Hall of Distinction Class of 1991-1992

When Gordon A. Cain graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Louisiana State University in June 1933, the job market was much worse than it is now. Instead of bursting into the engineering field in a way that would foretell his future success, he took a job with the Louisiana Power and Light Company, and, although it had the word “engineer” in the title, it was a dull job doing boiler water analyses and calibrating instruments.

His next job with Freeport Sulphur Company was an improvement. He developed and patented a sulphur burner that is still in use around the world today. He also spent a year in Cuba developing a process to recover manganese from Cuban ore and a year in Nevada prospecting for molybdenum.

Then, one day, at an AIChE luncheon in New Orleans, he had the good fortune to sit next to the director of Engineering of Merck. Before lunch was over, Mr. Cain had agreed to work for the company. The war in Europe had just started, creating a big demand for sulfa drugs, and the FDA had authorized the fortification of flour and bread with synthetic vitamins. During his time at Merck, he designed and built more plants than most engineers do in a lifetime. Had it not been for the U.S. involvement in World War II, Mr. Cain strongly believes he would be a retired director of engineering at Merck now.

But, Mr. Cain had an ROTC commission and a desire to serve his country. In retrospect, he feels that the war was the biggest thing that happened in his lifetime. Most of his four years in the army were spent as the commander of a heavy mortar battalion in the Pacific.

Upon returning stateside, it was apparent to Mr. Cain that he could not do the kind of engineering he had done before the war without going back to school. However, he credits his own laziness, his desire to get on with a career, and his new-found ability to get others to do things, for his decision to forsake further schooling and accept a job with the Freeport Sulphur Company once again.

While at Freeport, Mr. Cain spent six months in Germany studying it developments in the chemical industry during the war, and he served on a quatri-partite commission to implement the provisions of the Potsdam agreement. After filling the files with good ideas for new business expansions for Freeport without the desired results, he joined a venture capital group, the Standard Perlite that had started a project to make a building board from perlite and waste newspaper.

However, the Standard Perlite venture had many serious deficiencies. After three years of trying to salvage something from it without success, he took a job with FMC.

His position at FMC was similar to his last position at Freeport in that he found expansion opportunities. One of Mr. Cain’s first ideas was to purchase a government butadiene plant in Houston. This later became the Petro-Tex Chemical Company owned jointly by FMC and Tenneco.

As vice president of Petro-Tex for nine years, Mr. Cain served in many capacities manufacturing operations, plant manager, and chief financial officer. Then Conoco offered him a job as vice president in charge of their chemical businesses. Conoco had a small unprofitable petrochemical business and a desire to expand. He accepted their offer, and six years later, they had a business that was worth $600 million.

Still lingering in his mind, however, was his failed Standard Perlite venture, and he promised himself that he would make one more try as and entrepreneur before he retired. So, in mid-1970, Mr. Cain left Conoco with no specific plans. Within days, he received calls from investment banker friends who had investments that were in trouble. For the next ten years, he ran troubled companies, as many as three at one time. These included companies handling collision avoidance devices for ships, gas chromo-tographs, process controls, radioactive materials, test gear for jet engines, as well as his old company Petro-Tex, and an oil refinery in Alaska. He also represented Conoco in some investments they had in Argentina and did an occasional consulting job, although he never regarded himself as a professional consultant.

Ten years quickly passed, and Mr. Cain decided to buy a small chemical business and spend his retirement looking after it. After two years, he raised his sights and bought the Conoco chemical business that he had run years before.

At this point, Mr. Cain’s interests shifted from running a small chemical company to making corporate deals. Since then he has handled the leveraged buy outs (LBOs) of Conoco Chemical, a Monsanto plant, an ethylene derivatives plant, a Celanese plant, 5 fertilizer operations, and Koppers resorcinol plant. He also has established The Sterling Group which handles LBOs outside the chemical businesses. They have negotiated approximately 30 LBOs, most of which are small low technology manufacturing and distribution operations.

Though an improbable chain of events, Mr. Cain also became interested in the airline business and presently has control of a commuter airline operating out of Dulles Airport and a charter airline that, among other clients, carried the present White House press corps on the presidential campaign.

Mr. Cain presently serves as chairman of the board of Sterling Chemicals, Inc., The Sterling Group, Inc., Atlantic Coast Airlines, and Airlines of the Americas, and is director of Arcadian Corporation and The Cato Institute. He is active in the Harvard-Stanford Council of Economic Policy Research.

Mr. Cain married the former Mary Hancock of Atlanta, Georgia, and he has tow stepchildren, Peggy Olhmig and Jim Weaver. He enjoys golfing and hunting duck, goose, and quail during his leisure time.