Jack B. St. Clair

Born: August 17, 1919 | Roanoke, VA, US

Jack B. St. Clair begins his oral history with a description of his childhood in Virginia and Louisiana. After Tulane University, he accepted a position as technical trainee, gas department, at Shell Oil Company's Houston, Texas refinery. Despite the lack of formal training, St. Clair readily accepted increasing responsibilities, recognizing he was being groomed for higher management After briefly serving as Houston refinery superintendent, he reluctantly moved to England as Shell International Petroleum Company, North American Division head and later the New York Head Office general manager and was quickly promoted to Shell Chemical Company president in 1967. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0135
No. of pages: 56
Minutes: 184

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
7 February 1995
Houston, Texas

Abstract of Interview

Jack B. St. Clair begins with a description of his background and early childhood in Roanoke, Virginia, where his extended family was involved with the railroad. His father's work with the Public Health Service in 1931 led the family to Shreveport, Louisiana, a center for the oil and gas industry, where St. Clair was first exposed to engineering. Excelling in science and math, he won several scholarships and with the guidance of his high school principal decided upon chemical engineering studies at Tulane University. He graduated in 1940 and accepted a position as technical trainee, gas department, at Shell Oil Company's Houston, Texas refinery. During World War II, he worked in sulfuric acid alkylation and toluene extraction plants and was promoted to control laboratory assistant manager. In 1945 he became assistant manager, manufacturing technological department, New York, then moved to the Wood River, Illinois refinery, where he advanced through a series of assistant managerships before becoming department manager of catalytic reforming, gaining experience with facilities' operations and later with design work through his 1954 return to New York as assistant manager, head office, manufacturing technical department. Despite the lack of formal training, St. Clair readily accepted increasing responsibilities, recognizing he was being groomed for higher management. In 1956 he was sent to the Martinez, California refinery as assistant superintendent and undertook a six-month study of the outlook for West coast operations. The study and ensuing arguments proved good training for St. Clair, whose next position was plant superintendent in Wilmington, California; with responsibility for all operations, he acquired experience with government and environmental concerns. After briefly serving as Houston refinery superintendent, he followed mentor H. M. L. Love's urging and reluctantly moved to England as Shell International Petroleum Company, North American Division head. In this and subsequent positions as New York Head Office general manager, he interacted with top Shell executives, acquiring experience which proved key to his success. In 1965 he became a Brookings Institution public affairs fellow, gaining training and insight in government-business interactions through assignments with the U. S. Interior and Congress. He returned to Shell Transportation and Supplies as general manager then vice president, but was quickly promoted to Shell Chemical Company president in 1967, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1979. As president he undertook a major reorganization, focusing on expanding olefins business and integrating the oil and chemical sides of the company; his success is reflected in growth in sales and profits at Shell Chemical during his presidency. Here St. Clair describes relationships with Shell Oil Presidents H. Bridges and J. F. Bookout, the energy crisis, and Shell's experience with detergents and Saudi Arabian crude oil. Also discussed are fragmentation and government control in the chemical industry; the EPA; and creativity, innovation, and new technology. The interview ends with reflections on St. Clair's Society of Chemical Industry and Tulane University awards and a description of his children's careers. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1940 Tulane University BS Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Shell Oil Company

1940 to 1944
Technologist, Houston Refinery
1944 to 1945
Assistant Manager, Control Laboratory, Houston Refinery
1945 to 1948
Assistant Manager, Manufacturing Technological Department, Head Office, Design of Fluid Catalytic Crackers (New York)
1948 to 1949
Senior Technologist, Wood River Refinery
1949 to 1950
Assistant Manager, Lubricant Department, Wood River Refinery
1950 to 1952
Assistant Manager, Gas Department, Wood River Refinery
1952 to 1953
Assistant Manager, Cracking Department, Wood River Refinery
1953 to 1954
Department Manager, Aromatics, Wood River Refinery
1954 to 1956
Manufacturing Technological Department, Head Office, Assistant Manager
1956 to 1958
Assistant Superintendent, Martinez Refinery
1958 to 1961
Superintendent, Wilmington-Dominiquez Refinery
1961
Superintendent, Houston Refinery
1963 to 1965
Manufacturing Organization, Head Office General Manager
1965 to 1966
Transportation & Supplies, Head Office General Manager
1966 to 1967
Vice President, Transportation & Supplies
1967 to 1979
Director
1975
Executive Vice President, Manufacturing-Transportation-Marketing
1975 to 1979
Executive Vice President, Products

Shell International Petroleum Company

1961 to 1963
Head, North American Division

Shell Chemical Company

1967 to 1979
President

Brookings Institution

1965
Public Affairs Fellow

Honors

Year(s) Award
1975

Outstanding Alumnus, School of Engineering, Tulane University

1977

Distinguished Alumnus Award, Tulane University

1978

Chemical Industry Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)

1980

Doctor of Science, Tulane University

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education
1

Extended family in Roanoke, Virginia, and involvement with Norfolk and Western Railroad and Virginian Railroad. Father's work with US Public Health Service leading to relocation in Shreveport, Louisiana, at age eleven. High school education and competitive scholarship to Tulane University. Early exposure and attraction to engineering. Influence of high school principal.

College Years
4

Social adjustments at Tulane. Professors C. S. Williamson and F. M. Taylor and the chemical engineering department. Formation of Student Chapter of American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Financing college. Graduation in 1940. Job interview with Shell and importance of summer work as foreman with WPA. Hitchhiking to Houston, Texas, for Shell job and excitement at job prospects.

Early Shell Career
6

First assignment in gas department as technical trainee. Technical work in and around first sulfuric acid alkylation plant. Alkylation's importance in World War II and St. Clair's consequent deferment. Participation in first ever toluene extraction plant and assistant manager work during the war. Promotions and moves, first to manufacturing technological department in New York after the war, then to Wood River Refinery, Illinois. Series of assistant managerships and involvement with facilities operations in lube, gas, and cracking departments. Problems and accidents. Department managership of catalytic reforming. Relations between Shell Oil and subsidiaries Shell Chemical and Shell Development. Return to New York as assistant manager, manufacturing technological department, 1954. Comments on struggles and freedom to argue within Shell subsidiaries for allocation of resources. Move to Martinez Refinery, California, as assistant superintendent, 1956. Six-month study of long-term prospects for West Coast facilities. Promotion to superintendent of Wilmington Refinery, California. Relations between refinery and surrounding community and environment. Move to Houston Refinery as superintendent, 1961.

Career Path to Presidency
18

Mentor H. M. L. Love, vice president of manufacturing. Move to England as head, North American Division, Shell International Petroleum Company, 1961. Negative work experience with British class structure. Return to US as head office general manager, 1963. Managing technological department, engineering, products application, and research departments. Involvement with two billion dollar new complex at Martinez. Contact with top executives while in England and as general manager. Assignments at Brookings Institution public affairs program, US Congress and Department of the Interior, 1965. Vice presidency, transportation and supplies.

Presidency at Shell Chemical
25

Promotion to presidency with support of R. C. McCurdy, president of Shell Oil. Agenda as president: reorganizing divisions; establishing communication, trust. Expansion of olefins business, integration of facilities, meshing oil and chemicals business. Rationale for closing synthetic rubber division. Collapsing of ammonia division into agricultural division. Concurrent appointment as Shell Oil executive vice president. Relationship with and support of Shell Oil President H. Bridges. Shell's joint venture in Saudi Arabia to gain access to crude oil. Effect of energy crisis on operations and related threats to family. Advantages of refinery background while president. Rise in sales and profits at Shell Chemical across time. Expansion into detergents. Relationship with Shell Oil President J. F. Bookout and struggle for resources at Shell Chemical.

Retirement and Views of Chemical Industry
40

Problems after successor J. B. Henderson is named. Shell's age-60 mandatory retirement policy. Comments on chemical industry: fractionation, government control, the EPA, and the future of innovation. Experiences with innovators at Shell. View of companies licensing or buying, rather than developing, new technologies. Reflections on Society of Chemical Industry Medal and honorary degree from Tulane. Description of children's careers.

Notes
50
Index
51

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.