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Parker to Parker

Hank Hayes • Aug 21, 2017 at 8:30 AM

KINGSPORT – There’s a Parker-to-Parker handoff about to happen at Kingsport-based global specialty chemical producer Eastman Chemical Co.

J. Parker Smith is retiring after a 10-year run as vice president and site manager of Eastman’s Tennessee Operations, and he is handing those responsibilities to Cari Parker, the first woman ever in this key role.

Parker, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Chemical Engineering, began her career at Eastman in 1985 as a co-op, and has held a broad spectrum of positions at Eastman with a strong emphasis in manufacturing. She was previously the site manager of Eastman’s Texas City Operations. She has also been vice president of Corporate Technology and, after that, vice president of Advanced Materials Manufacturing.

On Smith’s watch, the Kingsport site has moved toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions by converting from coal to natural gas as an energy source and introduced an “All In For Safety” initiative. He’s also been involved in Kingsport’s Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing that is key to workforce development.

The Tennessee manufacturing site has about 4,600 Eastman employees and approximately 2,500 contract workers.

Smith visited with the Times-News at Eastman’s Building 75 overlooking the Holston River to review his time in office. His remarks follow.

What has this ride been like?

“It’s been great. I have absolutely been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. As a kid who grew up in Kingsport, I knew about Eastman, obviously. My dad was a 42-year Eastman person, and I am second generation. I grew up as an Eastman person, but I never thought about some day doing this. I knew very early on I wanted to be an engineer, and then I wound up being a co-op for the company. I started out in the big machine shop. They taught me some skills that I continue to use in my hobbies today. This is a great company and what a great company it’s going to be going forward. I’ve been given untold numbers of opportunities.”

What were your expectations going into the job?

“I wanted to do well and advance in the company. I never had any view on something in particular I was shooting for. I wanted to get to a department head. The department head levels are still very connected to what’s going on out there, and you’re getting a taste of the company as a whole. We’re working really hard to make sure everyone understands our cutover strategy.”

What is cutover strategy?

“That’s the things we’re doing as we move the company down this continuum towards a specialty chemical company. We just called it the cutover strategy as principles embracing complexity, productivity and safe operation, that we are working very hard to help everyone in the company understand. It used to be you didn’t have a good view of the company as a whole, and now we’re trying to be very transparent and very engaged at every level of the company strategy. Every time I go out in the plant, folks are asking about new products and what’s going on. They want to hear more about things like the Tritan™ journey.”

What is the site manager responsible for?

“The site is about 950 acres. We’ve got about 1,000 acres when you think about our landfill. There’s more like 40 miles of railroad tracks and about that many miles of roads. We’ve got about 10 acres of parking lots. The beauty of this site and the reason it’s so viable is that we’re highly integrated here and we have our own power. We could run a city the size of Knoxville with the utilities we generate. There are about 5,000 railroad movements inside the plant every week and about 5,000 truck movements every week. We’ve got 80 maintenance shops and control rooms everywhere. We make about 3,000 products here. The equipment it takes to run a plant like this is incredible. There’s never a dull day. If we’re not on our toes for safety, things can happen that can get people injured and that’s the last thing we want to happen. We’ve got all kinds of metrics on safety. We try to learn from every injury we have and make sure we don’t repeat what caused it.”

The Times-News has a historical front page of the Oct. 4, 1960 Eastman explosion posted in a hallway next to the newsroom. Does that cross your mind every day?

“Yep. That was a terrible day for the company, but it’s one you can’t forget. You don’t want to forget it because if you don’t remember things like that, then other things can happen. A couple years ago, they did a play at Barter (Theatre) based on that day. They asked a couple of us to be on a panel before and after the play so the audience could ask us questions. A lady in the audience asked me ‘I guess that’s something you would like to forget?’ I said ‘No, it’s not. It’s something I wished had never happened, but we can never forget it. Those were Eastman folks who tragically died in that situation. You’ve always got to maintain a sense of vulnerability.’ We’ve got a process safety boot camp, and we’ve had over a 1,000 people go through that boot camp in the last three years as a proactive kind of thing. We’ve got a lot of new folks coming in now and we want them to know these things can happen if we’re not doing the right thing.”

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