|Norman Foster, B.S.Ch.E. '60, M.S.E.A. '64
The Right Time, the Right Place, the Right
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.
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 byproductsand 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
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 industrieswhich
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.
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 tuitionan 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
schoolin partnership with the business schooloffered
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 jobpresident 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.
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 highthe 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
grownfrom 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.