“The comprehensive technical training we received gave us an understanding of materials and how they are processed.” – Nancy Bunt
Nancy Bunt has worked in the refractory, minerals and ceramics industries for 35 years – 27 of which have been with one company, Kerneos, which was acquired by Imerys Aluminates in 2017. Previously Kerneos’ senior market manager and global marketing manager, she currently serves as Imerys’ North American commercial director, high temperature industries, refractories, flux, and foundry, overseeing sales throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
A fellow of the American Ceramic Society, Bunt was recently awarded the Theodore J. Planje Award by the group’s St. Louis division. She is the first woman to receive the prestigious award, which recognizes achievement in the refractories field, in its more than 50-year history. She has been twice recognized with the Presidential Volunteer Service Award for youth involvement in the Girl Scouts.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the little revolutionary village of Tennent, New Jersey, which is part of Manalapan Township.
Why did you choose Rutgers?
I had my heart set on becoming a chemical engineer and was accepted by Villanova and Rutgers. There wasn’t enough on-campus housing at Villanova and my mother, who didn’t want me to have to commute there or live off campus, told me, “You’re going to Rutgers,” and I was happy with that decision.
What attracted you to the ceramics department?
Ceramics was, to me, somewhat like chemical engineering, with ceramics dealing with inorganic non-metallic materials, while the chemical side deals with organic materials. At Rutgers, I was drawn to the materials side of engineering.
What was the department like?
The department, headed by Malcolm McLaren, was small, welcoming, and tight-knit. It was an up-and-coming department in a burgeoning field – and everyone made me feel welcomed.
Where did you go after graduation?
There was a recession in 1983, when I graduated. I was fortunate that a Rutgers engineer at Southern Clay Products, a small company in Gonzalez, Texas owned by English China Clays, recruited me as a summer intern after graduation.
In addition to meeting my husband, who insists he met me my first day on the job even though I don’t remember meeting him, my internship led to a full time job. I stayed with the company for nine years.
Where did you go after that?
In 1991, I moved to Chesapeake, Virginia where I’ve been working for Kerneos in its many forms ever since. I lived there for five years in the 1990s and then was lucky enough to live in Paris for three years and outside of London for four.
This is quite a small industry and a small world. I’ve basically been working for some form of the same company my entire career, as Imerys bought English China Clays – and Southern Clay Products – in the 1990s.
What do you most value about your Rutgers education?
It’s a technical degree and I value the comprehensive technical training we received, which gave us an understanding of materials and how they are processed.
I also learned about the value of networking – though I don’t think it was called that then – early on.
What was it like being a woman in a small department?
Out of my graduate class of about 55, there were about ten women, which was a pretty good percentage. I was fortunate enough to be in the first wave of recruitment for women in STEM. I think the whole push was “let’s bring women in.”
I don’t remember feeling second-class at all. While I was a young female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the men I worked with took me under their wing. Interestingly enough, most of my mentors in my professional career have been men.
Did you have any other mentors?
The late Malcolm McLaren was my senior class project advisor and a mentor in my early career. He taught us about entrepreneurism by being a great example of someone who was able to set up industry and academic collaborations. He was always on the go and looking for new opportunities.
I also consider my mother, who worked her whole life and raised six kids, a mentor. She showed me how you could “do it all” before that expression existed.
I’ve also enjoyed the strong support of six or seven women peers with whom I’ve worked in the industry for 25 years.
Have you been a mentor?
I have been a Girl Scout leader for 13 years, taking a group of scouts from Daisy Scouts to Ambassador Scouts. I feel I mentored them. All of my girls went on to college – and some are even pursuing STEM fields. I believe through role modeling that my scouts were able to benefit from knowing what types of careers are available in science and technology.
I also enjoy taking part in the Refractory Ceramics Division Materials Camp each year, which encourages young people to consider STEM careers.
I’m also very proud to have mentored students who have moved on to become colleagues and customers.
How would you describe your leadership style?
For the last 13 years, I’ve had a team of me, myself, and I, but in my new role I’m managing a team of four professional sales and marketing people. We’re a team: I don’t think of myself as a boss, I see myself more as a collaborative team manager. Building productive relationships is my job: sales is about relationships, no matter what you’re selling.
What advice would you give to today’s engineering students?
My daughter is studying engineering, so if she ends up like me, I would encourage her to make sure some of her elective classes are geared towards sales and marketing. I would stress the importance of knowing how to deal with people. And I would stress the importance of writing – it’s really important to be able to know how to write and communicate clearly.
What did you do in your spare time at Rutgers?
I was actively involved in the Society of Women Engineers and served as its secretary and president my junior and senior years. We always had fun at the Ceramic Olympics field day event.
I also hung out with other engineers and had a good time, in the dorms, at the Rutgers pubs, and going down to the Jersey Shore.
What do you do for fun these days?
With both of my kids in college, this past year is the first year I’ve had free time and I don’t know what to do with it! It’s a transition time for me, but I enjoy going to movies and playing the dice game, Bunco, with friends. I may take up golf!
Have you read any good books lately?
I’m a Jersey girl. I just listened to an audiobook of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography that he read himself. To listen to him read and talk about places I knew from growing up was really fun and interesting. I also love Ken Follett’s historical fiction and just finished A Column of Fire.
You’ve traveled all over the world for work, but where would you go if you could go anywhere tomorrow?
There are two places I’d love to return to. One is New Zealand – I’d love to take my son there as a college graduation present. I just loved the country and the geographic distinctness of the two islands. I’d also like to revisit the Patagonia region of South America. Surprisingly, I’ve never visited Iceland or Nordic countries, so I’d also like to see them.