ORIGINAL DU PONT GUNPOWDER MILL
My reaction to the news that two of America's oldest if not most venerable companies — Du Pont and Dow Chemical — were merging was kind of bittersweet, but mostly . . . not much of a reaction at all considering that our father gave over 40 years of his too-short life to the company that once boasted of making Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry.
Formally known as E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, or Uncle Dupy, as we called it, Du Pont was an outsized presence in the Wilmington, Delaware area where my siblings and me grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Its buildings dominated the skyline, its name and those of various Du Pont forebears with funny French names were on highways, schools, country clubs, a hotel and theater. Few of us actually knew Du Ponts, who lived on immense estates in the rolling hills of Chateau Country north of Wilmington. Visiting the company's original gunpowder mills on the banks on the lovely Brandywine was like a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
Du Pont's influence was mostly for good. It treated my father well, although his chances of advancement to loftier positions for which he was eminently capable and well deserved always were encumbered because he didn't have a PhD -- which was the coin of the Du Pont realm -- let alone a college degree. Being from a dirt poor family in the 1940s did that to you.But Du Pont cared for our family and for our mother after our father passed, and kept us in No. 2 pencils and notepads while we were in school, as well as a steady stream of beta stage products like tooth and hairbrushes and tires for our Chevy Parkwood station wagon that never wore out. And because we had a safety engineer dad, we were the first family in the neighborhood to have seat belts in our cars.There was a darker side, as well. Du Pont had gotten to where it was as the dominant global manufacturer of gunpowder and other explosives, selling to foes of America as well as friends. It was an often negative behind-the-scenes influence in Delaware and national politics. And a nefarious polluter. It is no
coincidence that cancer rates in Delaware have been off the charts, while most of the headlines it made in recent years were the
result of multi-billion dollar legal settlements for environmental crimes to which it never fessed up.
And don’t get me started on Dow Chemical, which probably shortened the lives of three of my Vietnam veteran buddies because of its Agent Orange, among other industrial outrages of its profits-over-people business model.
Du Pont lost its way many years ago, perhaps beginning with but certainly after the retirement of the last family member as president in 1967.
The company owns an extraordinary 21,000 patents worldwide, but its brilliantly successful decades-long strategy of pouring much of its profits from wonder products like Freon, Teflon, Kevlar, Lycra, Nomex and, of course, good old nylon into basic research that would yield new generations of wonder products was slowly abandoned in a series of short sighted and greed driven business decisions that resulted in tens of thousands of layoffs, plant and lab closures. Another 5,000 jobs will be shed prior to the merger.
Mere mortals who don't have MBAs should be forgiven for having trouble keeping up with the jujitsu-like contortions that Du Pont has put itself through in recent years in the service of fending off financial market vultures while trying to grow profits and market share, neither of which have happened to an appreciable extent. But even in that context the creation of a new company to be called DowDuPont -- a consequence of what my sister astutely calls Corporate Alzheimer's -- is a real doozy because the entire purpose of the merger is to further break up the companies. It's the new normal, Irénée.
My bittersweet-cum-meh reaction to the merger is an accumulation of knowledge accrued over many years as a journalist, historian and realist that while corporations can do much good, and Du Pont did much good for my father, my family and my community, they have a dark side. At best, Du Pont was a benevolent beast but a pretty pungent example of supply-side capitalist economics, that wealth trickles down from the rich to everyone else, so the rich should be rewarded before anyone else.
Today, I'm sure, Du Pont remains a beast, just a leaner and meaner one that no longer dominates the Wilmington skyline. Banks taking advantage of Delaware's usurious credit card interest rates do.