Norman Foster, B.S.Ch.E. '60, M.S.E.A. '64

The Right Time, the Right Place, the Right Ideas

Norman Foster has parlayed a lifetime of finding creative, environmentally sound solutions for hazardous waste into, among other important endeavors, support for the University and its students.

Just as environmental protection regulation at the state and federal levels was becoming more stringent in the late 1970s, Norm Foster was starting a company in Detroit that put him squarely in the middle of the controversial issue of hazardous waste disposal.

Because of Foster's foresight and experience in the chemical industry, his company, Nortru, Inc., offered a timely, cost-effective service to industries needing to dispose of chemical waste byproducts—and provided an environmentally friendly alternative to landfill dumping.

Nortru's strict attention to regulations and procedural detail put the company in the good graces of both the Michigan and federal environmental protection agencies. It won the admiration and cooperation of both the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit, which saw it as a positive force in the effort to bring new industry into the region. In fact, the city and the state provided loans to grow the business when banks wouldn't. "You'd walk into a bank and say, 'My company handles hazardous waste,' and the banker would say, 'Have a nice day!'" says Foster. The banks eventually came on board after the company proved it could do what it said.

Foster's company became the largest in the United States in hazardous waste recycling and along the way became a technological pioneer. "We developed the technology we needed as we went along," Foster says. The company was among the first to produce solid and liquid fuels from hazardous wastes to replace coal, and it developed the first process to completely recover and recycle the wastes from steel drums and then treat and shred the steel into high-grade scrap metal. Clients who sought out Nortru's services were among the largest in the automotive, paint and chemical, and pharmaceutical industries—which all produce large quantities of waste byproducts.

The company grew from a handful of employees in 1979 to around 300 by 1993. It was the largest employer in an old industrial section of Detroit, and hired and trained workers from the inner city. Foster was president and owner of the company until it was sold to Philip Environmental, Inc., of Canada in 1993, and he became president of that company's U.S. Chemical Operations Division. He stayed on as president of the division for three years.

This success story has its roots in the home in which Foster grew up in University City, Missouri. He was the only son of a tailor and his wife who were immigrants to the United States. "Neither of my parents finished eighth grade, but education was an important factor in their lives, and it became important to me," he says. Upon graduation from University City High School in 1956, Foster applied to Washington University's School of Engineering & Applied Science. "I never thought of going anywhere else," he says. "I was accepted and selected chemical engineering as my program."

While a University student, he also worked as a math proctor and for 30 hours a week in a grocery store, so he could afford the $330 tuition—an experience that left a lasting impression on him. When he received his chemical engineering degree, he immediately went to work for Monsanto Company as a chemical engineer at its Queeny plant. "I thought engineering was fun, but that's not where I wanted to be. I didn't want to be a specialist, I wanted to be a generalist."

As it happened, at that time the engineering school—in partnership with the business school—offered a master's program that fit his needs. "The program in engineering administration was conducted at night and on Saturdays, so it gave me an opportunity to go for my master's degree while I was still working," Foster says. The program paid off. Foster moved from the engineering side to the management side, and eventually ended up in finance. "So I did virtually everything within Monsanto except sales and marketing."

His wide-ranging experience at Monsanto provided him a boost toward his next job—president of PanAm Chemical Corporation in Toledo, Ohio. "It was a problem company that had trouble getting product out the door, and it had labor difficulties," Foster says. "We turned it around in 18 months." A change of ownership prompted him to move on to Oxy Metal Industries Corporation, a division of Occidental Petroleum with worldwide operations. He became its president and CEO. "If it had been an independent company, it would have been among the Fortune 300," he says.

"The cost of education is very high ... It's important to have the wherewithal to fund the scholarships necessary to bring in the kids who need the education and who contribute to the growth and development of the University ..."

By 1979, acting on his strong belief that recycling was long overdue in a country with a throw-away mentality, he formed his own company, Nortru, Inc. It allowed him to combine his education, his experience, his instincts, and his ideas; for some it might have been a risky venture, but Foster was confident that he would succeed. And succeed he did.

His "retirement" in 1997 didn't last long. He had other ideas to pursue. He is now chairman of Ash Services, LLC, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, a company that finds beneficial uses for the ash coming out of power plants. "If they burn coal, they have ash," Foster says. The company has developed a new technology for separating low-carbon from high-carbon ash. Low-carbon ash can be used as a replacement for cement in concrete. "It's substantially cheaper and structurally the same," he says matter-of-factly.

His success and the start he got at Washington University prompted Foster to become a sponsor in the Engineering Scholarship Program in 1984, as part of the Alliance campaign. "My parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary, and I thought, 'What better way to honor them for their support than to establish a scholarship in their names?'" He has since sponsored four annual and two endowed scholarships.

Becoming a scholarship sponsor was a natural step for Foster: "The cost of education is very high—the cost to the kids and their parents of getting into a university like this," he says. "It's important to have the wherewithal to fund the scholarships necessary to bring in the kids who need the education and who contribute to the growth and development of the University, just as it is to have the funds for the facilities to put them in. It's just super critical, because this University does an outstanding job of educating kids and developing them for the real world."

From that first reconnection through the scholarship program, Foster's involvement with the University has grown and grown—from being a member of his class reunion committee to the Engineering National Council and the National Endowed Scholarship Committee. But perhaps his most significant role is as a pioneer in the University's Regional Cabinet program. He was founding chair of the Detroit Regional Cabinet, the University's first, and chair of the Detroit Regional Campaign Committee. He also serves as vice chair of the National Regional Campaign Committee for the Campaign for Washington University. Furthermore, he serves on a new University support group in Naples, Florida, where he and his wife, Madeline, have their winter home. For his service and achievements, he has received both the Engineering Alumni Achievement Award in 1996 and the Distinguished Alumni Award at this year's Founders Day celebration.

Washington University is fortunate to have a loyal alumnus and dedicated volunteer like Norm Foster. He's not the only one who was in the right place at the right time.

—John W. Hansford