Robert Patterson was a newcomer to the plastics industry when he joined materials firm PolyOne Corp. in 2008. But he proved to be a quick learner — and by 2014 had become president and CEO of the Avon Lake, Ohio-based company.
After joining PolyOne as chief financial officer in 2008, Patterson said that he “immediately began listening and learning as much as I could about our industry and the amazing innovation taking place every day.”
Patterson's predecessor as CEO — Stephen Newlin — also wasn't a “plastics guy,” but he still was able to lead the firm out of financial hardship during his eight years in Avon Lake. Newlin said that his non-plastics status may have helped him in some ways. Patterson said the same was true for him.
“I think for both Steve and I, we were able to bring some new ideas to the company from our prior experiences,” he explained. “At the same time, we certainly learned a lot from industry veterans, such as our scientists who have such a deep history of polymer science and application expertise.”
Patterson's current job is the most interesting/unusual he's ever had. “The technology, people and endless global opportunities to make a positive impact are inspiring,” he said. “I love collaborating with our associates and customers on challenging assignments to bring plastic solutions where they don't exist today.”
Patterson, age 42, now helms a firm that ranks as North America's largest maker of compounds and concentrates and as one of the region's largest resin distributors and plastic sheet producers. PolyOne employs 7,300 worldwide and posted sales of $3.8 billion in 2014. Prior to PolyOne, Patterson served in executive roles at aluminum producer Novelis Inc. of Atlanta, first as controller and chief accounting officer, then as treasurer.
“Fortunately, when I became CEO, [PolyOne] already had a great track record of success and my primary objective was — and remains — to keep the momentum going,” he said. “I focused on increasing collaboration with our customers and associates as a way to accelerate innovation and growth.”
Patterson credits Newlin — among others — for mentoring him along the way to his current role. When Newlin retired from PolyOne in 2014, he cited Patterson's work with PolyOne's suppliers during the recession as being crucial to PolyOne making it through those difficult times. “If Bob Patterson hadn't been here, we'd have been in trouble,” Newlin told Plastics News at the time.
In 2009, Patterson — who was 36 at the time — was named to a Forty Under 40 list of up-and-coming Northeast Ohio executives compiled by Crain's Cleveland Business, a sister publication of Plastics News. In an article accompanying that list, Newlin said that Patterson's “experience, wisdom, professional maturity and leadership skills are vastly greater than his chronological age" and that Patterson “has tackled substantial challenges,” including reducing PolyOne's working capital, improving its liquidity and eliminating waste.
According to Patterson, Newlin “pushed me to take on additional challenges to prepare me to become the CEO.”
“I've always loved working with customers,” he added. “But he helped me understand and emphasize how technology and service must come together to truly deliver value for them.”
Patterson also is in a unique position as one of the youngest CEOs of a publicly held plastics or chemicals firm. This also means he's older than many of the senior executives who report to him. But he said this hasn't been a problem at PolyOne.
“A person's age doesn't and shouldn't define anyone's ability to lead or be successful, in business or in life,” Patterson said. “I feel my core values, work ethic, commitment and support of others has always – and will always — make age a non-issue.”
Patterson also has a short and sweet answer when asked about the best career advice he's ever received. “If you show up on time, you're 10 minutes late,” he said.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting at your company tomorrow?
Patterson: First, don't fixate on where you will be in your career in 15-20 years. Long-term goals are good, but it is more important to do the best you can at the job you have now and the rest will take care of itself. Second, be willing to relocate. This will do more for you and your career than you can possibly imagine.
Q: As CEO, how involved can you be in development of new products? Is that more of a broader strategic area?
Patterson: I count on everyone at PolyOne, myself included, to know our customers, know our markets and offer new ideas for products and solutions. We actually have a great internal ideation tool called Idea Architect that we use at PolyOne. It's an online community where all our global associates can pose and discuss challenges, questions and solutions as part of our innovation process. Innovation is everyone's job.
Q: What do you want your legacy to be as CEO?
Patterson: I am grateful to have been given the chances that I had and for being brought up by parents that always reminded me to work hard, think straight, and be honest. I like to think of myself as a servant leader putting the needs of our customers and associates first. In doing so, I want to create a sustainable model for specialty innovation that truly differentiates our customers and PolyOne in the marketplace.