(Recasts, adds comments from executives, background)
By Euan Rocha
NEW YORK, Sept 23 (Reuters) - DuPont Co (DD.N) has named Ellen Kullman its chief executive, making her one of the most powerful women in industry and marking the first time in DuPont’s 206-year history that a woman has taken its helm.
Kullman, 52, will take over on Jan. 1 from retiring Charles Holliday, who headed the U.S. chemical company for more than 10 years. Kullman was also named president and a director of the company, effective Oct. 1.
Holliday, 60, will serve as chairman of DuPont and as a board member until Kullman’s expected succession as chairman, DuPont said in a statement on Tuesday.
“I just believe very strongly that it is important to rotate and give the next series of managers an opportunity to make improvements to what we have in place,” said Holliday. “This is the right time to make this transition, and I feel great about it.”
Kullman, who joined DuPont in 1988 from General Electric (GE.N), was groomed for the CEO’s job over the past two years and was widely expected to succeed Holliday.
“This gets the succession planning sorted out. It’s a good move to bring in Ellen, considering that she is already running most of the segments of the company,” said HSBC analyst Hassan Ahmed.
Kullman has been responsible for four of DuPont’s five main business segments: Coatings & Color Technologies, Electronic & Communication Technologies, Performance Materials, and Safety & Protection businesses.
She has also worked as executive vice president and was a member of DuPont’s office of the chief executive.
Kullman was recently named by Forbes as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women. She joins a handful of women who head some of the largest U.S. companies, including PepsiCo’s PEP.N Indra Nooyi, WellPoint’s WLP.N Angela Braly, Xerox Corp’s(XRX.N) Anne Mulcahy and Archer Daniel Midland’s (ADM.N) Patricia Woertz.
Last week, Kraft Foods KFT.N was added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI, making its CEO Irene Rosenfeld the only woman currently at the helm of a Dow 30 company.
Kullman, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, began her career at DuPont in 1988 as marketing manager in the Medical Imaging business. She is currently on the board of directors of U.S. automaker General Motors (GM.N).
Kullman said she wants to drive DuPont’s earnings growth by focusing on four core areas: agriculture, safety and protection, emerging markets and cost reduction.
“I think this strategy is the right one. I don’t think the current (market) conditions will mean major changes to it,” she said in an interview.
Downturns in the U.S. housing and auto markets have affected DuPont’s results because it is a large supplier of paints to the auto industry, and it makes Tyvek, Corian and SentryGlas, which are used in home building.
DuPont has benefited, however, from a boom in agriculture and in the next few years the company plans to introduce and ramp-up production on a range of seeds and technology for agriculture.
DuPont is also focusing on developing biofuels and biomaterials to help drive its growth, while it anticipates losing licensing revenue from hyper-tension drugs Cozaar and Hyzaar from 2010 when the U.S. patents expire. The drugs accounted for 19 percent of the company’s pre-tax operating income in 2007.
Holliday said the company was in great shape and stressed that it has strong growth prospects despite any issues it faces and the current tumult in global financial markets.
“I find, when you are right in the middle of a hurricane, trying to predict the weather is not very accurate because you are awfully biased by what you see. We’re in the middle of a financial hurricane, and it’s probably a Category 5,” Holliday said.
“I think DuPont is perfectly positioned to come out of this very strong. In the long run there’s probably opportunity in this for our company.”
DuPont’s shares closed down 1.54 percent at $44.69 on the New York Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Brian Moss, Maureen Bavdek)