David J. D’Antoni
Class of 1967, BS
David DʼAntoni is a man who is used to dealing with the “B” word – billions, that is. From 1988 until his retirement from Ashland Inc., in 2004, each position he managed represented an area that had annual revenues in the billions.
Not bad for a young man who grew up in the 1960s in Huntington, West Virginia, as the son of a World War II fighter pilot. At that time, college tuition costs were a concern to the DʼAntoni family as the teenager searched for a school that would provide him with a good engineering education.
“I applied to Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Michigan, and Virginia Tech, all of which had co-operative education. I wanted the added value of a practical experience,” DʼAntoni recalls. “I was accepted at all of them and I went to my dad to ask how I should make my decision.” His fatherʼs answer was immediate: Virginia Tech. At half the price of the others, “it was a value-based decision,” he adds today, “and a great one.”
His second decision that steered his career was also pragmatic. He thought he would study metallurgical engineering at Virginia Tech because a good friend of his fatherʼs worked at International Nickel, and promoted the field to him. When DʼAntoni arrived at Virginia Tech, and needed to sign up for his curriculum, he wrote chemical engineering (ChE). “I was not sure how to spell metallurgical,” he laughs, but “I loved chemistry.” It turned out to be a lucrative choice.
As a college freshman, the high school overachiever found he lacked some necessary self-discipline, despite starting out as a member of the Corps of Cadets. His first quarter ended rather dismally grade-wise, but a serious talk with his grandfather, a mechanical engineer, helped him realign his priorities. In fact, by the time he graduated, he was a member of three honorary societies: Tau Beta Pi, Phi Kappa Phi, and Phi Lambda Upsilon.
During his college education, he also found a life-long friend, a mentor, and at times, a boss in J.A. “Fred” Brothers, who today is a retired executive vice president of Ashland Inc. As a ChE doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, Brothers taught DʼAntoni, and Brothers says the younger man made “a lasting impression” on him. His intuition would prove to be correct.
When DʼAntoni graduated in 1967, he had a multitude of job opportunities. But, similar to his easy stories about how he chose Virginia Tech and chemical engineering, he relates another straight-forward tale about how he selected EXXON for his first job. “I left Roanoke on December 22, 1966, on a blowing, cold 38-degree day, and arrived in Baton Rouge where it was 78 degrees ... I stayed for six years,” he smiles.
He quickly gained responsibility, moving from a process engineer to a process engineering supervisor to a plant superintendent with EXXON Chemical. The company was known for relocating its people around the country to broaden their experiences, and when the time came for DʼAntoni to move, he let his friend Brothers know. “I thought that if I had to move, I might as well consider Columbus, Ohio,” the home of Ashlandʼs chemical businesses.
Brothers successfully recruited DʼAntoni away from EXXON, and the friendship was sealed for their lifetimes. “Fred gave me opportunities early in my career that allowed me to advance rapidly. He always took time to talk to me, to keep track of me. As a result, I was able to move up the ladder,” DʼAntoni recalls. He held ten different jobs in 15 years before he landed one of the top management positions. Along the way, he also completed the Harvard Business Advanced Management Program in 1985.
In 1988, DʼAntoni was named the Senior Vice President of Ashland, Inc., and the President of Ashland Chemical Co., with annual revenues of $3 billion. In 1999, Ashland Inc., named him its Senior Vice President and Group Officer and a member of its Executive Committee. In 2001, Ashland added two companies to his portfolio. From then until his retirement in 2004, DʼAntoni also headed Valvoline Oil with revenues exceeding $1 billion annually and Ashland Paving and Construction Co., the largest highway paver in the U.S. with revenues at $3 billion.
DʼAntoni recalls one of the most rewarding experiences of his career with Ashland was when he was placed in charge of its polyester resin business in 1979. “The company had tried to sell this division. It wasnʼt sellable,” he says. So, when DʼAntoni assumed responsibility for the struggling unit, he decided the way to save it was through acquisitions. “Now it is one of the most successful businesses” Ashland owns, he adds.
He orchestrated a second major success for Ashland as a Group Vice President of Ashland Chemical with one of its smaller businesses that focused on the electronics business. From a value of literally zero dollars, DʼAntoni oversaw the transformation of the division to the largest seller of ultra high purity electronic chemicals in the United States. Recently Ashland sold this business for about $300 million.
“When I was named President of Ashland Chemical, it was not a surprise but it was still exhilarating. And every time I got more responsibility, I realized what was at stake. I had a responsibility to my employees to ensure that the businesses were successful.
"When I would see all the kids of the companyʼs employees at our annual Christmas party, that responsibility would really hit home,” DʼAntoni says. “Businesses are about people, processes, and plans. Itʼs easier to lose pounds than manage a business,” the engineer says.
Although now officially retired, DʼAntoni remains professionally active serving on the board of directors of three companies — Compass Minerals, Omnova Solutions, and State Auto Insurance. “I spend a few weeks each quarter with these boards, but I primarily now play golf for a living,” DʼAntoni laughs. With a handicap of four, his competitiveness still shows. And in the last year, he has traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Sarasota, Phoenix, Ireland, and Tampa to play with friends.
His community activities have been as successful as his business acumen. After an introduction to the President of Franklin University of Columbus, Ohio, he spent 15 years on its Board of Directors, now serving as past chairman. During that time, the school went from a $3 million endowment to one that exceeds $50 million. The declining enrollment had hit 4,000 students. Today, it is at 7,000 with a “very aggressive on-line adult education program. This school is now run like a business,” DʼAntoni explains. But he is quick to credit the president with the success. “I really just encouraged him,” he adds.
He was equally successful in his United Way endeavors. In 1997, he led his community campaign that finished with a generous $43 million. “Franklin County (home of Ashland) always has one of the highest per capita United Way campaigns of anywhere in the country,” DʼAntoni explains. It is the home of American Electric Power, Ohio State University, Chase Bank, Nationwide Insurance, in addition to Ashland.
DʼAntoni and his wife Sue Ann, whom he met on a blind date 39 years ago, now divide their time between their primary home in Naples, Florida, and their long-time location of Columbus, Ohio. Not coincidentally, the Brothers do the same. And as a final twist to the DʼAntoni-Brothers relationships, David successfully nominated Fred for membership in Virginia Techʼs Academy of Engineering Excellence in 2003; this time it was Fred returning the favor and nominating David into the Academy.
The DʼAntonis have two children, Jennifer and Andrew.
Class of: 1967
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007