Why Moving To China Paid Off Big For This CEO

To get ahead, young go-getters often hear three words of career advice: Just say yes. Faced with a tough assignment, accept the challenge. That’s what Avantor CEO Michael Stubblefield did — and it paid off.


In early 2006, he said yes when his employer asked him to relocate from Dallas to Shanghai to establish a new business unit. While he had made frequent business trips to China, he still faced challenges adapting to a new culture.

“It was the most pivotal time in my career,” said Stubblefield, 49, now chief executive of Avantor (AVTR), a Radnor, Pa.-based life sciences company with more than 13,500 employees. “My wife was pregnant. There were language barriers. It was way outside (my) comfort zone.”

Avantor CEO: Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

At the time of the move, Stubblefield was Asia commercial director of emulsion polymers at Celanese (CE), a global chemical and specialty materials company. As the only expatriate working with a handful of local colleagues, he recalls huddling in their small office to develop a strategy for their startup operation. He wound up spending more than two years in Shanghai.

“It was starting from scratch without knowing the rules, regulations and nuances of having to get things done,” he said. “So I sought out local groups to help me understand the culture and spent time in the community. And I made time for language lessons. Even at home, my wife became proficient with the language.”

Celanese’s then-CEO, Dave Weidman, had his eye on Stubblefield. He watched his rising star succeed in assignment after assignment.

“Every place Michael went, he did well,” Weidman said. “He learned very rapidly. He also made the team around him much stronger than they were without him.”

Stubblefield, who started his career as a chemical engineer, joined Avantor in May 2014 as its president and CEO. Since then, Avantor’s stock is up 175%. That laps the S&P 500’s 84% rise in that time. And the company is on pace to make an adjusted $900 million in profit this year, or $1.39 a share. It was losing money three years ago.

Avantor CEO: Drive Innovation With Three Steps

Stubblefield works in an industry driven by innovation. To foster creative thinking, he has devised a three-step process that paves the way for breakthroughs.

He starts by posing a simple question to his team: Do you know what good looks like? “That basic question is a proxy for identifying what metric to use to determine if we run at the highest level,” he said. “It sets the standard.”

From there, he examines his team’s current output relative to that standard. The final step is coming up with a plan to narrow the gap — from recruiting the right mix of internal experts to focusing their efforts on what matters most.

“We apply this approach to every part of our business,” Stubblefield said. “Take safety. We looked to who has the highest safety performance in our industry. Then we looked at where we were at and raised the bar,” resulting in an industry-leading safety record.

Lead By Setting Bold Targets, Avantor CEO Says

For Stubblefield, leadership means articulating and pursuing a bold vision that requires everyone to perform at their best. Knowing how to craft a compelling vision that resonates with colleagues requires a delicate dance.

“You need to understand where the tipping point is, how hard you can push a team without pushing it too far,” he said.

At Celanese, for example, Weidman recalls asking Stubblefield to serve as general manager of a high-performance plastics unit that the company obtained as part of a larger acquisition.

“I had no expectations for it and wanted to sell it,” Weidman said. “But Michael understood there was growth potential there. He came prepared with facts and data. He said, ‘Don’t sell this business. Grow this business.’ He convinced us to put capital into it,” and that investment proved a hit.

Delineate Bold Goals

Similarly, Stubblefield presented a bold vision as Avantor’s new CEO in 2014. It involved pivoting the business toward biopharmaceuticals and investing more in research and development. A private equity firm owned the company, and Stubblefield remembers an early meeting with about 10 members of the leadership team.

After describing his strategic vision, he asked them, “How many of you see this as an opportunity?”

“Not a lot of hands went up,” Stubblefield said. “There was some discomfort with the targets I set. So I broke the targets down into near-term milestones and once we achieved them, you could start to see the confidence build.”

He also conveyed to them that reaching the milestones required a relentless focus on execution. By maintaining that focus over the last seven years, he has helped build Avantor’s track record for successful execution.

Avantor CEO: Champion Kaizen Philosophy To Spur Quality

Stubblefield was unfazed by the group’s initial reservations with his vision. In fact, he viewed their hesitancy as a validation of his approach.

“If all the hands went up, that would have been a sign that the team wasn’t uncomfortable enough,” he said. “It was a good indicator that it was a bold vision.”

While some management fads drift in and out of style, Stubblefield is a longtime fan of process improvement strategies to produce higher quality and better results. Years ago, he earned the Six Sigma Green Belt certification.

In his late 20s, he learned about quality management techniques when his employer invited a guest speaker to discuss the concepts.

“It was rooted in data-driven measurement, structured problem-solving and discipline,” he recalled. “That made sense to me, and we’ve embraced the kaizen mentality to get a bit better every day.”

Sell Your Plan With Good Questions

Once Stubblefield reviews the data and reaches a conclusion, he finds the best way to win over others to see the light.

Chris Musso, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., has known Stubblefield for about 14 years. He recalls when Stubblefield, then a McKinsey consultant, sought to persuade the CEO of a large logistics company to make the transition away from diesel fuel.

The CEO leaned toward one option, but Stubblefield recommended a different solution.

“Michael encouraged a thoughtful discussion by asking questions instead of bludgeoning the CEO with analytics,” Musso said. “He asked questions like, ‘How important is fuel efficiency?’ and ‘How important is safety?’ “

Stubblefield’s integrity also impressed Musso. Frustrated with his real estate agent, Musso was thinking of reneging on his agreement with the agent to sell his home.

When he told Stubblefield, his friend looked at him and said, “Chris, you made a deal.” “Yes, but the real estate agent isn’t performing on it,” Musso replied.

Stubblefield urged him to work with the agent to forge a better outcome rather than walk away. Musso wound up sticking with the agent and improving the terms of the deal.

“There’s so much riding on your word,” Musso said. “For Michael, once the terms of a deal are in place, you stand by it.”

Avantor CEO Michael Stubblefield’s Keys

  • CEO of Avantor, a Radnor, Pa.-based life sciences company since May 2014. Turned company into a solid performer.
  • Lesson: Lead by stating a bold vision. Then win over others by posing smart questions, not drowning them in analytics.
  • “You need to understand where the tipping point is, how hard you can push a team without pushing it too far.”


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