B. Fielding Rolston
Class of 1964, BS
Fielding Rolston learned about productivity and management at a very early age. He and his brother grew up on a 200-acre beef cattle and sheep farm outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. His father worked as a manager of the local co-op Farm Bureau. There, he would learn the latest agricultural innovative techniques, come home, and tell his obedient young sons what to do. When they went off to college, his father wisely sold the farm.
Rolston’s task-oriented upbringing makes his choice of industrial engineering (IE) – a career that focuses on improving systems and the interaction of engineering and people – seem quite pragmatic. Eventually he would assume his father’s supervisory role, only as a career executive at Eastman Chemical, introducing the latest process improvement techniques that led to increases in employee productivity by 22 percent and customer satisfaction by 25 percent. These types of numbers hastened his rise to the top echelons of management.
But first, Rolston had to find a way to attend college. A trip to Virginia Tech when he was selected as a Boy’s State participant due to his high school leadership abilities provided him with his first view of the Blacksburg campus. The visit made a good impression on him. So when a number of his high school classmates chose Virginia Tech, he followed. He started in chemical engineering, but transferred to the industrial and systems engineering (ISE) curriculum because of his interest in the people side of the business.
“I enjoyed learning about motivating people,” says Rolston, who served as the president of Alpha Pi Mu, the honorary IE society, and vice president of the American Institute of Industrial Engineers (AIIE), now known as IIE, when he was a student. His numerous accomplishments led to his selection as the Outstanding Virginia Tech Industrial Engineering Student in the Class of 1964 by the Western Virginia Chapter of AIIE.
With a deferred starting date with the military after his graduation in 1964, he selected employment with Eastman Chemical, a decision that paved his professional career for almost 40 years. “I liked Eastman’s philosophy, generated by George Eastman. It was a first class company in how they managed people,” Rolston recalls. His first job was process improvement in a manufacturing area, and then he went off to work for two years as a ROTC commissioned officer at the Pentagon to fulfill his military obligation.
The Army used Rolston’s IE expertise, assigning him to a unit responsible for redesigning the Army’s personnel information system. And he used the time wisely in Washington, D.C., to complete a master’s degree in administration at American University in 1968, at which time he returned to Eastman Chemical’s corporate headquarters in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Coming off his Army assignment, Eastman asked Rolston to be the project team leader for the design and implementation of an automated personnel information system for Eastman Chemical Company (currently 11,000 employees and annual sales of over $7 billion). “That job provided me a lot of exposure to management, helping me get future jobs,” he says.
In 1977, Rolston was asked to lead the corporate staff of industrial engineers. College recruitment became a vital component of this effort, and within six years 30 IEs were added to the payroll, and the group “installed quality management systems in all of the functional areas of Eastman” leading to reduced costs, more effective business processes, and improved customer service, Rolston explains.
As a result, Eastman Chemical received a highly coveted management award, the Malcolm Baldrige Award, in 1993. “Building the interest in quality management led to this highly sought after award, and this was probably the most challenging and most gratifying part of my career,” Rolston says.
Four of the 30 IE recruits Rolston brought to the company eventually secured vice president positions, as did Rolston. In 1987, he was named the Vice President, Supply and Distribution, where he used quality management principles to redesign the materials flow process so that it operated “like a pipeline. If we sold one pound of material, I wanted one pound of raw material to simultaneously enter the pipeline.” In 1995, his title became Vice President, Customer Service and Materials Management.
In 1998, he led a complete re-engineering of the human resources process for Eastman. As the Vice President of Human Resources, Health, Safety, Environment, and Security, and later Vice President of Human Resources (HR) and Quality, his focus was to ensure Eastman Chemical had the right people in the right jobs with the right training and motivation. “HR people were told that if their work did not directly contribute to increased employee productivity, we should stop doing the work and turn to work that did increase employee productivity,” Rolston says.
An HR business account manager was assigned to every major organization as a strategic member of the management team. When the redesign was finished, the cost of the HR function was reduced by 25 percent during a period of time when employee productivity for the company was increasing by 15 percent per year.
In 2003, Rolston retired from Eastman as Senior Vice President, HR and Communications.
However, Rolston doesn’t really understand the word “retirement.” His volunteer work on some very influential boards has landed him the simultaneous and current chairmanships of three of them. Since 1998, he has chaired the board of Eastman Credit Union, currently chairs the Tennessee State Board of Education and the Emory and Henry College Board of Trustees. He remains a member of the board of the Wellmont Health System, which he chaired from 1996 until 2000.
When Rolston chaired Wellmont, it grew from two to five hospitals, and is now considered the premier healthcare system in the southwest Virginia and east Tennessee region with annual patient revenues of $700 million. The Eastman Credit Union is growing at a rate in excess of 12 percent annually and is now the largest credit union in Tennessee, and one of the largest in the country with assets of $2 billion. With the education board, Rolston has used his engineering skills to develop a strategic planning process for K-12 education in the Volunteer State.
On the latter board “the Governor wanted people with a business background,” Rolston says. First appointed by a Democrat, he was reappointed by a Republican. “We desperately need to improve the K-12 educational system, and I think we are making good progress, particularly in increasing expectations in the math and science areas.”
Rolston also chairs the Kingsport Community Foundation Board of Directors and is on the boards of the Barter Theatre and East Tennessee Foundation.
“It is important to me to feel like I am making a contribution. These not-for-profit organizations couldn’t function without volunteers, and I find the work very gratifying. This has been an excellent transition from my position at Eastman Chemical as I try to decide what to do with the rest of my life,” Rolston smiles. Eastman Chemical encouraged this community involvement that Rolston started more than ten years before his retirement.
In recognition of his work with Eastman and community organizations, Rolston received the 2001 Outstanding Achievement in Management Award from the Institute of Industrial Engineers at their annual meeting in Dallas, Texas.
Rolston’s wife, Joyce, a nurse whom he met in high school, holds her degree from the Medical College of Virginia. “My involvement with the medical profession is partially related to Joyce,” he explains.
They have two children, Clay, also an IE who works at Eastman Chemical, and Tina, a Hokie who earned her degree in education. They are both married, living in the Kingsport area, and have provided the Rolstons with three grandchildren each.
Class of: 1964
Year Inducted into Academy: 2008