Howard Ungerleider and other CEOs aren’t satisfied with Michigan’s rise from the bottom. He is optimistic that “working together we have a legitimate shot at becoming a top 10 state.”
Howard Ungerleider pursued a circuitous career path across the country and overseas on behalf of a single company, moving with his family nine times before becoming the president and chief financial officer of Midland-based Dow Inc.
The journey resulted in an impressive resume and the qualifications for top-executive management. It also underscored for him the responsibility to expand opportunities for jobs and promotions to aspirants from diverse backgrounds — such as his own.
Growing up in a Houston suburb after moving with his family from New York, he recalls a classmate who had never met a Jewish person and knew the religion only in terms of inappropriate ethnic stereotypes. In sixth grade, he received an F on a math test when a teacher refused to reschedule a makeup due to his absence on the High Holidays.
“Being the only Jewish student in the school was certainly one of the defining moments toward understanding what it’s like to be different from the others,” he said.
“That’s why I’m very passionate about driving inclusion and diversity inside Dow,” he said. “As a human being it’s the right thing to do. Everyone should be able to live up to their full personal and professional potential. And when I put on my CFO hat, I can see it creates more long-term value — the evidence is overwhelmingly clear.”
Serving Dow in several locations in the U.S. and overseas before taking over his current leadership role in Midland has heightened his perceptions of comparative business climates in Texas, for example, overseas and that of Michigan, his family’s home for the past 14 years.
Among Ungerleider’s civic commitments is his chairmanship of Business Leaders for Michigan, an economic leadership council consisting of CEOs and other top executives of the state’s largest and most influential corporations. Business Leaders advocates for improving the state’s economic climate and prosperity by way of more effective tax policy, enhanced educational initiatives, infrastructure investments and employment opportunities.
“We look at Michigan’s business and economic climate in comparison to the other states, measuring important characteristics such as the growth of our population, income and per capita gross domestic product (GDP),” he explained. “Coming out of the Great Financial Crisis, we were a bottom 10 state. And the good news is Business Leaders working together with state government and our communities, we were able to get us from a bottom 10 to where we are now. Depending on the metric that you look at, in the middle of the pack.”
“Top 10” states in terms of jobs, productivity, personal income and population indicators, according to Business Leaders, include California, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York.
Ungerleider and other CEOs aren’t satisfied with Michigan’s rise from the bottom. He is optimistic that “working together we have a legitimate shot at becoming a top 10 state.”
To get there, Business Leaders is pursuing what he calls four key “pillars” or priorities: growth via state-sponsored economic development efforts; talent development, meaning secondary education and technical training to boost qualifications for good-paying jobs; more dollars to classrooms for K-12 education; and improved “business climate” so more companies find it easier and more efficient to locate or expand operations here rather than in competing states.
Senior members of Michigan’s Jewish community can remember the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s, when Detroit and its environs were among the most prosperous economies on earth. The state’s relative economic decline from those days — pockmarked by the bankruptcies of General Motors and the city of Detroit — has hit the Jewish community as well, as families have left Michigan in search of better opportunities and an exodus of college graduates has relocated to New York, Chicago and the West Coast to pursue their careers.
To cite just one dismaying statistic that bears on Michigan’s economic status today, less than half — 49% to be exact — of the state’s working age population has a degree or credential needed to qualify for a particular job or skill.
“Michigan is addressing this educational attainment gap with strong bipartisan measures to invest in degree and training programs with the goal of having 60% of the working population degreed or credentialed by 2030,” Ungerleider said.
“(But) we must do more,” he said, “including removing barriers to work by investing in childcare, broadband access and affordable housing, which will drive additional labor force participation. To address some of the immediate issues in our K-12 education system, we recommend using American Rescue Plan Act funding ($6.5 billion of federal aid provided to Michigan) to expand teacher training and recruitment and to invest in before and after school support and summer learning programs.”
His Career at Dow
Ungerleider’s own post-secondary educational journey began at the University of Texas, where he studied marketing. “It was a great education and in terms of dollar input per output of knowledge, a tremendous value for in-state students,” he said.
Corporations, Dow among them, recognized Texas as a top school and recruited there. “I was interested in business, so the summer between my junior and senior year I came to work for Dow in Midland, which I previously hadn’t known existed.”
Dow, he said, has a competitive, hardworking and promote-from-within culture. “That summer they threw me in the deep end, trusting me with an important project concerning the fluid used for de-icing airplanes.
“At the time, Dow was a large player in that market; and a big technology shift was taking place. We were trying to figure out how fast it was happening and what we could do to differentiate ourselves. I hadn’t yet graduated from college, and I was talking to the FAA and to airport operators around the world,” he said. “At the end of the project I made recommendations to the business unit’s leadership team — it was pretty exciting stuff.”
Following his graduation, Dow hired Ungerleider in 1990 to work in sales on the West Coast, first in San Francisco and then Los Angeles. While working in Los Angeles, he earned an MBA at UCLA. Additionally, he worked for Dow in Houston twice; Danbury, Connecticut; Philadelphia; and Zurich, Switzerland, before returning to Midland in 2008 as vice president of investor relations.
Life at headquarters proved to be even more exciting than the up-and-coming executive had imagined. Dow and DuPont had been longtime rivals in the chemical industry, giants whose leaders for years had toyed with the idea of merging in order to optimize their complementary strengths. The theoretical basis for joining forces was actualized in 2015 when the two companies proposed a highly unusual plan to merge into one big company — and then to split into three separate publicly traded companies, pursuing three different businesses: performance chemicals and packaging (Dow); specialty materials and nutrition (DuPont); and agricultural chemicals and seeds (Corteva).
When the plan was announced at the end of 2015, Ungerleider had risen to vice chairman and chief financial officer of Dow. He then became chief financial officer of DowDuPont, the $80 billion entity that was to be split into three. As the board contemplated the proposed leadership and management teams for the three new corporate entities, a dilemma arose: The new Dow had been blessed with two excellent candidates for CEO: Ungerleider and Jim Fitterling, another longtime Dow veteran.
“We wanted both of them to say,” said Steve Miller, then a director of DowDuPont. “Both are accomplished and effective leaders. We were quite eager as a board to figure out a solution.”
The solution was naming Fitterling, a few years senior to Ungerleider, as CEO, with Ungerleider as president and chief financial officer.
The board’s calculation that Ungerleider’s devotion to Dow would overcome any disappointment proved correct. “I think the board made a great decision. I mean, I’ve known Jim Fitterling for 30 years. He’s a tremendous individual. A tremendous leader. I think in many ways our skills are highly complementary. He’s the pilot, I’m the co-pilot — we’ve both got to be able to fly the plane.”
As his corporate and civic profile grew, Ungerleider came to the attention of Jewish community leaders in Detroit, who invited him to travel to Israel in 2019, his first visit, as part of a delegation that included Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“The trip was life-changing for me,” he said. “I came home and I was kicking myself and told my wife we have to go again. And I can’t believe it’s taken me more than 50 years of my life to see Israel. It was special. It was spiritual. I don’t even know if I have the words to describe it.”
As a leader in many fields and a member of Bay City’s synagogue with his wife and two children, Ungerleider looks forward to one day undertaking a similar role on behalf of his people:
“I don’t know what the Jewish community needs in the state, but I think they can count on me to help with my resources and my expertise. Whatever I can do to help contribute, I would. I certainly am passionate about the faith.”