Innovate or Die


By Scott Robertson

Mark Costa, CEO of Eastman Chemical Co., gave a Trumped-up introduction to the annual Eastman Regional Leaders Breakfast (long-informally dubbed the  “State of the Eastman”) address March 3.

“I was thinking about what we’d talk about today and we created a bunch of slides that go into detail, and then I thought, I don’t need to do that. All I need to do is say, ‘It’s gonna be yuge! It’s all gonna be great! We don’t have to talk about the details of anything. We don’t need a plan. It’s just gonna be yuge!’”

“But then I remembered I actually report to shareholders,” Costa continued, “and they hold me accountable, so that’s not going to work.”

What followed was 30 minutes of casual, generally upbeat, honest talk about the last 366 days and the next 365 days for the specialty chemical company that’s still considered the 800-pound  gorilla of the Tri-Cities economy.

Costa’s main theme was, “Innovate or die.” Some companies are pulling back and just buying up shares of their own stock, he said. Others are concentrating more than ever on their core competencies, eliminating the risk involved in doing anything else. Eastman, he said, is taking the opposite approach by focusing on research and development.

“We have a lot of growth initiatives and the most robust innovation pipeline that we have ever had,” Costa said. “Many others in our industry are pulling back on growth due to the tough environment, but we see that as even more reason to invest in our future.”

“In fact,” he said, “the core of who we are is innovation.”

In today’s marketplace, Costa explained, Eastman and companies like it are wise to innovate. Overproduction in many industries, from oil to coal to steel to concrete, coupled with what Costa referred to as, “China copying everything we do,” has created a marketplace of slowly rising demand met with yuge, sorry, huge inventories. The only path to growth is through innovation.

A lot of companies talk about innovation, Costa said. Eastman is doing more than paying lip service. “Eastman is doing things to improve the heads-up display in a windshield. We’re improving the traction of tires and making them more eco-efficient. We’re improving the acoustics in cars.”

During his presentation Costa also highlighted the benefits of regional partnerships and collaboration to overcome challenges and achieve goals. “The real value in meetings like these is the opportunity for us to come together as a region—as one greater community,” said Costa. “I firmly believe what is good for one town or community is good for our whole region and by finding common ground, we are better able to showcase our strengths as a region.”

After his presentation, Costa further said, “Like a company where you have lots of people to come together to work as a team, we have to come together as a community to work as a team, otherwise you’re subscale. If every little town and city is working at what they’re going to do for their town, they can’t pull enough incentive to offer together. We need to get all the business leaders and political leaders to say, ‘Look, we have one vision for making this region a great place, and we’re going to work together and combine all of our resources so we really have something compelling to offer.’”

“We have to get more lifestyle infrastructure to this area and obviously more companies to come to this area. It’s a beautiful area. The work ethic is fantastic. We have a lot to offer. We just have to figure out how to showcase it and see what we can do.”

“Eastman is willing to play our part in that,” Costa said. “We’re just one of many companies in this area, but I’m looking forward to being a part of that team and helping to organize it if I can. The main thing is it has to be a team effort.”

In this region, that would count as innovation. Elsewhere in this issue we chronicle how an economic developer in one county apparently is unhappy sites in his county weren’t included in another county’s tour for site selectors, while his counterpart in the other county is apparently upset over being left out of discussions with still more counties. There may be merit to either or both claims. But can we move on?

One never hears about the negative effects of failing to work together in economic development. No site selector issues a press release saying, “We’re not locating in this region because we don’t feel they completely have their act together.” But you can bet it’s happening. Layoff notices have continued apace in the last few months (including at Eastman). And while good news regarding jobs coming to the region appears in this issue, one or two new employers aren’t enough. We can do better.

There are signs of progress. Sullivan and Hawkins counties are working together. Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties are ready to start. But we’re looking forward to seeing Costa and Eastman work with other businesses and the existing economic development community to bring the spirit of innovation to true region-wide economic development efforts.

That would be yuge.


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