Pierre R. Brondeau is planning to bid au revoir in a most orderly way, amid the crisis.
The French native, who served 10 years as the chairman and CEO of FMC, turned the much-evolved former Food Machinery Corp. from a mixed chemical, food, and drug additives maker into one of the Big Five global farm pesticide giants. And he left his mark on the city’s skyline by moving FMC into an iconic 49-story tower on the banks of the Schuylkill.
Now he will step back from day-to-day bossing at the end of next month as his protege Mark Douglas takes over.
Brondeau will stay in Philadelphia, which he and his wife say they love with the ardor of European expatriates in one of America’s most livable city centers, and stay on as "executive chairman” of the FMC board. He came here as a manager at Philadelphia-based Rohm & Haas, which gave him 20 years of global assignments before Dow Chemical bought the local firm and dismantled it in 2009.
He has the engineer’s habit of thinking ahead. I asked where he got the 140,000-plus protective masks and 24,500 scarce N95 surgical masks he donated to Philadelphia-area hospitals last month. “We use those in the research and production facilities," like the Delaware farm and labs that he took over from DuPont Co. two years ago.
“At the end of January, when we saw what was happening in China, we asked every single FMC location in the world to procure masks to protect our employees. We used our central procurement location here in Philadelphia” to buy in bulk.
"And when we saw what the situation was in the hospitals here, and we saw what we would actually need, we were able to give those masks for people who were taking a risk to save us.” Plus thousands more to hospitals in Europe.
In pesticides as in other manufacturing, production is down as trade slows and offices shut. But Brondeau is confident that’s temporary: Even if the lockdown is extended, people still need to eat, and farmers need to protect crops. “Every week makes a new set of challenges. European countries shutting down their borders. India is moving to protect people.”
To be sure, some materials "are becoming difficult to procure. The bigger issue for us is to have the plant operating normally because of lack of employees. It’s very fluid. Some plants are operating in a [short] schedule -- only operators and only essential people. The laboratories are mostly operating from home, with only a few essential workers for safety.” Computer modeling makes it easier to plan than in the past, “thank God.”
Of all the businesses that FMC had in 2010, why did it come down to pesticides? “When I came to be CEO, I could see FMC was way too diversified. Too many small and technical businesses, right next to commodity businesses.”
In less than a year “we developed a vision, to build a company which would be a leader in the agriculture, health, and nutrition markets. And do something with lithium — we knew that business,” so crucial to electric car and smartphone batteries and as an antidepressant, “would have to be spun off from the main company.”
But by 2016, Brondeau “was very nervous that the initial vision might not be right.” Even slimmed to three business lines, FMC was still spreading itself too thin.
After the merger mania of the late 2000s, Bayer and BASF split Monsanto between them, ChemChina bought Syngenta, and Dow Chemical and DuPont combined their pesticide and genetically-modified-organism seed units into Corteva (FMC is the only big pesticide-maker that doesn’t do GMO).
“We started to believe that we would be too small to compete" as a pesticide-plus-food-and-drug-additives company. Rivals had “much broader” food and drug lines, including the new organics.
In early 2017 the European Commission, leading the global review of the Dow-DuPont deal, worried that DuPont boss Ed Breen, a famous cost-cutter, was all too ready to shut down more research labs, threatening global progress toward less environmentally toxic bug, disease, and fungus controls.
Brondeau saw the opportunity for a swap: FMC’s food and drug additives for some of DuPont’s pesticide lines -- and the Delaware farm labs that DuPont threatened to shut. “The opportunity was perfect. We together went to the European Commission to demonstrate FMC was the technology-based company they wanted -- the best partner." And GMO-skeptic Europe seemed predisposed to welcome GMO-free FMC.
FMC also spun out its lithium business in 2018, calling the new firm Livent Corp.
Back in Philly, the tower reinforces the FMC brand. “We love the location,” close to 30th Street Station and the airport rail line. "We love the visibility. When I was in Denmark or in England and I’m watching the Eagles on TV and I see our big FMC, mirrored [in other Philly towers] from the top of the building, it is a great feeling.”
He plans to stay here. His children are raising his grandchildren in the northern suburbs and in nearby New York. “Philly is my town. I love it. I love my house.” He’s had to curtail his beloved bike rides, with the coronavirus-sensitive crowds. “I bought a Peloton.”
Does he regret his tower lease, now that so many have learned to work from home? “Any global company is already set up to work from home. It is surprisingly easy. But now I am operating on the phone seven or eight hours per day, it’s all right for short periods. It is not the best way to work all the time. There are things we have to get together and do manually.”
What’s he leaving for Douglas to handle? Brondeau laughs. “Mark is going to have an easy job.” But seriously, “there is not a single decision I’ve made over the last five years in which Mark and [CFO] Andrew Sandifer were not strongly involved.” Also central to the team were Paul Graves, now CEO at Livent, and Andrea Utecht, longtime general counsel, now retired.
“The very big difference, my role over 10 years was to change a company that was highly diversified and make us the leaders in one space," he added.
Douglas “was a big proponent” of the 2016 decision to focus on agriculture. “And now he is investing a lot of money, probably more than I would have,” Brondeau says admiringly, "in precision agriculture,” a data-driven approach that uses sensors and other tools to closely match farm inputs to market demand, weather, and other variables. (Brondeau is a director of Berwyn-based TE Connectivity, a global maker of industrial sensors.)