The LabJourney’s blog had a wonderful opportunity to interview Dr. John A Ferguson. At one point in his career, he managed 52 labs over 13 time zones and during his tenure as Director of Innovations for Bath and Body Works, his team developed the Wallflower Electric Air Freshener which resulted in over $65 million year one incremental sales. Quite the accomplishment! With over 30 years of experience in the management of research, development and engineering of personal care, OTC, home care, and institutional products, the insight he can provide is priceless.
It was readily apparent during our conversation that Dr. Ferguson was full of wonderful advice. Below are a few quotes that were too good to keep to just myself.
On product quality: “You cannot inspect quality into the product.”
On becoming a manager: “I entered as a square and became a circle.”
General advice (credits for this quote go to a fellow graduate student at UNC):
“The only thing of value you have is that which can be used by a friend.”
Without further ado, I invite you to meet Dr. John A. Ferguson.
Every parent knows a child develops their personality at an early age; i.e. 6 to 9 months. Instilled in that personality is a learning model heavily dependent upon scientific principles: experiment (touch/look/cry/push chair); analyze results (what happened?); add knowledge (result is good/bad/fun) conduct higher order experiments (what else can I do?). Thus a child learns to interact with their world. Unfortunately many adults forget that learning experiences are largely based on scientific principles. The general public shuns “science” and imagines a career in science or engineering makes you introspective and anti social.
Over 30 years ago David Kolb published his Experimental Learning Theory. His thesis is learning and thinking are mirror images. How we learn determines how we approach/solve problems. Personally I became a scientist because I liked the discipline science provided to gather knowledge and solve problems. It also explains why I dislike political interactions because it lacks structure and rational.
As a manager of scientists and engineers I tried to reduce their administrative work so they could focus on creativity. Above all I wanted them to try bold approaches so the little girl or little boy trapped within would burst out into the world again.
Early years. I remember I had a fascination with books containing tables of numbers. I wanted to know what the numbers meant and how to use them. I liked to construct things with Tinker Toys and Erector Sets.
Interest in Science? I was in the 7th grade when the Russians launched Sputnik. Overnight science was given new emphasis and placed on the same scale as medicine for desirable professions. It was patriotic to be a scientist or engineer. I felt I had to become a scientist. I remember I was enamored with plain geometry. Once you learned the theorems you could construct things and prove shapes were identical. I liked the order and discipline of that thought process.
When do I feel comfortable with myself? Planning and executing research programs is difficult because you have to coordinate timing and resources with other departments. Once that is accomplished, you have to develop a cost effective prototype and scale up the process so it can be mass produced. I feel satisfaction when my team has reached critical mass and a defined path to commercialization has been established.
What do I bring to the development? I think non-linearly. I make connections between different technologies and products. This helps my teams come up with unique solutions.
Current and Past Positions
Home and Personal Care R&D Consultant (present)
Managing Director, Botaneco
Research Director, J & J Baby and Wound Care
Director of Innovations, Bath & Body Works
Regional Technical Director Asia Pacific & Latin America, S C Johnson Wax
Research Director New Business Development, Drackett Company
Group Leader/Section Head, Clairol
Sr. Research Chemist, Drackett Company
1st Lt US Army Chemical Corps, Administrative Contracting Officer
Typical Day as a Research Director.
Tract program status 10%
Attend meetings 30%
Teach subordinates 5%
Prepare for executive meetings 10%
Approve/modify staff recommendations 20%
Long range planning 15%
Review consumer research 10%
Maintain internal/external network 10%
What I don’t like to do? Resolve conflict. Reprimand/fire employees. Attend poorly planned meetings.
What is most rewarding? Launching a successful new product. Developing laboratory methods that predict consumer response. Promoting staff. Translating consumer research into new product ideas
Most challenging? Dealing with politically motivated people. Dealing with people who feel they must grab the largest piece of the resource pie. They don’t see that a bigger pie means more for everyone.
Scientific Role Model? My research advisor: He taught me not to be afraid of new things. As a side note, I was the first graduate student for Professor Tom Meyer (UNC Chapel Hill). My graduate work focused on using activated carbon for electrolysis. For security reasons, I did not find out that the sample of carbon fiber I actually obtained was also being tested for stealth fighters.
Advise for students who may wish to be a scientist?
Decide first what you like to do and then determine the best study course to achieve your goal consistent with an economically marketable career.
Science, engineering and mathematics provide a defined process to solve problems. As noted in the prelude, this learning process mirrors the problem solving process. Indeed, we are “wired” to approach things in a certain way. A logical thought process is a basic prerequisite for any occupation.
Learning is a lifelong endeavor; when you cease to grow you start to degrade. When I managed the analytical group as a young director I told them “To stay the same is to fall behind.” I required them to team with the business groups and learn how their data was used to develop new products. They became much better scientists.
I studied chemistry at the university level for 8 years. When I joined industry I wanted to be the best scientist ever. I slowly learned interactions outside science often did not fit a defined process. So I adapted and used scientific principles to develop a foundation/home base to assimilate qualitative information.
I reached the height of my commercial success at Bath & Body Works (BBW) when my teams launched over two billion dollars in new products. I came to BBW like a square. The reasoning was clear, sharp and defensible. After 7 years I became a circle; I had assimilated aesthetics into formulas to create product experiences. The products performed (quantitative) and they created unique perceptions (qualitative).
In this complex world you must have an appreciation for science. You may elect to start an initial study regiment in science and then complete your professional career in another field.
What sage advice would I give my youthful self?
I wonder if I should have studied chemical engineering instead of chemistry. My 2nd son has a BS in chemical engineering and a PhD in chemistry. Perhaps that would have been a better path for me.
Had I taken that path, I would not have met another chemistry major who has been my bride for 47 wonderful years. There is always time to study engineering but there may never be an opportunity to make a personal, lifelong difference.
Dr. Blog holds a PhD in chemistry and draws on his years of industrial and life experience to offer honest career advice for the advancement of young scientists.