Steve Crawford is Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Eastman. He has a passion for Sustainability and material solutions that Improve the Quality of Life globally for the generations to come. He is one of the foremost thinkers in materials innovation today in the material sector.
Give us some background on what you do at Eastman.
I’m part of a team whose role is, first and foremost, to sustain and grow our core Technology platforms – that starts with ensuring safe, reliable operations of our assets. We work with our manufacturing partners to make improvements to our processes and manufacturing assets, ensuring fundamental insights around our chemistries, and we leverage our analytical organization to drive improvements in safety, quality, capacity and reliability. This is job one and our team is world class.
In addition, over the last several years, we’ve also been focused on enabling our business and sales teams to win with our customers by driving for differentiation, which includes the development of new products to solve unmet needs in their markets. To do that, we’ve had to build application development capability in our focused segments. Application development enables us to understand our customers’ technologies as well as our customers do. By understanding the structural property relationship between our products and our customers’ products, we know exactly how to tune our materials to work in their applications to control the functionality that the end consumer cares about – which leads to the ability for Eastman to develop unique product lines that our customer wants. Because of that, there’s been a distinct shift in how our customer base and our markets view us compared to how they viewed us a decade ago. Building this capability has been a significant focus for us over the last several years.
When Mark [Costa] talks about application development being our “secret sauce,” that’s what he means. Application development unlocked that innovation capability of the company and we are proving that we can improve the quality of life in a material way on the global scale.
What is your organization known for?
Historically, the Eastman Technology organization has been known for our deep technical expertise in process chemistry, analytical chemistry and process engineering for our technology platforms. And, as I said before, we are world class in process improvement. Our engineers are the best in the industry and this has been our strength for generations.
However, our vision is to also become the world’s leading materials innovation company for the markets that we serve. This means we will drive differentiation through our technical service organization and we will leverage our application development capability to design new products that provide practical solutions to our customer base. How we are perceived is already changing in our markets and with our customers today. We now show up with deep insight of our markets, the entire value system and the macro-trends which are driving change. This creates a very different set of conversations with our customers and positions us to be a strategic part of their success. We are definitely not done, but the proof points are beginning to mount and we are on track to deliver our vision.
What is the next project or product that you are most excited to explore?
I’m passionate about all of our Corporate Top 10 Growth Platforms. They all are addressing real-world problems driven by significant macro-trends forcing global change and provide us a real opportunity to make a difference in the world.
But, one platform has recently emerged and has us all excited. Recent sustainability-driven trends in thermoplastics and textiles are really starting to accelerate. Everywhere you look someone is writing or talking about post-consumer plastics waste and how best to manage it … how do we prevent debris from getting to the ocean, how do we slow down materials from going into landfills and how do we enable a circular economy. This issue is now moving even faster with a European Union directive designed to minimize the impact of single-use plastics on the environment. But the problem is … there is not one simple solution, and we must think completely through the consequences of the choices being made here. Solving this problem will require different approaches, and practically speaking, this issue can best be solved cleanly at the molecular level and by basic material suppliers like us. As we continue to dig in here, we now know we are uniquely positioned to make a material difference and take a leadership role globally. I look forward to sharing more very soon.
What are issues that you find yourself addressing over and over again?
That’s easy. How do we speed up innovation? How do we go faster getting new products in the market?
I think everyone was surprised when we first started saying we want to be “The Leading Material Innovation Company” for the markets we serve. No doubt, that’s aspirational! But I can tell you, we are absolutely entitled to do so. Our company has truly transformed our portfolio of products. The markets that we serve have huge needs and demand innovation, and our technology platforms have proven they are world class and can be tuned to provide solutions. We just have to execute and go faster. This begins with our sales teams being inquisitive and great at discovery, our marketing teams being committed to EBME and driving sophisticated market activation plans and our technology teams executing flawlessly. And all of us being relentlessly in the market and collaborating with our customers with full transparency. It’s definitely up to us – we have been given the opportunity.
How do #materialsmatter to you?
I think there’s a key insight that everyone’s coming to, whether it’s us or the brands. The types of complex problems we’re trying to solve today require collaboration and innovation across the entire value system. The fact that we are integrated back to commodity raw materials mean we control the molecular design of the specialty materials or additives. This puts us in a leading role to innovate for new solutions that consumers desire. They need us to play our role.
What external technology gets you excited?
I spend most of my time focused on our own markets and technologies as we have a lot going on. However recently, my sons -- who are both studying chemical and biomolecular engineering – have been talking a lot about their research in the biochemistry area. It is absolutely fascinating how the field is advancing in improving human health by combing the disciplines of engineering, biology and medicinal treatment. The research is now going even faster using computational tools and data analytics. Normally my sons tell me about the science, and I tell them what’s going to be hard about scaling it up ... I know that sounds pretty nerdy, but we also argue about which NBA team is the best and what’s wrong with the football draft system.
What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
Go faster! Lean in more, especially across the matrix! And be willing to be wrong.
Also, for my own personal development, I would’ve spent more time in the market. Eastman is succeeding now because we’re engaging with both our direct customers and the entire value system. It doesn’t matter what role you’re in. We all need to understand how our products are used and what we need to do to differentiate them and create more value for our customers.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced, and how did you deal with it?
From a leadership perspective, the biggest challenge has been learning how to lead through change. If your shifting strategies and your impatient, that’s a bad combination. For any organization that is shifting strategies, just communicating a vision is not enough. At the end of the day, everyone on the team has to understand where you’re going, why you’re going there and specifically what changes they have to make in their role on a daily basis. Most importantly, they all have to want to do it and believe it’s achievable. This takes great communication and repetition with consistency from everyone. At the end of the day, organizations aren’t designed to self-assemble; everyone has to play their role. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m finished with this challenge, but we are making progress and I’m very proud of our company.
From a personal perspective, it’s work-life balance. I get very focused and can often spend significant amounts of time trying to solve a problem. Nothing wrong with that unless you overdo it. One of my mentors early on told me this was a de-railer and actually hurt my efficiency. She was correct and I’m glad she told me. I now schedule breaks, a time during the weekend when I do my best have at least 24 hours with minimal to no work engagement, and when I’m with my family, I do my best to be all there. These breaks allow me to start fresh and reset my focus. I think everyone has to find what will work for them. Most important, they need to have someone, a personal mentor, that will tell them when they have a problem.
What’s something you want to get better at?
Providing focus for my team. In our line of work, there is always more to do and competing priorities. We have to be choiceful and decisive. We have to get the waste out of the system and get the most critical things done sooner. That starts with me.
What’s your go-to Leadership reference book?
“Authentic Leadership,” by Bill George – It’s an oldie but goodie. I think it came out in the early 2000s and Dante Rutstrom gave me the book. The concepts are simple, but I’m always surprised at the things I’m NOT doing every time I reference it.
Coffee or tea?
Neither one – but I do have a weakness for diet soft drinks.
Droid or iOS?
Kindle or book?
Handwritten notes or computer notes?
Handwritten notes. It’s how I think, plus I like to draw lines through things once I get them done.
What are you reading right now?
I just started a book called “Originals” by Adam Grant. Curt [Espeland, Eastman’s CFO] gave it to me just before the holidays. It focuses on why some ideas are breakthroughs and some never get traction. What differentiates them and how can you build the skill for the pattern recognition. I think Curt wants me to speed up as well.