When a Brand Dies: DuPont

“For practical purposes, DuPont doesn't exist anymore,” said Abraham Lenoff, chemical engineering professor at the University of Delaware to Joe di Stefano of the Philadelphia Inquirer. In an article about the death of DuPont di Stefano quotes from their conversation:

“It takes an enormous effort and a lot of time and a large infrastructure, especially human infrastructure, to create value in a large company like DuPont. The financial community doesn't know how to do that. Hedge-fund managers know how to extract value from a company, and leave an empty shell, so they can build their houses in the Hamptons.

DuPont had one of the premier engineering units anywhere in the world. They knew the principles and how to apply them. Without people like that you can't develop, design, and start up plants. It's an enormous loss to science and engineering.”

According to veteran managers, DuPont had long suffered from:

  • Complexity — created by a combination of the science-driven culture, the nature of the problems the company went after, and its caution in following research with testing and action  
  • Growth trap — what made the company great led to complacency and stagnation when unchallenged
  • Bigger deals — in favor of smaller acquisitions with less impact to the core business
  • Too much hometown — and not global in business mindset enough (DuPont Chair & CEO Ed Breen announced that despite the cost reduction cuts and restructuring, the company will remain in Delaware)

When a brand dies, we hardly even notice anymore, and yet, there are consequences to the community beyond what happens to followers and fans in social networks.

We spend little time celebrating the contributions of the dying business to progress — DuPont's tagline the miracles of science” was likely the product of agonizing conversations and approval processes before becoming marketing narrative. We think even less about the people who contributed to make it great.

Sustainability is a word we typically associate with duration, as in endurance of a business. In ten design principles for a better corporation, Peter Tunjic says “The organizing principle of a corporation is self determination, not profit maximization.” He says#:

Self determination refers to the right of a corporation, through the board of directors, to make its own choices without compulsion. "Self ownership" and 'sovereignty" are other words I use to denote this concept.

While people struggle with the idea that a company can own itself, no one blinks if a company claims to own another company.

Self interest rightly understood is the way of evaluating choices. The framework applies equally to corporations as it does people. A great introduction to the concept of self interest rightly understood was written in 1835 by Tocqueville (link here.)

To be clear self interest is not selfishness. The latter is a function of ignorance whereas the former is a function of education and wisdom.

“Corporations are entities with whom humanity has a vital symbiotic relationship,” says Tunjic. When we give way to the “disinterested and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man,” and we engage in small acts of self denial with regularity, as Tocqueville describes, we display our enlightenment.

DuPont's veteran managers describe some of the reasons that prevented self interest and opened the door to creating self harm.




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