A Conversation with Dr. Sjon Westre, Chemeon Surface Technology
Dr. Westre was named vice president of technology for Chemeon in October with an emphasis on anodizing and conversion coating solutions.
PF: Talk about environmentally responsible coating and seal alternatives to hexavalent chrome for use on light metals?
SW: Environmentally responsible is really the key, isn’t it? There are many technologies out there. We have some nice ones that work well, our competitors have some and new research comes out all the time with new possibilities. But we have to keep in mind the question: at what cost? Not to go all tree-hugger on you but we have to ask, does this new coating cause some unforeseen problem for our planet? An example is using cobalt in coatings. That was a consideration for some technologies, but cobalt has its own problems with toxicity. So when new coatings are developed, we all need to look at the end effects as well as how great the coating works. I hope that we’ve learned the important lesson that hex chrome has offered us.
PF: How much more advanced can corrosion protection surface technology become?
SW: I’m amazed at what I see in the literature and what other industrial technologies have to offer that can be adapted to our industry. I think we will see some interesting crossovers from other industries. Looking back 20 years in the industry, I am also really pleased at how well water-borne technologies have come into play where previously it would be solvent-borne.
PF: Shops are looking to meet the EU sunset date September 2017 for hex chrome. How is the coming along from the scientific side?
SW: I think myself and all of my competitors can attest to the fact that we are all more than happy to sell you solutions to your problem. The phones are open and operators are standing by to take your order. These are chemistries that work well. A lot of progress has been made in the last 10-15 years. I think part of the challenge is integrating these into process lines where they are used to working with hex chrome. The chemistries are not identical, and there is a learning curve. But the chemistries do work very well.
PF: What’s the best piece of advice you were given?
SW: What comes to mind is ‘Only faith and attitude keep you going.’ I believe that Arthur Ashe said it originally, and here is how it came to me: I was in a rough period—my father had passed away and about a year later I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was only 51, so this was quite a shock. I have a great life, great wife and kids, and here this is happening. I was really struggling to make it through one day and a friend of my stopped by my office to check in and see how I was doing. I told him I was having a pretty tough go of it that day. And he said, “Sjon, you need two things to keep you going: faith and attitude.” Things got easier from that moment forward. Love you, Steve. Thanks for everything.
PF: What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
SW: It’s funny how things come full circle; I actually worked in a plating shop for my girlfriend’s dad when I was 16. It was a shop that did a lot of custom chrome work for show cars and he had a nice chunk of business repairing steel bumpers; straightening, pounding them out, grinding them and plating. He tried to teach me how to buff parts; I wasn’t all that great at it. So he put me to work doing bumper prep; pounding out dents and grinding the bumpers smooth. It didn’t send me down the road to wanting to be a metal finishing scientist. In fact, probably the opposite. But like a lot of jobs I have had, it instilled the fact that you have to work very hard to get anywhere. Whether you are a plater, a scientist, a cook, a mechanic or a teacher, you have to work hard at it. And there is satisfaction in working really hard at something and doing well.
PF: If you had $100,000 to give to a charity, which one would it be?
SW: No doubt about that one: Food For Thought based in Carson City, Nevada (nvfoodforthought.org). They combat chronic childhood hunger in the local area. It’s a huge problem and puts these kids at a terrible disadvantage. Food For Thought does amazing work, discreetly sending home bags of food with kids on Fridays so they have enough nutritious food for the weekend, supplying backpacks filled with school supplies, and more. It is an incredible home-grown solution to a devastating problem. Last year they distributed 13,309 bags of food containing 34,036 meals and provided over 4,500 summer meals for kids.
PF: What was your first car, and what is your dream car?
SW: My first car was a 1963 Volvo 122. My folks had bought it for $300 when I was a kid. It was the first car I ever drove, as far as my parents ever found out about. It did not run when it was given to me and I spent the summer between high school and college getting it running with help from my dad. Dream car…there are so many great machines out there, I’d have to say an original Ford GT40 (in Gulf livery if anyone out there wants to re-home their baby).
PF: What leadership traits have helped you along the way?
SW: I think a few things have really helped me along the way: an ability to work really hard at something where the goal is a long time away. I learned this in grad school; it takes years of hard work to get that degree. So, when I got into the industry, I was comfortable with projects where the payoff was going to be several years later. You learn to eat that proverbial elephant a bite at a time. Being able to be direct and honest with people. I’ve managed a wide variety of people over the years and have found that being direct with people on expectations, successes and failures helps everyone. It seems like many managers are afraid to be truthful and that does not help people move forward and become successful. And be kind. You don’t have to be a jerk when someone has been less than successful. Share the credit for your successes with your coworkers. It costs nothing to be generous when you lead a team on successful projects. And you reap amazing profits from those same people when projects get difficult.
PF: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SW: A fighter pilot. I then spent the next 20 years being afraid of flying. Ironic? Yes, yes it is. We lived in the flight pattern of an Air Force base when I was a kid. This was during Vietnam, so all kinds of really interesting planes flew over. My dad was a hydraulics mechanic at the base, and so when there was a plane I did not recognize, I would call him at work to ask what was flying.
PF: Night owl or early bird?
SW: Both are equally delicious. Batter dipped and fried is my preference.
PF: Favorite place you’ve ever lived?
SW: Probably the San Francisco bay area. I was a boy scientist fresh out of grad school and had a job as an R&D scientist for a small company. I loved the proximity to the ocean, the variety of people, food, culture. I’m glad to be living where I am now, but it was a wonderful place to spend a few years.
PF: If you could trade jobs with anyone for a day, who would it be?
SW: Snow plow driver. We live at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. To get to California, we go up and over the mountains. In the winter huge snow plows keep the roads clear. I want that. Can you hook me up? I’m pretty sure I can do it no problem.
PF: Where would we find you on a typical Saturday?
SW: For the past few years, very often I’d be at or getting ready to go watch my kids in whatever sporting event was going on. My daughter is in college and my son is a senior, so that stuff is winding down. I like to get up and fiddle in the garage before everyone is up and about.
PF: Personal heroes?
SW: Winston Churchill, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Muhammad Ali.
PF: Three greatest passions?
SW: Family, learning new things and trying to live my life in a way that inspires my children.
PF: Most unique office décor?
SW: Personalized autographed photo of William Shatner as a very young Captain Kirk. I was completely star-struck when I met him at ComicCon.
PF: What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
SW: Keep pushing; you are not going to believe how cool this gets!
PF: Word that best describes you:
SW: I surveyed my family and team on this one. Most of their words are not printable in a fine publication such as yours.
Get to Know Sjon
Family: My wife and I we have four kids ranging from 17 to early 30s, a son in law, a grandson, a granddaughter on the way, assorted dogs and a fish named Vlad the Impaler.
Favorite hobby: Judging by the amount of time I spend on it, remodeling houses. But, I love to play the piano, read and heckle my kids and grandson.
Favorite movie: Shawshank Redemption
Favorite book: The best book I ever read was The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones; it is such a powerful book that it is difficult to re-read very often. I find a lot of joy and comfort in the old stories and books by Ray Bradbury; I can read the Martian Chronicles just about every year.
What’s playing in your car CD/radio: "Bandito" by The Refreshments
Originally published in the January 2017 issue.