Listen to Victoria and Pam Discuss UL Solutions Digitization Mission:


Explore the dynamic landscape of digital transformation in the chemical industry with Pam Walker, the Director and General Manager of Data, Intelligence, and Insights at UL Solutions, as she shares insights and strategies with host Victoria Meyer on The Chemical Show. In this episode, Pam discusses on the evolution of digital solutions in the chemical industry, drawing from her 20 years of experience and leadership in the field. From the challenges of digitization to the pivotal role of data quality and trusted partners in driving successful digital strategies, Pam offers valuable insights to help companies navigate the complexities of embracing digital technologies.

Victoria and Pam discuss the importance of strategic alignment and adoption in the industry and the challenges that hold companies back from realizing their digital potential. 

Join the conversation to gain perspectives on the unmet needs in digitization, the critical role of change management, and the exciting prospects for the chemical industry’s digital future.

 

Join Victoria and Pam as they discuss: 

  • Identifying unmet needs in the digitization space
  • What’s holding companies back from going digital?
  • How digital helps companies outpace their competitors
  • Understanding risk in digital
  • Engaging employees in digital strategies and change management
  • What’s on the horizon for digital and chemicals

 

Killer Quote: “Dig the well before you’re thirsty.” – Pam Walker

 

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Watch Victoria and Pam Talk About Going Digital on Youtube Here:


Exploring Digital Strategies and Risks for Chemicals with Pam Walker of UL Solutions

Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show, Where Chemicals Means Business. Today, I am speaking with Pam Walker, who is the Director and General Manager of Data, Intelligence, and Insights at UL Solutions. Pam is an experienced business leader with over 20 years in the chemical industry. She’s led digital transformation at leading companies, including Univar and Brentag before she joined UL Solutions. Pam and I have some parallel experiences in our careers, which we may explore, really about bringing customers, commercial and digital together. Pam was also one of our panelists at the 2023 Chemical Summit. So she got an opportunity to talk a little bit about digital then, and we are going to be diving deeper into that today.

So Pam, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Thank you and thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today.

I’m really happy to have you here. Pam, what’s your origin story? How did you even get interested in chemicals? Really you were an early adopter of digital solutions, so how did that come about?

Yeah, you trip into the chemicals, right? I was talking to you about it at The Chemical Summit, which by the way, was awesome. I cannot wait for next year. It was thoroughly worth the time, so thank you. I started my journey in 1994 in chemical distribution, and it was about 1999 when I went to a startup. 1999 was like the first chemical digital boom, if you will.

Do you remember?

I started working on digital in chemicals in 2000. It’s hard to believe that’s over 20 years ago and it feels like not a lot has changed.

No, it hasn’t because in 1999, you had all these companies pop up and I went to work for what was an e-commerce company and obviously that was too early for that and it went belly up with the hundreds of other companies promising digitization of the chemical industry. But the funny thing is, I then went back into chemical distribution and implemented digital solutions for the chemical distributor I worked for at the time. Going to each of these plants and telling people, “Hey, I don’t want you to go in your paper filing cabinet. I want you to go to your computer to do that.” It was like, yeah that was right.

So then fast forward, in 2005 I went to another startup focused on material selection and discovery and then UL Solutions bought them. So boom, here I am.

That’s awesome. And it’s really cool that you’ve been able to blend big companies and startups as well, because that’s a unique experience.

Yeah. It’s definitely unique and different. And, the challenge and opportunity is bringing the startup vibe into the big company, which, which thankfully at UL Solutions we have.

So tell us a little bit about UL Solutions, because I think people might be familiar at least with part of the company, but not all of the company. I know you’ve got quite a legacy.

Yes, it is quite large. Most people know us from the little circle UL on your appliances in your kitchen and everywhere. That’s still true, but the definition of safety involves since our inception 130 years ago. You have solutions to global leader and applied safety science. Working for the safer world is the mission and we do it through testing inspection certification services. But that’s now coupled with software and advisory offerings and supporting the customers innovation, helping them launch new products and services sustainably, and responsibly. Those are the really the key things when you navigate these global markets and complex supply chains.

How does that connect to chemicals? Because again, I think of UL as you say, as the little stamp on the back of electronics, your toaster, other items. Where does the chemical connection come in?

As chemicals are in everything. The way that safety has evolved, when you have all the regulations and retailer requirements and how we get our products to market and the more that society itself cares about what we’re ingesting. Our global footprint of safety, sustainability and responsibility really encompasses the chemical industry very nicely, very complimentary with the appliances and the way you had thought about UL solutions before.

Makes sense. You’re right, chemicals are all around us. Most people don’t know. Most people working in the chemical industry realize it, but there’s still a journey of discovery that we’re all on. So speaking about the journey of discovery, we’re in the decade of digitization and AI with tremendous growth and investment, you cannot turn on the news, look at your phones, turn on your computer without hearing something about digitization and AI. Yet we really still have a very long way to go, particularly when we think about chemicals and materials companies. So what’s the biggest unmet need that you see currently in this space of digitization?

When I think about it myself, I’m going to chunk it out into three really big things when we talk about digitization. I don’t think that people really understand, is it a tactic for me? Is it a strategy for me? At the end of the day, one of the three biggest thing is for a chemical company to associate a KPI to their digitization strategy.

I wouldn’t think about that, but okay.

It sounds elementary, but we have to start there. Most people start with wanting to check the box of a digital strategy. But if we start with the end in mind of the problem that we’re trying to solve and get the KPI. Then that digitization strategy is going to get legs. But the second thing that we’re facing is the unmet need for the right kind of data. We talked to all sides. We talked to the product manufacturers, the suppliers of raw materials, the distributors, no matter who you talk to the need for sustainability and certification data has been absent from many digital solutions. You got to have this to develop products faster to avoid reformulation, and those things affect your bottom line, which takes me back to my first thing that you need a KPI. The third unmet need is being able to take the formulation and certification and regulatory info and really put it into your workflow.

There’s a whole lot of data points, where we sit with UL Solutions, we see it all because we have data that’s like the prospector search engine for material data, then the regulatory data, then the certification data, the carbon footprint data, corporate level, ESG data. We have a ton of robust information and all these things married together really helps to meet the unmet needs for companies to develop those safe or sustainable products and associate that ROI. It’s a different perspective on it. And it sounds so elementary, but, when we’re running so fast in the chemical industry to chase a shiny coin, if we just hang on a minute and really say what problem we’re trying to solve, it’s amazing how many things can get done.

UL Solutions

So I think that ties into this whole aspect of what’s really holding companies and leaders back from embracing digital from making those investments, because certainly when I talk to companies, a lot of them are not making digital investments. Certainly the biggest ones are, or they’re making components of investments, but a lot of leaders are having a really hard time embracing digital for their business. We’ve all embraced it in our personal lives. Maybe there’s a few holdouts but most of us embrace it in our personal lives, but what’s really holding companies back from going digital?

I think that sometimes it’s a deer in headlight syndrome, is that what is going to be the best bet for my company? Am I going to get truth or a lie? Do I need to do this for table stakes? Do I need to do it for marketing? I’ll go back to what I said before. How does this help me achieve my revenue goals? How does it tie into my strategy and how does it tie into better servicing? In the end that’s all that matters, the customer experience, which is going to lead to everything else being taken care of. So I think once companies start there and then understand how the digital tactics, if you will, can help to make their strategy a reality, then they could deliberately move and identify the best bet for them.

Makes sense. We think about KPI, and I think really about ROI, the return on investment in improving customer experience. Do you guys have any data points or have you seen anything out in the public press or reports around the benefits of the companies that are embracing and taking digital to the next step are receiving, how they’re outpacing their competitors or the results that they’re achieving. Do you see anything around that?

Just off the cuff, I have, what I would call proof points and how we’ve helped customers do it. I will say at a high level, if you think about someone developing a product and when you develop a product, I always say this, I’m amazed anything gets on our shelf. You’ve got to understand the composition. You’ve got to understand if you can sell it and X, Y, Z market. You’ve got to understand if you can put it on the shelf at your major retailer. If I’m doing material discovery, who am I going to select? Am I going to select the person or the company that I can extract that information from easily? Or am I going to select the one that I have that takes me more time to get all that? So it becomes a differentiation for sure, and that differentiation can be associated to a KPI. Absolutely.

When we talk about what our customers need, and I’ll get specific, when you can relate it to a KPI and not a checkbox, most companies want to do what? Get products to market faster. That is a huge KPI and so some customers have their own data. I got my data, because I loaded it in their filing cabinet 25 years ago. I know they got data. But they have to marry that with data we have at UL Solutions to really streamline that process.

I’ll just be anecdotal here, but it’s actually not anecdotal. I’m not going to give the company’s name, but it’s a special materials company. They had a manual process, and so they collected all these different kinds of data, product data, certification data, sustainability data. They manually aggregated it. They manually uploaded it to their system. Hours and hours spent on this. Then data integrity by the time they did all this was questionable.

So what we did is we leveraged prospector data, product IQ data, or regulatory data from ChemADVISOR, and we got an API. Now we magically put it into their workflows for product research and development. This manual work saved the company $100,000 in a year. Time savings, you can calculate. Those are examples, hardcore both from an external, you’re going to be selected more favorably and an internal, you’re going to get product to the market faster and reduce manual work.

Yeah, and I think that work efficiency becomes really critical. One of the things you touched on earlier was around sustainability and the sustainability data. I’ve had so many conversations in the past week about a sustainability reporting that companies are going through and the sustainability data that’s needed as companies start to reformulate or just to evaluate their formulations and figuring out, what are their alternatives? Having the data that can be in the same format, easily understood and frankly, compared pretty quickly is critical.

It’s getting more and more important with the increased focus on the carbon footprint initiatives are out.

So we definitely see some business cases and return on investment when we think about digital, there’s a lot of options and it’s certainly an investment. One of the big challenges is the change business processes and behaviors that are required because we could put the best system in place. We all know this. It’s been done over and over again, probably in the chemical industry, whether it be, starting with Lotus notes and then well, Lotus notes doesn’t work and we’re moving on to something else. And maybe it didn’t work, but also maybe it’s just that the people weren’t using it very effectively. So you can put any system you want in place, but if the people, whether it be employees, customers, other business partners aren’t embracing and changing their ways of working and utilizing these digital processes then the investment feels like you’re not getting that return.

So how do you guys typically address that when you see and talk to people, how would you respond to that concern about the required human behavior changes?

Change management is real, and the human behaviors are both internal and from your suppliers and your customers. Where we start is, this is a lot of investment in dollars and an effort sometimes to resources to implement digital strategies. So you first need to make sure you pick the right partner. There’s so many as we said before, it’s like 1999 all over again. There’s a lot of startups popping up and new technology promising all these solutions. So the first thing that companies want to look at is to work with a trusted partner.

That is first and foremost, how does that align to human behaviors? Well, a partner is going to have longevity and be with you along that journey and and know that they’re going to be there 10 years from now, and not a flash in the pan, if you will. When you look at human behaviors, to me, the most impactful thing is getting a solution that fits your business and your business problem and not fitting that business into a solution. You don’t want to go buy something and say, okay, we have it and we’re going to shove it in there and hope it works because people are going to be going, oh my goodness, this is horrible. This is worse than I had before I’m going back to zoom or whatever, you had with that. So as long as it fits in with your business, then we find the human behaviors opening up. My job is so much easier. I can do so much more.

I can make decisions faster and smarter. So that really leads to adoption, then that trusted partner along the way to ensure that they have your back. But one thing is, when you invest digitization it is an inherent risk, but the risk of not doing it is bigger. One of my favorite sayings is dig the well before you’re thirsty because don’t want to be playing catch up in this at all.

So let’s talk a little bit about risk, which I know is an off the books question here. What are the risks that people should be considering when you think about digital implementations of any variety? What risks come into play?

I would say as I said before, the risk of whatever solution not being supported over a long period of time. That’s something that you have to consider for real. I think it’s the risk of adoption and we talked about that, how to mitigate that a bit to make sure that it is solving a human problem that is going to help people do their business or do their job better or help your customers in doing business with you. I think that the risk is also in the kind of information that you’re bringing in. The risk is getting the right data, and turning it into action for you is truly important.

Your point back to making sure that it’s connected to the users having people involved, and I think it’s so critical. I do a lot of work helping companies implement their marketing strategies and other things. One of the things I always come back to is, strategy is really personal it can’t be done in isolation, a digital transformation decision can’t be done only by the IT team or only by the executive team. You actually have to get into the organization. The people that are using it to understand their problems, to build advocates for, this is the right answer because it’s going to solve problems A, B, and C. I think it’s just really critical that people start diving in and embracing more of the organizations in these decisions.

I really like that. I always say, let’s start with a problem you’re trying to solve. You’re really starting with a human. You’re starting at the people level and, of course, digitization is a board level initiative with no doubt. But, the board that C-suite and all the way down really wants to ensure that the customers are taken care of and the revenue is not behind it.

UL Solutions

So we started out talking a little bit about digital strategies and the factors that companies needed to consider in their digital strategy. A recent study by Deloitte, I just saw this from them recently, said that investments in digital were down in 2023. Yet we know that 2024 and beyond, we need to be investing. There is no doubt that across the industry, we need a solid digital platform or set of platforms and tools. But back to this idea of strategy, in your experience what percentage of chemical companies actually do have a digital strategy that’s tied to ROI and tied to KPIs that they’re able to execute upon.

Some companies are undertaking quite robust data harmonization projects, and building cross functional use that we work with today. This is definitely a digital strategy. However, some businesses are now building the business case of, hey, we have all this data. What are we going to do with it? So they’re not out there and others have a clear strategy of just single business use case. We see this in our chemical performance and certification management products. So I just want to get my data out there. I want a single place to put my product data and I want it across all digital real estates and that’s all I want to do.

So that’s digital strategy. A lot of companies, I think the majority are exploring it, maybe a smaller percent are in execution mode of. That same article though Victoria, I think it said 94% of executives said that AI will be critical in the next 5 years and really around R&D and gaining insights and tracking. One of the interesting things that they inferred, or they may be said absolute in that article is that the challenge is the quality of the data, because if data is bad, then it just breaks the whole thing. That’s where the trusted partner is imperative because if you don’t have data quality you’re up a creek.

It goes back to the original garbage in garbage out. You’ve got to have clean, good, solid data to use. Then back to your point, I think I’ve heard a lot of these stories, but certainly it came up when we were at The Chemical Summit together. That the amount of data that’s sitting in lab books. There’s all kinds of data sitting in lab books, sitting in somebody’s computer in a file that’s not easily accessible and usable. So there is a huge opportunity to figure out how to digitize that data. And also a gap, and I think about how powerful we will be when we can actually harness all the data we’ve got.

There were insights that we had 10 years ago. We just didn’t know they were there because somebody was holding onto them just because there was no way to share it effectively.

In bringing products to market, this data is crucial. When we do our chemical data management projects in our sustainability dashboard we have to go into companies and get that aggregated and then the lights start going off. Sometimes folks didn’t realize that their company in another location was doing X, Y, and Z. So you really get a light bulb on it. But one thing that triggered a thought for me is that if you had to ask me the number one roadblock to digitization, it may be Excel.

And it’s funny because Excel, why? I love Excel by the way, but listen, I have a spreadsheet. I have a spreadsheet for everything, but Excel is still saved, even if it’s in SharePoint, you can’t extract a decision from that data. My data is digital, it’s an Excel. Excel is not going to have a direct feed for regulatory information or requirements or any of the important things. It’s not going to tell you your ESG profile.

You have to take that data from Excel and good news. It’s already in your computer and you have to integrate it into software stuff.

You say that and it brings up to, I use Google and Microsoft, and Microsoft wants me to save everything in OneDrive. And if I do, I can’t freaking find it. Like I’m searching everywhere and then I have to open Word or Excel back up again, like where exactly did you save this? Because I can’t find it. Yeah, I guess that’s the good news, is that bigger companies usually have better protocols around this. When you’re an entrepreneur with a small business, you’re fending for yourself. Although the reality is many chemical companies really have just a handful of employees, less than 20 or less than a hundred employees.

They don’t necessarily have the standardization of business practices to harmonize that data.

Yes, and that means it’s sometimes simpler. Candidly, right? It’s less moving parts. It’s less human behavior and it’s very clear cut what they’re going to get out of it. So I think that if you had to look at how to start or which platform to pick or what factors. If you had to look at that through the lens, it’s not a one size fits all because you do have different size of companies that have different needs. And so what is your company situation, your objectives and your strategies? That’s what needs to be considered.

When our customers choose UL Solutions, they choose UL mainly from the vendor with a proven track record. We’ve been around 130 years, pretty long time, chances of us going to 131 are huge I joke. We’re a trusted vendor and the ability to collect and aggregate and analyze across from employee to ESG to product to supplier is hugely important for our customers. Access to those evolving regulations and sustainability and matching that with a raw material to actually design a product, is hugely important, but it may not be important to all. But it’s important most and really to differentiate your company based on your digitization strategy, that’s important, but you have to look at what your company is trying to achieve and then match what you do from there.

Makes sense. This has been really good and I know we could keep talking for a very long time about all things digital. We’re still here at the beginning of 2024, when you look ahead to the year, what are you looking forward to? What should we be looking forward to? Maybe in the land of UL Solutions or in the land of digital and chemicals, what’s on the horizon?

What’s on the horizon is I think full speed ahead. What I mean by that is that there are all kinds of technologies popping up in the market and whether you are doubling down on “AI”, and I use it in quotes, because people use AI for pretty much any sentence. Whether you’re using that, or you’re using data aggregation or funneling it into your workflows. I think 2024 is going to be extremely exciting from an adoption standpoint and extremely exciting for us to really come together in a way of the industry to offer transparency needed in the market today to bring these compliant and sustainable products to the world. It’s really crucial and the first step in doing that and what I’m most excited about is working with companies to really take the problem that they’re trying to solve and strategically tying it to that KPI and business case, and then marrying it with a solution that’s right for them.

Love it. So full steam ahead and we’ll see how the year progresses. Pam, thank you so much for joining us today on The Chemical Show.

Thank you, really enjoyed it.

I’ve enjoyed it as well and thanks everyone for listening. Keep listening, keep following, keep sharing, and we’ll talk again soon.


About Pam Walker:

Pam Walker is an experienced business leader with over 20 years of experience in the chemicals industry and digital transformation. Having held various commercial roles with major chemical companies, her experience encompasses executive leadership, business planning, sales operations and international business strategy. In her current role as the Director and General Manager of Data Intelligence and Insights at UL Solutions, Pam is focused on the development of solutions that address supply chain transparency, implementation of digital technologies, material discovery, compliance and go-to-market challenges.