Robert N. Davis
Director, Technology Commercialization
Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
For his innovative managerial achievements and outstanding contributions to global technology, and for his service to Purdue University.
A Life of Learning
If Robert Davis could give only one piece of advice to the engineers of the future, it would be “Never stop looking for new ways to apply what you have learned.” It’s certainly advice he himself has followed throughout his life.
Like so many successful engineers, Davis knew what he wanted to do from an early age. “It seemed really cool that with engineering you could get a fundamental understanding of how things worked,” he says. “When I got to school, I already knew what I wanted to do: chemical engineering.”
Purdue’s consistently good reputation attracted Davis. “I knew it was a really good school, and on the campus visit, I was treated very well,” he remembers. “Of course, in those days Purdue looked a lot different than now. We used to refer to the architecture then as ‘neo-Midwestern penitentiary.’ We didn’t have trees, but we did have a lot of parking lots.”
The Business of Technology
Davis’s interests lie in both engineering and business. “When I started, I knew I wanted to be technical but at the business end of technical,” he says. After graduating with highest distinction from Purdue’s chemical engineering program, he received a scholarship to attend the Sloan School at MIT.
“I was all set to go, but it was the time of the Vietnam War, and by attending Purdue I had exhausted my student deferment,” Davis explains. “The draft board lady was an old battle-ax. I think she drafted Abe Lincoln into the Black Hawk War; that’s how long she’d been there. She said, ‘Well you can go to graduate school, son, but we’ll get you.’ I thought, well that’s cheery, so I decided I would just stay with my summer intern job at Chicago Bridge and Iron and work until they drafted me.”
Davis wasn’t drafted, however. Chemical engineers were scarce, and Chicago Bridge and Iron needed Davis in one of its projects to make liquid natural gas.
Despite the setback, Davis kept his goals of graduate business school in focus and applied to the University of Chicago’s night program. For the next four and a half years, Davis worked full time during the day and took classes at night. “It was one those things that if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger,” laughs Davis.
The Habit of Excellence
After graduating with honors with his MBA, Davis joined Air Products and Chemicals. There he quickly moved up the ranks to direct several innovative programs such as one involving the potential of the commercial use of methane as a transportation fuel, which included designing a network of natural gas liquefaction plants and the development of fuel tender cars.
Continually looking for ways to improve himself, Davis became a facilitator for Stephen Covey’s program The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “I was in a staff meeting when somebody started talking about how impressed they were with the 7 Habits, so I thought I’d take the class,” he says. “I was wowed, so I went to my boss and told him I’d like to become a facilitator and take my own group through it.”
Through his leadership and training, Davis has helped others improve their lives—both professionally and personally: “People would come into my office, close the door, and say ‘After you took me through this course, I decided to try it at home. It really works, and I wanted to thank you.’”
In a step to help his team further, Davis created a diversity training program. “The company was struggling to come up with a diversity training class,” he explains. “I was frustrated with the company not being able to do this, so I decided to design my own, and I took my work group through it.” When Air Products eventually designed a program for the company as a whole, they asked Davis to be a trainer.
Davis still uses these experiences to help him form strategic alliances with other companies to improve technology, and he keeps looking for new ways to apply what he has learned. “Working with other companies to form virtual teams is an interesting challenge,” says Davis, “that requires focus on individual relationships to merge technologies and corporate cultures.”
Purdue has remained important to Davis, who has recruited engineering students to Air Products for nearly 25 years. In addition, he has been an active advisor to several engineering schools and organizations, a role that brings him back to campus six or more times a year.
|2005||Director, Technology Commercialization, Air Products and Chemicals|
|2004–||Chair, Engineering Education Industrial Advisory Council, Purdue|
|2002||Director, Hydrogen/Hydrocarbon Services, Air Products and Chemicals|
|2000||Outstanding Chemical Engineer, Purdue|
|1996||Founding Chair, Freshman_Engineering Industrial Advisory Council, Purdue|
|1994||General Manager, Hydrocarbon Sale of Equipment, Air Products and Chemicals|
|1990||Director, Refrigerated Liquid Methane, Air Products and Chemicals|
|1988||Founding Participant of the School of Chemical Engineering’s New Directions Program, Purdue|
|1983||Director, Baseload Liquefied Natural Gas, Air Products and Chemicals|
|1974||Sales Engineer, Air Products and Chemicals|
|1968||Design Engineer, Chicago Bridge and Iron Company|
BSCE ’68, with highest distinction, Purdue University
MBA ’74, University of Chicago