Joseph H. Collie
Class of 1950, BS
When Joe Collie was growing up in the 1940s in Danville, Virginia, his life took the turn of most young men at the time. World War II took precedence and he would put off college until after the conflict. Upon his return from Europe where he was a combat infantryman, he used the G.I. bill to pay for his chemical engineering degree, earned at Virginia Tech in 1950.
Mr. Collie landed his first job with the Wall Street giant E.I. Dupont de Nemours. After a short stint with this Wilmington, Delaware-based operation, he switched gears in 1958 and joined a small scientific supply firm to establish a chemical distribution operation in Durham, North Carolina. A year later, he married his wife Barbara, and they would have three children.
When his company and the owner faced some severe financial shortfalls, Mr. Collie decided to establish his own chemical distribution firm. His story now becomes a rerun of the American Dream. It should have been a scary time for a youthful parent to go out on his own, but Mr. Collie doesn’t recall having any fears. “I think if you have a vision to accomplish something, there is no way it can’t be done.”
“I never would have taken the chance if the owner wasn’t headed for bankruptcy,” he recalls. “I had to leave him in 1969 or go down with him.” Collie’s wife has a slightly different recollection of this time in their lives. Barbara suggests the time was a bit more traumatic than her husband lets on, but she also remembers their enthusiasm and determination to succeed. “We had nothing at the time,” she says, so “we had nothing to lose. It was the ideal time to take a chance.”
Although his first year of business (1969) only produced a $10,000 profit, his company, Southchem Inc. of Durham, North Carolina, recorded $1 million in sales. This figure doubled in year two, and he soon established distribution centers in other North Carolina cities, as well as in South Carolina and in Virginia.
As Mr. Collie organized his business, he decided that his best course of action would be to provide his services to smaller cities such as New Bern, North Carolina, Florence and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the Lynchburg and Tidewater areas of Virginia. Southchem became the local choice for these communities, and it did not have to compete with the large companies already serving the Atlantas, the Charlottes, and the Richmonds.
By the end of 1992, when the entrepreneur was ready to sell his business, sales had reached $58 million. He shopped around very carefully before he sold his dream in 1993. He wanted to make sure his employees would be treated fairly by a new owner and that the now eight communities that they lived in would do well. He finally settled on a large German distribution firm, Veba, which met his requirements.
The Virginia Tech-trained chemical engineer maintained his strong commitments to his employees because he attributes the success of Southchem to their skills and motivation. “I believe if you give people what they want, they will give you what you want. ... It may sound trite, but you have to get the right people ... and you have to give them incentives.”
He reports that by the end of 2000, sales increased to $120 million, and Southchem is still run as a separate entrepreneurial operation with little change in style or management. Mr. Collie, who retired in 1995, continues to serve as a Southchem board member.
In 1995, Joe and Barbara Collie presented Virginia Tech’s chemical engineering department with a $1 million gift. He specified this money should be used to establish a chaired professorship dedicated to developing an interdisciplinary program in chemical distribution and marketing. Dr. Joseph Sullivan was chosen for this position, and is creating a strong program.
This program is unique to Virginia Tech’s chemical engineering department. There are similar programs in colleges of business at other universities, but this is the first one specifically for chemical engineering in the nation.
Mr. Collie has served as the past president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, the Southeastern Chemical Distributors Council, Durham Sales and Marketing Executives Association, Durham Kiwanis Club, and his own 100th Infantry Division Association. In addition, he is a former administrative board chairman of Epworth United Methodist Church, and a former director of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, Central Carolina Bank and Trust Co., and Durham YMCA, and several venture capital firms.
Joe and Barbara Collie have three married sons: Charles, Paul, and Scott, and five grandchildren. Mr. Collie’s hobbies include golf, scuba diving, photography, art, and traveling. He is a member of the Ut Prosim Society of Virginia Tech, and has also served on the university’s Foundation Board.
For the next entrepreneur, Mr. Collie advises that it is easier “to take the leap” when one is younger. The person “should have a vision, work at something he/she enjoys, and maintain integrity. ... If not, you will suffer.”
Class of: 1950
Year Inducted into Academy: 2001