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March 10, 2017

Throughout career at Procter & Gamble, alum developed products that improve people’s lives

Written By: Pat DeFlorin

Did you brush your teeth with Crest toothpaste this morning? Are you wearing clothes washed with Tide laundry detergent? Did you eat your breakfast with tableware washed with Dawn dishwashing liquid?

If so, Gordon Brunner has had an impact on your life today. Crest, Tide and Dawn are just three examples of Procter & Gamble’s many brands that alumnus Gordon Brunner (BSChE ’61) contributed to in his 40-year career at P&G.

In the late 1950s, when the fields of biochemistry and chemical engineering were rapidly evolving and interacting, Brunner came to Madison to study fluid flow and energy transfer under R. Byron Bird, Warren Stewart and Edwin Lightfoot, UW-Madison professors of chemical engineering who spearheaded the field of transport phenomena.

At that time, Brunner recalls having to learn from Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot’s rough notes because there was no comprehensive book until the trio completed its seminal textbook, Transport Phenomena, in 1960. Brunner says the opportunity to learn from professors as they were innovating was priceless. “I felt like I was at the best chemical engineering school in the world,” recalls Brunner. “The timing was just perfect.”

After graduating from UW-Madison in 1961, Brunner earned an MBA from Xavier University at night while beginning work at P&G in Cincinnati. He worked in research and development his entire career, starting with food and detergent product development before assuming management leadership positions later in his career.

At P&G, Brunner was drawn to the challenge of developing consumer-preferred products with the goal of solving tough everyday problems. “The products may seem mundane, but the technology behind them is actually very sophisticated,” he says.

As an illustration of that sophistication, P&G received the U.S. Medal of Technology in 1995—an award normally given to individual outstanding scientists, but uniquely presented to P&G for its innovation. Brunner accepted the award from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton on the company’s behalf.

One of Brunner’s favorite brands to work with was the Pantene line of hair products. Before the 1980s, hair products were utilitarian and lacked unique functional benefits. Shampoos cleansed, but also removed desirable hair softness and manageability. Conditioners were marginal in adding benefits, and required a separate step. The notion of a 2-in-1 product that combined shampoo and conditioner functionality was revolutionary and very difficult to achieve technically. For example, when shampoo and conditioners are combined, they interact chemically, resulting in a product that doesn’t clean or condition. But Brunner and his colleagues discovered how to solve this conundrum. The result was the new brand Pantene, which became the world’s largest hair care brand during the late 1990s.

After developing products in Cincinnati for more than a decade, Brunner became P&G’s European director of research and development operations from 1976 to 1983. He became vice president in 1985, senior vice president in 1987, and chief technology officer in 1999. He was also elected to P&G’s board of directors in 1991, and served until his retirement in 2001.

Aside from seeing five new multi-billion-dollar global brands—Tide Liquid, Pantene, Swiffer, Febreze, and Actonel ostoporosis drug—launched during his tenure as chief technology officer, he is also proud of restructuring the company’s technical career system. Before Brunner’s time, employees could only receive formal promotions by advancing up the management ladder. This meant that outstanding technical people who wanted to “remain at the bench” doing technical work were often motivated to move toward management and away from their desired role.

In the corporate world, technical experts’ goals often included patents and publications, while company goals centered around those that built the business. At P&G, Brunner worked to create a system with rigorous standards, but in which both management and technical careers had a defined promotion path. In this system, P&G employees can choose the path they desire, but their success is measured according to the value they bring to either project-management or technical initiatives that promote business progress. P&G uses this two-pronged career path to this day.

These days, Brunner still is active professionally. He serves on several boards, does consulting work, gives talks, and serves as the chairman of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) commercialization committee to help commercialize UW-Madison inventions.

Brunner is a longtime golf enthusiast; in fact, having caddied through high school, he attended UW-Madison on an Evans Scholarship, which supports deserving caddies. These days, he applies his engineering acumen in the golfing arena as chairman of the Equipment Standards Committee for the PGA Tour. In this capacity, his committee interacts with the U.S. and International Golf Associations to study golf science, and develop global standards for golf balls and equipment.

Brunner’s passion to create things fuels his leisure time as well. “My desire as a youngster was to make and fix things—I was always a tinkerer,” he says.

While working at P&G, Brunner spent at least an hour in his home workshop almost every evening to decompress from the day’s work, crafting items such as baby cribs, high chairs and rocking horses for his eight grandchildren. An avid gardener and longtime member of the American Hosta Society, Brunner also experiments with unique hybrids, and caters his gardening repertoire to the different climate zones in Florida, Michigan and Ohio. “I’m not the kind of guy who sits around a lot,” he says.