Born in India, and having served professional appointments around the globe, Bob Patel, MBA ’99, credits geographic moves for helping to shape his leadership style
At first, Bhavesh V. “Bob” Patel felt like a stranger.
Could you blame him? The 10-year-old had been uprooted from his native India and, along with his grandmother, mother, and brother, moved halfway around the world to the United States.
It was 1976 when Patel took up residence with his uncle and aunt in Cleveland, Ohio. With time, this newly formed family of six got by. “Sure, we crowded one another,” Patel said, “but we had a great life.”
Until that point, India had been the only country Patel had known. Many years later, Patel once again was called upon to embrace the unknown, when he left the company at which he’d spent most of his professional life to join a company making its slow emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Those moves — one geographical, one professional — profoundly shaped Patel’s life.
Patel serves as chief executive officer of Dutch company LyondellBasell, one of the world’s premier plastics, chemicals, and refining companies, operating 55 sites in 18 countries. This January, Patel will mark one year in his top role with LyondellBasell, for which he’s worked since 2010. Based in Houston, the site of LyondellBasell’s American headquarters, Patel credits his family for helping him develop international perspective, respect, humility, and work ethic.
“The values, choosing to do things the right way — I learned that from my uncle and from my mother,” said Patel, who earned his Executive MBA in Finance from the Fox School in 1999. “Nothing I’ve achieved would have been possible without the two of them in my life.”
Attention to detail is one of Patel’s strongest traits. That’s why, 15 years ago, one former colleague remarked that he knew Patel was poised for the C-suite, even when Patel was only a junior executive.
The small things mean everything to Patel. His mother, Usha, made the around-the-world voyage “with quite literally $12 left in her pockets,” Patel said, “and that’s not an embellishment.” What filled her pockets made little difference to Usha, who had surrendered a prestigious position as the head of an all-girls school in Mumbai in order to give her sons a better opportunity in life.
“She holds a Master’s degree in English and, when she arrived here, she couldn’t teach. She gave that up for us,” Patel said of his mother, who he calls one of his biggest inspirations. “She worked two jobs for awhile, just long enough to save money and buy a small doughnut-and-coffee shop. That wouldn’t have been possible without my uncle’s sponsorship of us.”
Patel’s uncle, Shirish, worked closely with Patel, acting as a father figure and a career mentor, and offering high-level coaching while encouraging grit, determination, and hard work.
“My life changed because of my uncle,” Patel said. “He was an astounding mentor to me.”
With his uncle and mother serving as endless sources of inspiration, Patel set out on an adult life that had been built upon a foundation of giving back.
He went on to attend The Ohio State University, where he completed his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for Chevron Phillips Chemical Company. He started there as a process and project engineer, before becoming a general manager of Chevron Phillips’ olefins and natural gas liquids division, where he was responsible for all aspects of the polymers and chemical compounds that comprised one of the company’s largest business lines.
Aspiring to hold a position in upper management, Patel sought a graduate degree business program that would enable him to take his chemical engineering background and apply it in a different way. Patel chose Temple’s Fox School of Business.
“By no means did I think an Executive MBA was the ticket by itself, but I knew it was part of the experience toward building a stronger career for myself,” Patel said. “Fox’s courses were well taught, and gave me the chance to learn theory, finance, strategy, and leadership. It was a great move for me, professionally.”
After earning his MBA from Fox in 1999, Patel would hold a number of positions with Chevron Phillips. He’d oversee product development and sales, corporate planning and mergers and acquisitions, eventually becoming Asia Pacific region general manager.
In January 2009, Jim Gallogly recommended that Patel be given consideration as a high-level executive at LyondellBasell. Gallogly first met Patel at Chevron Phillips, where Gallogly had served as CEO. Thirteen months later, in February 2010, as the company crept toward emerging from bankruptcy, Patel was hired as LyondellBasell’s new senior vice president of olefins and polyolefins within the company’s Americas region. Patel quickly and successfully restructured the division to capitalize on shale gas expansion in the U.S.
A staple of Patel’s career has been “running to where the battle was,” Gallogly said. “He goes where he’s needed, and he always succeeds.”
Having worked previously in both the United States and in Singapore, Patel applied the cultural and professional acumen he had absorbed from years abroad to LyondellBasell’s Netherlands office, as executive vice president of olefins and polyolefins of LyondellBasell’s Europe, Asia, and International (EAI) operations. There, and instead of in Houston, he chose to pilot a company wide program. International experiences, Patel said, had given him a greater appreciation for how cultures differently process the same information, and ultimately lead to different decisions.
“Some cultures are more dutiful. Others are hierarchical. The diversity I’ve experienced in my career has been eye-opening,” Patel said. “Half of LyondellBasell’s employees live in the United States. As a leader, you have to hold the other half of your employees in the same regard. I’ve tried to manage and lead in a manner that includes others and recognizes the global nature of our company.”
“What you see from the outside, while living and working in America, isn’t what you see from the inside, and you discover things as you go. For our longstanding employees, if they were considering retirement or a buyout package, we celebrated their careers. I’ve always said how you treat people who leave is also about the people who remain with the company. Leaders lead with dignity.”
It was with the application of a hands-on touch that helped Patel lead LyondellBasell’s EAI region to outperform its peers by streamlining operations and operating plants more reliably.
Patel’s pedigree gave Gallogly strong reason to believe he’d be an ideal CEO. In five years with LyondellBasell, Patel had run three of the company’s five divisions.
“In a company this large, and in an industry this competitive, you have to be tenacious to be a CEO,” said Gallogly. “He knows which levers to pull and how to get the most out of people. There’s a reason why he’s helped set new financial records each quarter since he’s been LyondellBasell’s CEO.”
“Bob is rare in his combination of gifts,” said Craig Glidden, general counsel and executive vice president of General Motors, who worked with Patel at both Chevron Phillips and LyondellBasell. “He has the fortitude of a CEO, and he’s extremely approachable to any employee. Navigating both worlds, with his business acumen, is the hallmark of a great leader.”
In both his professional and personal life, Patel subscribes to the brand of leadership that is often categorized as “doing well by doing good.” It’s a concept that is rooted in the offering of a chance to someone deserving of an opportunity. Wanting to make a difference, Patel and his wife, Shital, became involved with Pratham. The foundation, which promotes childhood literacy in India, has reached more than 40 million Indian youths since its 1995 founding. The couple and their sons Vishal, 17, and Shyam, 14, recently visited a class in India to meet the recipients of their charitable efforts.
“You could see the enthusiasm in these children, who view education as a privilege,” Patel said. “And it was great for my sons to see that I came from very modest beginnings. I’ve always been driven to do the best I can, and in the right way with ethical orientation.
That’s the way my mother and uncle taught me.”
Patel also sits on the board for Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas, an organization that encourages entrepreneurial thinking and teaches financial literacy among young people, in order that they can create jobs for their communities.
“The values I learned as a child were all we had,” Patel said. “We learned to help people along the way, to try to give back. Those principles have carried me in my adult life, and I believe they’re the foundation of who I am today.”