Position: Executive Director
Company: Lake Area Industry Alliance
What They Do: The Lake Area Industry Alliance was formed in 2000 as a voice for industry in southwest Louisiana. LAIA is a channel of communication between industry and the community, civic leaders, elected officials, educators and non-profit organizations.
Career: It took a seven-year stint at PPG’s remote Natrium Plant in West Virginia—jokingly referred to as “the plant 100 years west of Pittsburgh”—to prepare Jim Rock for his eventual role as the company’s Lake Charles site manager. By the time he left the site in 2014, Rock had become the most impactful manager in the plant’s history. While there, he methodically resolved a lengthy list of challenges, mostly by connecting with employees on both a personal and professional level. In the end, Rock had completely transformed the culture at the plant from a safety, environmental and profitability perspective. He now serves as executive director of the Lake Area Industry Alliance in Lake Charles, a role he has held since late 2019.
PPG’s Natrium Plant, located in the heart of coal country, is the oldest facility in the company’s Chemical Division. In 2007, the facility suffered from a debilitating number of environmental, safety and financial issues, primarily rooted in the employees’ deep distrust of outsiders and a toxic culture.
“They are nice people, but they are the descendants of coal miners and have a strong union mentality,” says Jim Rock, who served as plant manager there from 2007 to 2014. “Because of that, they were set in their ways and didn’t like outsiders. The wage employees, for example, absolutely refused to participate in any kind of safety program.”
They were even timing regularly scheduled strikes to coincide with the start of hunting season. “It wasn’t the best of situations,” he says. “It was an old plant with an obstinate work force, and we were losing customers.” There were alarming environmental issues as well—the plant was still using coal as fuel for its powerhouse boiler and mercury for its chlorine processes.
As a result, the Natrium Plant was the least effective, least efficient plant in the PPG family. “I understood it would be challenging, but also knew that if things could be turned around it could be very rewarding.”
Rock knew that the multifaceted challenges at the plant required multifaceted solutions. He began by assessing everything, including the talent at every level of the organization, environmental permit compliance, safety performance and productivity.
From an organizational perspective, he identified leadership needs, successfully recruited professionals from other plants to strengthen the organization and developed a succession plan for key positions.
He also sought to connect with employees on a personal level. Years before, the plant’s management had ended much of the formal communication with the workforce. The plant newsletter and various employee recognition programs had been cancelled.
Step one, Rock says, was to turn all of that around. “Within the first six months, we held the first ‘Retiree Day’ that they’d had in six years,” he adds. “I also re-established the weekly newsletter.” He even made a point to send sympathy cards to employees who had lost a family member. It was a small gesture that had a huge impact.
By showing them that he cared and was willing to be open to them, the employees, in turn, became more receptive to change. “In order to be successful and get their cooperation, I had to first be their friend,” Rock says.
He then created the “Natrium 2012 Team” and charged it with reversing the negative direction of all phases of the plant operation within five years. The team, comprised of business, financial, operations and logistics professionals, was hugely successful. It negotiated the lease of some 3,000 in unused acreage for gas rights to a natural gas exploration company, sold 80 acres to a company for the purpose of constructing and operating a natural gas plant, and reconstructed an obsolete production facility to improve profitability. The team even attracted a new on-site customer to the plant and achieved two successful labor negotiations.
There were environmental successes as well. The Natrium 2012 Team oversaw the conversion of the powerhouse boilers from coal to natural gas and negotiated a favorable discharge permit with the Ohio River Water Commission. The employees got in on the act by participating in an incentivized carpool program and an “Energy Conservation Team” that focused on energy saving techniques.
The team also negotiated with the union to become the first “tobacco free” campus in the entirety of PPG’s Chemical Division. “West Virginia has the second highest incidence of tobacco use per capita,” he says. “PPG leadership said if Rock can do that in West Virginia, we can do it anywhere … and they eventually did.”
Community involvement was strongly encouraged at the plant, and by the time Rock returned to Lake Charles it had become the fourth largest donor to the United Way in the Upper Ohio Valley.
During the impactful seven years of Rock’s tenure, the Natrium Plant learned the value of following through on commitments.
Rock made himself available, whenever possible, both on and off the clock, and by doing so gained credibility with the workforce.
“Earning the trust of the employees paid huge dividends in the ‘mood’ of the plant,” he says. “It motivated individuals and groups by showing the benefits of working together.”
Learning to identify and work with key individuals ultimately worked toward the betterment of the entire site. “You teach people to do right by doing right yourself,” Rock adds. “I try to be a good role model. If they see you being kind … you become a positive influence.”