Only a year after Diane Kappas earned her chemical engineering degree and joined PPG Industries at its Springdale coatings plant, the Pittsburgh-based company sent her to Oak Creek, Wis., where she became the first female engineer to work at its paints and resins facility there.
The Ambridge native wasn't uncomfortable as the lone woman engineer among a sea of men. She drew from her experiences as captain of her high school softball and basketball teams, and thought about the times her father yelled from the stands, "You're playing like a girl."
The sideline critiques were meant to encourage her to play more aggressively. They usually worked, said Ms. Kappas. "He was very competitive. So being in all-male-dominated plant was not intimidating for me. You just have to have thick skin."
Since then, Ms. Kappas, 48, has branched out from engineering to navigate a number of assignments that she didn't expect to have in the PPG organization, moving up the management ranks and landing most recently as vice president, environment, health and safety.
The appointment in 2011 gave her officer status in the corporation and put her in charge of overseeing all things that fall under sustainable business practices -- from workers' wellness to manufacturing plant emissions to employee involvement in communities where the company operates.
"Someone recently called me a utility player," Ms. Kappas noted during an interview in her office at PPG's Downtown headquarters, where natural light streams through windows made of PPG glass and the view overlooks PPG Plaza and its centerpiece fountain.
Her current position gives her responsibility for the health and safety of about 39,000 employees around the world, as well as the company's ambitious agenda to improve its environmental impact -- a role many might find daunting. Ms. Kappas considers it to be fascinating.
"It touches so many things," she said. "I travel regularly to all of our sites and can feel proud we are operating within compliance [and] make sure we are a good corporate citizen. I'm passionate about this."
Last year, the company developed a vision plan for achieving sustainability through 2020. It was based on input from external stakeholders such as investors, customers, and suppliers, as well as internal interviews with employees at its business units.
PPG asked participants to place a weighted value on topics and issues ranging from product safety and packaging to climate strategy, carbon emissions, water and land use, occupational safety and ethics.
Using the feedback, the company identified specific benchmarks it hopes to reach through 2020, including reducing spills from plants by 10 percent a year; reducing hazardous waste to landfills by 20 percent annually; reducing greenhouse gas emission by 1.5 percent per year; and generating 30 percent of sales from sustainable products.
Among the products PPG counts as part of the sustainable category are its coatings with low VOC (volatile organic compounds); solar-controlled and insulated glass; dimmable window shades on Boeing's Dreamliner jets; and recyclable materials such as Teslin, a synthetic sheet material used in drivers' licenses, labels and electronic passports.
Last year, the company calculates sales of sustainable products totaled $3.05 billion, or about 20 percent of its total global revenues of $15.2 billion.
With the spinoff in January of its commodity chemicals business, Ms. Kappas believes PPG is better positioned to improve its safety performance and reduce hazardous emissions and spills. "That business was a significant contributor to incidents of high risk."
PPG should also benefit from the acquisition this year of the North American operations of Akzo Nobel paints, including the Glidden and Liquid Nails brands, because that company's sustainability practices "are aligned with us," she said.
Besides making facilities safer and more sustainable, PPG wants to make employees healthier by establishing wellness programs at all of its sites in nearly 70 countries by 2020 and by reducing the illness and injury rate by 5 percent annually companywide.
"We're accountable to create safe work environments and our workers are equally obligated to follow [safe] practices," Ms. Kappas said.
PPG is among the companies that in recent years have embraced sustainability as a function of business and now issue published reports to track their sustainability performance for investors and shareholders.
Sustainability as a standard practice of business took hold among major corporations in the late 1980s after the Brundtland Commission, established by the United Nations to promote awareness of environmental issues, released a report that some experts believe coined the term, "sustainable development."
Among the first to pay close attention to so-called sustainable issues as a function of business was Alcoa, said Bill O'Rourke, who spent more than three decades at the aluminum maker including his last couple years there as vice president, sustainability and environment, health and safety.
"What Alcoa did, under [former chairman Paul O'Neill], was to start to set very lofty environmental goals. And they made significant progress toward those goals and realized they needed someone to be responsible for sustainability."
The position started as a director and eventually evolved into the vice president title that Mr. O'Rourke held. He retired in that role and is now executive director of the Beard Institute of Duquesne University's Palumbo-Donahue School of Business.
The ideal person to oversee sustainability, he said, should have broader skills than a background in the environment.
"I had responsibility for environment, safety and was also expected to drive programs in volunteerism, community relations and marketing," said Mr. O'Rourke who reported directly to Alcoa's chairman, Klaus Kleinfeld. "In different corporations, the structure is different. But generally they'll also have influence in areas like diversity, audit and ethics ... and you see it in most corporations now."
Among the best companies at implementing sustainable practices throughout their businesses, he said, are Dow Chemical, General Electric and Cisco Systems.
"I really don't like the word sustainable. It's too many syllables, but its meaning is gaining acceptance. I look at it as the capacity to endure [more] than just the environment or energy. PPG is celebrating its 130th year in existence ... that's evidence of sustainability."
For Ms. Kappas, sustainability was barely a buzzword when she joined PPG in 1986 after earning her bachelor's from the University of Pittsburgh and spending the previous summer as a company intern.
After three years as a process engineer in Wisconsin, she returned to Pittsburgh for a job in purchasing in the coatings division then in 1994 took her first management job running a paints plant in Dover, Del. Next came a stint as a technical manager at a coatings plant in Atlanta before she asked to be relocated to headquarters to be close to her mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"There were no engineering positions at the time so I became corporate diversity manager. I had earned my MBA from Duquesne University and it was a somewhat new position. It was probably my most pivotal career move. It was an opportunity to look globally at the company ...and I could demonstrate what I could do."
A couple years later, in 2001, she left town again to become the first female plant manager at PPG's specialty chemicals plant in Barberton, Ohio, then switched to the glass business in 2004 as supply chain director for automotive replacement glass and later adding automotive refinish coatings to her responsibilities.
In 2007, she became business director for the Teslin products before assuming her current job in 2011.
"I'll do this job for as long as I can," said the Wexford resident, who spends her time away from work immersed in outdoor pursuits such as kayaking, biking and hiking, or inside at the Benedum Theater where she's a season ticket-holder for the PNC Broadway Series.
"It will bring value to the company and there's a long runway before I retire."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.