SARASOTA -- Charles Sax says he never would have made it as an engineer.
But with that technical background, and a knack for closing the deal, he became pretty successful at managing them.
The 79-year-old Sarasota retiree spent nearly four decades with Nalco Chemical Co., helping take the water treatment firm from $35 million in sales to more than $4 billion in annual revenue at the time of his retirement.
Working in a number of various management roles, Sax increased sales and earnings at an average pace of 14 percent annually, doubling each unit almost every five years.
The Ohio native closed his career running a Nalco subsidiary, traveling the road to solicit buyer interest before successfully taking the firm public.
Q: How did you get started in the chemical industry?
A: I was good in school. I was high in my class. We had a good engineering school in Cleveland, and that sounded challenging -- so I thought if you can do it, do it. I also had an offer from MIT, but at the time, the room and board and tuition was too much. I would have been a terrible engineer, I'm better at sales, but that technological background helped me ... I would hire and train employees. Most of them were technical guys, and we had to make them good sales guys, which was challenging because they're generally not interested in that stuff.
Q: What did you do at Nalco?
A: It was a very strong field, water control and pollution control. When I went to Pittsburgh, they had a lot of steel mills there and they wanted to clean out the water. We had chemicals that (formed pollution) into larger particles so they would settle out. In the 12 years I was in Pittsburgh, the waters were cleaned up a lot because of the chemicals we sold. It worked in a lot of industries, from mining to paper.
As sales manager, you're responsible for hiring and training people you
think can be good. You're involved with salesmen all over the country, and it's your job to increase those sales. When you're general manager, you're also involved in research and distribution.
Nalco was very successful in sales, and they had a lot of money so they bought companies. One small company they bought, they made me the president. That was Adco, which manufactured adhesives for the automotive industry.
Q: How were you involved in Adco's transition to the NASDAQ Stock Exchange?
A: The company started well, sales and earnings, and after five or six years, Nalco decided they wanted to sell the company. I was in charge of selling it, and a venture capital firm came in and, with their help, I bought the company. I was a small shareholder and the CEO. We took it public three years later.
In three weeks, I went to 23 cities, giving presentations three times a day to people who had money to buy the stock. We asked for $10 a share, but it sold for $7. We sold 2 million shares in three days. In two years it was up to $11. Everyone made a lot of money, and the company that bought it took it private again.
In the end, I sold the company three times and was still CEO. Most companies will bring in their own people when they take over, but I survived that. I dodged a few bullets. The company was $24 million when Nalco sold it, and $105 million with about 250 employees when I retired.
Q: What do you attribute that success to?
A: I really attribute the success to hiring and finding the right people. That's what I did. I hired people, got them promoted, and that was a big part of my success. In fact, it was all of it. And they were all smarter than me.
Q: Why did you to decide to retire in Sarasota?
A: We had been coming to Florida since 1985, and we bought a condo on Siesta Key that we had for 10 years. Then two of my daughters moved down here.
Q: How do you like to spend your spare time?
A: First I was involved in Kiwanis, and I was president for 10 years. But I wanted something more up my alley and that's when I got involved in SCORE, where I'm on the executive committee. I play golf, and I also wrote a memoirs, which took 10 years. This is for my grandchildren, so they would know what it was like when their grandfather was growing up.
Family: Wife, Shirley Anderson; daughters Tracy, Lori, Amy, Beth and Cara
Education: Bachelor's in engineering administration from what was then the Case Institute of Technology in 1954.
Timken Roller Bearing Co.: sales engineer trainee for three months in 1954
U.S. Army: private, corporal, sergeant 1954-1956
Timken Roller Bearing Co.: sales engineer trainee for another three months in 1956
Nalco Chemical Co.: sales engineer 1957-1967
Nalco Chemical Co.: district manager in Pittsburgh 1967-1981
Nalco Chemical Co.: sales manager, marking manager then general manager of headquarters in Chicago 1981-1985
Adco Products: president 1985-1997
Other: counselor for SCORE
About the CEO series
It has been said that there's no better way to avoid mistakes than learning from those who have gone before you. With the economy slowly rebounding, there's no better time to put this theory to the test. The Bradenton Herald is publishing an occasional series of interviews with prominent executives who have retired to the Bradenton-Sarasota area. We hope to give a little insight as to what made these executives so successful, what they see in today's changing economy and why they opted to retire in Southwest Florida.
If you have suggestions on retirees in Southwest Florida to profile or questions to ask, please share them with Josh Salman at email@example.com.