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Executive Q & A: Axalta's Charles W. Shaver

From a skyscraper in Philadelphia, Charles W. Shaver, 58, runs a $4.1 billion global coatings company with 13,000 employees worldwide.

Charles W. Shaver is CEO of Axalta Coating Systems, which makes the paint on most cars.
Charles W. Shaver is CEO of Axalta Coating Systems, which makes the paint on most cars.Read more( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

From a skyscraper in Philadelphia, Charles W. Shaver, 58, runs a $4.1 billion global coatings company with 13,000 employees worldwide.

He deals with currency issues, politics around the world, the environment, and the uneasy relationship between China and the United States. But when people talk to him, what they really want to know are next year's hot car colors.

That's because Axalta Coating Systems, the successor firm to DuPont Performance Coatings, makes the paint on nearly every car on the market - new and used.

Next month, if history is any guide for the company that began in 1866 making coatings for carriages, Axalta will introduce its 2017 "Color of the Year."

This year's color? Brilliant Blue with a metallic glint and a hint of turquoise. It followed Radiant Red, the 2015 color, a metallic cardinal of a hue.

We've had lots of red and blue with the election.

Almost 80 percent of the cars and trucks in the world are black, white, silver, and gray. Of the other colors, the dominant ones are red and blue. Those tend to reflect the economy. When people feel better about the economy, there's more reds. When things cool off, there's more blues.

Just drive the highway for an economic forecast.

Believe it or not, as I go across the U.S. the last few years, there have been more reds. If you live in Philadelphia, you feel like the economy is doing one thing. But, if you go somewhere like Houston or Phoenix or Atlanta, it's dynamic. There's growth. So, you'll see more red there.

What color are your cars?

Silver, blue, gray, and black.

Before the election, you said it would be a tough presidency, no matter who won.

As a rule, politicians in the U.S. and the average American don't appreciate what's going on in the world and how it's impacting them economically.

You've got a world that's not growing. The biggest thing we see around the world is currency depreciation.

Countries depreciate their currencies to stay competitive, and that's what put pressure back on the U.S. economy.

How does it work?

This year, China depreciated their currency 7 percent and they'll depreciate it another 7 percent next year. So if I'm competing in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world against their economy, I'll have to take a 10 to 15 percent price decrease to stay competitive.

How do we cope with all these global pressures?

You can't do what's been happening the last few years, which is isolationism. Throwing up trade barriers never works. Somebody always finds a way around them. The reality is the majority of world's population will work for a fraction of what you and I consider to be a living wage. As long as that exists, we're driving to that equation.

I'm driving off a cliff.

No, no, no. Humans are creative and it all works out. We have to drive students toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), not scientists, but more people who understand the digital economy and how to create value in that economy.

Did you want to be a CEO when you grew up?

This is my fifth time as a CEO. What I find in the U.S. is we're at our own peril. We're deciding business is really bad. People will say, "You're a CEO. You must automatically be a bad guy." That gets old. The only place I get that is in the U.S., because the rest of the world wants what the U.S. has.

Challenging position?

I can't tell you how many Christmases and Thanksgivings I've missed. A CEO can truly make or break a company. It is a much more fragile institution than people think.

I would never want the job, not that anyone asked.

It's not for most people. The joy comes from the fact that we're a growing enterprise. So I think about our 13,000 employees, and I see their families doing better. I see all the things they're able to do by the things we do. By the way, I've been fortunate enough in my life that I don't do this for the money anymore. I don't.

If it were for the money, I would have been done 10 years ago, but it is fun watching Axalta grow.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.