he said.
SPI officials declined to identify any of the other candidates and kept the entire selection process under wraps. Board members said they did not know who the choice was until the meeting, and SPI officials said they wrapped up negotiations with Duncan just two days before the announcement.
Former Montell executive Robert Ockun, who identified himself as a candidate, said officials told him they wanted to interview him in the final round. But he said he pulled out before SPI narrowed its search to three. Ockun said he was told by SPI's headhunter he was "the No. 1 guy," but by that time Ockun had taken a job as president of polypropylene maker Epsilon Products Co.
SPI officials said all along they preferred a president with plastics industry experience, as opposed to a Washington lobbyist like the previous president, Larry Thomas. Thomas retired after 11 years in the job.
Duncan was unanimously ratified by SPI's board Feb. 2, and begins the job immediately. SPI officials declined to disclose his salary. Thomas was paid $352,000 a year.
Board members praised the selection and said no one voiced doubts during the debate.
"I think what he brings is an openness and no prior baggage as to how the situation got to where it is today," said Jay Finch, vice president of specialty plastics at Ferro Corp. in Cleveland and head of SPI's Materials Council. That council, made up of materials suppliers, had asked SPI to hire a person with a resin industry background.
"I think I can come in here with an objective point of view," Duncan said. "I didn't step in anything brown and squishy, and I didn't throw it at anybody. I see that as a real asset.
"I certainly didn't come in with any preconceived idea," he said. "I don't know whether the resin companies understand what is going on in SPI right now."
Duncan, who retired from DuPont Dow in 1999, said it's too soon to say what changes he might make at SPI, or to talk in detail about how he will guide the group.
Duncan plans to meet with as many members as possible and take some time to get to know the organization. He has not worked directly with SPI in the past. But his wife, Betty Duncan, a manager of safety and regulatory affairs at DuPont, serves as vice-chairman of SPI's committee on public policy and served on a high-level task force that restructured SPI.
"I see SPI — I won't say catching up — but certainly if you will, coming to the conclusion that they also need to be more responsive to the industry," Duncan said.
William Hsu, technology director at DuPont and an SPI board member, said he sent a note to the search committee asking it to hire a resin person.
"We claim to represent the industry, but the major plastics suppliers are not members," said Hsu. "The claim is very hollow to me.
"Should SPI go it alone, or should we connect with [the Chemical Manufacturers Association] or with APC — these are the things the new executive needs to take a look at," Hsu said.
SPI needs to patch things up with the resin industry and woo processors — if it can't do both, its future does not look good, Hsu said.
Hidding, who heads SPI's Processors Council and sits on SPI's finance committee, said the organization has not picked up significant numbers of processors, in spite of cutting dues for them in 1997.
That dues cut is now leading some resin and equipment manufacturing firms to start asking for their own dues cuts, Hidding said. Processor dues, in turn, could rise a little, but officials want to wait at least six months before deciding, he said.
SPI could face some additional belt-tightening, depending on how its members allocate dues, Hidding said.
On the plus side, SPI officials said they expect record revenues from the NPE trade show. The last show, in 1997, generated a $12 million surplus for SPI, which it spreads over three years.
But Duncan clearly faces major challenges. One Washington trade association professional, when asked if he or she was interested in the SPI job, quipped that "Custer didn't do what he did voluntarily."