From Shining Shoes to the Corner Office: Meet NJIT Graduate Kevin Gallagher

Kevin Gallagher recently won a lifetime achievment award.

Kevin Gallagher, a working-class kid from Union City who earned his engineering degree at night and rose to become president of a global chemical company, recently received a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award during the In-Cosmetics exhibition in Paris, France.

Gallagher, retired president of Croda’s Global Personal Care and Actives group, was recognized for “having had a significant impact on the cosmetic and personal care industry.” A panel of prominent industry leaders chose him for the coveted award, which is handed out only once every three years.

“It’s a wonderful accolade that recognizes true innovation and commitment to the industry,” said Gallagher, who graduated from NJIT in 1980 with a chemical engineering degree. “I am proud of my career with Croda and for having been an important part of the global leadership team that created the most successful specialty chemical company.”

A Career of Innovation

Gallagher’s career at Croda spanned nearly four decades. He began working there as an applications chemist in 1978 while taking evening classes at NJIT. He later worked in research and development, quality assurance and sales and marketing before moving into management in 1989. When Croda formed the Global Personal Care and Actives group in 2014, he was named its first president. He retired in January 2016, but not before leaving a legacy of innovation and sustainability.  

Gallagher is listed as co-inventor on seven Croda patents for ingredients used in the formulation of  products such as soap, shampoos and conditioners. He was also at the forefront of the chemical industry’s transition away from animal ingredients such as gelatin to plant-derived ingredients such as vegetable proteins. He spearheaded other sustainability initiatives at Croda including ensuring that palm oil derivatives used in products were grown responsibly, without harm to forests. He also led Croda’s effort to use ethylene oxide derived from bio-ethanol -- not petroleum.

And though he retired from Croda, his passion for chemical engineering and business management hasn’t waned. He recently formed Kevin Gallagher Consulting LLC, which offers management strategies to chemical ingredient suppliers. He also remains an independent director on the board of P2 Sciences, a renewable speciality chemicals company, and he serves as an independent board director for Inolex, a specialty ingredient manufacturer in Philadelphia.

Gallagher also considers it an honor and privilege to serve as a member of the Board of Visitors at NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering (NCE).    

He maintains close ties to NJIT, a university that gave him the foundation he needed to climb the socioeconomic ladder of American life.

Humble Beginnings: Shining Shoes

By his own admission, he grew up in a “very working class, blue-collar family.” He was born in Jersey City, but his family soon moved to Union City, where his parents owned   Gallagher’s Garden State Tavern. His father, who was born in 1912, was not formally educated; he only made it to the fourth grade. So Gallagher, like many NJIT alums, had to work his way up by grit and determination. 

He remembers being 10 years old and shining shoes in the bars along Bergenline Avenue that stretched from Union City to North Bergen. “That’s where I learned my first lessons about running a business,” he said.

When he was 13, his parents moved again, this time to Keansburg, in Monmouth County, where he attended the public high school. He excelled in chemistry and physics, so his science teacher suggested that when in college he major in chemical engineering.

After high school, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for one year before returning to New Jersey, where he worked during the day and took night classes at NCE.

He joined Croda in 1978, and continued to work there while studying at night; it took him five years to get his chemical engineering degree.

“For generations, NCE was known as a college for first-generation students -- blue collar guys who couldn’t afford to go away to college,” said Gallagher. “We worked full time, typically supporting families, and went to school at night and worked our way up. Whatever career success I enjoyed, NJIT deserves an important share of the credit.”

Gallagher certainly worked his way up; he was president of a division of Croda that generated $500 million annually in revenue and had 450 employees in the U.S. It was a big job with a lot of responsibility and he drew from his NJIT education. 

“The classes were rigorous,” he said, “and they gave me the intellectual discipline and problem-solving skills that have helped me my entire career.” 

The Next Stage: The Good Life

Now, at 59, Gallagher is enjoying life more. He has his own consulting business and he and his wife, Donna, divide their time between a house in Lincroft, New Jersey, and another in Key West, Florida. He likes to study astronomy and is president of the S*T*A*R Astronomy club in Monmouth County. He says he’s already done enough traveling to last a lifetime.

Perhaps most passionately of all, he’s a huge jazz fan. Once a year, by way of a donation from Donna, WBGO FM gives him an hour of air-time to host, during which he plays some of his favorite jazz records. 

“I had a very modest start in life, growing up the way I did, but like many NJIT guys I did all right,” he says. “I had a great career and thanks to my wife, a very good life. I’m happy about the next stage and being able to help other companies.”

By Robert Florida (robert.florida@njit.edu)