Erik Ripple (’91)

Category: Accomplished Alumni | Awards

Some evenings Erik Ripple walks from his home in Shanghai to the local community center and plays ping pong with his neighbors. “They welcome me down there,” he says. “Since I don’t speak Chinese, we can’t really talk, but we communicate.”

Ripple’s business is capturing automobile gas tank emissions. As Asia-Pacific president for Ingevity, he runs two plants in China that make activated carbon – manufactured from waste hardwood sawdust – to absorb gas-tank emissions. “Our products keep eight million gallons a day in emissions from going into the atmosphere.” As senior vice president of performance materials, he spends a second work day on the phone with Ingevity’s headquarters in North Charleston, South Carolina. Ping pong can be a good way to wind down. “Ping pong isn’t as important in Chinese culture as it once was,” says Ripple. “But they take it very seriously. On Saturdays some of them are there from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.”

Ripple’s father, Perry Ripple Jr., was an electrical contractor and ordained minister who often moved his family for work projects. “I’ve lived in 27 zip codes,” says Ripple. He spent from ages 5 to 10 in East Tennessee—in Oak Ridge, Ten Mile, and Sweetwater, where his mother, Carol, was a secretary at the Tennessee Military Academy. “I loved East Tennessee,” says Ripple, “the climate, the terrain, the people. It was my natural fit over the years.”

From Tennessee the Ripples moved to several cities in Florida, ending up in St. Cloud, where he graduated from high school. Ripple’s older brother, Perry Ripple III, went to Carson-Newman University for a pharmaceutical degree, and Erik followed, with his eye on chemical engineering. His two summer internships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory gave him a taste for fundamental research and the ambition for a PhD.

Ripple transferred to UT for materials engineering before returning to chemistry. He worked in the department’s “Chemical Store” and studied under Chuck Feigerle, now the department head. Ripple wanted to start his doctorate after graduation, but he needed to save up some money, and Eastman Chemical was hiring. He took a job in sales and “discovered a whole new world in the chemical business.”

One of Ripple’s early Eastman postings was as a sales manager in St. Louis, which enabled him to earn his MBA at night at Washington University. At one point, he was church shopping and visited the First Baptist Church of Ellisville. After the service, Ripple asked how to get to the Bible study class. An elder hailed Kathy Jackson, who was on spring break from her senior year at Baylor University. “Hey, Kathy,” he said, “why don’t you walk Erik down to the Bible study area?”

They were married July 2, 1994, in the church where they met.

She became a special education teacher, taking time off to raise their children Karis, graduating in May from the University of South Carolina, Karly, a freshman at Clemson, and Jake, a freshman at Shanghai American School.

In his 18-year Eastman career, Ripple served as a sales manager, corporate strategy analyst, CFO staff analyst, business manager, new ventures manager, European business manager (which included two years living in the Netherlands), global product manager, innovation leader, and corporate development manager.

He joined Ingevity in 2010 as director of corporate development, rose to business director of global automotive, vice president of Performance Materials, and then to president of Asia-Pacific and his posting in Shanghai.

Happily, orange is a “favorable” color in China, viewed in the culture as having good luck.

“After all my travels, East Tennessee is home,” says Ripple. “I enjoy the mountains, camping, road cycling. All the passion and energy around the university, the sports at UT. It’s something I carry with me.”