Sustainability and innovation are transforming the chemical industry.  Central to that transformation is leveraging customer and consumer insights, to ensure that new, innovative products are meeting customer needs.

In this week’s podcast episode, I speak with Juliana Pantalena, who is the Marketing Head of Surfactants for CEPSA Química based in Madrid. She brings a global perspective, having working in Brazil, US, and Spain.  And, a keen focus on customer experience and driving value in established markets with new products. 

Topics discussed this week: 

  • Juliana’s origin story and what drives her interest in chemicals and surfactants
  • How sustainability and carbon reduction drives CEPSA  Chemicals
  • CEPSA’s partnership with Unilever on NextLAB
  • How CEPSA looks at consumer needs to drive product innovation
  • A prioritization process for innovation
  • Critical factors for Customer Experience
  • The role of digitization in the company
  • Increasing the presence of women in leadership in the chemical industry

This is an exciting episode, so tune in as Victoria and Juliana talk about how CEPSA uses customer insights to drive transformation and many other lively topics around the chemical industry. 

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How CEPSA Uses Customer Insights Drive Transformation with Juliana Pantalena

Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This week, I am speaking with Juliana Pantalena, who is the Marketing Head of Surfactants for CEPSA Química based in Madrid. She is an Italo-Brazilian chemical engineer. who graduated from São Paulo. She’s been in the Surfactants industry for the majority of her career in both Agrochemicals as well as home and personal care, and she works globally, including in Brazil, the US, and Spain for companies including Dow and Oxiteno. Her focus today at CEPSA is the growth strategy, improving the current portfolio, and developing and implementing the sustainability goals of the company. 

Juliana, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Hi, Victoria! Thanks for the invitation. 

Thanks for being here. Let’s start by talking about your origin story. What got you interested in chemicals and surfactants? And what eventually brought you to CEPSA?

That’s a good question. As you said, I’m Brazilian, so I lived almost my whole life there. Since school, I was always very interested in chemistry. Organic chemistry used to be my favorite subject in school. I always wanted to learn more and more. I had no idea how hard it was. It would be when we actually started to during college. My mom and dad used to love chemistry, physics, mathematics, and everything related. At that point, I decided by the end of my college just to go to the university and be a chemical engineer. I used to love arts, dance, and all of that movies. But the point that I had to make a decision about what am I going to do with my life, I really wanted to be a chemical engineer. 

Then, I studied and graduated from college in Brazil. I joined Dow Chemical Company and I stayed there for about 10 years. At that time, I started as a trainee. I moved to sales, then I went to marketing. I was an ex-pat for three years in Midland, Michigan. I came back to Brazil. I had a product manager role. As you mentioned, I was in the Agrochemicals market. I was a chemical supplier. Then, I moved to Oxiteno as the Global Marketing Manager for Agrochemicals in that matter but always Surfactants. So almost 15 years of my life were dedicated to Surfactants. The more that I learned about Surfactants, the more I like them because they are everywhere. We eat them. We put them in our hands, we put them in our skin, and we wash our clothes. It got me fascinated by everything. So it felt really interesting. All of these markets got me even more passionate about it.

I think that’s interesting. When I worked in the Surfactants business at Shell, I’d say it’s the soapy stuff because it’s everywhere. As you said, washing your clothes, washing your hair, touching your skin and other products and other amazing stuff. It’s one of those things where people don’t like chemicals. We know this. Yet, they don’t necessarily understand that everything around us that allows us frankly to live the lifestyles that we live are as a result of chemicals and chemistry. 

Tell us a little bit about CEPSA and what you do there.

After finishing at Oxiteno, I moved to CEPSA as the marketing head. CEPSA is a global company. We are a Spain-based company that it’s been here for over 40 to 50 years in Spain. It’s not only in Spain but also in Canada and Brazil, where we also have our manufacturing plants and where we produce LAB. CEPSA has all the products as well as our portfolio, like solvents and phenol but my main focus in CEPSA is dedicated to Surfactants. So mainly I have LAB and also our alcohols portfolio. If I go a little bit and tell you a little bit about CEPSA on the LAB side, LAB for those who know is the most used molecule in detergent production. We produce what is the base up until it became LAS. 

LAS is the real Surfactant that is the base for the majority of the Surfactants in the world over 75%-ish on the consumption of the detergents formulations. So CEPSA is the leading producer in the world with at least these three plants mentioned in the three countries that I told you about. We have more than double the size of the second competitor in the industry. So it’s a large company in the homecare industry. We are also improving and increasing our portfolio of alcohols and Surfactants as well. This is bringing together a nice portfolio for the home and personal care markets.

CEPSA is the leading producer in the world. We have more than double the 
size of the second competitor in the industry. It's a large company 
in the homecare industry. We are also improving and increasing our portfolio 
of alcohols and Surfactants as well. This is bringing together a nice portfolio 
for the home and personal care markets.


That’s a great overview. CEPSA is also an energy and refining company, which also ties in very well with LAB from a feedstock perspective. With this focus on sustainability, and energy transition, how does that affect CEPSA chemicals?

It’s interesting enough, being able to be in other companies moving from one continent to another, I see that CEPSA is extremely committed to sustainability. I can tell you from the employees, and the teams that we work together, sustainability is at least 95% of our discussions on a daily basis. It seems interesting. I don’t know if it is because we are in Europe that also triggers sustainability in a different way with our day-to-day lives, personally speaking. Going back to your question, CEPSA, as a corporation, understands, that there are several drivers in Europe as well that we have to shift into sustainability. 

So as a corporation, where we have the refinery, exploration, production, and other business units, sustainability is part of our drivers. We want to decarbonize ourselves. We want to drive the industry as a whole for more sustainable solutions. When I go to CEPSA chemicals, our piece of the whole industry, I can see that we are shifting the production of our main molecule, which is LAB, into a sustainable LAB. We launched last year what we call the NextLAB. NextLAB is our sustainable LAB solution for a few main reasons. As I mentioned, LAB is the most used molecule for detergents. Everybody who uses a detergent knows about it. LAB is the best molecule that has been on the market forever, and it actually works. But it’s fossil-based. 

Seeing everything that is going on with sustainability, and how we have to change, we need to decrease CO2 emissions. We need to change the chemical industry, which is a kind exciting moment to be. That triggers changes in our raw materials. So why try to change the whole molecule, if you can only change your raw materials? The way that you produce your product, you decarbonize your plants, you decrease emissions on scope one or two, but you also can decrease emissions on your full product by the end of it. So in the end, what is triggering all of these changes in CEPSA  is sustainability. It’s decreasing emissions. It’s following what the market is looking for. I have been seeing these changes over and over and over inside of CEPSA in changing our raw materials and changing the way that we produce our products.

Awesome! We were at ACI earlier this year. One of the topics of conversation throughout the conference was really about changing the molecule, creating a more sustainable or bio-based product at the beginning of the value chain versus at the end of the value chain because it has far more impact. So it sounds like you are on the same track with that. 

As you’ve rolled out the NextLAB, Unilever has been one of the first partners that you have announced in doing that. How did that partnership come about? What’s important about that for you?

We need to understand what our customers are looking for. I would say that the home care industry and definitely driven by the top three producers in the world that have so many important targets for sustainability. They are driven by what needs to be done right. Listening to them is actually what drove us to make our changes. When we talk about performance, and what needs to be done in a molecule, LAB is there. Also, what needs to be done on sustainability, we need to go fossil-free. We need to decrease CO2 emissions.  Going back to our R&D units, together with the marketing and sales teams, and understanding where is the marketing driving us. What are they looking for? It’s triggering new developments with the sustainability group being the base of the whole thing and doing this and that way, then finally getting a new product.

We need to change the chemical industry, which is a kind of exciting moment to be. Click To Tweet

So definitely, it’s being consumer-driven at the end of it because they are always driving the trends in our industry. What’s actually the feedstock for the NextLAB? It’s bio-based. 

We have three versions of NextLAB. The first one is already in the market. It’s what we call NextLAB-R, “R” for renewables. So in that matter, our green raw materials and renewables can be biomass. Coconut oil and other vegetable oils will have on the paraffin side of the molecule, which has a longer chain on the molecule, that can actually be part of our production. At the same time, we have NextLAB – Low carbon which we launched actually during ACI in January this year. 

The Low Carbon right now is available for our North American region, actually, because it’s done in our Canada facility. Low Carbon basically is how we produce the product. It is still a fossil-based product, but we are decarbonizing its production of it. We are decreasing CO2 emissions while producing LAB. It’s our NextLAB – Low carbon. We definitely can produce the NextLAB – R and Low Carbon in Canada. There are some tweaks that can be done during production. Finally, the third one is still not in the market, and we are targeting to launch it by 2024. It’s our NextLAB – C, mainly NextLAB circular, which means that we are targeting simpler raw materials. That can be for the paraffinic side and the incentive side of the molecule. There are also some tweaks for the C version.

That’s helpful. When we talk about this, the customer and the market needs are really critical as you guys are developing product and application development, other than sustainability, and I know that seems to be the biggest driver for all of us, how are those needs changing? What are you CEPSA and your customers looking at when you look at changing consumer needs?

Sustainability is driving a lot. When we talk with people, we can see that. It changes regionally but it seems to be impacting more. However, cold washing is kind of also a sustainability trend but it is out there. So it’s to understand how to help our customers to improve their formulations on cold washing. Because there is not only sustainability but there’s also savings. If you can dish wash your dishes with cold washing, then you save on temperature and some other things. There is also money-wise and economic evaluation-wise. Also, there are some regulatory trends that are important as well. Low dioxane is something that has been driven by the US and Germany. Europe is also all about dioxane, sulfate-free for personal care products. 

There are several trends that we need to understand what’s going on, listen to the customers, and see what developments we need to focus on in our innovation pipeline. Not only talking about NextLAB, but CEPSA also has an innovation pipeline for all of its products, specially Surfactants, where we can bring new products that we see trends in the market. So what’s going on out there? And what should be developed to mitigate customer issues overall, but we also can do what we call the technical system type of project. There is a specific customer asking me for XYZ changes and enhancements on their formulation. We should be doing projects with them specifically for that customer on that level. When you talk about innovation, it drives from everywhere, not only sustainability, but we’re on performance, cost savings, and things like that.

How do you set your priorities in that innovation pipeline? That’s everyone’s greatest challenge. There are always a lot of requests. The technical team has lots of ideas. The sales team says if only you could solve this problem, my customers would buy 10 times more.  I know that you’re directly involved in setting those priorities. What does that look like? What’s the prioritization process when you’re doing that?

Prioritization of resources and understanding which are the best projects is part of our day-to-day discussions. Definitely, we have an innovation pipeline process. We need to understand which ideas that are coming through. Exactly, as you said, people can have great ideas, but are they really going to work as projects? Do they have a return? There are minimal requirements that we asked for the teams. You have this idea, but are there expectations on the returns? Where are you going? Which markets do you have in mind for your idea? We have a set of questions on a committee that we do to understand if the idea can become a project or not. After that, we set up the team projects. They have to understand and give us a little bit more on the specifics of what they are expecting on that project. 

Then, that drives us to variables. Like, how strategic is the project? What is our return when we’re thinking about it? We do a kind of analysis divided into different types of a matrix that will give us quartiles on prioritization. Does this project give me a good return? Would I have to put in a lot of resources? Would it be a little bit faster? There are some tools that we use to  help us prioritize. It’s not only a technical issue or solution but also is it is strategic. How is a sustainable environment is this feeding against all the projects? It’s kind of a war against each other because we plot them all, and see which one I’m going to prioritize. Then, the teams need to dedicate some time to support and understand if the projects are going forward or not. Then obviously, review sources and timelines, and understand if the pipeline is delayed or not. There is a lot that needs to be done.  I kind of do these reviews probably once every three months because you need to keep the pipeline running.

CEPSA: LAB for those who know is the most used molecule in detergent production. 
We produce what is the base up until it became LAS. LAS is the real Surfactant 
that is the base for the majority of the Surfactants in the world over 75%-ish 
on the consumption of the detergent formulations.


It makes sense. I’ve run through some similar processes before, but as you say, people don’t always like what quartile their project and stuff in. It changes because the market is dynamic. Of course, as you go through innovations, you’re learning along the way, which makes the project more likely to succeed or not, or less likely to see it as you go through the discovery process.

I’m glad to know that you’ve been through the same because I think that we all try to prioritize our projects. It’s not that easy. We get attached to our projects. You have to try to make a rational analysis of the whole thing, and definitely make the final selection of what needs to be done. 

One of the things we talked about a lot on The Chemical Show is the customer experience. When we look at end-to-end customer experience, it’s really a very critical value driver. It’s not always fully appreciated across the industry in terms of just how it drives the value, but it’s also a really key differentiator for businesses. When you look at CEPSA, what do you consider to be critical to your customer experience, and what drives differentiation for you?

Especially on the LAB side, this is something that we are doing across the board. It is the type of service level that we have for our customers. I’m just talking about LAB. Obviously, that would happen with external LAB as well. The majority of the industry knows CEPSA as the LAB supplier. We need to be on-time delivery. If they request the product, we need to be able to deliver them at the right time. There are no major mistakes. That always happens, but there are no major mistakes. As soon as you have the standard or their basis as a great service provider with your basic product, then you can start leveraging your customer experience. 

It goes back to what we were just saying about listening to your customers. It’s not only about sales, but also we have our customer development team, which is basically our technical team that is dedicated to our customers. It’s segregated from R&D. It’s like saying, “Hi, Mr. Customer, what do you need? What can we do for you? Let’s talk about projects. Let’s increase this relationship between us because I need to understand what you’re looking for.”

And marketing has also an important role in this case because what we are seeing in conferences and what we are reading in reports can bring to our customers. Again, our innovation pipeline is like to say, “Mr. Customer, we’re having something new for you. That is going to improve your formulation. “ All these for me talk about Customer Experience. 

The best feedback that I had was when the customers told us:  “You know what’s interesting? I don’t feel that we are talking as a supplier and a customer anymore. I feel that we are in a meeting, working in the same company, and looking to solve this issue.”  That moment for me is pure customer excellence at its finest because it’s like we finally reached that bridge. It’s finally the win-win situation that we have been looking for. It doesn’t always happen. but it’s kind of a thrilling feeling when that happens.

What about digitization? What role does digitization play for you with your customers and kind of just how do you go to market?

There is a lot of talk on digitalization and I think that we need to have some education about it. We have several lines of our directors and we have one dedicated to our IT, definitely, because there are so many new systems in place. It triggers all points like supply chains, sales, and how we do our business overall. In my case in marketing, we are also working at this point with the Node platform, for instance. We are trying to explore and understand better how we put our arms into the market for customers that we still don’t know. We don’t want to do only the regular business that we do. 

As I mentioned, we have alcohol and we need to expand on that area as well. So how do we trigger or do we find more customers? And digitalization is definitely helping us to understand which markets that we’re looking for, in this case, it’s personal care, but which are the markets that are looking for the products? How are we going to find them? And using digital tools will definitely help us. In the end, I believe that our strategy is to set ourselves up as easy to do business company that is digital and modern. We are moving fast on this route where we have several different departments working with different pieces on digitalization to bring this experience to our customers and definitely internally as well because it makes our process faster. It’s data analysis. There are so many Initiatives, for sure. 

Why try to change the whole molecule, if you can only change your raw materials? Click To Tweet

Before we hit the record button, we were chatting about being a woman in leadership in the chemical industry. From your point of view, how do we start attracting more women into the industry? I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago on the podcast with the DEI expert. We talked about how you can only promote based on what the pool of available candidates says. We can only bring women into the industry who have not just the desire, but also the credentials, either as engineers, finance, marketing, or whatever it may be. How do we create that success? What’s been critical for you and how do you think we help the next generation?

I think that you start with what you said about the bases at least in Brazil now, not in Spain because I’m just beginning. But in Brazil, I used to be invited to my old university to give some speeches there. That will definitely trigger women to understand where we could go. I think that we need to strengthen our relationship with our universities, or even whatever we are working. We’re so global that we can work from everywhere, but strengthen relationships with universities, or even potentially schools. Just to trigger a little bit more on this pool of people that would be available, but definitely, I like to have great people working within their teams. It can be men, women, or other genders.  It doesn’t matter. 

They need to bring value to the team. Women specifically, we definitely can try to look more for them. When you’re hiring an analyst, a manager, a director, or whoever, definitely keep your eyes open and understand the differences between the men and the women who are out there fighting for that job. Get whoever is the best. We need to be confident about that. Give women a little bit more availability or opportunities. But honestly, that’s nice. What made me here, and hopefully continue to grow is the people that support me. So I have, and I used to have, and I still do have great coaches. Not because they were my coach, but at one point, they were my bosses during my whole career, and they used to help me a lot. 

They understand what we go through. They can help us, giving us pieces of advice, supporting what we do, or how to tweak some things that need to be better. That’s for anybody, again, men, women, or whoever, but having people that support us that you can just pick up the phone and say you need help. It’s because this is happening. It doesn’t matter if you still work with this person or not, what really makes a difference. So having a mentor, having someone that helps us makes the difference whenever you’re trying to jump into your career and take some difficult decisions.

I think that’s great. Coaching, mentoring, and having the network to support you is so critical for everyone to really be able to thrive and grow.

You feel safe. I know that I can count on this or that person. These people keep helping you to keep growing in the industry. Maybe your goal is to be where you want and that’s it. Maybe my goal is to keep traveling, and maybe my goal is to be where I am, but you need people to support you and you feel comfortable discussing it.

Absolutely! I think I’ve also been fortunate in my career to have some great coaches, mentors, bosses, and peers to really help support my success because we all need that. 

Well, Juliana, this has been great. One final question, what’s next for you and CEPSA? When we look ahead at the rest of the year, where are your priorities? What should we be looking for?

I mentioned about NextLAB. This is our main objective overall. As I mentioned, we have three. We’re still launching the NextLAB – C in the near future. We’re not going to stop where we are. There are some technicalities on the NextLAB. The way that we produce it today, which is based on mass balance, we’re looking to have segregated material in the medium and long-term future. Again, sustainability makes a product that is going to replace in the future. LAB as a green LAB, our NextLAB is what really driving our goals, setting up our sustainable plans for where we are moving in the next 5 to 10 years. Not only on LAB but also on the alcohols and the other products that we also have in our portfolio. So it’s increasing portfolio. What we really want to drive is to be top of our minds on sustainability when we talk about the factors. It’s starting with LAB, maybe but not stopping there. We keep pushing and increasing our portfolio on sustainable matters.

Juliana, thank you for joining me today. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and getting to know you better.

Thank you so much. 

Thanks, everyone for joining us today on The Chemical Show. Keep listening, keep following, and keep sharing.


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About Juliana Pantalena:

Juliana Pantalena is an Italo-Brazilian chemical engineer who graduated in São Paulo, (BR) and who has worked in the Surfactants industry for 14 years, always dedicated to marketing and commercial activities, the development of new products and applications, with a focus on market and customer needs. The first 12 years of her career were dedicated to the Agrochemicals market, working for two different Chemical companies, one in which she developed her work as an ex-pat for three years in Midland (MI).

Today, she is based in Madrid (Spain) as the Marketing Head for Surfactants at CEPSA Química, where she, and her team, are dedicated mainly to the Home and Personal Care market by defining the Company´s strategy on how to grow, improve the current portfolio, develop, and implement the Sustainability goals of the company. She enjoys traveling and getting to know new places, as well as spending time with her family and friends, reading books, and going to the movies.

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