All industries are challenging, especially the manufacturing industry. There’s a growing skill gap, a decline in effective leadership, and a growing challenge of how to approach the market. So what are the secrets of industry winners like AdvanSix, the fully integrated manufacturer of Nylon 6 resin, chemical intermediates, and ammonium sulfate fertilizer, in actually thriving in the market? Join us in this episode as Sarah Waller, the Vice President and General Manager of Nylon Solutions at AdvanSix, shares her journey with the company and how they’re approaching their market strategy today!
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
How AdvanSix Is Winning The Market With Sarah Waller
I am speaking with Sarah Waller, who is the Vice President and General Manager of Nylon Solutions at AdvanSix. Sarah has a long history in the chemical industry. Prior to joining AdvanSix, she spent a number of years at WR Grace in a variety of commercial and strategy roles. That’s where I first met Sarah when we were working together on a growth project in their licensing and technology business. Sarah has agreed to share her story and tell us a bit more about AdvanSix and how they are approaching today’s markets. Sarah, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Victoria. I’m delighted to be here.
Me, too. I’m glad to have you here. What is your origin story? How did you get into chemicals? What brought you to your role at AdvanSix?
It’s funny. I made my way into the chemical industry accidentally. I grew up in Virginia in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains. My dad worked in the manufacturing industry. My mom was a nurse. I grew up with a lot of manufacturing in the area. I had an affinity for math and science. I decided I wanted to go to Virginia Tech and study Mechanical Engineering. I was the first person in my family to go away to college. I thought engineering would be a cool thing to do. I chose Mechanical Engineering. It was the affinity that I had at the time. I caught the manufacturing bug pretty early on.
I had some co-op and internship experiences back in my hometown. I learned about lean manufacturing. I thought that was cool and fun. After I graduated, I made my way into the chemical industry. I moved out to Colorado and found my first real job at a small 30-people chemical company that manufactured catalysts. It was outside of Denver, out in the planes. I managed different projects for the company and its safety program, which was a nice introduction to the industry.
It gave me a framework for the importance of safety. I stayed there for a pretty short amount of time but then I went to work for Kodak in Colorado, where I focused on that lean manufacturing and Six Sigma background as well. I was able to do a lot of fun things there, including operations management for various films. You go back in time to whenever healthcare films were prevalent, and now it has all been digitized. It was a cool experience and very much rooted in chemical processes because we made it from start to finish. That was cool because I learned so much about productivity and cost reduction aligned with that company’s strategies at the time.
After a little while, I joined WR Grace. It was back on the East Coast. My husband and I wanted to get back out to where we came from. I was there for fifteen years. That was a great experience. It was there that I found my niche in commercials. I went into global marketing sales for large corporate accounts, strategy, and the role that you talked about where you and I met on running a growth business there. That led me to my role here at AdvanSix.
Tell us a little bit about AdvanSix because some people may not be fully aware of them.
One of the things that I like about AdvanSix is the role we play in the world. We are a fully integrated producer of nylon chemical intermediates and plant nutrients. A lot of times, Victoria, you talk about on your show, the chemical industry is important because we don’t always make the products that you see every single day but they are around you everywhere, interwoven throughout your everyday life.The chemical industry is important because many of the products we see every day are interwoven throughout our daily lives. Click To Tweet
I look at the businesses that we are here in AdvanSix. We talk about nylon, for example. Nylon touches your life as you are sitting down at your dinner table. If you are one of those people like me that likes to buy a pre-marinated chicken in an oven-safe bag, it’s packaged in nylon. The carpet on your floor in a hotel or in a commercial space that’s usually made out of nylon. You think about a lot of different materials that go into your automobiles, your home furnishings or things like that. Those are also nylon. The other products that we make here, we make plant nutrients that go into fertilizers that help feed the world.
It’s nice to be a part of an industry that touches so many people and helps the world be where we are now, and helps our customers be truly successful.
What’s interesting is that people, even inside the chemical industry, all understand the benefits but we don’t necessarily know all the products. For instance, I would not have guessed that nylon was in those oven-safe packaging. That’s news to me.
You and I talked in the past about feeding the world and food security, the importance of that, and how plastics create a good thing for the world.
We may not understand it fully. That can be a whole other episode about the challenges of packaging because there are a lot of misunderstandings there.
When you moved to AdvanSix, the pandemic was in full swing. That also seemed to be a popular time, as we know, across general markets. It was a popular time for people to make some moves but also not an easy time to make a move. Supply chain issues were everywhere. How did you get in there and, 1) Figure out how to make that move and be successful, and then, 2) Be able to take that chance and make those changes and have that impact in your company?
I decided to make a career change in the middle of this global pandemic. Everything was upside down. I remember coming in for my interview here and at the company to meet the CEO and my future colleagues. Maybe I would pop in and out but there was not an office presence at that time. It felt strange. As someone who’s been around customers and suppliers and meeting new people, it felt a little awkward because I hadn’t been out in person with people. We all are cooped up in our houses for a point. I decided to take the plunge. I relocated for the role as well. I took the role. About six months into it, because the housing market was nuts too I decided to relocate.
That was a personal challenge. It has been a great experience. I started leading this team where most of us were still working remotely. People were in and out but think about meeting people and bonding with your team when a lot of people are still not fully in the office and you don’t have those opportunities to create that rapport. It took a few different types of leadership and engagement that we’ve all learned how to flex during the pandemic. A little bit more attention on getting to know people and being purposeful about how we got together.
Are people primarily in the office now? What’s the work status?
We are completely back in the office. There’s certainly flexibility. I’m in my home office now, but we are back in. Most of our companies are in manufacturing. They are in plants.
Manufacturing employees never got the luxury of working from home. They were coming to the office.
They were coming in. They were being kept safe. We took it seriously. We had temperature checks at all the doors going into the plants and masking and all kinds of different things to keep people safe, as a lot of people in the chemical industry did. We were an essential industry at the time. We brought everyone back. Certainly, there’s flexibility. For us, it’s important to get together and celebrate, collaborate, and make sure that we are working together to move ourselves forward.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the supply chain. Obviously, the pandemic, the issues with Covid, the Ukraine and Russia conflict, and shutdowns of a wide variety in China have had tremendous impacts on global supply chains. The challenge is getting products to customers. How have you navigated that?
Our markets are pretty dynamic, and they changed relatively quickly when I came into this role. Think about a few years ago when it was difficult to bring materials in. Freights were expensive. China was shut down in many cases. At the time, our customers relied on having a local supplier to meet their needs. This is where we thrive. Our focus had to be on meeting the needs of that customer base and serving as a reliable supplier to our customers. As time has gone on, you speak about Europe and the natural gas issues that are happening there. It was expensive. Different things are happening in the industry.
Our focus remains on playing into this North American position and being a supplier of choice for our customers here because we can get materials to them in a relatively quick amount of time with the high-quality specifications that they need, even as the markets around us change. We do operate in a global market but there is an advantage to being local, and understanding how we can play there is key.There is a great advantage to being a local business; understanding how we can play there is key to success. Click To Tweet
The majority of your asset base is in North America, am I right?
All of our asset bases are in North America.
That’s pretty unique as well in this marketplace.
Primarily in the Virginia area. We also have manufacturing right outside of Philadelphia. We’ve made some acquisitions as well. All of it is domestic US production.
Nylon is a fairly commoditized product. Some would say it’s easy to swap suppliers and harder to maintain customers when you are in a fairly commoditized market. How do you approach that? When you think about what your differentiation is and maybe what your customer experience differentiation is, how important is that to AdvanSix? What are your key differentiators?
When we talk about the resin space, we tend to think about commodities and cost plus. We don’t think about a high level of product differentiation. When I came here, I quickly recognized that you can talk about nylon as a commodity material. Our customers do value the experience we provide. I think about the relationships that we have that are built over decades and have withstood the test of time, which is pretty special.
One of our key differentiators is that we enjoy working with our customers on their needs, understanding their needs as a company, and walking hand in hand with them as partners, not just suppliers who are selling them a product. We are doing more and more of this as we move into the future. We are doubling down on this customer experience and intimacy so that we can truly understand what our customers need and position them for success in the best ways.
What role does digital play in that? Do you have a strong digital presence?
We could have a whole episode on digital. We identify the importance of this. We have a partnership with Node, which is an online source of information and eCommerce solution for the chemical industry. We have a storefront here. As we move forward in terms of how we think about serving our customers better, it’s an area that we are investing in, and we want to make sure that we’re moving in the future in the right direction here. The chemical industry has a lot of potential in this area to be able to meet our customers where they want to be. Buying behaviors are changing. The demographics of those buyers are changing. The data suggest that our customers are making a lot of their decisions before even talking to one of our salespeople.
Are your customers requesting this of you? I know some big heavy hitters as customers. Is this something that they are expecting and saying, “You need to switch the way you are doing business,” or is this something that you advances is figuring out in terms of this whole evolution of the industry and the demographics of buyers?
It’s more the latter. Our customers are not specifically asking for orders on their cell phones or anything like that in particular. As we get into great conversations with them, we are finding that they find value if we can offer them solutions on logging into a portal and understanding, “What shipped yesterday? What’s going to ship today? What’s going to ship tomorrow?” and tracking that through. There are opportunities there that we are starting to scratch the surface of that are more than just clicking the button and will refill your order.
It’s all about the information. The benefit of digital, and we certainly see that in our personal lives but it’s true in business, is the transparency of information. It’s information that you probably already have in your system. Figuring out how to surface it for your customers and your suppliers becomes critical and become part of that whole value chain, boosting value in the value chain.
We run SAP, so it’s all there. It’s how you get it in a way that’s helpful for yourselves and your customers to be able to see. That way, you don’t have to have a customer experience person calling them all the time, tracking down trucks, and tracking down rail cars. By having these discussions, you can move into the future.
What about sustainability? We’ve certainly seen in the last couple of years that sustainability has reached the tipping point or the inflection point in terms of importance to the industry, the companies themselves, the customers, and the investors. What’s the focus for AdvanSix in terms of sustainability?
The entire industry has a strong focus on sustainability, and you can cast that net into environmental, social, and economic sustainability. There are all kinds of different pieces that plays into this. We published our annual sustainability report. We are making tremendous progress here. We’ve got a lot of recognition. We got a platinum rating from EcoVadis in 2021, which is impressive. It places us in the top 1% of all the companies assessed.
It’s a testament to the work that we are doing and how important we think it is. It also underscores that we have to continue to move forward here. We can talk about energy, water, and product sustainability. The thing to highlight is how our focus on sustainability connects to our customers. If you think about who AdvanSix is and what we talked about a little bit earlier, we are committed to reducing the environmental impact of our products, and using the chemistries that we have here to team up with our customers is a way that’s going to help them reach their sustainability goals.
It’s not just about our view of sustainability but about our customers. The different value chains we have, have different metrics and versions of success. Think about we sell into the carpet market. They have a specific view of sustainability. They are important to them in a different way than would be important to the packaging market, for example, where equability and plastic waste is forefront. We are diving deep with our customers to understand what those solutions look like for them in creating programs that we can help them with to move their needles forward.
The public conversation is dominated around plastics, and yet in plastics and circularity and reuse. The rest of the value chain and the storyline needs to get measured differently. It is around energy, efficiencies, and emissions. At the end of the day, we’re all going to be carbon traders in one way, shape or form. Figuring out how to manage and measure that appropriately and serve the needs of different customer bases and understand how to tune what you do to the different value changes you are a part of is critical.
Our customers have different priorities in terms of how they are measuring their sustainability goals.
What are the priorities of the carpet guys?
It’s a carbon footprint. You think about it. They are not going to make any decisions that are going to create any harm to people because that stuff is going into spaces where people are living.
Live, roll around on, whatever the case may be.
The brand owners on the packaging side are focused on recyclability.
I know that you, Sarah, since you have been in your role, have been leading and driving transformation or have been a part of AdvanSix’s transformation journey. A lot of people are working for you both from a business perspective and a manufacturing perspective. When you think about that transformation and the people that are involved in it, what are the critical skills for the future?
It is a big transformation. The privilege of leading a talented team, sales, marketing, manufacturing, customer experience, and R&D. We are the pivot point, as we talked about in our evolution, moving from this company that has this rich history in manufacturing to truly understanding our customers in a way that we can help them grow.
For me, there are a lot of critical skills to lead this type of change, highlighting a couple of customer focus, planning and alignment and the ability to do that, and leadership for the post-COVID era. You think about customer focus in a company that has a lot of history in manufacturing. This means that everyone in this organization has to have a picture of where we are headed and how we serve our customers.
We all impact our customers. We are all, in some way, shape, or form, customer-serving. It’s not always that internal customer. There’s a big customer at the end here. There’s an opportunity to coach and mentor our teams to make sure they understand that the decisions they are making make a difference for our customers. We talked a little bit about digitization, positioning, and all that stuff earlier, too.
The planning and the aligning piece is around strategy, communications, and the ability to make decisions quickly to pivot directions. Make a decision, fail fast, move on, and move with the pace of the industry. Also, as we are getting into this era in the industry, this is what I’ve seen. We’ve thought about leaders as either strategists who transform or operators who execute. Now you need both of those. That ratio could change depending on what you need in business from time to time. Those are important.
What also strikes me about this is the ability to sort and parse data. If anything, we have so much data. You talk about making decisions quickly. It’s also the ability to funnel down and focus in and discern that critical data. Digitization helps but there’s also a different lens that people need to bring to the table in terms of how they use the data that comes to them to make those decisions. You could get paralyzed by the quantities of data.
One of my old coaches always said, “Make sure you are making decisions on facts and not stories about facts.” It’s stuck with me.When you make a decision, make sure it’s based on facts and not “stories” about facts. Click To Tweet
The other thing I always like to do is make a decision but understand what those negative consequences could be and then how I would react. The reality is that you have to make a decision. You have to move forward. If you understand what your plan B is if it’s successful, great. If it goes wrong, okay, then what are you going to do?
You already have it on a piece of paper, and do it.
Sarah, what’s next for you as we look ahead to 2023? I can’t believe we are almost there. What do you see as you guys go forward for you in AdvanSix?
Continuing to move our transformation forward. We are knee-deep in it. I think about where we were and where we are going. We’ve set ourselves up for success. You think about where we used to be in the nylon business, and it was all one size fits all for how we were trying to approach things. Now we’ve divided up our teams. We are much more focused and much deeper in the value change that we are operating in. Next is completely executing that and making sure that we have all of the right pieces of information to help us make the right decisions and grow with our customers.
I also think that there’s an element of, as we are in a new normal, finding ways to myself and my counterparts and my own personal leadership team here how can lead the teams in a way that’s rewarding for people, understanding their motivators and drivers, caring about what their value systems are, and galvanizing those teams to make forward progress. When you are in a transformation, it’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of energy.
It takes a lot of energy and change. If you go back to our chemical principles and the amount of energy to drive change, that’s not just true in a chemical reaction. It’s true in personal life and business transformation. Figuring out how to manage and navigate that along is critical. Sarah, thank you for joining me. I appreciate having you on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Thank you, everyone, for joining. Keep following, reading, and sharing. We will talk to you again soon.
About Sarah Waller
Sarah Waller is a senior executive with demonstrated success in the chemicals and materials industry, including comprehensive experience in general management, strategy, sales and marketing, business development, new product introduction, and manufacturing. Distinctly skilled at synthesizing complexity into winning strategies and leading teams to execute transformational business performance with effective change management. Sarah received her MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Tech.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share! https://thechemicalshow.com/