Pavlis's Parables: Passing on the Lessons of Leadership

Frank Pavlis


Frank Pavlis

Frank Pavlis got his first lesson in leadership before he started grade school.

"I had the good fortune to be born on a farm," he tells the inaugural group of Michigan Tech students enrolled in the Pavlis Institute for Global Technological Leadership.

It was harvest time, and his mother needed to be out with his father bringing in the crops. She had three very young children, but her four-year-old son, Frank, was the least young of the bunch.

"Mom said, 'You're the oldest. You need to take care of the little kids,'" he remembers, some eighty-five years later. "Suddenly I was in charge."

With greatness thus thrust upon him, Pavlis absorbed some profound truths about leadership before he could read a single word in a management text. "I had position, authority, and imagination," he says, qualities that he used to keep his siblings entertained and out of trouble for hours on end. Those attributes, which made him a successful surrogate parent at an age when most children are not allowed to cross the street, kept him in good stead years later, when he took his first job.

Pavlis worked his way through Michigan Tech during the Great Depression and in 1938 graduated with a BS in Chemical Engineering at the top of his class. He was awarded a fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he earned a master's degree. After graduation, he turned down a steady job with Shell Oil to sign on with a young man with an entrepreneurial spirit who thought he had a good idea.

Why would he do such a thing? asks one of the Pavlis Institute students. "That was when I learned the value and the risk of making a choice," Pavlis tells her. To go with Shell would have been prudent and a low risk. "But I had the courage to choose the young man and the vision."

Frank Pavlis


"The greatest underutilized resource in our country is educated women."

It didn't always seem like the right thing to have done. Pavlis immediately found himself designing and building a plant to produce pure oxygen, a process that involved compressing air to three-thousand pounds per square inch. This proved a daunting task for someone who'd never picked up a soldering torch, let alone constructed high-pressure gadgetry. "I thought I'd blow myself up," he remembers.

Almost a year later, the plant was built and actually produced pure oxygen at the design capacity. Leonard Pool, the visionary, was elated and immediately scheduled plant demonstrations for several prominent American industrialists. Their response was favorable, so he incorporated in 1940, but without the requisite capital. "I often thought about the would-have-been salary at Shell," Pavlis says, remembering how he got by on three dollars a day doled out by his boss until the company got some orders about a year later.

The company did eventually find its footing. With the US entry into World War II, Air Products changed from a pauper into a prince overnight. Oxygen and nitrogen were needed in war theaters around the world, and oxygen for high-altitude breathing purposes became indispensable. Air Products, founded on Pavlis's oxygen generator, is now a Fortune 500 company with annual revenues of $8.1 billion, operations in more than thirty countries, and over twenty-thousand employees around the globe.

During his forty years with Air Products, Pavlis had a variety of positions, starting with chief engineer, joining the board of directors in 1952, and serving as treasurer, vice president for engineering, and vice president for finance before retiring twenty years later in 1980 as vice president for international/world trade. During the later period, Pavlis was a world traveler, and much of the company's global interests are the result of his exploratory and pioneering efforts.

This international experience prompted the formation of the Pavlis Institute for Global Technological Leadership, which he founded with a $2-million gift to Michigan Tech. The institute will include an enriched curriculum, special seminars, and international experience for talented students in all majors.

"Now that I'm older and wiser, I'm concerned about America's role in the world," Pavlis tells the new Pavlis Institute students. "We are under challenge. I don't think the average American appreciates the impact of globalization."

In the age of outsourcing, US workers need an edge, he said. "Your employer may eliminate you unless you have plus factors, like leadership skills," Pavlis counsels. That said, leadership is more than job security, he adds. Leading is more rewarding than following. "You can cope with change or sit in the background and wait for someone to tell you what to do," he said.

After a ninety-minute roundtable discussion, Pavlis expresses approval of his institute's inaugural class. "I'm enchanted with them," he says. "And I was surprised to see so many ladies. When I was here in 1938, there were only two, and I rather pitied them.

"The greatest underutilized resource in our country is educated women, and I'm glad to see them in this group." One of those women is SherAaron Hurt, a sophomore in business administration and a member of the Pavlis Institute.

"I loved him," she says later, "especially that he appreciated us women and his 'I can' attitude. Now, when I think I can't do something, I say, 'Hello, SherAaron, yes you can,' and I've seen wonderful growth in what I can accomplish, both in and outside of class.

"I admire him so much." For more information on the Pavlis Institute for Global Technological Leadership, visit www.pavlisinstitute.mtu.edu/.

To see a video of Pavlis's talk with students in his institute, go to www.admin.mtu.edu/urel/breaking/2006/Videos/pavlis.wmv.

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