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Mastering Engineering Management: An Interview with Keith Donaldson

What do rare Australian animals, a German car manufacturer, and an international energy company have in common? They all owe a significant debt to McCormick's Master of Engineering Management program.

At least that's how Keith Donaldson (MEM '93) sees it.

The president of Engineered Materials, Inc. says his globalpackaging company – and Intercept, the anti-corrosive plastic technology it employs – would likely not exist if it weren't for his experience in the program. "The timing of the degree was absolutely perfect," he says. At the time Donaldson, who also holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Wayne State University, was working at Baxter Healthcare in Deerfield, Illinois. When the Intercept technology reverted back to its original owner, Bell Labs, he went with it, and found that Bell was ready to close the book on the product. Emboldened by courses in entrepreneurship and marketing he took in MEM, Donaldson formed a company that would manage the manufacturing and distribution of Intercept. "Because I had the confidence going forward with this project, we kept Intercept alive and we moved it forward," he says. "Without that, the technology basically would've been shut down and never would've been heard from again."

Intercept was developed in the mid-1980s by Bell Labs researcher John Franey as a way to combat costly corrosion of the company's equipment. According to Donaldson, Franey "figured out a way of reacting a highly reactive copper into a plastic, so it becomes basically a sacrificial corrosion site. It also becomes a reactive barrier to the gases that cause corrosion." The most common forms of corrosion protection are oils and foils, both of which pose significant environmental drawbacks. Foils are non-recyclable, which means the hundreds of thousands of tons of foil packaging used each year end up in landfills. Oils, meanwhile, must be cleaned, which requires the use of harsh chemicals.

Intercept offers a more environmentally friendly anti-corrosion solution for companies – and often saves them money in the process. In his work with Volkswagen's manufacturing plants in South Africa, Donaldson and his team were able to bring about a switch from using anti-corrosive oils on engine blocks during shipping to using Intercept plastic bags. The project won Volkswagen an environmental award – a rare feat for a car company --  for the tens of thousands of tons of CO2 emissions it was able to eliminate. The company was also "able to streamline packaging and eliminate a four-hour cleaning cycle they were having to do before to remove the oil," Donaldson says.

Donaldson's latest venture may have the highest stakes of anything he's worked on to date. "We're currently working with Chevron on the Gorgon project, which is Australia's largest LNG (liquid natural gas)'s the largest oil and gas find in that part of the world, but unfortunately it's right next to Barrel Island, the Australian version of the Galapagos. The island has an extremely sensitive ecosystem with flora and fauna that really aren't found anywhere else in the world." Chevron needed to find an effective way to decontaminate its equipment before sending it to the island for a three-year project. While this is typically done by fumigating the equipment with unstable sulfur and unstable chlorine gas, the process degrades metal pretty quickly. By using Intercept material in shrink form, the company has been able to neutralize the chlorine after it does its work and to protect its equipment for a prolonged period of time.

"None of this would've been possible without the MEM program," Donaldson says. In addition to exposing him to industrial engineering concepts that he uses regularly on the job, the program offered something he feels is sorely lacking in traditional engineering education: a focus on people skills. "One of the real weaknesses that we have in engineering is that we concentrate heavily on the technical side. With my undergraduate degree, I had maybe one free elective in the four-and-a-half years I went to school. It sets you up well to be a good engineer, but it doesn't prepare you to be able to deal with marketing people, to deal with sales people and understand what their motivations are. What the MEM degree allowed was a peek into the world of business...for me, it was a rounding out of my education."

Donaldson recalls two MEM experiences as being particularly impactful to his career. From the late professor Donald Frey, he learned the harsh realities of the business world. "He said that with a marketing plan, you basically want to look at your worst-case timeframe and your worst-case cashflow, and then double the time and halve the cash-flow and you're going to be at reality. I remember all of us kind of snickering at that one, but I've started up several companies since then and pretty much they always seem to follow his projection."

Through a course on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), Donaldson developed effective communication skills that have been useful in his international work. "The things I learned in that course, particularly with respect to active listening and trying to be able to understand the person on the other side of the table, I've really drawn on in negotiations and with my sales and marketing people across the world. Culture aside, people are basically the same no matter where they are, and having an understanding of what makes them tick has certainly helped."