WILMINGTON, Del.—Ron Ozer was thrilled to get a job with DuPont, the two-centuries-old chemical company, when he finished his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1990. It was the place to go for young, ambitious chemists; it offered salary and benefits so generous that some people called it “Uncle Dupey.” For 26 years, he invented things for DuPont, filing patent after patent, working on renewable plastic bottles and polymers from the company’s Experimental Station, a research lab where Kevlar, Neoprene, and nylon were all invented.
Then, in January of this year, he was abruptly fired, along with hundreds of other employees at the Experimental Station, part of a company-wide wave of 1,700 layoffs, one-third of DuPont’s Delaware workforce. Globally, DuPont cut 10 percent of its workforce, or 5,000 people in early 2016.
The cuts came as DuPont prepared to merge with another legacy chemical behemoth, Dow Chemical Co., by early 2017. The merger, which is awaiting approval from regulators, was prompted, Wall Street analysts say, by a very public campaign by the hedge-fund investor Nelson Peltz and his company Trian Fund Management. Trian, which was DuPont’s fifth-largest shareholder, in early 2015 said it wanted DuPont to double its share price and cut $4 billion from its business, according to filings by Trian. Trian publicly demanded that the company cut costs, and threatened to convince DuPont shareholders to vote out members of the company’s board supportive of key executives. Carry out our demands, Trian essentially said, or we will gain control of your company and change it without your input. (Through a spokeswoman, Trian declined to comment for this article.)