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New Eastman CEO ready to grow company

Sharon Hayes • Jun 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Eastman Chemical Co. has cut salaries and eliminated jobs to help deal with the worst recession in decades.

Now, Eastman’s new president and chief executive officer is hoping the cuts are behind the company and that opportunities for growth lie ahead.

James P. Rogers, 58, took on his new role as CEO in early May, replacing Brian Ferguson, who remains executive chairman of the board through 2010.

In an interview with the Times-News last week, Rogers said he’s hoping to start off his tenure by focusing on growth opportunities instead of more cuts.

“I very much want people to know that right now our mission, our mandate, is to grow the company. And so you’re not going to grow the company by continually cutting back,” Rogers said.

In April Eastman reduced its work force by 300 jobs — including 200 at the Kingsport plant — and cut employee pay by 5 percent as part of a plan to eliminate $100 million in expenses. That followed a plan announced in December to trim another $100 million from the company’s bottom line, including $80 million in labor-related costs.

“It’s hard to not go through one of the worst recessions of our lifetime and not have to take tough action. We had to do that,” Rogers said of the cuts.

“And it doesn’t mean that if things got worse from here, that we wouldn’t have to take further action. But what I’m seeing right now — I think we’ve done what we needed to do. And now I’m really trying to get everyone to turn their minds to growing the company.”

No stranger to Eastman

Rogers may be new to the job, but he’s no stranger to Eastman. He joined the Kingsport-based company in 1999 as senior vice president and chief financial officer under then-CEO Earnie Deavenport Jr.

In 2003 he was named executive vice president of the company and president of Eastman Division, serving as president and head of the Chemicals & Fibers Business Group until his most recent promotion.

In his office at corporate headquarters, Rogers said he’s fortunate to take the helm of a company that’s well positioned to withstand the economic downturn, with cash on hand to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Those opportunities could mean buying other companies or building new plants, he said.

“First we’ve got some really great core businesses. We can set record earnings just off our core businesses. And those businesses can generate more cash than we need to grow,” Rogers said.

“That’s where you can differentiate yourself ... we’re going to have the luxury of having cash to either build or buy, and I do think this next two years plus timeframe is going to be the right time to get more aggressive.”

Rogers said he prefers making several smaller deals as opposed to one large transaction to help mitigate risk as he grows the company. And he’s betting some “distressed assets” will become available because of the recession.

“We could run a bigger company. We’ve done the divestitures. Now it’s time to grow,” he said.

From flying to finance

Rogers was born in March 1951, the son of two World War II veterans. His mother, Nora Rogers, served in the WAVES, a World War II-era division of the U.S. Navy that consisted entirely of women.

His father, Eugene Rogers, spent 26 years in the Navy, and during WWII, became a prisoner of war after being captured by the Japanese in the Philippines.

“He was a true war hero,” Rogers said.

Rogers comes from a family that only immigrated to this country a few generations ago. His maternal grandfather came to America from Italy and his maternal grandmother came here from England. Meanwhile, his dad’s grandfather immigrated to the States from Ireland.

“So I’m from an immigrant family just going back a couple of generations,” he said.

Rogers was born in Bethesda, Md., and attended public schools — most of the time in Chesapeake, Va. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the Navy, and attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville on an ROTC scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1973.

“I didn’t have to worry about getting a job because I knew I’d get a job in the Navy. And so I did what I found interesting, which was psychology,” Rogers said, adding at one point he thought of becoming a counselor.

But between his second and third year in college, he underwent three weeks of flight training as part of his ROTC scholarship requirements. The experience changed his life.

“I went up in an A4 (airplane), I threw up twice in about a 20-minute ride, came back down and said, ‘Man I love this. I want to do this,’ ” Rogers said.

He got his private pilot’s license while still in college, then went to Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla., and got his wings flying an A7 — a single seat, single engine aircraft designed for light attack missions.

From 1973 to 1980, Rogers served as a naval aviator, flying aboard the aircraft carriers U.S.S. Eisenhower and U.S.S. Independence. He achieved the rank of lieutenant, and was known in the Navy under the call sign “Strider,” after a quiet but confident character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Today, a framed black and white picture of the Eisenhower taken from a fighter plane just before landing sits on his desk.

Rogers points to the image and smiles.

“This is what causes me to keep my priorities straight. If I’m having a bad day at work, I think to myself — what’s the worst that can happen to me here? And if you think about it on that ship, what’s the worst that can happen to you there? It helps keep things in perspective,” Rogers said.

“I’ve kept that picture with me ever since I got out of the military.”

Rogers loved flying but life in the Navy was tough. In 1980, he left the military and decided to do something different.

At the time, the nation was in the middle of an economic downturn, and Rogers found himself unemployed for nearly a year.

During that time, he worked on a fixer-upper house he’d bought in Meridian, Miss.

“I put on a new roof, tore out the kitchen, did wiring, plumbing, carpentry, built kitchen cabinets, I did the whole thing,” Rogers said.

“I still remember my mortgage payment — $202.66 a month,” he said.

Needing steady employment, Rogers starting sending resumes to every airline he could, and eventually got an interview with his No. 1 choice — Delta.

After a day and a half interview process, Rogers didn’t get the job, and soon realized he needed to return to school.

“If I want to get a real job, I’ve got to go back and get a degree in something other than psychology,” Rogers said.

Because of his interest in finance and the stock market, he decided on business school, and applied to the Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania — not because he realized Wharton was one of the top business schools, but because Wharton didn’t hold classes on Fridays.

He was accepted to the school and lived in an old carriage house from the 1700s while in Pennsylvania.

After graduating from Wharton with a master’s degree in business administration in 1983, Rogers thought he’d like to be a banker or a financial analyst. He interviewed with lots of big banks, finally opting to join Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. on Wall Street.

“Every person I met was someone I could work with. And so I made the choice based on the people. And every time I’ve done that, it’s worked out well,” he said.

The move was a culture shock — first from Meridian, Miss., to Philadelphia, Pa., to New York, N.Y. He commuted to the city from New Jersey through the World Trade Center, and walked the rest of the way to Wall Street.

In four years, he worked his way up the ladder to vice president of corporate finance. While there, he was involved in large credit transactions, including financings for mergers and acquisitions and leveraged buyouts.

Then in 1987, he got a call from a client of the bank who offered him a job as treasurer of Amphenol Corp., a leveraged buyout in the electronic connector industry. In that position, Rogers got lots of experience doing difficult transactions, including acquisitions and divestitures.

But his boss was not a pleasant one, and when he took a call from a headhunter in 1992, Rogers was ready for a change.

He went to work for GAF Corp./International Specialty Products Inc. as vice president and treasurer. A year later in 1993, he became executive vice president and chief financial officer of GAF, while serving as executive vice president of finance for International Specialty Products Inc.

In the meantime, Rogers had gone through a divorce — he had gotten married during flight school and he and his wife had had two daughters.

In 1992, he had remarried, and he and his new wife, Laura, had settled in New Jersey. His daughters lived in Chesapeake on the Virginia coast at the time.

Coming to Kingsport

In 1999, Rogers took a call from a headhunter looking for someone to become the next CFO at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport. He asked the headhunter where Kingsport was located, and was told it was situated next to Bristol, Va.

“I said, ‘Oh, right next to Virginia? That’s got to be close to Chesapeake,’ ” said Rogers, not knowing at the time that he was closer to his daughters living in New Jersey than he would be living in Kingsport.

Still, Rogers came to town for an interview, and then-CEO Earnie Deavenport had him meet with about 20 people on the trip.

“I remember going back and telling my wife, ‘I can work with every one of these people. This is a good group. I want to work here,’ ” Rogers said.

Rogers joined Eastman in August 1999 as senior vice president and CFO. His wife, Laura, a certified public accountant with a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University in New York, had grown up in Niagara Falls and had lived in Manhattan for eight years.

Rogers said Laura has been “the secret of my success.”

“She said she’d follow me anywhere and she did,” Rogers said. “She has just been a rock for me. And she loves this place.”

After their arrival, the two quickly made Kingsport their new home, building a house along Chestnut Ridge on the east side of town.

And they became involved in the community. Rogers served as president of the Sequoyah Council for the Boy Scouts for a couple of years — he had been an Eagle Scout in his younger days. He also served on the Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center board, and co-chaired the United Way of Greater Kingsport’s Alexis de Tocqueville Society for two years to encourage giving at the $10,000 and above level.

Since taking on his new role at Eastman, Rogers has tried to limit his outside activities to devote more time to the company.

The Rogers attend Northeast Church of Christ. And Laura Rogers is involved with Link House, where she helped start a Bible study for young people.

As for Rogers’ children, his oldest, Kate, is now 21 and attends Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. She’s double majoring in history and art history, and is thinking about joining the Peace Corps.

His youngest, Jessie, is 19 and attends New York University in Manhattan. She enjoys music and writing, and would some day like to write for Rolling Stone Magazine, her dad said.

“The advice I give my girls — find something you really have a passion for, because if you have a passion for it and you enjoy doing it, then you’re going to excel at it. Then all the other rewards will come,” Rogers said.

“For me, it ended up being finance instead of flying.”

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