Michael T. Riordan

For his outstanding leadership of a premier manufacturer in the consumer-based paper industry, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Michael T. Riordan.

President and Chief Operating Officer
Fort James Corporation
BSIE '72
[Michael T. Riordan, current]

On choosing industrial engineering

I was thinking I would go into aeronautical engineering that had some appeal to me. I took a course, engineering mechanics, that would be a footprint for a lot of what would happen in aero, and I realized I didn't like it that much. There was also an aerospace crunch, with companies like Boeing laying a bunch of people off, and I thought that aeronautical engineering was too narrow. IE was much more diverse, and I could keep my options open.

On his Purdue experience

I was at Purdue from 1968 through the early part of 1972. My wife, Libby, and I had gone to high school together in Chicago, and after our freshman year in college, we decided to get married. Libby's father wanted her to finish college first, so that caused us to put a full-court press on things. She went to Saint Mary's in South Bend, and I went to Purdue, working full-time at Eisner grocery store across from Mackey Arena. I worked about 40 hours a week and took an average of about 19 credit hours a semester. My weekends were mostly spent driving up to South Bend, so I really didn't have a lot of opportunity to get involved in the Purdue experience. I had the pedal to the metal when I was going to college, I was focused on doing well as quickly as I could, and I graduated a semester early.

On his career

I didn't start mapping out my career even in a general way until I got out of Purdue. At 23, I was married and already had two children. I was probably as career-focused in my early and mid-20s as I have ever been.

[Michael T. Riordan, college days]

When I had been in industry three or four years, I decided I wanted to be president of a major company. My MBA was soon to be in hand, and getting a law degree which satisfied a personal goal would be helpful in business to some extent. Both were obtained by going to school in the evenings while I worked during the day.

I've spent most of the early part of my career in engineering and human resources and broadened later into general management. In 1992 I moved from human resources to become president of the company I was working for: Fort Howard Corporation. It was a challenge to get thrust into a general management setting from a more specialist role in one fell swoop.

Last year Fort Howard went through a significant merger with a prior competitor, James River Corporation, and we dedicated 1997 to forming the new company: Fort James Corporation. Among other challenges, this has involved getting all the products and pricing assimilated, as well as the people.

Fort James is now a premier player in the consumer-based paper industry. We're the largest towel and tissue company in North America and the second-largest worldwide, selling to consumers in retail outlets as well as in the commercial sector.

On current challenges

From a professional standpoint, I'm primarily concerned with applying all my energy to making our merger successful. I didn't want to help orchestrate a transaction like this and then exit, leaving it to others to sort out.

The hard part has been putting the two companies together, keeping customers satisfied, combining assets and product lines, and making sure that our people are well taken care of. Keeping things going smoothly both internally and externally was the big challenge for last year and this year, and I'm sure that it will be for the next year as well. I get a lot of satisfaction from the role that I play in that undertaking.

On community activities

We moved back to Chicago, which is my original home, in 1997, but I really did fall in love with Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the ten years that we were there. Fort Howard was far and away the largest corporation in that city and that part of the state. I was very involved in the community as chairman of a local hospital and a member of the board of both a local college and a high school. I'm still involved in those organizations, which tells you about my continued feelings for Green Bay! I also expect to get involved in civic life in Chicago when time allows.

Named an Outstanding Industrial Engineer by the Purdue School of Industrial Engineering.
President and Chief Operating Officer, Fort James Corp.
Chairman of the Board, Fort Howard Corp.
Chief Executive Officer, Fort Howard Corp.
President and Chief Operating Officer, Fort Howard Corp.
Vice President of Human Resources, Fort Howard Corp.
Director of Human Resources, then Vice President of Human Resources, Maryland Cup Corp.
Personnel Manager, International Minerals & Chemical Corp.
Compensation Manager, then Plant Personnel Manager, Consumer Products Group, Rockwell International.
Project Engineer, then Plant Personnel Manager, Rexnord.

BSIE '72, Purdue; MBA '73, Marquette; JD '79, DePaul