Rebecca Liebert isn't necessarily creating a 100-year plan for Lubrizol Corp.
But she is working to shift the mindset at the specialty chemicals, additives and plastics company where she recently took on the role of CEO, looking for ways to modernize manufacturing and connect with customers in real time.
Liebert is a chemical engineer by training, having graduated from the University of Kentucky. She likes that the field lets her solve problems and think critically about "how things work," she said. At her first job at Nova Chemicals, she realized she liked applying that work to business, too, helping customers — and her company — make money.
Her career has led her to leadership roles at companies like PPG Industries and Honeywell, before she joined Wickliffe, Ohio-based Lubrizol, a Berkshire Hathaway company, as president and CEO in October of 2022. There's been some leadership turnover at the organization in recent years, but Liebert wants to be there for the long haul. She could see herself retiring from the company, she said.
"I absolutely know this is the place for me," Liebert said. "It's a perfect fit."
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So tell me what it was that drew you to Lubrizol.
Liebert: I've known the Lubrizol name since I was at Nova Chemicals. We used Lubrizol's products — hate to date myself but — 25-plus years ago. And Lubrizol was always known to be that technology solution provider. When you had a tough problem in the lubricants or advanced material space and you couldn't solve it, you went to Lubrizol, and they could help you solve it. I think if you can solve those problems for your customers, you're going to do well in business. And Lubrizol has done very, very well over the years.
Q: What are some of the things you've been doing to get to know the company on a more personal level?
Liebert: I have visited 27 locations in my four months, and I don't know how many people I have met. We have just over 8,000 employees, and I've tried to shake hands and say hello to as many as possible. I've listened to the employees. We've held town halls and livestreams and Q&As. For me, it's a lot about communicating both out and hearing those communications back, and so I've really worked to do that over the last four months. Coming in in October, really a lot of focus on developing our annual operating plan, setting goals and objectives, getting the organization prepared for 2023. And that was really what the first three months or so of my time here was about. As we've come into 2023, of course, we have to execute that plan. And then, you probably saw, we announced the new Lubrizol executive leadership team. And so, we've been getting that team up to speed and having them meet their teams and drive their goals and their plans and their strategies.
Q: What are some opportunities you see for Lubrizol going forward? What are some challenges that you think need to be resolved?
Liebert: Our core technology is amazing. I like to say, I keep it pretty simple, but clean fuels, clean water, clean hands: we don't make any of those final products, but you can't get clean fuel, clean water and clean hands without us. Our products, very small amounts usually are in the finished product that you would buy, but again, it doesn't work without our critical additive. I just see, really, an opportunity to continue to grow in these core spaces. Every space we play in has growth, one way or the other. We obviously play very large in internal combustion engines and there is, I think, a concern by some that it's going to be negative to our future. But there are still a lot of internal combustion engines going to be sold around the world in my lifetime. Those that are in the marketplace are going to continue to be in the marketplace for a very, very long time. So that gives us a great foundation to grow on. But on top of that, our technologies work also in electric vehicles. Wheels in electric vehicles are very complicated with a lot of copper, and they have to have the right lubrication and the right cooling. So even if you don't need all of the motor oil that you used to need in the internal combustion engine, you're going to need all kinds of thermal management and lubricating fluids as you think about electric vehicles. And I could go on. You think about skin care and beauty care and things in the future, people are really looking for green solutions, bio-based solutions, solutions that are also going to be good, not just for your skin but for the environment. And these are things that are really core to what Lubrizol does every day.
Q: What inspires you? What drives you in your work?
Liebert: I am a continuous improvement person. I got to see the Toyota Georgetown manufacturing facility in 1986, when I was a freshman at University of Kentucky. And it had just opened up, and I was inspired by what we learned that day as we were riding around go-karts and watching the assembly happen at the plant. And you would see these andons hanging from the ceiling, and the tour guide talked to us about, "Do you know what that is?" And we were young engineering students and we said, "No. What is that?" He goes, "That's the andon. That's so anybody that's working on the line can stop the line if something's not right." How the assembly line works is the car moves down and you have to do your job between two lines on the floor, whether you're putting in the seams or screwing in this or adding that. You have to do it between these two lines and that's how they keep the assembly line going. And if you don't get your work done, you pull the andon and stop the line. And this really empowers the worker to make the decision at the point of action that he or she did their job right. And if someone pulls the andon, the whole team would go over to that worker and they would figure out what happened, why did the work not happen between the two lines? And they would work a whole continuous improvement project around how you would get better. And that's a very micro example of the daily life of a CEO. Where do I pull the andon? Where do I stop the line? Where do I stop the organization so we can have a learning moment, so we can improve, so we can get better, so we can drive continuous improvement, so we make better products, we have better quality, we service our customers better? And that excites me every single day.
Q: How do you hope to make your mark on Lubrizol? You're just getting started, but what do you want to do as its leader?
Liebert: We're going to be 100 years old here in just a few years, and the company has been so successful, and been part of so many new technologies around fuels and additives for health, beauty, home and things like that. But things are changing. So the feedstocks we used in the last 100 years won't be the feedstocks we use in the next 100 years. Manufacturing technologies we used in the last 100 won't be the ones we use in the next 100. There's just a lot of new ways to do work, applying digital, artificial intelligence, machine learning. I really, through the strategy work we're doing now, am planning to help set the foundation for the next 100 years of Lubrizol.