In the C-Suite: W. L. Gore & Associates CEO Bret Snyder
NEWARK – Less than a month after taking over as W. L. Gore & Associates’ CEO, Bret Snyder recognizes that he has some big shoes to fill.
As the grandson of company founders Bill and Vieve Gore, Snyder is the first family member to lead the multi-billion-dollar, private manufacturing company since his uncle, the late famed Gore-Tex inventor Robert Gore, stepped down from the helm 20 years ago. But Snyder has also been preparing for this role for more than 20 years.
“You have to enter a role like this with a lot of humility, know you have a lot to learn and that you’re going to be depending on other people in your team around you for success,” he said. “We’re in a good place with strong leadership, healthy products, and having navigated through this pandemic.”
A lifelong Delawarean, Snyder got a strong background in innovation and entrepreneurship from both sides of his family, noting his paternal grandfather owned an auto body shop in Newark for many years and his father was a mechanical engineer. His mother, Elizabeth Snyder, the youngest of the five Gore children, also co-founded the award-winning Greenville restaurant Pizza by Elizabeths.
From an early age, Snyder was curious about the sciences, even if it wasn’t about the fluoropolymers with which the Gore family has become synonymous.
“When I was younger, I remember my parents talking about the energy crisis in the ‘70s and having to wait in line to get gas at the gas station. I wanted to invent a car that didn’t run on gas, so I always had an urge toward invention and science,” he said.
Snyder went on to earn a chemical engineering degree from Brown University and later a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Washington. After graduating, he didn’t want to walk into the family business without any experience, so he accepted a job at Philadelphia-based Rohm and Haas.
There he worked in research and development, particularly related to agriculture, and it allowed him to travel to research sites in Mexico and Europe. He helped scale up an in-house project tasked with improving fruit and vegetable freshness through picking, packaging, and shipping. It has since spun off to an independent company, AgroFresh.
“That was pretty exciting because it started really from that idea and it evolved into manufacturing, operations, customer service, and then all the way into a commercial launch,” he said.
After five years at Rohm and Haas, Snyder arrived at W. L. Gore & Associates in 2008, joining the ranks of its many research scientists.
“I was on the production floor, making new materials, running experiments, working with people in manufacturing and in the lab testing materials,” he said, calling that a great way to experience up-close Gore’s often-touted unique corporate culture that eschews traditional hierarchy and titles in favor of “lattice organization” based on open communication and collaboration.
“That [time on the floor] really influenced my leadership because it’s easy to get disconnected if you’re not careful,” he said. “I think you make your best decisions and do the best job in leadership when you solicit and connect directly to people in all different roles in the organization.”
Snyder’s nearly eight years in Gore’s R&D labs prepared him for his then biggest role in 2016, when he took over for his uncle Bob as chairman of the board for Gore.
“You have to push yourself into areas where you’re not 100% comfortable if you really want to grow,” he said.
His uncle was a mentor to him as he assumed the top decision-making role for the global company with about 11,000 employees, including 3,000 in the Delaware region. He also attended and contributed to the John Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware in prep for the role.
When Snyder took on the role of CEO from departing leader Jason Field on Oct. 9, it was the first time that the top roles had been co-held since Bob Gore did it in 2000. For 20 years, the chief executive roles were held by three non-family members who had long served in the company, Charles Carroll, Terri Kelly, and Field. They all have served as advisors to Snyder as he assumes the new lead position, he said.
“Jason has helped me to think about how to focus on what’s important,” he said. “My uncle taught me you’re in that ‘unknown unknown zone’ a lot; you don’t know what you don’t know. He definitely reinforced the importance of talking to a lot of people and getting a lot of points of view on things before developing a strong perspective.”
In looking ahead, Snyder said he sees strong growth for Gore products in the health care sector, including on a Type 1 diabetes cell therapy with San Diego-based startup ViaCyte and a Crohn’s disease cell therapy with the Mayo Clinic, as well as several ophthalmological projects, including the development of an artificial cornea with Johns Hopkins University researchers. Gore is also targeting the renewable energy market, assisting with fuel cell technology particularly geared toward hydrogen-powered vehicles in Asia, as well as filtration units aimed at capturing mercury from coal-fired power plants.
While most of Gore’s products trace back to the expanded polytetrafluoroethylene, or e-PTFE, that Bob Gore invented decades ago, Snyder said he hopes to expand the company’s horizons under his tenure as well.
“We have continued to expand our non-PTFE work and one of the things I’m excited about is continuing to use our materials expertise and our focus on science and data to solve problems where the solution doesn’t necessarily involve anything with PTFE,” he said. “We are actively pursuing a number of those things, with some getting pretty late-stage and some in the earlier stages.”
By Jacob Owens