2009 Laureates

J. Brian Ferguson

J. Brian Ferguson is well known in the region for being chairman and CEO of Eastman Chemical Company since January, 2002.

But like most CEOs, more people know of Brian Ferguson than those who actually know him. They may see his picture in the paper or read a quote from him in a business article, but they have no idea who he really is. Tonight, we finally have a chance to find out.

Brian was born in Lubbock, Texas, on June 16, 1954, and was raised in Phoenix, Arizona. His parents, Harold and Mary Lu Ferguson, placed a great value on education. In fact, they met while both were on debating scholarships in college. The Ferguson children—Brian, his brother Doug and sister Carol, learned early in life to state cases persuasively, no matter what the issue.  "As you grew up in my house," recalls Brian, "there were no arguments." There was a case, a rebuttal and a redress."  But it was growing up in an intellectually active family that would prepare Brian for the world he would face in business.

As for business sense, Brian says he comes by that honestly. His earliest recollections of business are of his father, who after World War II became an air conditioning salesman – in Texas. And Miami. And Phoenix. "That was the holy grail for selling air conditioning in the 1960s," he says.

In addition to fostering business sense, critical thinking and rhetorical skills, his parents taught Brian life-lessons in responsibility and self-sufficiency. He was expected to participate in his own college funding, and he did--working his way through school. "That has an impact on your priorities," he says. "You work to pay for what you want. You get an understanding for what the value of work is in relation to what you're working for, because as you're doing those jobs to pay for college, you are reminded of what you don't want to be doing for the rest of your life." So the future CEO spent his afternoon and evening hours washing dishes at restaurants, changing fluorescent light bulbs in offices, and sweeping floors.

And while he hustled and bustled through jobs and school, he was deciding what to do with his life. The choice of career began with two simple questions, "What do I like?" and "What am I going to be able to make a living doing?"

Surprisingly, Brian did not ask that second question immediately. Instead he fantasized of a life far different from the one he leads today. "I was originally going to go into oceanography," he remembers. "I started scuba diving when I was 16."

In fact, Brian had already begun to make plans to attend oceanography school when fate intervened in the person of Teri, his future wife. "I met this really great woman," he remembers, "but it was pretty clear she wasn't going to follow me around the world on boats. Then I also figured out that those pursuits weren't likely to support me the way I needed to be supported. So through the pragmatic analysis of my situation, I gravitated to chemical engineering and received my degree from Arizona State University."

Brian says he's never regretted giving up his Cousteau dreams because it not only gave him a chance to pursue the "really great woman," but also because it suited him better to be an engineer.

For their first date, Teri invited Brian to a church outing at a local amusement park. As he recalls, a small airplane flew into some nearby electrical lines, causing a power outage in the park as they sat atop the Ferris wheel.

"We had been having an unremarkable date, but in those 90 minutes stuck on that Ferris wheel, I discovered what a great person she was and that led to more dates and ultimately to us getting married." It's a marriage that has lasted almost 35 years.

As the Fergusons began their life together, it became clear that Teri would be a voice of reason in Brian's life. When Brian wanted to move them to Madagascar for his first job, it was Teri who put her foot down and kept them here. Brian settled on working for Eastman Kodak in Longview, Texas. It was there where Brian and Teri began their family.

The operations at the Longview plant were fairly autonomous at the time, and Brian had the chance to learn a great deal. He did 12 different jobs in 12 years. One of those jobs was to create a safety video for the plant. Instead of following the traditional script, Brian wrote a Jeopardy style game show. That video got him noticed in Kingsport and in 1989 he was called to Eastman headquarters to join the executive team.

Three years later he was reassigned to Washington DC to lobby Congress on matters of taxes, trade and the environment for Kodak. When Eastman spun off from Kodak in 1994, Brian ran the Eastman Washington office for the next three years.

"Then one day the boss knocked on my door," he remembers. "He said they wanted me to go to either India or China. I started laughing and said, ‘You've got to be kidding.'" They weren't. So in 1996, Brian was off to Hong Kong to work on business development. 

As the company's chief lobbyist, Brian had accompanied the CEO on trips to Rome, Lisbon and Budapest, so he was not unfamiliar with the international scope of the company's operations. Brian credits Eastman with giving him the opportunities to experience the world through a multitude of travels. "It changes you forever to be in some of the places I've been," Brian says. "You get a real appreciation for what you have and the kind of country you live in."

Brian says he has been truly grateful to see every bit of the world he has seen. And to share much of it with his wife and sons, Eric and Ben. "They've been able to learn so much. We have no idea in this country what poverty really is. We've seen poverty that would be hard for people to understand. You don't appreciate how much freedom you have until you live in a country where the press is completely controlled by the government and anyone who opposes the government may just have their property seized or they may go to jail and never be heard from again."

After two years in China, Brian moved on to Singapore. "But there weren't a lot of Eastman people there, so I learned from my competitors, my customers and my suppliers. If you think about this, much of my career I lived outside of the Eastman culture. . For the four years in Asia, I was completely outside of the Eastman culture. So that gave me a different perspective than many of my colleagues who spent their entire careers on the inside. I was very fortunate to wear the Eastman pass, but to also have that broader opportunity."

By the summer of 1999, Eastman was going through a restructuring. "I was brought back then to head what was at that time the polymers group," Ferguson says. Again, when he was approached about the position, he said, "You have got to be kidding." And again, they weren't.

In 2001, Eastman was preparing to split into two companies when 9/11 threw the financial world into turmoil. The company was unable to finance the separation. At that point, the board allowed then-CEO Earnie Deavenport to complete his retirement and asked Brian to step in.

Starting in January 2002, Ferguson and his team began making tough decisions. "We had to abandon some strategies and some practices," he says. "We had some assets that we had bought and some that we had built that were never going to perform the way we had wanted them to.

In late 2008, a reporter asked Brian if he had plans to leave Eastman in the near future. Brian replied, "You don't really expect me to answer that, do you?" In fact, that's exactly what Ferguson was planning to do. When he became CEO, Brian's mission was threefold. The first was repair. The second was to set the company on a sustainable and strong course. The third was to improve Eastman's commercial capabilities. "Some of those are processes that will never be completely accomplished," Ferguson says. "But the main objectives have been accomplished. I have watched a group of CEOs over time, and I have become convinced that a CEO who stays on too long can do more harm than good. Most of our best work comes in our early years. We tend to get too invested in our own ideas. I think it's just time to get out of the way."  Brian admits to having a long-term plan, but feels no obligation to share details. "I'll keep my own counsel until I've thought about it some more," he says. In the meantime, he will remain executive chair at Eastman for 18 months, and continue his affiliation with the American Chemistry Council, as well as his philanthropic endeavors. Perhaps he'll finally be able to convince the really great woman to follow him around the world on a boat. Perhaps he'll convince her to sail to Madagascar. Or perhaps they'll just find a nice Ferris wheel and ride together for as long as they want.