SOCMA, or the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, plays an integral part as the connector in the chemical industry. They match-make business partnerships so that projects can get up and running in the industry. SOCMA empowers its members with the latest industry knowledge and projects. Join Victoria Meyer and her guest Jennifer Abril, the CEO and President of SOCMA, as they talk about the company and its role in the industry. Discover the pillars of their strategic plan. Find out what it takes to be a member and what you can get as a member. Learn how they support the specialty and contract chemical manufacturing sector. Know what the relationship between government and industry associations is post-COVID. And find out how Jennifer handles leadership as a woman in such a male-dominated industry. Be a part of SOCMA today!
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Jennifer Abril On Facilitating Commercial Connectivity And Trust With SOCMA
In this episode, I am talking with Jennifer Abril. She is the President and CEO of SOCMA, the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates. In this role, Jennifer has been laser-focused on showcasing SOCMA’s position as the primary hub for the specialty sector. Prior to SOCMA, she was President of the International Fragrance Association North America, and she also worked with the American Chemistry Council. We are going to talk about SOCMA, specialty chemicals, and a lot of other good stuff.
Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Victoria. I am so excited to be here.
I am so glad that you are here as well. Let’s start. Tell us a bit about you. What is your origin story? How did you come to be working in the chemical industry, specifically at trade associations?
It is funny because I had no expectations that I would be working either for the chemical industry or for trade associations. It happened to be one of these stories where you start networking with people, you fall into a role, and life takes you on your journey. Many years ago, early in my career, I was working for a lobbyist here in Washington, DC. I was in charge of coalition building, and the American Chemistry Council was a big part of several of the coalitions that I ran and they expanded their international department.
That is when I had an opportunity to join them. I focused on product stewardship and public health issues internationally in some of the global activities, the regulatory and public health side, for a while. I was there for eight years and then came over to SOCMA for three. I had an opportunity to run the Fragrance Association here in North America and I spent eight years doing that. I then had an opportunity to come back to SOCMA and it was a great homecoming for me.
Being able to come back into an organization does not always happen, so it is nice sometimes to be able to go off, get experience, come back, and bring those new insights back in.
I used to tell my staff at Fragrance that there were only two positions that I would ever leave there for, and one of those was SOCMA. It was an opportunity and I was thrilled to be able to come back.
Tell us a little bit about SOCMA because a lot of people do not necessarily know much about the organization.
SOCMA is now in its 101st year of being in 2022. 2021 was our 100th year anniversary and we were founded in 1921 primarily by specialty chemical manufacturers who were trying to protect the industry during wartime. A lot of it had to do with trade policy and tariffs. We had a very specialized need to protect the industry. A fun fact, in our very first meeting, we were addressed by Herbert Hoover, who was the Secretary of Commerce at that time. His pitch to the industry was that the government was looking for more trade leagues, as they called them at that time, now it is trade associations, to have a point of contact for each industry.SOCMA's the connector of the chemical industry. They are part of the commercial lifeblood of helping people find each other. Click To Tweet
As the Secretary of Commerce, he asked different industries to form trade leagues, so they have a single unified position for each industry. We had our first meeting in 1921 at the Hotel Washington across the street from the US Treasury building and we have been in existence ever since. To this day, trade is one of the stronger areas that we work on.
Since you have been back at SOCMA, you have driven some major transformations, including acquiring another trade show which I do not often hear happening with trade associations. What prompted that and what does that do for you?
One of the things that I think I did not appreciate the first time that I worked at SOCMA was how vital SOCMA’s role was to be that connector for the industry so that contract manufacturers, especially chemical manufacturers, could really be able to find clients. We were not aware at that time as a staff of how vital our contribution was. For many years, we ran a massive trade show called Informex. It got to be all-consuming as a project for the association and we had an opportunity to sell it.
For a number of reasons, it made sense at that time, but what we found was that it left a very big hole in our value proposition and also how we interacted with the industry. It took us a long time to realize that because the group we sold it to, which is a conference organizer, had turned the focus of the show into more of a pharmaceutical-type life cycle.
They merged with different smaller trade shows that they bought and formed it into what is now CPhI North America, but that changed the focus of Informex. While we still had a loose affiliation with it, it was not satisfying the primary membership of the association. There were a number of different opportunities, but what we realized was that we were standing on the sidelines where the industry was asking us to be part again of the commercial lifeblood of helping people find each other.
Once we did some research and validated that as a primary value proposition, it changed everything. Once we started bringing back the idea of how we could help make matches in the industry, that is where I think we have found our stride again. We have always been very strong on advocacy. As I mentioned, that was the reason that we started was government affairs or government interaction.
That has always been a strength for us. There is nobody else in the industry that holds the place that SOCMA has held in facilitating commercial connectivity in such a way where we can be objectively helpful but we can lean into the trust that the industry has with us and try to make sure that we help find that business partner that is the needle in the haystack that is going to make the projects run.
I attended the conference in March 2022 and that was my first time being there. It was my first real exposure to SOCMA and it was eye-opening in terms of who the participants were and the fact that people were genuinely there to find and make connections. I come from the bigger part of the chemical industry, including Shell, Clariant, and LyondellBasell, so I did not have a full appreciation for how the specialty and custom manufacturing worked. What it was and the need that it fills in the industry.
It is tremendous. It is a whole sub-part of the industry that is not very well understood, but if you think about it, some of the major multinationals do not have the assets that they can dedicate to specialties and small volume materials that are so vital to making the products work. Our industry, the contract manufacturing component of this, is almost ghostwriting so much of what is happening out there in the eco-space. It is an exciting dynamic, an ever-changing part of the industry, but unless you understand and know it, you can miss it.
I had a conversation this morning with a client who is a large multinational who is entering a new product area with a new product line. I said, “You are probably going to need to find a smaller tier player, formulator, etc., to start with because you can’t necessarily launch a new product into a giant formulation, customer or market until you have gotten your proof of concept and started developing it sometimes at a smaller scale.” I know that is a role that SOCMA’s members often play.
In so many instances, almost universally, the people working in the SOCMA membership are former employees of large companies that have a certain entrepreneurial spirit, and they get to touch and be much more engaged in the lifeblood of the chemistries that they are producing. It is exciting for a lot of folks who have cut their teeth at some of the larger companies, but they get that autonomy and real entrepreneurial spirit to shine through in some of the smaller companies that they leave.
SOCMA published its strategic plan. What are the highlights of that?
Our last strategic plan sets three primary pillars for the association. The first pillar is around commercial connections or commercial networking. The second pillar is on manufacturing and operations, and the third pillar is on public policy. Those three are the areas in which we do all of our work. Everything lines up underneath one of those pillars. What we also think about is icebergs.
For each pillar, we think about an iceberg where the industry can know us, interact with us, and see the part of the iceberg that is above the waterline, and there is a whole number of supporting structures underneath the waterline that are available to members only. Taking the commercial pillar, as an example, what the industry can interact with us on, we hope that they will and we want to grow it, is our new trade show as you mentioned.
That is the part of the commercial pillar that sticks up above the waterline, but underneath that, we have a whole host of tools and services that we try to accelerate industry awareness of our members and their capabilities. We have surgical databases that talk about each member’s capabilities, competencies, equipment, certifications, and things like that. We also use our own brand to help elevate the brands of our members. We also have a matchmaking service.
We will work with some of the companies that are potential customers that are looking for a contract chemical manufacturer, a toller, or a specialty chemical manufacturer to do work with them. We will work with the potential customer to try to do a project scope and feed it out to our supplement manufacturer members and say, “Who can do this project?” That project is going to get done and we want SOCMA members to be able to buy from that.
I think it is pretty unique, certainly, at least in the chemical industry trade associations, to have that depth of relationship, knowledge, and business development opportunities with their members.
That is exactly what I was referring to in our conversation, which is when we sold our trade show for the first time, we did not realize that we were selling this unique position that we had where we could be really helpful in facilitating, accelerating, and bringing the product to market. It is helping these partnerships find each other. We had other tools to support that, but at that time, we thought it was simply the show. Now, it is a holistic way that we approach 365 days a year, helping businesses and partners find each other.SOCMA employees have a certain entrepreneurial spirit. They're more engaged in the lifeblood of the chemistries that they're producing. Click To Tweet
Do you have to be a member to use that matchmaking service, or is that something that non-SOCMA members can come to SOCMA and say, “We need this type of service?” Is that how that works?
You do not have to be a member to use the service. What we feel is it is a member value for you to be able to see the projects coming in. These are warm or even hot leads. What our members get as a member of SOCMA is a first look at that, and it is a curated project scope that saves them time to see whether or not this is something they would like to learn more about.
Are people taking advantage of it? Is business genuinely happening with it?
We have a lot of repeat customers that come back. There is no fee for the use of this service, which we see as a benefit for our members and an advantage. We launched it a few years ago and we are above 100 requests. We are in the early 100 teams of projects that we have facilitated so far. We have got some stats. It is everything from bench-scale all the way up to a certain number of metric tons. It runs the gamut, but it is a helpful way to source new project partners.
That is a great service that you are providing not just to your members but to the industry. What are the other two pillars? You have talked about this commercial and connection pillar.
The second pillar is around manufacturing and operations. We are very excited about this too. A couple of years ago, we revamped and modernized a chemical operator training tool. That is the part of the iceberg that sticks up out of the water for the industry. We relaunched what is called ChemOps Training. It is a multi-disciplinary animated opportunity to bring new operators. Primarily, it is built for operators. It could be used by anybody.
One member told me that they wanted to bring their CFO, who was brand new to the chemical industry altogether and expose them to what was happening on the plant floor that would be very different for them. We have animations of standardized equipment so that new operators can understand what is going on behind the scenes on the equipment that they are using, assessments of the tool, and each of the different areas of learning.
It is working very well for either a train system if people are unhappy with theirs or sometimes when you have a spin-off that does not have a training plan in place. This is a great one to start with off the shelf. What makes it unique and dovetails nicely with ones that are already established is this idea of animations for the equipment. That is really unique and something that has been very favorably accepted by the industry. They are excited about that. We have about 50 facilities right now that are using our ChemOps Training tool across the country. That is the industry lead on our manufacturing ops pillar.
The third one is on public policy. That is all things advocacy and compliance support. In the iceberg arena of public policy, we are holding a conference which we have relaunched. It will focus on regulatory and safety topics. That is open to all industries and it is going to be a series of either workshops or best practice sharing sessions. We will have our performance improvement awards hosted at that event, so we are excited about that.
When we look across the calendar of how SOCMA organizes our interactions with the industry, our commercial pillar and our executives, that is what our new trade show is built for. We are also doing our fall summit and that is on our manufacturing ops and our public policy pillar. We are pulling those two groups together. That is good for GMs, plant managers, safety professionals, and regulatory professionals. We will have a lot of interactive and hands-on discussions on topics that are hot right now. We are also excited about our trade show that is moving to Nashville in 2023.
That is exciting and Nashville will be fun. Nashville is a fun place to visit.
It is a hot place to visit right now and we are excited about being there. We think that is going to be exciting for our attendees. It is something a little bit different. We have been in Texas in the last couple of years, but we are going to give Nashville a try.
When we talk about public policies, are there any hot topics at the moment that you guys are working on?
We are always concerned about and focused on tariffs. That is an area where we continue to follow what is happening. There are some discussions about the potential removal of the Chinese tariffs that have come up. We are always focused on trade policy and we are also very interested right now in making sure that new chemicals can get through EPA review quicker. They are not meeting their statutory deadlines and that is problematic for a lot of companies, so we have been voicing these concerns to the agency.
In fact, we had the head of EPA’s division that is responsible for new and existing chemicals address our membership. She understands that they are not meeting their deadlines, and while somewhat apologetic, she considers it to be a resource constraint that they do not have enough people to review. However, it does not make a difference. There is a statutory obligation for them to meet these deadlines. We are pushing hard to make sure that they quicken the pace because we have got a lot of new chemistry in the works and it is slowing the innovation pipeline. We know that specialty is an area where all the innovation is happening.
This is not a political show, so we will stay away from that, but it has been interesting to observe what is in need. If I think about the innovations that are needed, we need these innovations to hit sustainability targets, for instance, which our government, other governments, and companies want. There is also a stifling of that innovation when organizations such as EPA and other government agencies are not facilitating and enabling the process to happen. It is a bit of a conundrum.
Certainly, when I look at and I talk to people about what is going on in energy transition, energy pricing, and the fact that, “We need more feedstocks but you can’t have a permit to do that.” There is a lot of conundrum. We need the innovation and the chemical industry to meet sustainability targets to continue to grow and evolve. Yet, we are not getting EPA approvals and other approvals. It is a dilemma.
This is a good segue for me to come back to one of my questions. You have been working in industry associations now for most of your career. How have you seen the relationship between government and industry associations evolve? I think it is interesting that you said that Herbert Hoover, who was the Secretary of Commerce at that time, helped kick off SOCMA, and here we are 100 years later. What is the relationship or how have you seen it evolve?New chemicals need to meet their statutory deadlines. There's a lot of new chemistry in the works, which just slows down innovation. Click To Tweet
It is a great question and there has been an evolution. I think it goes in cycles. When I first came into the industry, it was a little tougher dealing with each other. At that time, the way that everybody dealt with each other was to try to bring lawsuits. NGOs would bring lawsuits again against EPA. The industry would bring lawsuits against the EPA and that was one of the tools to get them off the mark or make them do what they said they were going to do. We then went into a period of real negotiations and there was a dialogue for some time.
Different constituencies enjoy the ears of different administrations. The industry got locked out for a few years. Now, in the post-COVID environment, it is harder to influence because the regulatory staff is not sitting in one place. They are all still working from home, so you are almost pushing a string. If we have one conversation with one person, there is not any of this team orientation back at the headquarters of a regulatory agency that gets together to identify the ways to solve an issue.
It is almost like an individual, one-on-one persuasion. We see that a bit on Capitol Hill. We also see that in the agency staff. We have lost the ability and whoever is trying to lobby for a position lost the ability to use a concentrated group of ears at once. I think it is an interesting new challenge. You have to do much more one-to-one persuasion.
I had not thought about it that way, so I think that is interesting. Especially from a business perspective, even though people and many companies and individuals are still working remotely, in hybrid, or in whatever environment they are in, we are also accustomed to being able to pull people into a virtual meeting room to engage, and it is certainly not as fluid.
It is because you can’t have those side conversations easily. Crosstalk does not work as well. Let’s be honest, that happens in a real in-person meeting. We have a lot more dynamic than we do virtually, but I would have assumed that our agencies were figuring out how to work, adapt, and be responsive in a more collective way as opposed to an individual way.
I do not mean to overstate it too much, but to say that there is a hesitation or a little less comfortable with risk or decision-making because they are also understaffed. You have some who have retired. That is always an issue in government agencies is retirements, so that brain drain really hit hard. The fewer employees that are left have less comfort with making hard choices or decisions. I am thinking right now about new chemicals. They are hesitant to make an affirmative confirmation that this chemical can go to market.
There is a lot of, “Can you give me more data? Can you give me an extension? I want to think about it some more. What about this potential scenario?” There is a lot of what-I-think that continues to happen and all that what-if thing. The discomfort with making a risk determination and an affirmation mean that the industry sits and waits or continues to have to respond to the what-ifs. That part is playing in. It is real that they are understaffed. We are all having that trouble and the government is not immune to that either, but unfortunately, it is causing delays for us.
I am going to turn the conversation here a little bit. Let’s talk about leadership because it is unique to be in a role such as you are, as a leader of an industry organization where I know you have your staff, but your constituents and your members cover a wide range of companies and very different agendas and yet you need to create alignment. As you have obviously created alignment, for instance, with your strategic plan, how do you do that? How do you get alignment across such a diverse organization of member companies?
It is not easy. It takes a lot of listening and pulling themes. I was fortunate to have the position early in my career to be in charge of coalition-building because I honed those skills early and I did not realize I was building them. What I think is unique about SOCMA is that each company is similarly situated, but we do not have that much direct competition with each other. Even when you get down to tolling capabilities, you might have somebody who has a reactor that is the size you need, but somebody else does it.
There are oftentimes nuances that make for very few direct competitors. When you find a direct competitor, you have to navigate that very carefully. What that means is as an industry group, the SOCMA staff have to be really aware of the themes. It is our job to listen between the lines and to figure out what it is that we can be doing to support the specialty and contract chemical manufacturing sector even when they do not specifically know how to ask us for that. Our job is to listen, interpret, validate, and be smart enough to give it back to the industry as, “We heard you say this. We have acted and now we are providing you that solution that you did not even know how to ask us for, but we heard you.”
Let’s talk a little bit about being a woman in leadership. This is such a male-dominated industry. We know that. I think the industry knows that but SOCMA has more women than men working in the organization. How do you find it being a woman in leadership in such a male-dominated industry? Has that been a challenge for you?
The thing that is more of a challenge for me is that I do not have a science background. I have a business background and a nonprofit management background, which makes me well-positioned to do the job that I am doing. Not having a science background, I find it to be more of a challenge for me personally than I do being a woman. I have also been thrilled with how much the industry has embraced me with open arms, and that part has been wonderful.
The great thing is that I see every year more and more women coming to our events, being promoted, being accessible, and being available to participate on our board. I am optimistic. There are a lot of smart women that are contributing to this industry. Although perhaps the chemical industry in itself does not necessarily have a magnetic pull for women as much as it does for men, we are on the right track, so I feel good about that.
What is next for you in SOCMA?
It’s a busy year but a good year. What is great about this is we are getting back on the road. My travel budget is back in action, so that is great. We have been excited to be back doing the same kinds of touchpoints in person that we were doing prior to the pandemic. We have already had one member round table in the Chattanooga area. Shortly after our trade show, we are doing another one in Houston in mid-June 2022 and then we are going to be in the Spartanburg-Greenville, South Carolina area. Also, I will be in Ohio.
I am starting to make the rounds again. I am excited about that. We are bringing together members in the same area to talk about what is going on, like business conditions, how’s the supply chain, and what you are seeing in terms of staffing in this area. We are trying to hit on topics that are top of mind. That is exciting for us. We are excited to be back on the road for that. We were launching headlong into preparation for our 2023 show in Nashville, which will be held on March 1st through 3rd of 2023.
It sounds like a busy year ahead. I appreciate you taking the time to join us. It has been great talking with you and learning more about you and SOCMA. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for the invitation. I enjoyed it.
Thanks to everyone for reading. We will be back next time with another episode.
About Jennifer Abril
Jennifer Abril is President and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), the only U.S.-based trade association representing the specialty chemicals sector. Appointed to her position in 2016, she directs all strategic and operational management for the association.
For more than 20 years, Jennifer has held domestic and international public policy positions and is known as a leader in trade association management. She serves in multiple volunteer capacities and currently sits on the Board of Advisers for the Council of Manufacturing Associations. Jennifer earned a B.A. in International Studies from The American University and a M.S. in Management from the University of Maryland.
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