The list of past laureates in the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame is dotted with leaders from the first 97 years of Eastman. James C. White was a member of the inaugural class of laureates. He would be joined by Perley Wilcox, Toy F. Reid, Earnie Deavenport, Brian Ferguson and Jim Rogers. These individuals were recognized for both commercial and civic ventures. Bearing those criteria in mind, 2017 marks the first induction of a corporate citizen into the Hall of Fame: Eastman.
The company came to the region in 1920, as the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, its sole customer being Eastman Kodak, which sought American sources for methanol and acetates. Perley Wilcox purchased the site of the first Eastman buildings for a reported $205,000.
During World War II, the United States government was so impressed by Eastman's people it contracted with the company to run the Y-12 electromechanical plant at Oak Ridge. The company oversaw production of Uranium-235 for the first atomic bombs, utilizing a workforce of almost 25,000. The U. S. government also hired Eastman to build what was then known as Holston Ordnance Works to manufacture explosives for the war effort. Eastman's people showed their mettle in those days, maintaining total secrecy at Oak Ridge and manufacturing high explosives in Kingsport with no accidents involving loss of life, though virtually none of the employees had experience with such substances.
As the years have passed, Eastman has grown, and in so doing, has become the region's leading corporate citizen, recognized by leaders throughout the region, from the private and public sectors.
John Tickle, Chairman of the Board of Strongwell in Bristol, Virginia says, "Eastman goes well beyond Kingsport. It serves this whole area. It's amazing what I've noticed – the integrity that Eastman teammates have and how much they give back to the community. Not only Eastman, but Eastman supports its leaders in giving back to the community. It would be a sad, sad state of affairs if we didn't have Eastman in this area, so we're very fortunate."
Dr. Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City agrees. "They are not only one of the pillars of this region, but of the state of Tennessee as a whole, both from a philanthropic perspective, from an economic and community development perspective, a social engagement perspective, we would not be who we are as a region were it not for Eastman."
That the company cares for the people of the region is evident in its generosity, says Brenda White Wright. "The Toy F. Reid Eastman Employee Center not only provides a wonderful facility for our Symphony of the Mountains, but also for our high schools, our social service organizations and all kinds of programs. It is a Class A facility and we are so grateful they open it up to the community for us to use."
And that generosity is part of the corporate culture of Eastman, adds Kingsport Chamber CEO Miles Burdine. "If there is a problem in this community, we are going to call Eastman. We are going to ask them to help us with it. It doesn't necessarily mean that they have to give dollars toward solving that problem. Usually it is just their people, their knowledge, their experience, their expertise, their caring heart is what usually helps solve community problems."
That mindset goes beyond the boundaries of Kingsport throughout the region, says Bill Greene, chairman of Bank of Tennessee. "We are one region. Eastman is helping us become the center of that region to take on the world. There's no way these individual communities, counties and cities could take the world on. All of us together certainly have a shot at it. Eastman knows that and is working hard to accomplish that, which helps all of us."
There is no doubt Kingsport and the region have benefitted greatly from Eastman's presence, says City Manager and model city native Jeff Fleming. "I think historically Eastman has been a very paternalistic company in terms of taking care of its employees, taking care of its community and in a global environment where you must change and make those changes very quickly to adapt to ever changing forces of the economy, you have to ask those level of questions. You have to understand what's on the horizon and how quickly you have to change to match that. I think a lot of times locally we think that everything revolves around Wilcox Drive when in fact it revolves around Wall Street and they have to adapt quickly."
Fleming's point is well taken. The company cannot continue to be a leading corporate citizen unless it stays ahead of a changing world marketplace. Happily, says Kingsport Mayor John Clark, Eastman's focus on the future is as easy to see as its new corporate headquarters.
"They could have easily gone with bricks and mortar, which is what the rest of the manufacturing center looks like, but the reality of it is they went with a totally different look, sending a signal to their industry, their shareholders, their customers, our community, that Eastman is different now. So I think one of the great things about Eastman is its ability to evolve over time and change along with the market, to continue to take on leadership positions in that particular industry that is highly competitive and not just here domestically but also abroad as well."
That forward-looking approach led Eastman to begin a major change in corporate strategy in 2012, shedding portions of the business in order to become a truly innovation-based specialty chemical company.
"From 2012 through 2014, we did about $9 billion of acquisitions as well as grew the organic portfolio and really changed who Eastman was," says Chairman and CEO Mark J. Costa. "So, when you think about our entity value back in 2010-11, we were about $7 billion in market cap plus debt. Today we are about $18 billion so almost triple the size of the company in a period of five years.
"I think that if you look at America today and Eastman as an example of America, what has made America great is innovation. Innovation in business, innovation in products, innovation in services – we lead the world like we have for decades in developing the best products that are offered to the world.
The challenge of innovation, Costa says, is that it requires great people capable of creating brilliant ideas, then turning those ideas into market-altering products. "At the end of the day, you know what's going to separate Apple versus its competitors, or Eastman versus its competitors, is the people. It is not the assets and technology or the markets that you are in. It is what people do with all of that. So you have to build a culture and a capability across your organization that can be better than its competitors."
So while much has changed over 97 years, one constant remains. Eastman's people are still showing their mettle. "I have watched Eastman over the years," Burdine says, "and I have learned so much from not just the company but the people that work there. I mean their ethics, their sustainability, how they treat their veterans, how they treat their people, diversity, all those things, all of those words that we use on a daily basis and in chamber world, they are right there at Eastman on a daily basis, and they are at the forefronts of all of them.
Says Senior Vice President, Chief Legal and Sustainability Officer, and Corporate Secretary David Golden, "Before coming to Eastman I was a lawyer in a law firm and worked with a number of companies. One thing that differentiated Eastman was the people. It was the honesty and sincerity, the focus on wanting to do what they need to do, heightened responsibility, a high-end trust, and just good people to work with."
Eastman's reputation as a corporate citizen is known worldwide, says Tickle. "Eastman is a green company. They've received a Top 50 places to work award in 2014, 2015 and 2016, so that says a lot about a company. They've been voted one of the most ethical places to work several times. They've won Energy Star Awards in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. They do everything right… I like to do business with not only companies that have high integrity, but people that have high integrity. I've noticed that their management teams throughout the years have been easy to work with. They are very accommodating. They want to help. So it's a company you want to do business with."
Adds Greene, "I've recruited all over the world. I've been very lucky. I've been to China, Japan, South Korea. If I had my choice, picking an industry I would want for this region from anywhere in the world, after watching them for 70 years and visiting other countries, other leaders in major industries including the chemical industry, I would recruit Eastman."
George Eastman once said, "Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know it." Today, almost a century after the company came to this region, the light that shines from Eastman emanates from its people.
The first Corporate Citizen to become a Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame laureate: the people who are Eastman.