Christophe Beck will take the helm of Ecolab after a decade of growth, but also a precarious time as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have not yet played out.
"The way we are managing 2020 is really making sure we build everything that is going to help us get stronger post-COVID," said Beck in an interview the day after Ecolab announced he would take over for Doug Baker on Jan. 1.
In the third quarter, 80% of Ecolab's businesses grew, Beck said. The problem was the 20% still deeply impacted by the pandemic.
The St. Paul-based company is concentrating this year on research-and-development investments in infection prevention solutions, increased capacity for sanitizing products, accelerated investments in digital tools for sales and other areas and made commitments to keep its employees, Beck said.
"The world out there has never been more aligned with what we are presenting," he said of the company, which provides water, hygiene and infection prevention solutions and services.
Ecolab's results were most significantly affected in the second quarter but showed improving results when the company reported its third-quarter results earlier this week.
Still, Beck will need to manage through immediate challenges, said Justin Miller, vice president and investment manager of St. Paul-based investment adviser Mairs and Power, which has been a longtime holder of Ecolab shares.
The change in leadership comes as Ecolab's most profitable business — its institutional unit servicing restaurants and hotels — is under stress from the pandemic-related economic downturn.
"Investors will be closely monitoring how Beck navigates these challenges in his first year as CEO," he said. "While near-term results may be somewhat bumpy, we believe Beck will lead Ecolab to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position."
Beck, 52, steps into the new role having developed broad operational and strategic management skills by leading some of Ecolab's global operations.
He is currently the president and chief operating officer of Ecolab. But as head of global integration before that, he was responsible for the integration into Ecolab of Nalco Holding Co., the $5.4 billion acquisition in 2011 that was the company's largest and most complex ever.
Beck joined Ecolab in 2007 after a 16-year career at Nestlé, where he led a number of different product groups including an Italian pasta brand. Before that, he had a stint working on a space shuttle project for the European Space Agency.
A native of Switzerland, he grew up outside of Geneva and graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree.
"Internal CEO succession is a multiple-year journey. We are at a time when all the pieces fit," Baker said Friday in a statement. "The company is in a very good place (past the shock and awe period of COVID-19) and will be entering next year in a good position, I am ready after 16-plus years as CEO, and the most important part, Christophe is ready."
Baker has received accolades for his management over his tenure as CEO and for his civic commitment.
"You would be hard pressed to find a CEO with a more impressive financial track record that saw revenue nearly quadruple, the market value increase 7x (added $45 billion!) and a stock price that rose over 500%," said Mairs and Power's Miller in an e-mail.
Baker was 46 when he was named CEO of Ecolab and is among the longest-tenured CEOs of a Minnesota public company. He will retire as CEO at age 62 but remains chairman of the board.
"One of Doug's big strengths is clarity of leadership," Beck said.
"We've spent 13 years working together extremely well, and I will keep, obviously, seeking his counsel, his advice. Not only as a chair of a board, but because he is an exceptional leader, someone I like, someone who has become a friend and someone who has helped me all along in my career," Beck added.
Baker was clear in a global webcast to Ecolab employees, though, that Beck will be in charge. He told employees his job next year will be running the board, not the company.
He said Friday he also will serve on the Target and Mayo Clinic boards.
"Julie and I will continue to live here and be engaged in the community," he said. "Additionally, I do not plan to retire-retire and will finalize what's next over the next several months.
Baker has shown a dedication to the community as well as the company, said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.
"Doug Baker is not only a terrific CEO, but he's one of the most effective leaders in the Twin Cities," Weaver said. "What makes him unique is that he takes the time to personally engage and make a difference on issues that matter — like racial inequities or early childhood education."
Weaver noted Baker's leadership in an effort to help the state procure and manage personal protective equipment as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Minnesota.
More recently, he said, Baker led an effort to create learning pods for low-income students most adversely affected by distance learning.
Baker was effective at his civic work because of the personal relationships he fostered with other local business leaders, Weaver said.
"The fact that he is from here, he is one of us, gives him great credibility," he said.