Spring, Texas — Donna Davis likes to tackle challenges, both short-term and long-term.
Both approaches have served her well in a 38-year career at ExxonMobil Chemical Co. and her role as an activist at the Society of Plastics Engineers.
And her job since June 2017 covers the ultimate long-term effort. Davis is sustainability and advocacy manager for plastics and resins at ExxonMobil. She works at the sprawling ExxonMobil Houston campus: a parklike setting of buildings on 385 wooded acres in Spring, about 25 miles from downtown Houston.
The complex looks like a modern college campus with well-manicured grounds, fountains and some exotic buildings. Davis said the goal is to foster diversity and personal interaction, which are critical to finding innovation in a large chemical company.
"They have an annual process for prioritization, where they look at all of the things we could be working on and sort of establish the priority. And just generally you want a balance across different areas of your business. You want long-term things as well as short-term things. Because the short-term things are important to be responsive; the long-term things are important to have a future," she said. "So, you want to look at the balance of all of those things, and that's called portfolio management. And the whole organization has to get aligned with that."
Davis, an outgoing woman who laughs easily, said the same thing about SPE, where she was president from 2003-2004. SPE's Antec conference each year brings together thousands of people, in a very diverse crowd.
"And it's academic and industry, and it's different companies. So, you know, it's not just your own network of people; it's a collection of networks. And so it's a real opportunity in that way," she said of Antec.
Davis, 64, likes to work in teams. Now she is joining a new team: the Plastics Hall of Fame.
Davis becomes just the third woman in the Plastics Hall of Fame. She was nominated by Maureen Steinwall, who was inducted in 2015. The first woman in the hall was Kevlar inventor Stephanie Kwolek.
Steinwall has worked with Davis on the SPE awards committee. Both Steinwall Inc. and ExxonMobil are sponsoring the Women's Networking Breakfast, May 8, at this year's Antec in Orlando, which is being held with NPE2018.
Steinwall said Davis is an upbeat person with a high energy level, "like a breath of fresh air," who brings people together.
"The welcoming personality is just so evident. She is just so approachable, and she's very open and collaborative," Steinwall said.
Davis said she and Steinwall want to grow an awareness of women in the plastics industry. She is a chemical engineer — one area of engineering where women are pretty well-represented.
Davis grew up in near Knoxville, Tenn., not far from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She knew people who worked there as engineers. Her mother worked in the credit union at the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Davis met engineers there, too.
"It was a respected profession," she said.
Davis earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1974 and 1975. She did additional graduate work at Louisiana State University.
She had already done an internship at ExxonMobil during college, so upon graduation, Davis joined the chemical company full time in 1980. She worked with the process development team for early gas-phase polyethylene plants. Then she moved to new product technology, working with the specialty PE copolymers group — and the first commercial metallocene-catalyzed polymers, ExxonMobil's Exact resins, in the early 1990s.
The materials were dubbed "plastomers" because they bridged the gap between elastomers and plastics.
"Exact was the first metallocene polymer to be commercialized, and then Dow came right behind it with their single-site catalysts. Then the race was on," Davis said.
Davis worked with a team to develop new products. For metallocenes, packaging was the first big market.
"One of the things that metallocene enabled was the ability to really drive down the melting point, which corresponds to the sealing temperature," she said. "So we could put it as the sealant layer in a film, and because we could seal it at a lower temperature, we could go through the packaging lines much faster."
Metallocene resins went on to a broad range of applications. The breakthrough is an example of the long-term investment demands for chemical companies and the importance of testing out potential new uses.
"We were testing new products from the new catalyst systems and giving feedback on changes because in early development, that's what you do. You screen a whole bunch of things and you identify what characteristics are good or bad. And then you try to push forward the catalyst performance," Davis said. "And we, for instance, had commercial products on several different reactor platforms. And we had to test them all, make sure they're all good."
The team spent time in pilot plants looking at new materials, making stuff and testing it.
"We tested in the lab to make films, injection mold, blow molding. And then test the properties. … And then physical property testing. Like film properties. Bottle drop tests. All of those kinds of things," she said.
She worked in new product development before taking her current sustainability position.
Davis enjoys working at ExxonMobil. "It's also my hobby as well as my passion as well as my job," she said.
She joined SPE in 1987 at the suggestion of a customer.
"He said, 'Donna, are you a member of the SPE?' And I said no. He said, 'We could use you in SPE and we could use you on the TPMF board,'" she recalled, using the acronym for the thermoplastic materials and foams division. "So I almost immediately went onto the board, and I became their representative for the SPE International Polyolefins Conference." She joined the South Texas Section.
She has stayed active with the Polyolefins Conference held in Houston, chairing the event and serving as technical program chair several times. At this year's conference, she organized two sessions on sustainability and one on flexible packaging.
Davis has done lots of volunteer work for SPE. For Antecs, she has chaired both the technical program committee and the general operating committee several times. She was involved with the early development of the flexible packaging, plastics in building and infrastructure, and plastic pipe and piping systems groups within SPE.
The work, and attending all those meetings and conferences, has paid off, Davis said.
"Because of my involvement in SPE, I know people who are very well-informed in particular areas. And I can trust their opinion. By that, I mean, I know them well enough to trust the information they're giving me. That's important," she said.
She also appreciates the fact that ExxonMobil gives her the freedom to become broadly engaged with the industry through SPE.
Antec is the highlight each year, full of technical presentations, section meetings and meeting people from around the world.
"That's what's good about Antec. It's the diversity. It's the people coming together. Different perspectives. Different knowledge," Davis said. She compares it to the ExxonMobil Houston campus, which seems like the United Nations of oil, chemicals and plastics.
"We're really about creativity here, and you know creativity is when unintended interactions happen. And out of it sparks a new idea," she said. "So, somebody comes with this expertise. Somebody comes with different expertise, and it explodes into something new. And that's what things like Antec offer the opportunity — for people to get together and create new ideas."
Davis has been involved with SPE's strategic planning, including the Leadership 2000 effort. In the mid-to-late 1990s, SPE was at a critical point, losing members as the plastics industry was losing work to China. The challenge was how to grow as an international organization.
"The globalization of the industry was really happening. For some people, it was an opportunity and for other people, it was a real challenge," she said. "So, how do you deal with that? How do you take advantage of it, or how do you find your way?"
SPE got more global, especially in Asia, and the society stabilized.
But the industry continues to change rapidly. A look at Davis' speech as SPE president at the 2003 Antec makes that clear. A big concern then was North American companies building petrochemical plants in Asia to be close to low-cost feedstocks. Since then, the U.S. fracking boom has fueled the exact opposite: The United States is now a low-cost area, and companies are building chemical plants here.
"It's just incredible. So, all of a sudden, we've become a global supply point as well," she said.
The big challenge now is attracting more young people to the plastics industry. Here again, SPE has taken action, revamping its website to add aspects of social media. SPE also offers a free e-membership, allowing some free access to its networking site, called The Chain.
At the Houston campus, Davis is involved in a mentoring program that pairs up new employees with an ExxonMobil veteran.
"I call it helping them interpret the culture they're moving into," she said. "Because when you come from college into industry, it really is like a change to a foreign culture. And sometimes you don't know how to interpret what you're experiencing. You're used to getting grades. You're used to having very clear assignments. And the way people interact with you and expect whatever of you, sometimes you need somebody else's eyes to help you figure out what that meant."
The Houston campus offers a lot of services, almost like a city neighborhood: physical fitness centers, dry cleaning, a pharmacy and two childhood development centers for employees with young children.
"The idea is that we needed to be family friendly for attracting the next generation of workers," Davis said. "And that's critical to get fresh ideas."
She likes helping young employees.
"The important thing always is helping them develop a vision for their own career and then having it be a fit for what we need also," she said. "We've been very good at recognizing the challenges associated with that and trying to help make it work. You need to take care of their career so they think they have a future and that it's good for them. And you also need to help them around the barriers and hurdles that limit their ability."