Gordon A. Cain

Born: May 31, 1912 | Baton Rouge, LA, US
Died: Tuesday, October 22, 2002 | Houston, TX, US
Photograph of Gordon Cain

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Gordon A. Cain received his undergraduate education at Louisiana State University during the Great Depression. After graduation, his first jobs were in the chemical industry, during which he applied for and received first patents. Cain enlisted during World War II as a captain and served in the Pacific with an Army heavy mortar company. After the war he worked in scientific intelligence in Germany. Returning to the United States, Cain shifted the direction of his career away from chemical engineering and into management, consulting and ownership of various chemical and high technology concerns (Cain was the head of Vista, Cain Chemical, and the Sterling Group). 

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The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0101
No. of pages: 50
Minutes: 166

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
18 February 1992
Houston, Texas

Abstract of Interview

Gordon A. Cain begins the interview by discussing his early influences from the chemical and engineering disciplines. He next recounts his undergraduate education at Louisiana State University during the Great Depression. He describes his first jobs in the chemical industry and his first patents. He enlisted during World War II as a captain and served in the Pacific with an Army heavy mortar company. After the war he worked in scientific intelligence in Germany. Returning to the United States, Cain shifted the direction of his career away from chemical engineering and into management, consulting and ownership of various chemical and high technology concerns. Cain then discusses his experiences as head of Vista, Cain Chemical and the Sterling Group and the impact of venture capital and leveraged buyouts on his career and on the chemical industry. He describes his philosophy and standards for running these large companies, including employee ownership and the Deming system. Cain concludes the interview with a discussion of his family and hobbies and an analysis of the changing business climate. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1933 Louisiana State University BS Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Louisiana Power and Light Company

1933 to 1935
Test Engineer

Freeport Sulphur Company

1935 to 1941
Chemical Engineer
1946 to 1949
Chemical Engineer

Merck & Company Inc.

1941 to 1942
Senior Design Engineer

US Army

1942 to 1946
Captain

Standard Perlite Company

1949 to 1950
Vice President

Westvaco Mineral Products Division

1951 to 1955
Assistant to the President

Petro-Tex Chemical Corporation

1955 to 1964
Vice President
1976 to 1980
Chairman

Continental Oil Company

1964 to 1970
General Manager, Petrochemical Department

Atec, Inc.

1970 to 1976
Chairman

PASA Petroquimica Argentina

1970 to 1976
Director

Computer Application Technology

1970 to 1976
Chairman

Iotron Group

1970 to 1976
Chairman

Alaska Interstate Co.

1980 to 1982
Chairman

Vista Chemical Company

1982 to 1986
Chairman

The Sterling Group

1982 to 1987
Chairman of the Board

Sterling Chemicals

1986 to 1987
Chairman of the Board

Cain Chemical, Inc.

1987 to 1988
Chairman

Atlantic Coast Airlines, Inc.

1991 to 1993
Chairman of the Board

Honors

Year(s) Award
1988

Winthrop-Sears Medal, Chemical Industry Association

1990

John Fritz Medal, United Engineering Trustees, Inc.

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education
1

Father, a chemist, influences choice of career. Education of parents and grandparents influences choice of Louisiana State University for undergraduate education. Louisiana during the Great Depression.

Undergraduate Education
3

Few career options for graduates in chemical engineering. Sugar industry provides first exposure to chemical processes. Chemical engineering curriculum and faculty.

Early Employment
6

Employed by Louisiana Power and Light Company after graduation. Hired by Freeport Sulfur to work in operations and travels to Cuba. Works for Merck and Co. building sulfa drug and nicotinic acid plants. First patents.

Military Service in World War II
10

Called as a reserve captain after participating in the Chemical Warfare Service in the Reserve Officer Training Corps during college. Becomes commanding officer of an Army heavy mortar company. Transferred to the Pacific and sees active duty. After returning to New York, travels to Germany on a Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee mission to study acetylene from methane and sulfur processes. Joins a quatrepartite team to implement the provisions of the Potsdam agreement.

Engineering and Management Experiences
20

Perlite project is first management and business ownership experience. Returns to Freeport Sulfur as a consultant. Works for FMC. Successfully bids on a rubber plant newly privatized by the Synthetic Rubber Plant Commission and inaugurates Petro-Tex just as a boom in rubber production starts. Marries at age forty-three. Visits India twice as a butadiene expert for Goodyear.

Venture Capital
27

Works for six years as head of five high-technology businesses. Salvages the failing Petro-Tex by lowering production in a buyer's market. Bids for Alaskan crude oil business for Alaska Interstate. Buys chemical business from DuPont and goes through open heart surgery while finalizing the deal.

Leveraged Buyouts
33

Purchase of Vista is the first leveraged buyout in the chemical industry. Standards for LBO operations. Buys ethylene plant in Corpus Christi and joins it with six other ethylene-related plants into Cain Chemical just as the ethylene business enters a boom. Sells Cain Chemical in less than a year for $1.2 billion.

Business Philosophy and Practices
35

Value of employee ownership. Investment in commodity producing plants. Cutting upper level management and keeping a small sales force. Use of the Deming system to cut overhead and increase communication within management.

Other Ventures
37

Buys polyester fiber business from Celanese. Founds the Sterling Group. Family and hobbies. Changes in the business climate from the 1980s to the 1990s.

Notes
43
Index
44

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.