Virginia Tech Magazine
Feature -|- Winter 2007

Tech degree, not ancestry, key to success
by Christopher J. Leahy '93

Harrison Tyler As a boy, Harrison Tyler (chemical engineering '51) never gave much thought to his grandfather, John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. "I grew up during World War II," he told Subaru Drive Magazine in 2002, "and surviving the war and the shortages was what was on everybody's mind. Being related to a president was never a thought."

Such a view may seem astonishing, but President Tyler died in 1862, 66 years before his grandson was born. In fact, Harrison Tyler's father, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, was born in 1853 and died in 1935, so there were very few first-hand accounts of the president to inspire Harrison.

Instead, what drove Tyler was a desire to make his own way in the world without relying on his ancestry. Gifted with an early understanding of mathematics, Tyler was first home-schooled by his mother and later spent three years in the Charles City County schools and a brief time at St. Christopher's in Richmond. At 16, he won a scholarship to the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1949 with a degree in chemistry. But it was his time at Virginia Tech that proved instrumental to his life's work.

"When I finished at William and Mary, there were no jobs for chemists," Tyler says. After a former professor advised him that "all the action was in chemical engineering," Tyler applied to several schools with strong programs in the field. He decided on Tech because the engineering department was top-rate and the low in-state tuition was attractive--as was the fact that his girlfriend lived in nearby Radford.

In September 1949, however, Tyler recieved a shock when he arrived in Blacksburg to begin the academic term--his girlfriend had gotten engaged to another man. "One of my reasons for going to Tech had just burst," Tyler recalls, laughing at the memory. Luckily, this news was not a portent of things to come at VPI.

Instead, Tyler settled into dorm life on the Tech campus and eagerly threw himself into the course work, where he excelled. Fred Bull, a popular professor and the assistant head of the chemical engineering program, became Tyler's "inspiration" and confirmed that he had made the right choice in coming to Blacksburg.

Tyler's classroom experience prepared him well for his first post-graduation job with Virginia-Carolina Chemical Corp. He was hired as a project manager with a specialty in sodium phosphates and was put in charge of the start-up for a plant in Charleston, S.C., that supplied detergent for Tide and Cheer. His success led to another assignment, this one as project start-up engineer for a plant in Cincinnati, where he faced a challenge.

"We had worked with soft water in Charleston," he says, "but when I got to Cincinnati, I discovered that the plant there was going to be using hard water from a well." The difference in water meant changes in the engineering process Tyler was used to. "I got a crash course in water treatment there," he explains. In spite of this hurdle, Tyler was able to distinguish himself, and he even received a patent for an improvement to shiny aluminum.

When Mobil Oil bought Virginia-Carolina Chemical Corporation in 1963, it did not take Tyler long to notice the accompanying change in corporate culture. He believed the problem rested with the business structure of the large company, which awarded a high level of control to division managers. The managers increasingly sought to make themselves look good, paying little regard to the creativity and initiative of the engineers who worked under their direction.

Tyler began thinking of starting his own water treatment company, one that would organize its business plan differently from what he saw at Mobil. "I vowed if I had a company, each employee would be judged on results and not on how they made the manager look," he says. In 1968, Tyler and a partner, William P. Simmons, founded ChemTreat Inc., headquartered in Glen Allen, Va.

According to its website, ChemTreat is "the nation's largest and fastest growing independent firm dedicated to industrial water treatment." In 2005, the company boasted $172 million in net sales. Clients include Kraft Foods, Philip Morris, and Ford Motor Company. ChemTreat also provides vital services to many hospitals and entered the pulp and paper industry about 10 years ago. The company has become multinational, as well, with offices not only in North America, but also in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

When Tyler and Simmons founded the company, they had three goals: "sell a product that works, hire good employees, and take care of those employees." Tyler also knew that he wanted to de-emphasize the role of managers and make his engineers and field sales representatives accountable for the success of the company. "The company still operates on this original principle," Tyler points out proudly. The benefit of this approach is obvious; the more than 500 employees of ChemTreat really do have a stake in the company.

That stake grew in 1989, when Tyler and Simmons made the company an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). As they contemplated their retirement, the two founders knew that they did not want to sell the company to outsiders. "Every merger I have ever been associated with was a disaster," Tyler says. Instead, ownership of the company was gradually transferred to the employees, and when Tyler and Simmons retired in 2000, the employees gained controlling interest.

Tyler is pleased with the direction ChemTreat has taken since his retirement, he says, "but I miss the personal association with my employees." Although he maintains an office at the company's headquarters, Tyler finds other ways to keep busy. He has spent a great deal of time restoring Fort Pocahontas, a Civil War earthen work that has been the site of battle reenactments. It was also the shooting site for scenes from the 2005 movie "The New World," starring Colin Ferrell and Christopher Plummer, based on Pocahontas and the founding of the Jamestown, Va., settlement.

Tyler enjoyed spending time with the cast and crew, and the experience sparked another interest, he says. "Getting involved with the movie made me want to study Indian cultures."

Sherwood Forest
Sherwood Forest in Charles City County, Virginia

Today, Tyler lectures to groups nationwide about the history of the Tidewater region. As well, he and his wife, Payne, continue to oversee property renovations at Sherwood Forest, the family plantation in Charles City County that was home to his grandfather after President Tyler left the White House in 1845.

By any measure, Harrison Tyler is a success. He applied his Tech degree to build a career and a company, and he excelled at both. Most strangers who meet him first want to talk about his grandfather. It does not take long, however, before they realize that Harrison Tyler is unique in his own right.

Christopher Leahy (history '93), professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, is writing a biography of President John Tyler.

Virginia Tech