Famed former DuPont CEO Woolard dies at 89
WILMINGTON – Edgar “Ed” S. Woolard Jr., the former CEO and chair of DuPont who led the company through tremendous restructuring in the early 1990s and emerged stronger for it, died Monday. He was 89.
A cause of death was not disclosed by his family, saying only that he passed away in his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Despite a lifelong career at the Delaware institution of DuPont, culminating with his six-year tenure at the helm, Woolard is perhaps best remembered by those outside the First State for his shorter service at Apple. As board chair of the computer company in the late 1990s, he pushed for founder Steve Jobs to return to the company that once spurned him, igniting a period of tremendous innovation at the company that is now synonymous with smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Woolard spent more than 40 years at DuPont, working at plants in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee before transferring to the company’s corporate headquarters in Wilmington in the 1970s. He worked his way through the C-Suite, never going more than three years without a promotion through his entire career, before being named CEO in 1989, succeeding Richard Heckert at the helm.
His tenure at the top of DuPont was a difficult one, marked by a massive workforce downsizing to reduce costs, a restructuring of the company’s executive suite to streamline decision-making, a refocusing of its product lines and increased attention to environmental impacts. But it was ultimately a successful period, with DuPont’s earnings increasing by 65% and its stock value by 160% at the end of his tenure.
Under Woolard’s leadership, DuPont ventured into biotechnology with DuPont-Merck and DuPont Pharma, and also transitioned more heavily in the electronics and industrials market that is the largest segment in the company today.
“Ed was a respected and charismatic leader. He led the company through a pivotal period of DuPont’s history – marked by significant transformation, new product innovation, international expansion, and operational improvements — all while maintaining his folksy, North Carolina charm. His commitment to environmental stewardship was one of his passions, leading the company to establish its first set of bold and ambitious sustainability goals,” the company said in a statement.
Born in 1934 in the small town of Washington, N.C., Woolard was the son of a bookkeeper and the owner of a pool hall.
“My mother, being very bright, always taught me, helped me, supported me, and encouraged me on the academic side. My dad, being gregarious and not that interested in academics, always helped me on the side of getting to know people, understanding people, being around people,” Woolard recalled in a 1999 oral history with the Science History Institute.
Woolard earned his degree in industrial engineering from the now-North Carolina State University and briefly worked at Alcoa before an even shorter stint in the Army. Returning home in 1957, he heard about a new DuPont plant that opened near Kinston, N.C.
It was the first polyester plant in the world, producing a DuPont product known as Dacron. Woolard would start as an engineer and work his way through supervisory positions before managing textile plants.
In 1975, he was tasked to conduct a review of DuPont’s textile business amid a sharp drop in sales amid the booming inflation of the period. He determined that the downturn was likely a new trend – a prescient observation that worsened with the 1979 oil crisis – and that DuPont needed to change its approach to innovation.
“We began to greatly reduce the number of people, reduce the number of projects, focus more on the customers, and depend less on big breakthroughs from scientists. We insisted on more improvements in variants and focused more on the processes and operations of our plants,” he recalled in the oral history.
His work on the task force pushed him onto the company’s executive committee, where he lobbied for the slimming of its middle management ranks to speed up decision-making.
Upon taking the helm in 1989, Woolard made a bold change to DuPont’s corporate structure by disbanding its executive committee, an intermediary panel between segment leaders and the board of directors that had been in place since 1903 but he felt were hampering quick decisions. He also broke up the departments of DuPont to remove siloed approaches to the company’s work.
After reviewing customer sales and needing to lower price points, Woolard also began a massive reduction in headcount at the company that would total 40,000 positions worldwide from 1991 to 1994. Delaware was particularly hard hit, moving from about 26,000 jobs to 10,000 by 1994.
“It reduced costs dramatically, but there were an awful lot of people who depended on DuPont in Delaware that the business just didn’t need anymore. Our people were great … identified so many things that didn’t add value to the customer,” Woolard recalled.
Calling the layoffs “the low point of my career,” he noted that the company tried to help those leaving by lowering the retirement age to 53 and adding five years seniority to departing members’ tenure.
“We had a belief that we had to treat the people that were leaving as humanely as possible, with as much respect and affection as possible, so that the people who stayed — they called themselves the “survivors” — the survivors felt good about themselves and about the company,” Woolard added.
The difficult medicine, which saved $3 billion a year, helped to stave off financial straits or proxy threats for DuPont.
Sen. Tom Carper, who was a congressman and then governor during Woolard’s tenure, said he was the leader that DuPont needed.
“He was steady at the helm as we say in the Navy. Just such a great leader at a time of transition for DuPont,” he told Delaware Business Times, noting that he would occasionally consult Woolard on economic matters for his input. “Ed never asked for favors, just wanted to give some advice and I think our results speak for themselves.
Former Delaware first lady Martha Carper, who also came from North Carolina and spent a career at DuPont during Woolard’s tenure, recalled that he was a “Southern gentleman” who was capable of connecting to everyone from the C-Suite to the plant floor.
“Ed had a brilliant mind and could remember names. We had a big celebration in the early 1990s for the 50th anniversary of nylon, and he came down to North Carolina where we had all the textile industry leaders there. He greeted them like he had never left,” she recalled. “He just had a real personal touch.”
Ellen Kullman, who would later become the first woman to lead DuPont as CEO, recalled her predecessor as “truly ahead of his time.”
“Ed was CEO when I joined the company. He had a commanding presence – outgoing, engaging and asked tough questions. He drove excellence through engagement of our people, our customers, the communities where we operate and our shareholders,” she said.
Woolard was the first DuPont chief executive – and one of the first CEOs in corporate America – to make environmental quality a hallmark of his administration, establishing an environmental services division and setting targets for the reduction of toxic emissions at the company’s plants.
In his first major speech after taking the top role, he told the audience in England that he saw his job as the company’s “chief environmentalist officer,” and committed DuPont to environmental reforms. Every quarter thereafter, Woolard gave a speech regarding the progress on environmental matters.
Under Woolard, DuPont began a major recycling program for plastic to reduce waste and Woolard would famously declare that the company would strive to produce “zero waste,” becoming one of the first companies to do so. He also committed DuPont to reducing emissions by 60%, reducing 32 carcinogens— or cancer-causing emissions — by 90%, setting aside land for wildlife habitat, taking heavy metals out of polymers and ending the practice of deep well disposal.
The legacy of DuPont’s impact on the environment remains a checkered one that it still deals with today, most notably with so-called “forever chemicals,” but Woolard’s leadership surely improved the company’s commitment to the environment.
“There’s been nothing in forty years of experience with DuPont that brought more pride, cohesion, and enthusiasm to our employees than what we’ve achieved in the environment,” he said in his oral history.
After stepping down from DuPont in 1996, Woolard was recommended by a friend to take a director role at Apple, which was then struggling to stay afloat following disastrous product launches. He took an active role in the company and dug into its finances and operations.
On July 4, 1997, Woolard was the director tasked with firing then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio and offering the job back to founder Steve Jobs. Ultimately, Jobs agreed but only if the majority of Apple’s board resigned, with Woolard one of only two holdouts.
The two would develop a longtime friendship as they righted the tech giant, with Jobs often calling Woolard in the middle of the night to bounce ideas off his mentor.
“Steve looked to Ed as somewhat of a father figure and comrade who helped steer Apple back on course,” recalled Bill Provine, a DuPont executive and Woolard’s son-in-law. “Fun to Ed was more of the business deal-making side and acting as a coach and/or advisor to many. He freely shared his wisdom and thoughts, but did not do the work for you. He helped you think through what the right thing to do was for you and those your work impacts.”
“A giant of a human being” was how Victor Battaglia Sr., a friend for more than 40 years, recalled Woolard this week.
“Ed was a giant humanitarian, who had the interest of every human being in mind. I always thought of him as a man put on Earth by God to show the rest of us how to live,” he added, noting that Woolard was quick to lend his time or donate money to worthy causes of all sizes.
In retirement, he formed the Woolard Family Foundation, and gave to causes including the Sunday Breakfast Mission, Delaware Art Museum, International Tennis Hall of Fame, Christian Outreach Efforts, Autism Delaware, Meals on Wheels, and Christ Church Christiana Hundred.
“Ed was a strong family man who always wanted to help and support others. He was strong in his faith and worked tirelessly to help others in need. Whenever anyone in our family needed something, Ed was there to help,” Provine said. “When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1988, Ed, even in his CEO role, got me connected to Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York City and traveled with me to most of my appointments there while I was undergoing my chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Ed always put family first.”
Woolard and his wife of 67 years, Peggy, shared a love of tennis. After retiring, they traveled the world to attend major tournaments, and he supported her in her service to the International Tennis Hall of Fame board of directors.
That experience drew them close to tennis legends Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss decades ago, and they have remained close friends while working on the common vision that women tennis players deserve the same compensation and recognition as their male counterparts.
Woolard is survived by his wife, Peggy Harrell Woolard, daughters Lynda Woolard and Annette Woolard-Provine, Provine, and two grandchildren.
A public service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 16 at Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Greenville. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Sunday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington or North Carolina State University College of Engineering in Raleigh, N.C.