Formally Retired, New Orleans, LA, Consultant for Heidelberg Cement
Early Years and LSU. Paul Buras was a National Merit Scholar at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge. Between his junior and senior year in high school, he attended an NSF Summer Science Training Program led by Dr Clyde Day at LSU. Paul says, “this experience really turned me on to science and I decided to major in chemistry.” He was awarded a “Top 100” Scholarship to LSU, turning down full ride offers to Rice and MIT.
He completed his BS in 1975 and stayed on at LSU for an MS with Dr C. P. Keszthelyi, having been promised this could be achieved in 18 months, and with the intent of going to medical school. While Dr Keszthelyi was on sabbatical in Hungary, Paul finished his research and sent a thesis draft to Hungary in the summer of 1978. That summer, he also decided to bypass medical school and pursue a career as a process chemist for Celanese Chemical Company in Corpus Christi, TX. This was a dream job that allowed Paul to become involved in plant operations and do bench research. Whilst working in Texas, Paul remained registered at LSU for two more semesters, completing some experiments required by his advisor and graduating with his MS in 1979.
Career - Technical
While Paul felt well prepared by his LSU degrees for chemistry, he was not trained in the area of process plant operations. To compensate, he took a few classes in chemical engineering at Texas A&M at Kingsville. Paul says, “To this day, the best science I did in my career was during this 3 year period. I was working on a quality problem in the production of diacetone alcohol and developed a process improvement that solved the quality problem and led to increased yield as well.” Sadly, after many months on a project at Celanese, he would have to turn a project over to a ChE (chemical engineer) who did process design and economics and suddenly it was the engineer’s project. To rub salt in the wounds, engineers were paid almost twice what a chemist made because of their perceived value to the company and relative scarcity of supply versus chemists. It was therefore not surprising that Paul completed an ME in Chemical Engineering.
Shortly thereafter, he transferred to a plant near Houston as a process engineer assigned to acrylic acid. He identifies his most important contribution as the development and piloting of a process to purify acrylic acid via crystallization. He got to spend a month in Switzerland piloting the project. He then spent two years in plant operations where he was instrumental in introducing statistical techniques and continuous improvement methods to operations personnel. Based on Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act methodology, this is known today as Lean Six Sigma and is a managerial style that aims to eliminate waste of various kinds.
He then returned to the lab as Process Support Section Leader, managing a team of chemists and engineers who worked on improving the performance of base chemical units including methanol, acetic acid, vinyl acetate, acrylic acid and esters, and ethylene oxide/glycol. He also led the effort to obtain ISO 9001 registration for the plant – the first such registration in Celanese. In 1987 the German chemical giant Hoechst merged with Celanese to form what was then the largest chemical company in the world, Hoechst Celanese. This also provided an opportunity for Paul to practice some of the German he learned at LSU!
In 1991, Paul was promoted to Technical Manager for Specialty Polymers in charge of Engineering/Laboratory/Safety/Environmental and a member of the Division Management team. Paul describes this as “quite a learning experience,” but a valuable one. When the polyethylene business was sold in 1992 to a Belgian company, Fina Oil and Chemical, his unique position and combination of skills enabled him to retain his position during a somewhat traumatic takeover. There are things Paul is especially proud of from this era of his career – the streamtime of the plant was increased by 15% (with a huge impact on the bottom line) and their safety performance went from “worst in the company” to best. culminating in a two year period without a single OSHA-loggable injury.
In 1996, Paul transferred to the Research Division as Technical Service and Development Manager for elastomers. The primary focus of this post was improving the applications performance of SBS (styrene-butadiene-styrene) rubber products, adapting to new applications and assisting customers in their use. The job entailed extensive travel that was essential to his increasing sales seven-fold over a 2 year period. In 1999, Petrofina merged with Total, a French oil company, and in 2000 they acquired Elf to form TotalFinaElf, renamed Total in 2003. Fortunately for Paul, during all these acquisitions and mergers, his years of service and vesting were carried over to each new company so that he eventually retired from Total with 36 years of service (and a pension!).
The most important application for SBS elastomers was the modification of asphalt for paving and roofing applications. Total’s asphalt business was struggling for profitability. The asphalt paving industry was moving away from viscosity/penetration based specs to rheological methods. Paul’s team successfully developed new formulations, chemistries, and testing techniques. Ultimately, Total became an industry leader, with a dozen US patents and licensing activities. The business was turned around by the development of leading edge technology.
Career - Business/Marketing
In 2005, Paul had the opportunity to return to research as an “Animateur” (Group Leader) at a research facility in Solaize, France. In the words of his VP, it was an opportunity to “learn French language, French culture, and how Total conducts business in Europe.” It was quite an experience and a lot of fun.
In 2007 Total decided to begin direct marketing of sulfur from their refinery in Port Arthur, TX. Paul returned to the US to spearhead this venture. He was responsible for the entire value chain - production, logistics, and customer relationships. During this time, he was also involved in marketing other refining products including bunker fuel, hydrotreated oils, diesel fuel, and lubricants. Paul became their “jack-of-all-trades” whenever his technological and marketing expertise could be applied to a new project.
The next step in this progression was the position of Trading Manager, when Total started up a delayed coker project in 2010. Again, it was a chance to start up a new business. Paul thinks this was probably the most fun job he ever had, meeting customers across the globe.
Paul formally retired from Total in March 2014, moving home to New Orleans. and continuing as a consultant until year-end. In 2015, a former customer, Heidelberg Cement, asked Paul to act as their consultant in the US, purchasing petcoke for export to their cement plants across the globe. He now works exclusively for Heidelberg Cement, developing contacts with refiners/producers, negotiating contracts, and assisting with logistics for overseas shipments. For the most part, he works from home, on the phone and computer, with occasional travel to ports, production sites, and supplier meetings. It’s not quite full time, but he is engaged every day.
Despite the wide range of products and technologies Paul experienced during his long and productive career, he says, “a key element of success in every job was an understanding of testing procedures and specifications. My training as an analytical chemist at LSU prepared me well for this, even in marketing assignments where this experience gave me a leg up on others without a background in chemistry.”
Advice for Current Students
- Be an expert at what you do. Read extensively and promote good science.
- Learn everything you can about areas related, but outside, your primary job.
- Develop your relationship with your immediate boss and his boss. In my experience that’s the most critical factor in your career.
- Treat everyone in the organization (or client) with respect and develop personal relationships where you can. That goes from janitor/secretary all the way to CEO.
Profile contributed by Carol M. Taylor