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FMC's new chief looks to expansion

It was the summer of 2009. Dow Chemical Co. had purchased Rohm & Haas Co. in a contentious $16 billion deal, and employee cutbacks were about to roll floor-by-floor through Rohm's Philadelphia headquarters.

It was the summer of 2009. Dow Chemical Co. had purchased Rohm & Haas Co. in a contentious $16 billion deal, and employee cutbacks were about to roll floor-by-floor through Rohm's Philadelphia headquarters.

Pierre Brondeau, the top executive, had not bargained for this level of hardship among colleagues, so he voluntarily joined their exodus by resigning.

That, it seems, will be FMC Corp.'s good fortune.

Less than a year later, the Philadelphia-boosting Brondeau now heads FMC, a chemical company with headquarters 10 blocks west of the Rohm & Haas office, with a portfolio of insecticides, herbicides, lithium, and specialty chemicals.

Having built his reputation by growing Rohm & Haas' electronic-materials division, Brondeau plans to enlarge the profile of fly-below-the-radar FMC. He said Thursday that the company could double its revenue to $5 billion to $6 billion by 2015 through internal growth and targeted acquisitions.

The conservatively managed FMC has more than $1 billion available for acquisitions, and Brondeau has scheduled meetings with investment bankers to talk about how to spend this war chest. "We have a balance sheet that is very healthy, and we have low debts," Brondeau said. "We just have to be smart."

The son of a French general, Brondeau is an unapologetic cheerleader for his adopted hometown. He had three job offers in late 2009 and accepting the one from FMC was partly because it would allow him to stay here.

"I just love the city. It's a great city," Brondeau said, favorably comparing it to Paris. "You have everything you have in a major city, but it feels like a town. There is something very special about Philadelphia."

Brondeau golfs on weekends at St. Davids Golf Club in Wayne and he dines - as he planned to Thursday night - at Le Bec-Fin. He lives in Villanova with his wife, Melissa. A son attends Villanova University. A second son has a job here.

Brondeau, 52, seems to have seamlessly transitioned into his new job. His 23d-floor office is sleek. There's a big window with a view of City Hall. A flat-panel TV was tuned to CNBC. He doodled on a notepad to illustrate a point.

Brondeau noted there has been a cross-pollination of employees between FMC and Rohm & Haas, the two specialty-chemical companies in the city, so some FMC employees he recognized in the hallways from his Rohm & Haas days.

FMC is smaller than the division he would have headed for Dow. But that does not bother him. "It allows you to quickly put your hands around the company and steer it in the direction of your own view of where the company should go," he said.

FMC employs about 400 in Center City, and it has 170 additional employees in a technical center in the Trenton area. The company reported worldwide revenue of $2.8 billion and earned $228 million in profit in 2009, a good performance in a down economy. FMC's stock on Thursday closed at $60.88, down 53 cents.

Brondeau attributed FMC's strong financial position to former chief executive officer William G. Walter, 64, who remains chairman of the company. Walter has said he will step down from the chairman's post Sept. 30. The board has decided that Brondeau will replace Walter as chairman, Brondeau said.

Brondeau plans to establish an innovation center in Shanghai's Pudong district to boost revenue in Asia. Rohm & Haas also built its Chinese research and development center in Pudong.

Some investors say they should buy FMC stock because of the company's leading position in lithium, which is for batteries and other applications. But Brondeau cautioned: "I am extremely excited about lithium. But I am telling people not to buy FMC stock for lithium unless they are willing to hold the stock for five to six years."

He is developing a strategic plan for the company and has traveled to FMC's customers in Japan, Spain, and Brazil and heard the lament: "If only you had more products, I would buy from you."

Those are words he is taking to heart.