After the Deal: One Scientist Recounts His Experience of the Marriage of Pioneer and DuPont

Nov 2, 2016

If Dow and DuPont succeed with their proposal to merge and spinoff three companies, one focused on agribusiness, the new companies will open a fresh chapter in the corporate histories of two titans of American industry.

With mergers and acquisitions, the types of increased efficiencies and streamlined processes that can be attractive to shareholders often lead to trimming staff. The companies have already announced they will move the agribusiness headquarters to Delaware, despite the current DuPont Pioneer presence in Iowa.

DuPont announced soon after the merger plans became public it would cut about 1,700 employees. Dow may eliminate 2,500 jobs and close some plants.

It has been long enough since DuPont acquired Pioneer, a long-standing Iowa bedrock, that many of the wounds that deal inflicted have healed. But that doesn't mean they've been forgotten. Pioneer traces its roots to Hi-Bred Corn Company, founded in Iowa in 1926 and renamed Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1935. Though DuPont completed its purchase of Pioneer in 1999, many people around here still refer to the seed company as Pioneer rather than its official name, DuPont Pioneer.

Guru Rao, now associate vice president for research at Iowa State University, joined Pioneer during the early days of its biotechnology group in 1988.

Rao's story is his own. But with three major deals pending – in addition to Dow and DuPont, Bayer plans to buy Monsanto and the Chinese National Chemical Company, ChemChina, wants to acquire Syngenta – employees at many seed and agri-chemical companies may be wondering about their job security and/or what working through a merger or acquisition might look like. No two tales will be the same, but Rao agreed to share what he experienced.

In the 1980s, Rao trained and worked as a biochemist. He was working in hospital settings when Pioneer came calling. The company sought experts who could work on genomics, what eventually led to genetic engineering and the seeds that today are grown in most corn and soybean fields.

"I joined Pioneer at a time when the leadership really valued a long-term solution to problems and allowed you to think," Rao remembers.

He enjoyed the work and thrived, scaling the corporate ladder for research scientists and stamping his name on many Pioneer patents. He respected the people at the top of the organization.

By the early 1990s, Pioneer's soybean seeds were the number one brand in North America and its stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

And Rao says all that success coincided with internal changes.

"If I look back at those days there was a sense of apprehension. The pressure was always on about being acquired by some company," Rao remembers. "People thought that it would it would not be good for Pioneer to be acquired."

Rao says that's because the scientists understood that the freedom and latitude they enjoyed was unusual in a corporate setting.

"The Pioneer that I was in was truly a company that allowed you to do wonderful things and they gave you the opportunity and the resources to do it," Rao says. "It was really a Midwest friendly, people-oriented company. And people loved working there."

When DuPont took over, Rao chose to stay. He says the science continued, but morale began to drop.

About six years after the acquisition, Rao was inducted into the company's Inventors Hall of Fame, he says. Three months after that, he was called into a conference room for a much less celebratory occasion.

"The biggest wave of mass firing, if you will, happened in 2005 when I was one of the casualties," he says. "And that was devastating and it cast a really, really deep shadow. I had to pack my office under supervision to make sure that I was not taking anything away and I think that was perhaps the most humiliating experience."

A severance package made the financial impact less burdensome. But, he says, "it didn't take away the hurt."

Part of what hurt was knowing the company he had been so dedicated to had essentially ceased to exist as he'd known it.

"We were at Pioneer at its best," he says.

A decade on, he's happy with his career in academia. Interestingly, he credits the forward-thinking nature of Pioneer as helping him segue into a university job because, while a company scientist, he was permitted to attend conferences and participate collegially in some aspects of research. He says not all industry jobs allow that amount of networking.

He's kept in touch with some former colleagues, but doesn't follow the company very closely now. Still the news that Dow was merging with DuPont struck him.

"That came as a surprise to me. I didn't think of Dow as one of the main players who would be looking at [DuPont]," he says. "All the talk was always about Monsanto."

Back when he got laid off, he says some of the other scientists went to work for Monsanto or Syngenta, both Pioneer rivals in the day. Now, Rao expects more researchers will be moving around.

"I really, really feel sorry for people who are suddenly downsized," he says. And he views competition for jobs as tougher now.

When the Dow DuPont merger became public, he didn't get a lot of phone calls from current employees seeking his perspective. But he says that's not because they weren't reaching out. They maybe just didn't want to use a company phone to call him.

Instead, Rao says, he's watching inquiries flow in through his LinkedIn profile.

Editor's note: this story has been updated to correct Rao's current title. He is associate vice president for research at Iowa State University.