Frank Popoff, who sought to lead a friendlier Dow Chemical company, dies at 88

Frank Popoff, who sought to lead a friendlier Dow Chemical company, dies at 88

Frank Popoff, chief executive officer and chairman of the board who attempted to make Dow Chemical more accommodating toward regulators and environmentalists in the late 1980s and 1990s, and who encouraged the chemical industry to adopt safer practices, died February 25 at his home in Midland. Michigan, where Dow is based. He was 88 years old.

A company spokesperson said the cause was cancer.

When the Bulgarian-born Mr. Popoff was named chairman and chief executive of Dow in 1987, the company had begun trying to shed its image as the pugnacious chemical giant it had made napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War; discharge of toxic waste, such as dioxins, into the Tittabawassee River from its Midland plant; and fought the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent flyover inspections of its emissions.

An estimated $50 million advertising campaign, launched two years before Mr. Popoff rose to the top, used the slogan “Dow lets you do great things.” The goal was to change the public’s perception of Dow, promoting a more pleasant corporate image, emphasizing its charitable giving and humanitarian uses of its products.

“I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of how we are perceived,” Mr. Popoff told the New York Times in 1987, shortly before taking over. Paul F. Oreffice as general manager. “We know we will never change Ralph Nader’s mind. But Dow is at peace with itself and we want our employees to feel good about the company too.

The company was then best known for the manufacture of chemicals including chlorine, as well as its use in the manufacture of plastics, pharmaceuticals and supermarket products such as Saran Wrap, Fantastik cleaning fluid and bags Ziploc.

At the time, regulators and environmentalists focused heavily on chemicals. In 1991, Mr. Popoff and another Dow executive, David Buzzelli, assembled a group of foreign environmental policy advisers, including Lee Thomas, a former EPA administrator, who examined Dow’s operations and was able to obtain confidential information. A current version of this panel remains in place at Dow.

Between 1988 and mid-1991, Dow cut its emissions of 121 harmful chemicals tracked by the EPA by nearly a third, and was on track to meet its goal of cutting its emissions in half.

“I work in the chemical business,” Mr. Popoff told the Detroit Free Press in 1992. “It means a lot of bad things.” But I am for environmental responsibility.”

In a speech to the Economic Club of Detroit a year later, he explained the need for Dow to be open to ideas from regulators and environmental activists. “There is no alternative to environmental reform in our industry,” he said, arguing that chemical companies should lead these efforts or risk being forced to deal with poorly designed regulations.

Carol Browner, the EPA administrator at the time, recalled in an email that Dow was “easier to work with” under Mr. Popoff’s leadership. But when she suggested in 1994 that the agency wanted to “replace, reduce, or ban” the widespread use of chlorine and chlorinated products within three years, Mr. Popoff sent a testy letter to President Bill Clinton.

“It would be irresponsible to pursue a policy that assumes all chlorine products are bad without considering either the weight of scientific evidence on chlorine chemistry or the economic ramifications of a chlorine ban,” he wrote . He added: “The decision to pursue such a radical approach to this very complex issue was made without industry involvement. The Dow Chemical Company is committed to participating constructively.

Jack Doyle, who wrote “Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical & The Toxic Century” (2004) for the Environmental Health Fund, an advocacy group, said chlorine was too important to Dow’s bottom line for The company gives it up without a fight.

Dow’s commitment to the chlorine industry was “so dominant and so entrenched in the global economy,” he added, “that truly dramatic changes were out of the question.”

Frank Popoff, whose first name was Pencho, was born on October 27, 1935 in Sofia, Bulgaria. His father, Eftim, also known as Frank, ran a dry cleaning business with his mother, Stoyanka (Kossoroff) Popoff, who went by the name Stany.

He emigrated to the United States with his parents and sister in 1939, and they settled in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Inspired by a high school teacher who was gassed while fighting in World War I, Mr. Popoff studied chemistry at Indiana University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration. same year, 1959.

But he didn’t want to become a chemist.

“Perhaps I lacked the creativity and vision that successful chemists have,” he said in a meeting in 2012 with the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now Science History Institute, in Philadelphia). “I was really interested in the commercialization and applications of chemistry.”

He joined Dow in 1959 and remained with the company for 41 years. He worked in its urethane laboratory, then in technical services and chemical sales in the early 1960s. Over the next quarter century, he held increasingly influential positions: president of Dow Europe in 1981, executive vice president of Dow Chemical in 1985 and, two years later, president and CEO. He was named president in 1992.

Under Mr. Popoff’s leadership, Dow Chemical expanded the company’s operations in Asia and purchased a majority stake in drugmaker Marion Laboratories in 1989 (it was renamed Marion Merrell Dow) before selling it again six years later. later in a context of patent expiration and strong competition.

In the early 1990s, Dow Chemical was embroiled in controversy over the safety of silicone breast implants manufactured by Dow Corning, its joint venture with Corning Inc.

“Rightly or wrongly, many people are outraged by implants,” Mr. Popoff told the Free Press in 1992, but added: “Our responsibility is limited to that of a shareholder, because that is what that we are. »

In 1995, however, the company was found liable by a Nevada jury for more than $14 million in damages after a woman suffered health problems caused by leaking implants. The following year, the New York State Appellate Division ruled that Dow Chemical was not liable in 1,400 implant lawsuits.

Mr. Popoff stepped down as chief executive in 1995 and as chairman in 2000. He later taught at Indiana University for a time and served on corporate boards.

He is survived by his wife, Jean (Urse) Popoff, whom he met in college and married in 1958; three sons, John, Thomas and Steven; and four grandchildren.

Jim Fitterling, Dow’s current chairman and chief executive, said Mr. Popoff’s most important accomplishments were making safety a key focus — “not that it wasn’t important, but he was.” brought to the forefront” — and to have been an early proponent of sustainability. This meant generating less waste, consuming fewer resources and better ensuring employee safety. He helped advance a voluntary industry-wide code of conduct that formalized these principles, called Responsible Care.

But Mr. Popoff said it wasn’t always easy to get other businesses to comply. At first, there was some reluctance.

“Some things were more impactful for large companies than for small businesses,” the Science History Institute said. “Then the hard work began, making sure everyone was compliant. And what can you do? You can use whatever bully talk you have to assure others that it is not only in their best interest, but that it is mandatory for the industry to survive without stoking animosity and bad will of society, which the chemical industry is sometimes capable of. To do.”

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David B.Otero

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