John A. Brothers
Chemical Engineering, Class of 1962, BS; Class of 1966, MS
Materials Science Engineering, Class of 1968, Ph.D.
To afford college, John A. “Fred” Brothers needed to attend a university with a good co-op program. At that time, one of his father’s friends, the President of Marshall University, suggested a solid choice for engineering studies and for co-op would be Virginia Tech. The advice paid off. When Mr. Brothers retired in 1999, he was Executive Vice President of Ashland, Inc., a company with annual sales of $8 billion.
Mr. Brothers’ entire career was spent on a fast track that never hit the pause button. He selected chemical engineering because it was the highest paying field in engineering in the early 1960s. He co-oped with International Nickel, the company that also provided him with his first job after graduation in 1963. Not long after he joined the chemical company, he received a phone call from one of his former Virginia Tech professors, Roland Mischke.
“He called to tell me that he had a National Science Foundation Fellowship that was begging to be filled,” Mr. Brothers recalls. So he returned to Blacksburg and finished his master’s degree in nine months. Twelve months later, he was receiving his Ph.D. Dr. Fred Bull, an icon in the ChE department and a mentor for Mr. Brothers, waived his residency requirement, allowing the rapid academic ascent. As he was putting the finishing touches on his doctorate, he was already moving on to Ashland.
“I chose Ashland because the company exhibited an aggressiveness and its management was very young. At the time, senior officers were 40 years old. After five years with the company, they made me Vice-President of Engineering and Research at the age of 32,” Mr. Brothers says. From that point on, he just continued to climb Ashland’s corporate ladder. In 1982 the Huntington, West Virginia, native was named President of Ashland Chemical Company; six years later, he became a Group Operating Officer. In 1997, he reached the pinnacle of his career with his executive vice presidency. He retired in 1999 but continues to serve as a consultant to the company, a market leader in highway construction, chemical and thermoplastic distribution, specialty chemicals, motor oil, and car-care products. The Fortune 500 company based in Covington, Kentucky, maintains sales in more than 140 countries.
Today, as Mr. Brothers looks back, he says his start-up days at Ashland were “a blur.” Early on as the VP of Engineering and Research, he was working seven days and six nights building new refinery units. He initiated a particularly ingenious method of constructing a refinery when he was confronted with the winter conditions of Buffalo, New York. He used the concept developed in the 1960s by sporting enthusiasts who converted outdoor tennis courts into indoor tennis ‘bubbles’ in the wintertime. “I used an old inflatable plastic tennis court so we could build through the winter rather than wait until summer. A number of companies then adopted the idea,” Mr. Brothers smiles.
Mr. Brothers transitioned from the technical components of Ashland to the business side in 1975, a world he found exceedingly different. To help shore up his skills, he obtained an advanced management degree from Harvard in 1981 on a company-sponsored sabbatical. It was shortly after this education that he was named President of Ashland Chemical. During his tenure, he doubled its sales from $1 to $2 billion. During that time he arranged for “dozens of acquisitions,” rising to the “thrill of the chase” as he recalls, and then after closing the deal, moving rapidly on to the next challenge. The final merger Mr. Brothers led was that of Ashland’s Refining and Marketing Business with Marathon’s same businesses in late 1997, creating Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC. He remains a director of that company, a joint venture with annual revenues of $30 billion.
A particularly rewarding “acquisition” of sorts was his hiring of two other Hokies, David D’Antoni and Peter Bokach, also graduates of chemical engineering. As a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, Mr. Brothers taught both of them, and knew he wanted them on his team. His intuition was correct. Mr. Bokach just retired from Ashland Chemical as a Senior Vice President. Mr. D’Antoni remains at Ashland Inc., as its Senior Vice President. As he recalls, “Fred took a somewhat struggling, diverse, confused chemical business and brought focus to it. He grew the company into a solid, performing business through a series of divestitures. “Fred also 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.”
Today, Fred and his wife, Paula, travel to as many exotic places as they can, including China, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Latin America, and Africa. He is part owner of a duck hunting and a fly fishing club. And he and Paula chase turkeys with a telephoto lens. Mr. Brothers serves on the Board of Trustees of the Children’s Hospital of Columbus, Ohio, the Ohio Dominican College, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business.
He is also enjoying the ability to spend more time with his three children and eight grandchildren.
Class of: 1962 (ChE), Class of: 1966 (ChE), Class of: 1968 (MSE)
Year Inducted into Academy: 2003