KINGSPORT - When Jerry Repass talks about generations of Kingsport area families working at Eastman Chemical Co., he speaks from direct family experience.
Today is Repass' last day as vice president and general manager of worldwide manufacturing support for Eastman, wrapping up 42 years working for the chemical and plastics maker. He will be replaced by Parker Smith, currently superintendent of centralized maintenance and services at Eastman's Tennessee Operations.
Repass' late father also worked 42 years for "the Eastman," meaning the Repass family has contributed 84 years to the anchor of the region's industrial neighborhood. Likewise, Smith's father also retired from Eastman.
"We have many second-, third- and fourth-generation people who work here," Repass said.
At the February announcement of the retirement, Jim Rogers, president and head of the Chemical and Fibers Business Group, said Repass "has a unique ability to bring together several diverse groups and lead them in working together seamlessly."
Although the title doesn't directly indicate it, Repass since 1999 in effect has headed Eastman's Tennessee Operations in Kingsport.
"They (company officials) always tried to figure out what's my title," said the soft-spoken Repass, who's held 18 titles, starting with chemical engineer.
In 1991, he became one of three vice presidents and a president overseeing the Tennessee Operations, which eventually became his job after a short stint at vice present for Latin America.
A native of Snowflake, Va., near Gate City and graduate of the old Lynn View High School just across the state line, Repass joined Eastman in 1965 as a chemical engineer after his graduation from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with a degree in chemical engineering.
He received his master's degree in engineering administration from UT in 1972 and completed the Executive Development Program at UT in 1989.
He said continuing education is a given at Eastman, where employees often undergo education and training, including three- to four-year apprenticeships and annual safety compliance training now done mostly online.
For most jobs at Eastman, basic math, science and computer skills are a must, and applications and entrance tests are taken only online.
From 2006 through 2010, Eastman officials estimate the company will hire 2,000 people in Kingsport to replace workers expected to retire, not counting potential jobs that could come from company growth.
Worldwide, Eastman employs 11,000, including about 7,500 in Kingsport, both in Tennessee Operations and in the corporate headquarters.
"There's one thing that really hasn't changed. That the quality of the people," Repass said of hardworking, dedicated employees. "It's just amazing how they will respond when something goes down."
One of the biggest changes at the Kingsport operations in the 42 years has been the development of Long Island, he said.
"When I came to work here, there was nothing (industrial) on the island. It was mostly residential," Repass said.
A coal gasification plant went up there in 1983, followed by a series of other buildings visible from his office in Building 75, the old administrative headquarters of Eastman's corporate headquarters now used as the Tennessee Operations headquarters.
Also visible from the office is the river, which along with the air is cleaner today thanks to strides in emissions.
"We are operating in a community. We have to be a good corporate citizen," Repass said.
Repass said another big change is in information technology and computers, which have made the operations more efficient and safer. Control panels use computers and monitors instead of the old manual valves and gauges of the 1960s.
"We don't want anybody to get hurt," Repass said, adding that Eastman is in the top 20 percent of Occupational Safety and Health Administration reportable injuries and days away from work. In the past 15 years, he said the focus has been on behavioral safety process in which employees look out for their own safety and that of co-workers.
Repass, who serves on the Tri-Cities Regional Airport Commission, said he plans to live in Kingsport, travel some and play golf. He plans a trip soon to Australia, where his daughter and four grandchildren live. He also has a son in Greeneville, S.C.
He and his wife, Patsy, attend First Broad Street United Methodist Church.
"It's really been a great career," Repass said.
"At a company as large as Eastman, you can have many jobs during your career and continue to live right here," Repass said. "I enjoy the people."