Try telling cancer about your leadership qualities. When Kathy Buckman Gibson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, she had just reached a 20-year milestone with Buckman Laboratories, the company founded by her grandfather, Stanley Buckman, in 1945. As chairman of the board of Bulab Holdings Inc. (the parent company of Buckman Laboratories), Gibson influenced decisions that steered a business with international impact. (Buckman’s original breakthrough was a biocide that changed the paper-making industry.) Having returned to Memphis in 1993 — persuaded by her father, Robert, then Buckman’s CEO — Gibson’s impact was that much greater as a woman in an industry still dominated by males. And the cancer-career conflict was merely secondary in Gibson’s life. She had two daughters — twins in preschool — to raise.
“I got diagnosed in April 2013, finished chemotherapy in July, had a double mastectomy in September, and took the COO job [at Buckman Laboratories] in November,” says the CEO and president of KBG Technologies, today the only woman-owned, full-service chemistry provider for pulp and paper. “It was a couple of challenging years. My daughters had me laughing every day, and that was a godsend.”
Gibson grew up in Raleigh, on Lake Windermere, where she developed a passion for water. Be it a lake, beach, or island destination, Gibson fills any down time she can capture on or near the water. (She now lives in what was once her grandparents’ home … on Lake Windermere.) After graduating from St. Mary’s, she attended Duke University, where she discovered her first calling.
“I knew I wanted something where I could use my intellect,” reflects Gibson, “and it had to be something that I wouldn’t get bored doing. Law seemed like a natural opportunity. I did a clerkship my senior year to get a taste, and I loved law school.”
Gibson graduated from Emory University’s School of Law (she earned a joint degree in business) and settled in Atlanta, establishing career roots with a law firm where she learned an early lesson on leadership extremes. “There was a managing partner and a senior partner,” explains Gibson, “and their personalities could not have been more different. One was a yeller and screamer. The other wouldn’t raise his voice. It was fascinating to work directly for both of them. I tried to take the best from each.”
Despite growing up with an international brand as her surname, Gibson didn’t feel a pull to Buckman Laboratories until she had established herself in Atlanta, in the legal world. During a phone conversation with her dad, Gibson heard a tone less than celebratory. As she recalls, “He said, ‘First, I hope you do something to improve your profession.’ Then he said, for the first time ever, ‘I hoped you’d come back and work for the company.’ My parents were always really good about encouraging us to do what we wanted to do, to follow our dreams. I was grateful for that. That was the first time he suggested [I work for Buckman]. I needed to feel like I could stand on my own two feet before I felt comfortable putting myself in that situation.”
Gibson received calls from her dad every six months or so with an offer, but it wasn’t until one actually fit her skill set — that of general counsel — that she decided to return home, to Memphis and Buckman Laboratories. “It was a great way to learn the business, and I brought some expertise,” says Gibson. From general counsel, Gibson grew into the chairman of the board and later chief operating officer.
She stepped down as chairman in 2017 to form KBG technologies, an opportunity to diversify the chemistry-supplier industry with a woman-led enterprise. “Buckman provides specialty chemicals,” explains Gibson, “but they don’t provide commodity chemistries. If you go to any paper mill, they use both. I’m building relationships with sources of commodity chemistries. I can be an incubator for new and different opportunities.” (Commodity chemistries don’t require expertise in handling and tend to be readily available in the market.) For the time being, KBG is a two-woman operation: Gibson and her executive assistant, Nancy Glover.
Gibson acknowledges the family name has helped her develop what she considers central to any business transaction, those relationships. “It gives us access to people,” she notes. “I’d better be the best salesperson we’ve got, right? My name is on every label, every shirt. Research shows it’s always the third generation of a family that messes things up. There was pressure; you want to build on the great foundation.”
When asked about leaders she’s admired, Gibson starts with her mother, Miriam Warner, and her paternal grandmother, the renowned philanthropist Mertie Buckman. “My mother was an anthropology professor at Rhodes,” says Gibson. “She grew up in Tanzania. My grandfather was a medical missionary. She had great stories from her childhood. She’d bring in African curios for show-and-tell and teach us Swahili.”
Gibson’s relationship with Mertie Buckman took on a special dimension upon her return to Memphis from Atlanta. (Among Buckman’s legacies is the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis, an organization she founded in 1995, four years before her death.) “She was determined that I get engaged in the community,” says Gibson. “She sat on our board of directors, so she was a great role model in a lot of different settings. She was able to be very humble, and yet she would ask the toughest questions, and be point-on. She lived in the present and the future, always concerned about what was going on today.”
As for her own brand of leadership, Gibson leans toward that quiet partner at her Atlanta law firm, keeping cool when issues — or tempers — get hot. “In high-pressure situations, my heart rate slows down,” she says. “I get calmer, my voice gets quieter. It’s a coping technique. I’m a collaborator. There’s always a solution. It’s a matter of letting people bring ideas to the table, and creating an environment where they can do that and respect diversity of thought.”
Gibson considers new, young leaders to be central to growth in Memphis and the Mid-South, whether it’s measured in terms of business development or community engagement. “It’s our responsibility to grow the next generation of community leaders,” she says. “We tend to go to the same people in Memphis, tap into the same groups for certain things. Younger folks need to see themselves with opportunities [to effect change]. Otherwise, they see themselves as shut out. What difference does it make?
“And I keep bringing things back to early-childhood education. If we don’t do what we need to do in that zero-to-eight-years time frame, we’re failing our children and we’re short-changing our community. How do we give these kids a lot more to succeed? It’s community responsibility. It can fundamentally change who we are.”
If anything, Gibson’s worklife challenges have grown in scope as she aims to gain traction with KBG, to build a business with new influence and a different impact than those she experienced with her namesake enterprise. But she welcomes the uncharted territory. “My kids have asked me why I work,” notes Gibson with a smile. “I tell them that I love what I do, and if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be a good mother. Because I wouldn’t be happy.”