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the torch at Jones Chemicals

Jeffrey Jones: Carrying
the torch at Jones Chemicals

Against a wall in Jeffrey Jones’ office stand two shadow boxes, each containing a few battered golf clubs, enshrined against green felt.
The clubs, the wall, the office–indeed, all of Jones Chemical Inc., where Jones is chairman, president and CEO–are the legacy of his grandfather, John Wiley Jones (J.W. to those who knew him).
At 42, Jones is the third generation of his family to head the firm. It is a position he did not expect to hold, and one whose responsibilities he does not take lightly.
Part of the weight on Jones’ shoulders lies in the burden of carrying the torch J.W. passed. His grandfather, who built the firm from nothing and died in 1986, was not a man to be trifled with and still is a pervasive influence, Jones says.
But also bearing down on him is the very nature of the firm’s business.
A purveyor of hazardous substances, mainly chlorine, Jones has little patience with those in the chemical industry who would downplay the potentially lethal nature of their stock and trade.
Sometimes sounding more like an environmentalist than a chemical manufacturer, he speaks with scorn of firms that run public-relations campaigns replete with soft-focus forest scenes and frisking wildlife.
It would be better, he says, to be honest with the public and concentrate more on safety than on public relations.
Jones’ views on environmental regulation are equally heterodox. Such rules should not be weakened, he maintains, because the industry cannot be trusted to police itself.
Two years ago, Jones broke with the top chlorine-industry lobbying group, the Washington, D.C.-based Chlorine Institute Inc., over an issue not even Ralph Nader has flogged: the sale of gas-form chlorine for water treatment in public swimming pools.
Shortly after he took over the firm, Jones stopped Jones Chemicals’ sales of such gas to public pools. When Chlorine Institute officials did not go along with his stance, he canceled the company’s membership.
Jones Chemical was a charter member of the group, and institute officials say Jones had been one of its most active members, a man who frequently appeared before congressional committees on the industry’s behalf.
Even today, institute president Robert Smerko speaks of Jones in hushed tones, saying it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the schism.
But he and Michael Lyden, vice president of storage and transport for the institute, speak highly of Jones, and say they are ready–indeed eager–to welcome him back to the fold.
“We’re always trying to convey the message that the door is open,” Smerko says.
Jones remains adamant. Gas-form chlorine, he contends, is “an accident waiting to happen.”
The substance, a form of what was called mustard gas in World War I and similar to the gas that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, in the notorious 1980s leak, is simply too dangerous to be handled by part-time, minimum-wage life-guards at municipal pools, he insists.
Says Jones, a father of sons ages 13 and 15: “I wouldn’t want my own boys exposed to that risk.”
Yet, he adds, “I am no peace marcher. I believe in the chlorine atom.”
He speaks enthusiastically of growing the firm’s business in South America and other Third World markets, where “water treatment is a very big issue.”
The firm recently won a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract to supply chlorine to all municipal plants in Puerto Rico.
Tucked away in a neat, red-brick building on a quiet side street in LeRoy, Jones Chemicals’ headquarters is easy to miss. Yet, the Chlorine Institute reports, the firm is the largest chlorine repackager in the country, and quite possibly the most significant force in the business globally.
Repackaging is the chemical-industry term for transportation of chlorine and other hazardous chemicals. Firms like Jones Chemicals handle such chores for the Dow Chemical Co., Du Pont and other chemical manufacturers.
Jones Chemicals also is a producer of chlorine, which it sells to municipal and industrial water-treatment plants and to
private labelers who cut it down and sell it as generic-brand household bleach.
The company operates in more than 40 locations coast to coast in the United States, does $125 million a year in business and employs several hundred people in the Rochester area alone.
Yet Jones Chemicals’ profile here is low, a fact Jones finds perturbing.
“If people know our name at all, it’s for selling swimming-pool chemicals,” he says.
Although Jones Chemicals at one time made and sold swimming-pool chlorine, that never was its main business. The company got out of it entirely some five years ago.
J.W. Jones started the firm in 1930, selling household chlorine bleach that he mixed himself in a bathtub.
A one-time Madison Avenue ad man, he came up with the idea of marketing his own line of bleach–called Liquid Sunshine–after working on the Clorox account and deciding he could market the product better on his own.
While J.W. did well enough selling Liquid Sunshine, his real triumphs came during World War II when the firm picked up contracts to supply chlorine to the armed forces for water purification at military bases.

After the war, he cannily positioned the firm in the repackaging business, an industry that grew in proportion to chemical manufacturers’ increasing desire to shun risks associated with moving hazardous substances. That became especially true when they took huge liability and public-relations hits from Love Canal and the Bhopal disaster.
When J.W. died, he passed an $80-million-a-year enterprise to Jones’ father, Robert.
J.W., he says, relinquished control to no one. He worked until the day he died at age 76 and had his hand in every operation. In some ways, Jones concedes, he still does.
“My granddad laid down the blueprint,” he explains.
For example, Jones Chemicals follows J.W.’s Depression-era no-debt policy, paying cash for capital improvements including complete factory renovations.
The policy means it must keep large cash reserves, a practice that has raised flags with some of the company’s directors, but which Jones plans to continue.
J.W., whom he describes as a “tremendous marketer of chemicals,” had a way of “making you feel good about yourself,” Jones recalls. At the same time, he also was “a hard guy. He was not always generous to family members.”
His own father, Jones said, “never quite came into his own. He was already in his 60s when he took over, and then he got sick.”
Illness forced Robert Jones into premature semi-retirement in late 1992. He died just shy of a year later.
Jones, who earlier had been named president, then became CEO and chairman–positions, he says, he never dreamed he would hold.
In college, he pursued a dual major in advertising and pre-law, graduating from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., with a bachelor’s degree in 1976.
Jones thought he would become a lawyer, but his real dream was to drive race cars. He became a professional driver in 1988 and has competed in several categories since then.
He plans to cut back on racing, however, because he thinks it has taken him away from his family too much.
“I think I owe my two boys some time,” he says. “In fact, I know I do.”
Despite an admitted lack of interest in the business, Jones worked in one of the company’s plants while attending college.
Soon after graduation, he married wife Janis, who also had attended the University of Puget Sound. Instead of heading for law school or the racing oval, Jones at his grandfather’s urging went to work at a Jones Chemicals swimming-pool operation in San Diego. In 1979, he moved to a management position at one of the firm’s “smokestack” plants in Houston, where he stayed until returning to LeRoy in 1986 as vice president of chlorine sales.
Jones speaks of wanting to “give something back to the company.” Yet he describes the appeal of racing in part as providing cathartic relief from his business burdens.
“You’re just down to a single point,” he says. “You forget about everything–the job, the company, chlorine, everything.”

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