MY WASHINGTON • Winter 2000

Learning All the Way

William Patient credits his mentors with helping him become a successful businessperson and community leader.

Left: Bonnie and William Patient, B.S.Ch.E. '57

Learning is not a solitary pursuit. William F. Patient, B.S.Ch.E. '57, has drawn that realization from his lifelong pursuit of knowledge and understanding. He easily gives credit where it's due, when he tells how he got from where he started to where he is today. Many friends, acquaintances, and mentors helped transform a young man from southern Illinois into the retired chemical company executive and community leader who helps others have a chance at better lives.

He recalls the high school teachers who helped him get into college. He remembers, with particular respect and affection, the professors who nurtured his ambition and interest in engineering. He praises associates in business who allowed—and encouraged—him to follow his instincts and put his ideas into practice. He speaks most lovingly of his wife, Bonnie, his high school sweetheart and companion for more than four decades.

He also credits others who shared insights about global business and living in diverse cultures, who set an example for community involvement, and who have shared their enthusiasm for Washington University.

"I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't had people who cared enough to help me, mentor me, and educate me. ... My education has been a blessing," Patient says.

But Patient deserves the credit for knowing what he wanted out of life and for seizing opportunities that came his way. Growing up across the river from St. Louis and knowing that only one member of his family had gone to college, he was determined to go. But there was the matter of money.

"The brothers at Central Catholic High School in East St. Louis stepped in and sent me to St. Mary's College in San Antonio, Texas," Patient says. After a couple of years, though, he dropped out because he wanted to be an engineer, and St. Mary's didn't have an engineering program. He came back to St. Louis and went to work at a flour mill.

Patient's job enabled him to attend night school. He went to see Dean Lawrence E. Stout at Washington University's School of Engineering and said he wanted to study engineering but that he had to finish in two years. "Stout told me it would be a snap," he laughs, "and he damned near killed me my junior and senior years. But I did make it, and I always thought I got a good education. Chemical engineering was a very good department; the faculty members were outstanding, and the School was the size where people knew you and cared about you—things you didn't see at a large state university." Bill also married Bonnie, whom he'd dated since high school, during his senior year.

In 1957, armed with a chemical engineering degree and accompanied by his new wife, he set off to join American Oil Company in Texas. "I was one of the few in my class who didn't go to work for a St. Louis chemical company," he says, "but I wanted to go to the Gulf Coast and get involved in the oil industry because I really loved process engineering. I was able to take some graduate courses while I was there. It was a great experience."

But short-lived. A bitter refinery strike persuaded the company to move its R&D facilities from Texas City to Whiting, Indiana. Patient didn't want to go there, so they offered him an alternative: join their new chemical business in Joliet, Illinois.

He did, but, he says, "I eventually decided that the oil company didn't understand the chemical business." He heard about a small operation in West Virginia, just starting with a new plastic called ABS. "I was fascinated by the plastics business, which wasn't all that big then," he says, joking about the scene from The Graduate.

It was a small company, but part of a larger one: Borg-Warner Corporation. That career move in 1962 took him to Borg-Warner for almost 28 years. "When I got there the chemical company was worth about $30 million. When I left, it was worth a couple of billion," he says. Patient's career paralleled the company's growth. He became vice president for sales and marketing, then vice president for manufacturing, and, in 1980, president of Borg-Warner Chemicals Europe.

The six years he, Bonnie, and their five children spent in Europe—plus assignments in Japan, Australia, and Canada—sharpened Patient's understanding of global business and his appreciation for the cultures he encountered. His lighthearted appraisal: "Bonnie and I were 'industrial gypsies.'"

Like many undervalued companies in the '80s era of mergers, acquisitions, and leveraged buy-outs, Borg-Warner was hotly courted. The company devised its own pre-emptive LBO. Knowing the business would have to be split up, Borg-Warner decided to auction off the chemical company, star of the portfolio, to GE.

Patient stayed for the transition, retiring in 1989 at age 55. Learning he was available, the BF Goodrich Company invited him to talk about their chemical business. "I thought it might be some kind of turn-around thing—I'd stay three or four years, change the business, then go back into retirement," he says.

"But things didn't work out that way. After a thorough strategic evaluation, Goodrich decided it didn't want to be in the PVC business and asked me to take the division public as a new corporation. I didn't hesitate to say yes to that proposal."

Thus, the Geon Company, with Patient as chairman, president, and chief executive officer, was born in 1993. Despite its history of leadership in vinyl resins and compounds, the newly independent company was underperforming. Patient and his management team came up with plans to cut costs, improve operating efficiencies, and increase productivity. In 1997, they further reshaped Geon from a domestic commodity chemical company into an international company focused on polymer technology, service, and innovation.

Patient's second "retirement" in 1999 gave him more time to devote to the community. As chairman of the board of Cleveland State University, he maintains an office in the school's business administration building a few blocks from Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland and adjacent to Playhouse Square, a reinvigorated theater district that's part of a striking downtown rebirth. He is a trustee of the Playhouse Square Foundation and other organizations, including the University Hospitals Health System, the Musical Arts Association, and the Greater Cleveland Roundtable. He is also on the board of Navistar International.

"I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't had people who cared enough to help me, mentor me, and educate me. I feel so grateful to Washington University. My education has been a blessing," he declares.

Which helps explain his current priorities: He is leading an urban university that extends opportunities to economically disadvantaged young people, serving on the Ohio Governor's Commission on Student Success, and serving as chair of Washington University's Cleveland Regional Cabinet and on the School of Engineering & Applied Science National Council. Last spring, he presided over the kickoff of the Cleveland Regional Campaign.

Bill Patient has come full circle. The young man helped to achieve his dreams by others now is the mentor, repaying those acts of kindness and caring. The lesson was learned well.

—John W. Hansford