Interview with Bob Wolffe, 2014 November 15

  • Early life and education
    Partial Transcript: "I came to DuPont right out of graduate school... I went to Lehigh and got a PhD..." "I'm a Washington D.C. native..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe describes his early life and education. He says that he is a Washington D.C. native, went to the University of Maryland and did his graduate work at Lehigh University. He describes how he had a post-doctoral fellowship in Brussels that he did not enjoy and asked DuPont, a company with whom he had previously interviewed, for a job. He says that he worked at the Pioneer Research lab.
    Keywords: Brussels, Belgium; chemical engineering; DuPont; Kevlar; Lehigh University; Pioneer Research lab; tires; University of Maryland; Washinton D.C.
  • Staffing and culture at the Pioneer Research lab
    Partial Transcript: "It was pretty much a mix, I mean, we didn't pay any attention to that." " got what you got..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe discusses the staffing at the research lab. He says that they did not pay attention to distinctions between people's different sub-fields. He briefly talks about the team that made Kevlar. He compares the atmosphere of the lab to a university and describes the university as being much more snobbish than the lab. He discusses growth and changes at the research lab. He says that the majority of competition at the lab was between management.
    Keywords: Carruthers Research Lab; chemical engineering; DuPont; Kevlar; management; Paul Morgan; Pioneer Research lab; Stephanie Kwolek
  • Getting involved with the Kevlar project
    Partial Transcript: "What happened was, they understood they had a high strength fiber on their hands, the advanced composites business was, at this point, in its infancy."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about the circumstances that led to him joining the Kevlar project. He talks about the early days of high strength composite materials. He says that he came into the project after having worked with aircraft and aerospace projects. After that he says his group's focus was to develop markets for Kevlar not related to the tire market. He explains that management treated the employees well, but lacked a larger vision.
    Keywords: aerospace; aircraft; carbon fiber; ceramic fibers; composite materials; D.O.D.; Department of Defense; helicopters; Kevlar; Louis Miner; management; Thomas Gage
  • Asides about management at DuPont and branding Kevlar
    Partial Transcript: "Let me give you an aside... this would be more in the Herb Blades, Paul Morgan, that part of the business, they had a pretty good handle on making high strength polyethylene..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about an incident where DuPont did chose not to continue work on a particular high strength polyethylene. He says that he believes that was a mistake as the material was important for military applications by Desert Storm. He tells another story about working with Lockheed and the naming of Kevlar. He says that the people he was selling Kevlar to at Lockheed gave him a humorous presentation that suggested DuPont should brand the material as "Hardon."
    Keywords: branding; Desert Storm; DuPont; Herbert Blades; Lockheed; management; Paul Morgan; PRD 49; Robert Hunter
  • DuPont's vision of Kevlar
    Partial Transcript: "...who among us can forecast what material is gonna be..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about DuPont's vision for Kevlar. He says that a long term vision is necessary in developing composites, as the time from development to marketing can be over 15 years later. He talks about an example of that with certain ceramic composites. He talks about materials that have replaced Kevlar and also acknowledges that it is still used to the present.
    Keywords: composites; DuPont; Kevlar
  • Job at DuPont
    Partial Transcript: "When Hunter came in we became part of, they called it the technical marketing group, on paper we were marketers... I made composites or my lab tech made composites... I was the engineer as well as the marketing guy."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about his job as a technical marketer. He says that he was not a good a good marketer in retrospect. He says that they produced composites and were the first in line to answer customer's questions about the materials they were making. Overall, he describes his job as fun. He says that when he ran his own company he followed DuPont's model and had his technical team double as the marketing team.
    Keywords: DuPont; marketing; technical marketing; work
  • Distrust in DuPont
    Partial Transcript: "When we came out with Kevlar, this was after DuPont developed some polymer products.. and decided that they weren't worth pursuing.. and the people who had partnered with them.. were left holding the bag."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about other polymers developed at DuPont around the same time as Kevlar. He says that after Kevlar came out the company dropped research of other polymers and left their research partners "holding the bag." He says that on one sales trip he encountered a company that would not buy Kevlar because of that. Wolfe talks about an incident where his team developed a Tyvek chamois and DuPont said they would not back it because that was for their customers to do. He also talks about DuPont's refusal to develop Teflon. He says that he did not always understand the company's vision.
    Keywords: chamois; development; DuPont; Kevlar; polymers; research; Teflon; Tyvek
  • History of DuPont's composite division
    Partial Transcript: "All of this I'm saying to you about the vision, and in the 80s they got the vision." "Why don't we capture the extra value, so they decide to go all the way and make composites..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about the creation and failure of DuPont's composite division. He says that the company thought it would be enough to manufacture finished materials and did not consider product testing and product design. He attributes that, combined with a continued reluctance on the part of DuPont to compete with their customers, as reasons why the composite division lost money.
    Keywords: components; composites; DuPont; manufacturing; Michael Bowman
  • Component manufacturing and the aircraft industry
    Partial Transcript: "Back when I was involved, they made their own stuff..." "They still do the design, that's for damn sure..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe discusses airplane component manufacture at Boeing. He says that when he worked with them in the 1980s and 1990s they made their own parts. He also notes that they still design all of their airplane parts and that is the most important part. He talks about DuPont's manufacturing again and talks about the company's successful manufacture of aircraft fan blades and the failure of their attempts to manufacture armor.
    Keywords: aerospace; aircraft; Boeing; DuPont; manufacturing
  • DuPont's present business affairs and criticisms of their managerial vision
    Partial Transcript: "I don't really know what DuPont's business is anymore, I assume they're doing O.K.." "I sold my DuPont stock..." "It's my belief, for whatever it's worth, that a good company with a good product can probably make money if they're technologically astute."
    Synopsis: Wolffe and Smith (the interviewer) discuss DuPont's current business ventures and attempt to put it in context with DuPont's vision of itself as a material development company, not a commodities company. Wolffe questions if the DuPont does not want to be a commodities company but can't break into the field due to poor management on their part. He briefly talks about the return of manufacturing to the United States and suggests there is no reason they could not have competed had they wanted to.
    Keywords: accounting; DuPont; genetic modification; genetically modified crops; GM crops; pesticides; Pioneer Seeds; seeds
  • Selling composite materials to the aircraft industry
    Partial Transcript: "We wanted to get sales- this was not an academic exercise..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about DuPont's attempts to sell composite materials to the aircraft industry.
    Keywords: aircraft; composites
  • Photo of first structural composite and weaving Kevlar
    Partial Transcript: "So, this is a picture of the first structural composite made in 1972..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe shows a photo of a structural composite. Wolffe talks about selling composite materials. He then talks about competition within the industry and says that people did not know how to process Kevlar fibers. He describe John Morton's early attempts at weaving Kevlar fibers, which proved difficult. He says that Kevlar competed against fiberglass and graphite and carbon fiber. He then talks about how the manufacturers of Kevlar had to show prospective buyers how to best cut and use Kevlar.
    Keywords: 1972; aircraft; carbon fiber; composites; cutting; DuPont; fiberglass; graphite; John Morton; Kevlar; Lockheed; manufacture; weaving
  • Competition with the fiberglass industry
    Partial Transcript: "There was a huge competition with glass in the ballistics area that got really ugly for a while..." "It was a typical thing where you present data that was correct, but not quite all a perfect comparison
    Synopsis: Wolffe recalls an incident where the makers of Kevlar and fiberglass competed against each other with advertisements that stretched the truth.
    Keywords: DuPont; fiberglass; Kevlar; Owens Corning
  • The profitability of Kevlar and job opportunities at DuPont
    Partial Transcript: "I was in the composites division when it was formed, So I was with Kevlar when it was developed..." "Here I see this product maybe fifteen... eighteen years later and it had just started making money."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about his departure from and return to Kevlar. He says that it took fifteen to eighteen years to make money. He says that when he started on the team they failed to sell it in Europe and were struggling in general. He says that when he came back they were doing a good job, but they were plagued by the management issues that can come from being part of a large corporation. He talks about turning down an offer to become a strategist at DuPont because he was an engineer. He says that after that he became a salesman for thermal analyzers. He talks about stove piping within DuPont.
    Keywords: DuPont; Geneva, Switzerland; Kevlar; money; profits
  • Working at DuPont and choosing to leave the company
    Partial Transcript: "We were successful... do you know how many people have jobs where they're never successful..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about why he chose to stop working at DuPont despite his love of working there.
    Keywords: DuPont; retirement
  • Stories about weekly research reviews
    Partial Transcript: "I didn't know this guy well... anyway, we used to have weekly research reviews."
    Synopsis: Wolffe tells a pair of humorous anecdotes from working at DuPont.
    Keywords: chemistry; DuPont; engineering; humor; research
  • Thoughts on workplace culture
    Partial Transcript: "You can't compare an Apple to a DuPont at that point... it really is different..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about the importance and function of workplace culture at DuPont. As a point of comparison he talks about the need for communication at his own company. He thinks that as an organization gets bigger and older it gets harder to maintain an open workplace culture. He talks about how his manager at DuPont established a good workplace culture, but that it was not comparable to the culture at Apple or Google.
    Keywords: Apple; DuPont; Google; innovation; start ups
  • The managerial style of Bill Moser
    Partial Transcript: "Bill was the head of industrial fibers, which was a big damn job back then..."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about the managerial style of Bill Moser, the head of industrial fibers at DuPont at the same time Kevlar was being developed. He describes him as an effective manager and a genuine people person. He tells a story about Moser acting as the audience in mock presentation about Kevlar.
    Keywords: DuPont; Kevlar; management; William Moser
  • Communication and hierarchy in business and DuPont and in Wolffe's personal business
    Partial Transcript: "One of the things I learned with the DuPont experience is there really was no DuPont."
    Synopsis: Wolffe talks about DuPont management on an organizational level. He describes it as being very fractured and suggests there was no such thing as a unified DuPont. He compares and contrasts working in the fibers department to working in the photo products department. He says that many of DuPont's organizational issues came from its size and age. He compares all of this to running his own business and describes some of his management challenges.
    Keywords: DuPont; fibers; management; photo products
  • 1972 composite photo
    Partial Transcript: