24 October 2001 16:38 [Source: ICIS news]
HOUSTON (CNI)--When Methanex chief executive Pierre Choquette attended Catholic high school in Quebec City, Canada, his Jesuit teachers stressed two major traits: discipline and teamwork.
Choquette recalled: "The Jesuits were outstanding teachers and I think the main lessons taken from them were having the discipline to understand yourself and to be honest with yourself. The Jesuits had strong personal ethics. When you come from that type of background, you bring it to your business."
Such traits have served president and chief executive Choquette well over the past seven years, a time when Methanex endured the scorn of investors and the slings and arrows of analysts before metamorphasizing into one of the industry's major success stories last year.
Vancouver, British Columbia-based Methanex, the world's largest producer of methanol, had its first profitable year since 1997 in 2000, leaving it with a $400m cash hoard that Choquette and his lieutenants are considering distributing to shareholders. But Methanex didn't always enjoy such heady times. Three years ago the company posted a $68.4m loss following California Governor Gray Davis' pledge to ban methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as a gasoline additive in the Golden State.
Choquette vowed to fight, but for once in his business career he had miscalculated the opposition. He explained: "We underestimated the lobbyists and the politicians because we thought logic would prevail. MTBE isn't carcinogenic. The problem with MTBE is not that MTBE leaks into the water table, it’s that the gasoline storage tanks leak. Common sense says you should get at the source of the problem - prevent the leaks - and then you can have the best of all worlds: clean air and clean water."
It was an eye-opening experience for an individual who has spent his entire life in the chemicals business - a career his family never thought he would consider.
Said Choquette: "Growing up in Quebec City and being French Catholic, you received liberal arts training from the Jesuit priests. If you did well, the expectations were that you would become a priest, a lawyer or a doctor. But, much to my mother's dismay, I had a love for chemical engineering."
Determined to enter the industry early on, as a college student Choquette worked at Polysar Polymers, a major chemical concern. He joined the company full-time upon graduation. He recalls: "Working at Polysar was terrific. It had operations all over the world. It was great international training."
He also brought discipline instilled in him by the Jesuits to Methanex. Choquette recalls meeting one investor who asked him: "Pierre, why is it that when chief executives get close to the end of their careers, they feel this great urge to do a big diversification move and totally mess up a highly focused company that people understood well?"
Initially Choquette brushed off the question but the Jesuit introspection prevailed. Said Choquette: "We re-examined our strategy and decided we had tremendous opportunities to increase our core business and give shareholders a good return. We decided that, while diversification was tempting, we wouldn't do it. We decided to stick with the business we know."
Since then Methanex has concentrated on the methanol business - and is now reaping the rewards. Choquette has always felt the commodity chemicals business was a challenge because there is no differentiation of product. He's always believed that a company differentiates itself with a sound, easily understood strategy.
Said Choquette: " We have a simple strategy and a low-cost global position. We’re good at the methanol business We know how to create value. We love to operate on a global basis."
Perhaps the only regret Choquette, 59, has about his chemical career is that his golf game has suffered. A competitive player while at Laval University in Montreal, he had no handicap in the 1970s; he has a handicap of about 8 or 10 today.
Said Choquette: "I still enjoy golf. I played with Dave Antonio, senior vice president and group operating officer at Ashland a few weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio. It's a great way to interact with people."
When asked about retirement, Choquette demurs. "I love what I’m doing. We have a great team. I'm in good shape because this job - with our operations in Trinidad, Chile and New Zealand/Australia requires lot of energy. I expect to be here for a while."
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