Robert “Bob” Johnston
Site Manager, Baton Rouge Chemical Plant
Hometown: Washington, Illinois
Chemical engineer Robert “Bob” Johnston brings a global perspective on Exxon Mobil to his leadership of its Baton Rouge Chemical Plant. Since 1987 he has been with the corporation and held management positions in the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore. “The diversity of assignments and locations has allowed me to learn a lot from the different organizations in our company,” Johnston says. Most recently, as site manager at its Beaumont Chemical Plant, he led a team that last year “achieved [its] ‘best-ever’ performance in just about every possible metric,” he says, “including an injury-free year for every employee or contractor who worked there.” On Oct. 1 he began his tenure at ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, which he describes as “an important global investment for our company and a strong global competitor.” It is larger than the Beaumont site, yet he underscores the similarities in overseeing the two: “We operate across the world with common processes and similar systems, such as our Operations Integrity Management System. This system is the cornerstone of our commitment to managing safety and achieving excellence in performance.”
What is your most satisfying professional accomplishment?
Probably the most satisfying accomplishment was the success our team achieved last year at the Beaumont Chemical Plant. We achieved “best-ever” performance in just about every possible metric that our sites are measured against, including an injury-free year for every employee or contractor who worked there. As a leader of an organization, it is extremely satisfying to see the team’s hard work over many years come together in that kind of performance.
How do you define “success”?
I have a pretty traditional definition of success, both personally and professionally. I believe in setting challenging targets or goals and then meeting or exceeding them. But I also believe that how you achieve the goals is equally important: Are you equally as proud of how the results were achieved as the results themselves?
What is a great piece of advice you personally received? Did you have occasion to put it to use?
Early in my career as a manager, someone asked, “Are you managing or are you leading? You manage processes, but you lead people.” I try to think about what we are trying to achieve and ensure we balance management and leadership. Both are needed. But any time we have a significant change or improvement that we need to implement, I try to put extra emphasis on thinking about the leadership components.
You earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois. What were your career aspirations as a student? What impelled you to go to work at Exxon Mobil?
As a college student, I loved math and science. I wanted to be an engineer, but I really had no idea what opportunities were out there. I had completed undergraduate research work and really liked the process technology aspect. So, the process engineering role I hired into in 1987 with Exxon was a perfect fit. My earliest work supported the global butyl rubber business, including quality tests and support for Baton Rouge. I knew that Exxon had great opportunities and was very happy that the company gave me an offer!
You’ve held various leadership roles at Exxon, here in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. and Singapore. Has there been a connective thread in your advancement across different sectors of the corporation?
First, every leadership job I have gone into has had a solid leader in place ahead of me. So I didn’t find myself in a position where it was necessary to make radical change. The focus has been to understand or help develop our strategy, set the priorities and direction, and then support a strong organization with the resources necessary to take the steps necessary to go execute. I believe the diversity of assignments and locations has allowed me to learn a lot from the different organizations in our company.
You most recently held the position of site manager for ExxonMobil Chemical in Beaumont, Texas. How does it compare with your new role, as of Oct. 1, as site manager for the ExxonMobil Chemical plant in Baton Rouge?
The Baton Rouge site is larger, both in geography and in the number of operating units and people. With the broader scope, there are some clear differences in day-to-day management of the business. However, there are more similarities than differences. We operate across the world with common processes and similar systems, such as our Operations Integrity Management System (OIMS). This system is the cornerstone of our commitment to managing safety and achieving excellence in performance. Both sites have outstanding employees who can be counted on to run our facilities with that consistent, operational excellence.
Is there anything distinctive about ExxonMobil Chemical’s Baton Rouge facility or operations that promises to challenge you in a new way?
Our Baton Rouge Chemical Plant is an important global investment for our company and a strong global competitor. It is a challenge and an honor to lead such an important facility as we look for new opportunities for investment, energy efficiencies and other innovative projects. Most importantly, we have to continue to ensure that our site stays safe and operates reliably. One of my most important priorities is ensuring strong communications with our large workforce to help us achieve those goals.
What are your principal responsibilities at the Baton Rouge chemical plant?
My main focus is to lead our workforce to achieve operational excellence. That means safety for our workforce first along with reliable operations, which ensures good environmental performance and energy efficiency. If we achieve these goals, we will stay profitable and competitive. Outside of our site, I am committed to serving as a community leader in the Baton Rouge area, and I’m excited to learn more about how I can help achieve that priority as well.
How do you keep abreast of the movements and trends in the industry from week to week, day to day? What or who are your most trusted primary resources?
Locally, I am enjoying news from the Daily Report online. I also get important information from our trade associations. I’m on the board of the Louisiana Chemical Association and some of the most important, industrywide initiatives originate in their committees. We have a great opportunity for growth in our state, and issues like ozone attainment and ensuring a strong transportation infrastructure will be critical to realize the opportunity.
Your immediate predecessor, Paul Stratford, partnered with Baton Rouge Community College in the area of workforce development. Do you intend to continue or build on this type of community outreach?
We are very excited that the North Baton Rouge Industrial Training Initiative has just begun its second class, with more than 60 north Baton Rouge residents. This effort has seen so much success because it is a collaborative partnership with our contractor companies and the Baton Rouge Community College. I am looking forward to helping support this effort and other collaborative opportunities in education and workforce development. That’s a critical goal for me: to help ensure a strong, local workforce for tomorrow.
ExxonMobil holds the No. 1 spot on Business Report’s list of Capital Region manufacturers. As the local economy continues to diversify and expand, do you foresee the chemical plant’s role in the region’s economy altering in any way?
Our chemical plant is integrated with our refinery, plastics plant, polyolefins plant and lubricants plant. This integration creates a world-class facility that can withstand economic ups and downs, and also benefit from great efficiencies in molecule management. This flexibility creates great stability for our regional economy and workforce. I am hopeful that we can continue to support our region’s economy with integrated projects, like the synthetic aviation lubricants project announced in 2012 and starting up next year.
You’re on the board of directors of the Louisiana Chemical Association. Is LCA working on any initiative(s) of special interest to the Capital Region?
The LCA is a statewide organization whose members include over 60 companies that operate nearly 100 plants. Since there is such a concentration of these sites in the Capital Region, there is rarely an issue that LCA works on that is not of special interest to the area, whether it be related to continuous improvement in environmental stewardship or workforce development, health, safety or security. Perhaps the initiative that has had the greatest impact on the area is the work LCA has done—in cooperation with its member companies, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, EPA, the Clean Air Coalition and the community at large—to bring us into compliance with ozone standards. No doubt LCA will continue this role in the upcoming national debate on whether to lower the ozone standard and to what level. The outcome of this process could significantly dampen industrial investment in the region.
What gives you cause for optimism in the petrochemical industry here in Louisiana and/or in the Gulf South?
From what I have learned so far, there is a spirit of determination and collaboration in Louisiana that is supporting the manufacturing renaissance. I’m encouraged by the work that our technical college system is doing to prepare more, diverse training to meet industry needs. Our state superintendent of education and a host of educational partners appear determined to ensure our students are literate in science and math so they can compete for quality, local jobs. Our economic leaders and elected officials are aligned on providing opportunities for new investment and in preparing infrastructure and workforce support. To me, we have never had so many reasons to be optimistic.
What is something that you believe the general public may not fully understand about ExxonMobil Chemical as a corporate citizen or as a manufacturer?
Folks may not realize how much our employees and our company invest in our community. Our employees volunteer more than 40,000 hours each year locally, and we invest about $5 million in the Baton Rouge area annually. As a plant manager, I’m also proud that both the refinery and chemical plant are having best-ever personnel safety performance in 2014, with no employee recordable injuries over a consecutive 365-day-plus period. Finally, many people don’t realize that we make many products that you use every day. From the bounce in your basketball to the stick in your tape, our chemical plant makes more than 6.3 billion pounds of products a year that end up in just about everything we use on a daily basis, and we service a global market.
Did you have one or more mentors in the course of your career? Do you now serve as a mentor in your field or in another capacity?
I have had many informal mentors throughout my career who have helped me both in technical positions and in leadership positions. ExxonMobil is filled with outstanding people who are willing to help you out throughout your career, and I have been blessed to have a great support structure. Similarly, I try to mentor people throughout the organization in various stages of their careers.
What is the best part about your job?
ExxonMobil attracts the best people, from engineers and scientists to field operators. The corporation is also as committed to the “how” we achieve results as the results themselves. So it hasn’t mattered whether I am in Louisiana, Texas, or Singapore; the ability to work in high-powered teams that do things the right way makes it enjoyable to work in ExxonMobil.
What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve overcome?
I believe the biggest obstacle that I overcame to get where I am today was my relative lack of preparation for success in college. I had gone to a small high school with no AP courses and started well behind my classmates at the University of Illinois, who were largely from big Chicago-area schools. I was told I would probably be an “average” student, but I worked incredibly hard to finish near the top of my chemical engineering class. This achievement allowed me the opportunity to be considered by Exxon.
What gets your workday off to a good start?
I find a good jolt of caffeine is really helpful! But mostly, being organized and ready to go helps get the day off to a good start. By tidying up the night before—my desk, my email, my to-do list—and preparing for any meetings, I am less likely to feel as stressed starting the day.
What book(s) are you reading?
I find that I did a lot more reading when I had many long international flights, so I haven’t read as much lately. I tend to read historical fiction and biographies. Not too long ago I finished Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, and I am just starting Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
If you could have dinner with any three living people, other than relatives, who would they be?
There are a number of people who I would really like to ask what they are thinking. But I know there would likely be very little they would actually share. On the other hand, there are some people with great life experiences that would be fascinating to hear. Barbara Bush, Chuck Yeager, and Steven Spielberg may not have much in common, but I am pretty sure there would be some pretty interesting stories!
What do you do to unwind?
I like to play golf and spend time with the family.
Do you have a favorite sport you like to play or watch?
I like to play golf, but generally enjoy watching sports of any kind.
What are three of your favorite movies?
Star Wars, Forrest Gump, and Caddyshack. I thought the stories and special effects were incredible for their time in both Star Wars and Forrest Gump. Caddyshack is a little different. I was a 15-year-old caddy in 1980 when it came out and could quote every line for years.
What is an item on your “bucket list”?
I would like to play the Top 50 golf courses in the world, especially Augusta!
If you could have any job other than your own, what would it be?
Perhaps a famous golf course architect, as it combines my love of golf, outdoors, science and engineering.
What website or app are you especially fond of?
I am not that tech savvy, as my two teenage boys routinely point out. I use a number of basic apps. Google Maps is particularly handy. And I buy just about everything on Amazon Prime these days. But YouTube really is one that I have come to appreciate. Texas Tech live streams all of my son’s symphonic band concerts, and while it’s not quite the same as being there, it has been a fantastic way to keep in touch. Prior to his going to college we never missed one of his band concerts or performances!
What is one travel destination you especially like?
I really like Maui, as it has great weather, beautiful beaches, and wonderful golf.
As a newcomer, do you already have a favorite spot in Baton Rouge?
While I haven’t experienced much of Baton Rouge yet, I have enjoyed walking around the LSU lakes. I am having a hard time narrowing down a list of favorite restaurants, as they are all good!