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.”
Kevin Si hadn’t even left the interview room in October 2014 when he was offered the internship he coveted at computer software company SAP. And the Fox School of Business student has a pretty good idea why the decision was made so quickly.
“For most of the interview, we weren’t talking about my previous internship experience,” said Si, a senior. “We were talking about my leadership experience.”
Si has plenty of that, thanks to Fox’s renowned student professional organizations (SPOs). Si has served as the director of finance and the president of the International Business Association (IBA), before this year assuming the role of president of the College Council, which oversees all SPOs.
And while it’s often been difficult balancing those extracurricular responsibilities with his internships and classes, Si quickly learned that SPOs, which focus on professional development through guest speakers, visiting different companies’ headquarters and more, are imperative in helping college students like himself get adequately prepared for the real world and ultimately land their dream jobs.
“I think being a part of an SPO and being a leader within it adds to your street smarts,” Si said. “It gives you those soft skills that you need, skills like communication, networking, teamwork and leadership. Those are extremely important.”
David Kaiser, Fox’s Director of Undergraduate Enrollment Management and the administration member who oversees Fox’s SPOs, won’t argue with the importance of soft skills. He can also attest to how badly they are needed for today’s college students – a generation for which, he noted, “communication can be an issue at times.”
“You meet students who will barely look you in the eye when you shake their hand,” said Kaiser, MBA ’14. “And three or four years later, they’re a leader in the school.”
For Kaiser, witnessing personal growth is the most rewarding part of the job, and he’s seen more students get those out-of-classroom opportunities as Fox SPOs have grown in size and stature.
According to Kaiser, there are roughly 2,300 undergraduates in 21 active organizations. Students usually find the SPO that best aligns with their major, which represents about a 1,000-person increase from when he started in his current role more than 12 years ago. Many of Fox’s SPOs have earned national praise.
For instance, Fox’s Sigma chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma, a professional international fraternity for risk management and insurance majors, has won the Edison L. Bowers Award in 16 of the last 20 years, which annually goes to the fraternity’s most outstanding chapter.
“They’re obviously one of the better groups, but we have a lot of groups that have been very successful,” Kaiser said. “When we have groups competing on the national level and succeeding, it makes the students and the school look good.”
One of the big reasons for Gamma’s success is its commitment to community service, as it recently hosted a financial literacy seminar to educate area high school students on personal finances. Prior to that, Gamma raised more than $11,200 for Brave Hearts and Young Minds, a charity that supports children who have lost a parent.
Of course, charity is a big component of all of Fox’s SPOs, as it is for the College Council, which collected 2,000 pounds of food for Philabundance last fall and $3,000 for Relay for Life in the spring.
“It requires professional training to get students in the mindset of giving back to the community that they are a part of,” Kaiser said, noting the students’ passion for fundraisers. “Part of our sales pitch is getting them to understand it’s not just about academics. It’s different from high school. Companies want well-rounded students with developed interpersonal skills, developed professional skills and developed soft skills. And you really can’t get those other skills strictly by being in a classroom.”
Engaging high school students to spur urban civic start-ups and community involvement
Two Philadelphia high school students temporarily put their summer plans on hold for a unique afternoon activity: The students, from Temple University’s Urban Apps & Maps Studios, delivered a technology prototype presentation to a leading executive from Samsung.
Sharing conference-room space with Young-jun Kim, Senior Vice President of Design of Samsung Electronics and President of Samsung’s Art and Design Institute, the students unveiled Samsung Self, a platform they developed to incentivize youth to have an active lifestyle and reduce the health risks associated with obesity. A user’s every movement is tracked, including staircase climbing, walking, watching movies in front of a TV, and listening to music. Self connects various aspects of a busy youth’s life that can affect their health through digital rewards that could be applied to music downloads, for example.
“We see our area’s high school students as cultural researchers who are experts in tomorrow’s high-tech culture,” said Dr. Youngjin Yoo, Harry A. Cochran Professor of Management Information Systems at the Fox School of Business, and founder of Temple’s Apps & Maps Studios.
The Samsung presentation serves as just one example of the impact forged by Urban Apps & Maps Studios, a Temple university-wide, interdisciplinary program. Each year, Apps & Maps connects Philadelphia high school students with Temple faculty and graduate student mentors to encourage, develop, and found start-ups to transform urban challenges into products and services. To date, thousands of students, hundreds of mentors and dozens of faculty have contributed to the Apps & Maps Building Information Technology Skills (BITS) six-week summer program, according to Dr. Michele Masucci, BITS Director and Temple University Vice President for Research Administration.
“Before Apps & Maps was founded, I had come to the conclusion that we’d need to create an urban entrepreneurship movement, so young men and women can use the technology around them to create solutions, make a difference, and aspire to become lifestyle entrepreneurs,” Yoo said. “Apps & Maps supports that movement.”
Apps & Maps received initial funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, in the form of a $500,000, five-year grant in 2011. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation also funds the Apps & Maps Studios program to bridge students and faculty members across Temple University. Over the last three years alone, Apps & Maps has trained more than 450 local high school students and over 150 Temple students who worked with faculty members from Temple’s College of Engineering, Katz School of Medicine, and the Fox School, in conjunction with the departments of English, Computer and Information Science, Biology, and Geography and Urban Studies.
In this year’s BITS program, the high school students’ projects included: analyzing the impacts of and suggesting improvements for a proposed, elevated rail park in Philadelphia’s post-industrial neighborhoods; mobile apps, to connect food-truck vendors with consumers for more-efficient transactions, and to address urban littering; and mapping the customer experience of Pennsylvania Ballet attendees.
Over the summer, Cameron Javon Scott and his 11 teammates visited Comcast and met with Android Studio developers. Armed with knowledge and confidence, the team, under the supervision of Dr. Karl Morris, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Temple’s College of Science and Technology, developed the prototype for a mobile application called Foodocracy, which would bridge the gap between food-truck owners and consumers.
“Before I did this, I had no coding experience,” said Scott, a 15-year-old sophomore from Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “I joined this program and I knew what I might want to do for a career, but didn’t know how to get there. This program gave me knowledge and direction. I’m here because they saw my potential.”
Jamik Ligon lined up five summer programs in which to participate, including a video-game design program at his school, Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School, and a biomedical engineering program in Drexel University’s nanoscience department.
“I was willing to drop all of that for Apps & Maps,” said Ligon, an 18-year-old senior. “That’s what this (program) means to me.”
Although the HBO series Boardwalk Empire is a work of historical fiction, Fox School alumnus Edward McGinty, BBA ’89, the show’s research advisor, helps ensure that the writers’ words are backed up with historical facts. Here, he talks about how growing up in Atlantic City helped land him a job on the acclaimed series.
How did you connect with Terence Winter, the show’s creator?
After graduating from Temple, I went to film school at Columbia University, where I met Terence Winter at a Q-and-A screening with the cast of The Sopranos. A few years later, Terry mentioned that he was writing a project about Prohibition in Atlantic City to a friend of mine from film school. My friend said, “You’ve got to meet my friend Eddie, he grew up in Atlantic City and knows everything there is to know about the town.”
What was that first meeting like?
I brought as much research material as I could carry to the meeting. My grandfather and my father, Ed Sr., ENG ’56, had worked at the Ritz Carlton, where the real Nucky lived. At the end of the meeting, I showed a photo of my grandfather wearing his bellman’s uniform, standing on the boardwalk in front of the Ritz. Terry looked at it and said, “You’re hired!” I think I may have been the first person on the payroll.
So growing up in Atlantic City gave you an edge?
Absolutely. I brought a lot of first-hand knowledge to the table. I was always fascinated by the history of the city I grew up in. I had always heard stories from my Dad about growing up in Atlantic City, so there was a lot of family history I could refer to. And [Temple History Professor] Bryant Simon’s book, Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, sat next to Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City [on which the HBO series is based] on my bookshelf for years. Those are two of my personal favorite books about the history of Atlantic City.
What does your father say about your work on the show?
The high point of my life was taking my Dad to see the Boardwalk set in Brooklyn. When he saw it for the first time, he stopped in his tracks. He climbed the stairs to the boardwalk they had built and leaned on the railing and said, “You guys really nailed it.”
What does being a researcher for the show entail?
The writing staff comes up with the storylines, and I support them with as much historical research as I can about the time period. If they have any questions along the way, I find the answer by searching the Internet, going to libraries, calling on experts, etc. Anything I need to do to find answers as quickly as possible. When the script comes out, I go back through it and fact-check, making sure that everything is on the mark. Everyone on the show does their best to make sure the historical elements are as authentic as possible.
You appeared on screen during the first few seasons as Ward Boss Boyd. How did that happen?
One day I was sitting in the writer’s room, and Terry looked across the table and said, “You kind of look like a character from back then. You should audition.” I brushed it off, but he persisted. I had trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theater, but I hadn’t auditioned in a few years, so I was extremely nervous. But I got the part. The fun thing is that my character was named after a real ward boss, who was my grandfather’s fishing buddy. So much of this show for me has been due to good luck and great fortune. The best part of it all has been having a mentor like Terence Winter to learn from.
Did you draw on your experience in Philadelphia while researching the storyline for Willie Thompson, who was a student at Temple this season?
Terry had the initial idea to have Willie go to Temple, and it made a lot of sense. When I went to Temple as an undergrad, there was a big contingent of Atlantic City kids there. So I was able to add a lot of first-hand knowledge to my research. On top of that, the Temple Library staff was very helpful. They pointed me to a number of digitized documents and yearbooks from the era. Also, [Professor Emeritus] Jim Hilty’s book, Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World, was an invaluable resource. Every Temple student and alumnus should have a copy of that book on their shelf.