When you live in a place like a Philadelphia, where everyone knows everybody and has known them for decades and knows their parents/offspring/siblings (and where, at one point, three sons of former mayors of Philadelphia had seats on city council), the world seems kind of small.

Not to Charles Shaver, a relative newcomer here, who, at the helm of Axalta Coating Systems, leads a $4.1 billion company with customers in 130 nations worldwide. He wouldn't say it's small. But it is shrinking.

"The biggest challenge we face in coatings is the same one many sectors face right now, which is the world overall isn't growing," he said during our Executive Q&A published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.  "And so, when the world isn't growing, that isn't creating opportunity.  It's not creating wealth around the world."

Von Bergen:  It's just market share.

Shaver: People fighting for share.  People look and they can't grow because their markets aren't growing.  So, you get consolidation.  When you get consolidation, people aren't worried about innovation.  And so, what happens is capital spending drops, R&D drops.  What worries me in coatings isn't particular to coatings. What worries me in coatings is really more for my shareholders and my employees.  How am I going to continue to grow in a world that isn't growing?  And the way you grow in a world that isn't growing is mergers.  You take share from somebody else.  In mergers and acquisitions there's always a human cost.  People get fired.  Facilities get shut down.  What you see right now is I think mergers and acquisitions will continue to be pretty high because and that's the only way people can grow.

Von Bergen: You mentioned the Sherwin-Williams acquisition of rival paint manufacturer, Valspar Corp.

Shaver: They're going to take out about 2,000 people and they're going to cut R&D.  That's the pressure you get under.  I spend probably 60 to 70 percent of my time outside the U.S.  There's no growth to be had here.  We're already the major player.  The only growth here is if I go buy somebody.  So, I was in the Middle East last week.  I spend a lot of time in India, a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia.  That's where a lot of the world's population is.

Von Bergen: And more of those folks can afford to buy the cars that you are coating, right? What about China? (We had been talking about how his engineering background helps him analyze problems and this is the one he used as an example.)

Shaver: Right now we have to decide our next step of expansion in China, because we’re growing in China by almost 10 percent.  So, there are a lot of different places we could go.  There are a lot of different coatings we could make.  China is, at best, a veil.  You’ve got to understand it.  So, there’s probably 10,000 questions that need to be answered about what we do next in China, how much money we put and the timeline. So, engineering just teaches a very methodical approach to problem solving.  

Von Bergen: How do you weigh the risk of China?

Shaver:  That's one of the thousand questions, because China is clearly moving to exert their influence way more than they have in the past, both militarily in the South China Sea.  They've always been anti-U.S.  They've never liked the U.S.  Now they have an economy that they can do something about it and they have the number two military power in the world.  So, I think the risk with China over the 20 years dramatically increases.  So, the risk is if all your growth is going to come from China and you're putting all your assets in there, that's a huge mistake.  So, that's why we're still investing in the U.S.

We run models that say: `Tomorrow, if all of China went away, what would we look like?'  Now, I don't think that will happen, but you're going to have periods of time where the U.S. going in the future in China are going to be on really opposite sides of the fence and it's going to affect the economies and trade and everything else.

Europe, that's another question.  How much do you invest in Europe recognizing they're in a 30 year funk and the European Union is starting to come unwound, because it was nothing more than a currency union?  Everybody still wants to be French, English and German.

So, we have to weigh all of that, but I think engineering, to answer your question, because when I came out of college, I was an engineer for my first 10 years building plants around the world and running plants, designing facilities, engineering taught me those thousands of questions to ask.