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The Past, Present and Future of DuPont

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Past: In 1802 Eleuthère Irénée (E.I.) du Pont (1771-1834) broke ground on July 19 for the company that bears his name. He had studied advanced explosives  production techniques with the famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier. PHOTO COURTESY OF DUPONT

In the early 1970s, “The Company” filled at least three office buildings in downtown Wilmington and more on its outskirts, its chemists and managers lived side by side in comfortable suburban areas like Brandywine Hundred, its manufacturing sites stretched from Edgemoor on the banks of the Delaware River to Seaford in southwestern Sussex County, and its employees comprised a significant bloc in Delaware’s General Assembly. 

Today, says former Gov. Pete du Pont, “it’s still a big company, but it’s not quite as broad as it once was across the state.”

Indeed, while DuPont, the company (with the capital D and no space before the P), may no longer dominate Delaware, “it makes a unique impression on the state,” University of Delaware historian Jonathan Russ says, and it does so in a way that no other company has anywhere in the nation.

And the same holds true for du Pont, the family (with a lower-case d and a space before the P), still unquestionably Delaware’s first. (Sorry, Joe and Beau, but your roots are in Pennsylvania, and you haven’t been here for 212 years.)

Members of the latest generation “may not have the name du Pont, and they may not be the richest people on the block, but they have a sense of civic-mindedness that mandates that they give back in some way,” says Charlie Copeland, a du Pont with a different surname who gives back by serving on numerous nonprofit boards and as state chairman of the Republican Party.

“There’s probably as much money today in the du Pont family, maybe more, but it’s dispersed over many, many more people than it once was,” says former Gov. Mike Castle.

In different ways, du Pont, Russ, Copeland and Castle are echoing each other. What we see—of both the family and the company—may have changed, but their essence has not. And the change we see in Delaware is the result of the change that envelops us—the inevitable generational branching that extends wealth and influence farther from its roots and the globalization that has made the company town, or in Delaware’s case, the company state, increasingly anachronistic.

“Today, when somebody says ‘the company state,’ I think of it as meaning ‘the state where everybody incorporates,’” says Fred Sears, the son of a former DuPont Co. personnel manager who went to work for Delaware Trust Co., a bank started by members of the du Pont family, and is now head of the Delaware Community Foundation.

 

 

The Company

From its founding in 1802, the DuPont Co. has always prided itself on being ahead of the curve. E.I. du Pont started the business believing he could make better gunpowder than his competitors. A century later, cousins Pierre S., T. Coleman and Alfred I. began the transformation from powder making to chemicals. At the start of the 21st century, DuPont has undergone yet another transformation, centering its focus on food, energy and protecting human life and the ecosystem.

With each of those changes has come a geographical adjustment as well. In the 19th century, five du Ponts spanning three generations guided what was quite literally a booming family business with its headquarters and main operations located at the site of the original powder mills. When the cousins, the fourth generation of family leaders, took control, they moved the headquarters into the new DuPont Building in downtown Wilmington. More office buildings followed, first downtown and later in the suburbs. The Experimental Station, built on the east side of the Brandywine in 1903, continued to expand, and other research sites followed, at Chestnut Run and in the Newark area. Most of DuPont’s manufacturing was conducted out of the state, but the operations in Delaware were significant, especially titanium dioxide in Edgemoor, nylon in Seaford and pigments in Newport.

The familiar oval DuPont logo seemed to be everywhere in Delaware and so were its people. Wilmington was “the Chemical Capital of the World,” Seaford “the Nylon Capital of the World,” and in 1972, with the publication of a report by the Ralph Nader Study Group, Delaware would forever be known as “The Company State.” 

“It didn’t matter where you lived,” says Rich Heffron, acting president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, “there was somebody from DuPont in your neighborhood.” 

It’s not that way anymore. As DuPont has expanded its global operations into 90 nations, including the United States, it has shrunk its presence in Delaware, from an estimated 25,000 employees in the early 1970s to about 7,000 today, according to a recently retired DuPont public relations executive. (Precise numbers are hard to come by. Although it has 67,000 employees worldwide, DuPont doesn’t release employment data by location. The figures it provides the state are not considered public information because they are associated with unemployment insurance reporting, according to the state Department of Labor.)

Headquarters operations, which stretched over three city blocks in the 1970s, are primarily in the DuPont Building today. The suburban Barley Mill office complex, filled with middle-management executives in the 1970s and ’80s, has been sold and is now the focus of a redevelopment controversy. The Seaford nylon plant was sold in 2006, and the titanium dioxide plant will be spun off as a separate entity by mid-year, a company spokesman said.

“What we’re seeing in this 40-year sweep [since the 1970s] is a firm looking for different pathways,” Russ says.

That sweep included the purchase of a major petroleum producer (Conoco) in 1981 in response to escalating oil prices, and then a venture into pharmaceuticals a decade later. While many units were operating successfully, “it wasn’t clear to the marketplace what this company was,” says J. Michael Bowman, who was vice president for advanced materials when he ended his DuPont career in 1997 to take over management of the Delaware Technology Park, an incubator for high-tech startups.

 

DuPont sold its Conoco holdings in 1999 and unloaded the unit that had become DuPont Pharmaceuticals in 2001. In addition, it divested itself of many of its mature business units—paints, polymers, fibers—in what Bowman calls “a beautiful remodeling.” With the acquisition of the Pioneer seed business in the late 1990s and Danisco, the Denmark-based producer of food ingredients and enzymes, the company is now dominated by life sciences—food, seed and biofuels—but it has kept two signature product lines from the 1960s: Kevlar and Tyvek, renowned for their use in body armor and building wraps, respectively.

“They redid their whole portfolio and I think they’re looking at this as their next long run,” Bowman says, “and I look at long run as a 50-year period, not five years.”

“We believe DuPont is uniquely positioned to capitalize on growth in markets where the increasing demand for more and healthier food, renewably sourced materials and fuels, and advanced industrial materials is creating global opportunities,” says Ellen J. Kullman, DuPont’s president and CEO.

As DuPont’s leaders remade the company, they also altered its standing in Delaware.

While the 111-year-old Experimental Station, which Kullman calls “the heart of our scientific engine,” still beats strong, bumps in the road over the last three decades led to cutbacks in management staffing, especially in the Wilmington area, and the disappearance of the benevolent “Uncle Dupie,” the paternalistic employer who seemed to promise great pay, first-rate benefits and secure pensions guaranteed to last a lifetime.  

But these changes reflect not a company in decline, but one whose reach has broadened. And the change reflects patterns seen elsewhere in the country, where the company town is no longer what it once was. Eastman Kodak no longer defines Rochester, N.Y. American automakers may have redefined themselves but Detroit is no longer synonymous with well-paying blue-collar jobs. Medical centers and universities rival steel for primacy in Pittsburgh, and insurance companies hold less sway in Hartford, Conn., than they did a generation ago, Heffron says. 

DuPont’s redefinition followed passage of the signature legislation of Pete du Pont’s two terms as governor, the Financial Center Development Act of 1981, which transformed Wilmington from “chemical capital” to “credit card capital.” 

“When we passed that bill, we talked to DuPont, and we talked to Al Giacco at Hercules, and they all thought it would be good,” the former governor recalls. 

“It was the right decision at the right time,” Charlie Copeland says.

The legislation served its purpose: The banks came to Delaware and diversified the state’s economy.

“[Senator] Tom Carper likes to talk about the ‘three C’s of Delaware’—chemicals, cars and chickens. I’m not sure in what order,” Castle says. “Chickens are still around, the cars are all but gone and the chemical industry has changed. But banking has become an important player in the state. Thank God for that. Without it, I’m not sure where we would be on the unemployment rolls.”

MBNA, one of the first banks to arrive, would become the world’s largest independent credit card issuer. The outsized presence of its CEO, Charlie Cawley, coupled with its high-profile philanthropy and aggressive construction projects in Wilmington and near Newark, helped MBNA, in the view of many observers, to temporarily eclipse DuPont from the late 1990s until its acquisition by Bank of America in 2006. (Bank of America is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., however, so DuPont once again is clearly the largest of the companies having
headquarters operations in Delaware.)

But it does not dominate—and neither do any of its rivals for statewide primacy. “There’s no corporate leader … not like there used to be,” Heffron says.

And, later this year, when the spinoff of performance chemicals into a separate and still-unnamed business is complete, Kullman says Wilmington and Delaware “will have two companies well equipped to compete in their own markets and to deliver value.”

 

 

The Family

It’s easy to forget that the du Ponts weren’t always Delaware’s first family. The Rodneys, Reads and Bedfords, among others, had made their mark well before E.I. du Pont and family settled on the banks of the Brandywine in 1802. 

But the family’s hold on the company—11 heads of the business spanning five generations from 1802 through 1967 (including Walter S. Carpenter, whose brother married a family member)—easily surpasses the Fords, Rockefellers and other American familial corporate dynasties.

Most of those businesses rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “By the time they were getting started, DuPont was in its fourth generation,” notes Nathan Hayward III, one of the 195 adult descendants of Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours (E.I.’s father) living in Delaware as of 2011, according to the du Pont Genealogy Committee.

For generations, the family controlled both the executive suite and the board of directors. As recently as 1970, family members held nine of the 24 seats on the board, and seven of the nine had been company employees.

Today, there is only one family member on the board: Eleuthère “Thère” du Pont, the son of the former governor—and he never worked for the company. 

Pete du Pont, now 78, was part of the last generation of family members who anticipated carving out a career with the company. He majored in mechanical engineering at Princeton, not out of any great love for the subject, but because “that is what you did” if you anticipated working for the family business.

But Charlie Copeland, 50, grandson of Lammot du Pont Copeland, the last of 11 family members to serve as the company president, remembers “talking with some of my cousins when we were teenagers about how we weren’t going to work for the company.”

Copeland, however, did work for the company for seven years, in information systems assignments in Wilmington and in Mississippi, after graduating from Duke University. By the early ’90s, both he and the company were seeking new directions. “I wanted to be more entrepreneurial,” he says in explaining his decision to return to Duke for his MBA.

Copeland, in addition to heading the state Republican Party, now runs Associates International, a direct-mail and printing business.

One of Copeland’s cousins, W. Laird Stabler III, a lawyer and lobbyist, says he never thought of working for DuPont. “I always thought I’d go into a private practice, never with a corporation,” he says. Besides, he adds, “I figured they would be looking for people with a technical or scientific background, subjects I wasn’t strong at.”

Neither Copeland nor Stabler could name any relatives now employed by the company, and both said they wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t any.

“There are many bright members of this family who are very successful, but chose for one reason or another not to go to the company for employment,” Stabler says. 

 

To the outsider, identifying who is a du Pont gets more challenging with each generation. Worldwide, there were 3,301 descendants of Pierre S. du Pont living in 2011—that’s roughly 80 percent of the family tree—but only 211 of them carried the du Pont surname, Hayward says. Today’s Delaware du Pont might be a Hayward or a
Copeland, or a Kitchell, a Lickle, a Carpenter, a Craven, a Ketcham, a Stabler or a Dean.

In a family so broad, there is no established hierarchy. Irénée du Pont Jr., known to family members as “Brip,” now in his 90s and still living at the Granogue estate built by his father, is considered the patriarch. However, Charlie Copeland says, “it’s not like somebody calls him [with a family issue] and asks, ‘What should we do?’”

Pete, the former governor, is the go-to guy for political conversation. Gerret Copeland and his wife, Tatiana, are acknowledged as the state’s leading philanthropists.

The family’s younger generations are seeking broader horizons than their parents did, and they are less likely to stay in Delaware, Stabler says. He cites his own children as examples, noting that his son went to college in Colorado and is working in Chicago and his daughter went to college in New Orleans and took a job in New York City.

And those who remain in the state are more likely than their parents and grandparents to try to blend into the larger society. “This generation,” he says, “does not wear du Pont on its sleeve.”

 

 

The Philanthropy

By now, most Delawareans have probably learned that, a century ago, T. Coleman du Pont built the DuPont Highway, linking Wilmington and Sussex County, that Pierre S. du Pont financed construction of 86 “colored schools” and 26 more for white students up and down the state, and that Alfred I. du Pont created a pension plan for needy elderly Delawareans and funded it out of his own pocket. Alfred’s philanthropy also led to the creation of Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.

The family’s philanthropic legacy would grow through a series of foundations. “The Company State,” the 1972 Nader report, noted that family members had established at least 36 charitable foundations that had assets totaling more than $400 million. The report stated that family members, individually and through their foundations, were then giving away more than $12 million a year.

That legacy continues today. At the top of the list is the Longwood Foundation, created by Pierre S. du Pont, whose 2012 filing with the Internal Revenue Service listed assets in excess of $577 million and gifts of more than $22.7 million. The Crystal Trust, established by Irenee du Pont, reported assets of nearly $142 million as of Sept. 30, 2012, and made distributions of nearly $11.5 million. 

The foundations’ beneficiaries include a broad cross-section of nonprofits, most of them in Delaware. Recent grant recipients include charter schools, private schools, library building campaigns, senior centers, hospitals, arts organizations, historical societies, The Grand Opera House, the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation and the Boy Scouts.

While family, foundation and corporate support for community needs has remained constant, there have been subtle but significant changes.

“When I came to Delaware in 1967, different members of the du Pont family had carved out certain spheres of philanthropic support,” says Joe Dell’Olio, longtime executive director of Child Inc. “Henry and Martha ‘Muffin’ du Pont were interested in helping children. Henry was also interested in working with ex-offenders and Muffin in mental health. Jean K. du Pont was concerned about prisons and corrections, and others focused on the arts.”

Family members, notably Gerret and Tatiana Copeland, “are still heavy contributors to the arts, but in social services, I don’t hear very much,” Dell’Olio says. “Is there an angel today for mental health like Martha? No. Is there an angel for corrections like Jean? No.”

The dispersal of wealth has had an impact, says Annette Woolard Provine, daughter of former DuPont CEO Edgar Woolard and former development director at the Delaware Historical Society.

Before she died in 2001, Pamela Copeland, Gerret Copeland’s mother, “supported pretty much every nonprofit in Delaware, and was a keystone for so many of them,” Provine recalls. “But Mrs. Copeland started telling all the charities she supported, ‘You folks are going to have to stop depending on me, and on us, to support you.’”

 

And that, Provine says, is pretty much what has happened in the past decade or so.

Du Pont family members still are significant donors to Delaware charities, says Sears, the Delaware Community Foundation president and CEO, but since they have so many different surnames, “you might have one of these folks supporting your organization and you won’t even know they’re a du Pont.”

“As generations go along, the pot of money gets split up, and split up and split up,” Stabler says. “Family members today don’t have the capability of making gifts with the kind of significance” that their parents and grandparents made.

The Copelands merit a high profile for their financial support of the arts, most notably the Delaware Art Museum, Delaware Symphony Orchestra, The Grand Opera House and OperaDelaware.

“They’ve saved my bacon many times,” says Steve Bailey, The Grand’s executive director. Their premier accomplishment, Bailey says, might be in having convinced arts organizations to collaborate more and compete less. 

About seven years ago, Bailey says, Tatiana Copeland brought together the executive directors and board chairs of The Grand, the art museum, the symphony, OperaDelaware and the Delaware Theatre Company and said, in essence, “you are going to do these things because you need to do these things if you want to survive.” Those meetings, he says, spawned the Delaware Arts Alliance, a statewide arts advocacy organization, as well as the ubiquitous In Wilmington marketing campaign, and increased state funding for the arts.

As for the foundations, Bailey and other nonprofit leaders say that Longwood has become more rigorous in its reviews of grant applications since Thère du Pont took over as its president in 2009.

“Thère has been driving a more professional set of policies around what nonprofits do to be deserving of donations,” Sears says. No longer is it simply a matter of asking for money. Rather, he says, “it’s what are you trying to do, how are you measuring it, and before you come back for more, you’ve got to demonstrate to us that you’re successful.”

Support for this approach comes from Cristina Alvarez, CEO of the Delaware Design-Lab High School, a new charter school planning to open in Wilmington this fall, which received a $250,000 challenge grant to help with startup expenses. “Foundations have to be accountable for how they steward funds. I understand why [Thère du Pont] said we’re going to ask you to specify measurable results. I don’t have a problem with that,” Alvarez says.

 

The perception in the community is that the DuPont Co. isn’t quite as generous as it once was, but business and nonprofit leaders say this is the result of a generational change in how big corporations do business. They say there’s much more emphasis on profits, on accountability to stockholders, and on meeting the expectations of Wall Street analysts now than there was back in the 1970s. 

“They’re still doing their part, but not like they used to. I don’t know the numbers. They don’t divulge what they actually give,” Sears says.

“DuPont philanthropy efforts are strategically aligned with our mission,” says Sylvia Banks, the company’s manager of corporate contributions and memberships. While the company continues to support organizations like the United Way of Delaware, cultural events like the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival and construction projects like the Wilmington Hospital expansion, its philanthropy and social investment are being transformed as the company itself transitions. This means, Banks says, “prioritizing our support to science-based initiatives that address global challenges such as feeding a growing population, securing our energy future and protecting people and the environment.”

While there may be fewer DuPonters in politics or on school boards now than in the ’70s (but there are also far fewer school boards in New Castle County now), Kullman says the company still encourages employees to become active members of the community.

“I would rather see someone join a school board or coach a team because it is their interest and passion, rather than because it is good brand-building for the company,” she says.

 

The Future

While the company’s outlook is indisputably global, what happens in Delaware has a lot to do with making it possible, Kullman says. The number of scientists and engineers at the Experimental Station has increased and research on “aspects of every facet of our science portfolio” is taking place there, she says. 

For example, the labs at the Experimental Station are the site of cutting-edge research in nutrition and health, identifying and creating food ingredients that offer the promise of benefits in obesity and weight management, cold and flu-like symptoms, digestion, cardiovascular ailments and diabetes.

And Bowman, who has nurtured former DuPonters starting their own businesses at the Delaware Technology Park, anticipates more linkages involving the company, the technology park and the University of Delaware’s new STAR campus. Such collaborations, he says, could lead to partnerships with DuPont and ideas for fresh product lines. 

At a global forum in Switzerland in January, Kullman addressed DuPont’s plan to develop solutions to feed a growing global population that is expected to swell from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Clearly, DuPont is shedding its chemical skin as it embraces the agriculture, nutrition and health industries.

The du Pont family will endure as well. While their profiles might not be as high, the sheer number of family members and their representation on the boards of foundations and other nonprofits ensures that their influence still thrives. 

But no matter what the future holds, the family and corporate landmarks—Winterthur, Longwood, Nemours and Hagley—still stand and their heritage is likely here forever. 

“It might not loom as large as it had been,” says Russ. “But Delawareans still think of DuPont as their company.”   

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