Climb your ladder to growth and success by equipping yourself with the knowledge and skills to get there. When she was in college, April Yeager tried a co-op program, was eventually offered a position in a product development lab, and never would have guessed that she would be retiring 30 years later with the same company. She climbed up the corporate ladder through different opportunities that enabled her to gain a deeper understanding of business and personal growth. Now she is the Senior Vice President of Essential Ingredients. In this episode, she sits down for a conversation with Victoria Meyer to share her knowledge on the industry, including the critical things you should focus on. Listen and find your inspiration to grow with your business!
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Moving Up the Corporate Ladder For Professional And Personal Growth With April Yeager
In this episode, I am speaking with April Yeager. She is the Senior Vice President of Operations for Essential Ingredients. She is responsible for customer service, regulatory and compliance, supply chains and supplier relationships, and a whole lot more. She joined EI in December of 2020 after over 25 years at Clariant, which is a specialty chemical producer.
April has had a varied career, everything from being a Product Development Chemist to a Business Manager and Head of North American procurement at Clariant before joining EI and taking on this big supply chain and more role. She has got some great stories to tell, and we are going to enjoy talking with April.
April, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Victoria. I am glad to be here.
You have been in the chemical industry and in surfactants for most of your career. How did you get started? What even started you on this journey?
Being a girl from a small town, I always loved Math and Science. I knew I wanted to go into that. At the college I was at, UNC in Charlotte, they had a co-op program. I thought, “Let me give that a try and see what that is like.” I interviewed at a company called Hoechst Celanese. They offered me a position in their product development lab. This was back in January of 1990. Believe it or not, that is the same company that I ended up retiring from 30 years later. Who would have guessed that you go in, you think, “Let me try this out,” and you end up staying your whole career there?
There has to be something interesting that keeps you going. What was it?
Anywhere you are, it is always the people that keep you there, but the lab work was so fun. I worked on some interesting projects. I worked on two projects that are still in commerce now. I worked on a rheology modifier that was used in drilling and submitting fluids in oil fields. They still sell it nowadays. I worked on the raw material or the base for Olay beauty bars and Dove bar soap which is still used now. The development of both of those projects is two that I am quite proud of. I enjoy the lab work. I used to tell my friends, “If I win the lottery, I am still going to work in the lab every day because I love it.”
You did not stay in the lab because you lived into business roles for a big part of your career.
That is the other reason that I stayed. I got lots of opportunities. I was asked to move into a product management role, and that gave me an opportunity to see a little bit more about business. I had a technical background. I did not really know what business was about, so it gave me an opportunity to understand what that was and interact with customers. The next move was into sales and business development opportunities, which was cool.
I kept developing. They kept giving me opportunities, and I kept saying, “I will give this a try.” I worked up and became a sales manager. I ran some of the business segments on the industrial side. I read some of the business segments on the consumer side. I ran the personal care business for Clariant for six years, and that is how I met Essential Ingredients. We were looking for a distributor to promote our products as a personal care group. I met Kris Maynard and Chris Gerlach. We wrote a contract and started up a business, which is still going.
You talk about the variety that you had in your career. That is true for a lot of people across the chemical industry. It is something that is hard to understand when you are not in the business, yet it is what keeps it interesting and keeps people engaged. In fact, we need to do a better job of selling that when we are trying to bring people into the industry about the fact that one of the products that you are working on has cool day-to-day impact and interactions. That is one thing. It is not static. You are evolving in your career, the business, etc. That is one of the interesting pieces.
It makes me think of something that we are doing now at Essential Ingredients. As a co-op student, I would love to be able to pay that forward to kids nowadays. We are doing an internship program, and we now have our second intern. We bring the students in and give them a project in the lab because they are technical degrees. We give them a real project. The kid that is in there this semester is working on building salt curves and doing viscosity profiles for products.
I was in there talking to him the other day, and he says, “When I am in the lab at school, I do not have any downtime.” I said, “In the real world, you are always going to have downtime because you do not know what the outcome is going to be.” It gives them an opportunity to see what real-life chemistry is about, which is great. We also try to give them a holistic view of the business. We let them sit with the other departments, sales, support, samples, and logistics so that when they leave that internship, they at least have some inkling of what a Chemistry degree in practice might look like.
Tell us a little bit about Essential Ingredients because some people are not familiar with it.
Essential Ingredients is a people-first evergreen company. When we say evergreen, we are talking about a company that wants to stay independent and stay around for the long-term. We want to be a 100-year company. We finished our 25th year in 2021. We are a quarter of the way there. We are also a company that strives to be a blessing to others. How do we accomplish that as a chemical distributor? That is a question. It is about building, fostering, and developing relationships, upstream with our suppliers, downstream with our customers, inside the walls of Essential Ingredients with our employees, and then in the communities where we work and live.
Anywhere you are, it’s always the people that keep you there.
I had seen that statement on EI’s website that you strive to be a blessing to others, which is a unique statement for a chemical company. It is a very personal statement that we do not often see in business.
Sometimes you think, “How does that work in the chemical industry?” We tend to attribute blessings to personal things. I looked up, “What is blessing?” Webster’s dictionary says it is providing favor or benefit to another. That comes back to what I am saying. We want to provide benefits for our suppliers, customers, and employees that work for us. Essential Ingredients is 100% ESOP, which means it is employee-owned. The employees have a stake in what they are doing on a day-to-day basis, which is great.
Do you feel that employee ownership? Do people really get it?
They do. The type of people that work at Essential Ingredients has a servant heart. They want to serve others. They want to make the Essential the best distributor that we can be. They even want to take the things they do and apply them to the community. It is not just about what we do inside the walls of Essential Ingredients. It is much more about how we perpetuate that outside the walls with our suppliers, customers, and communities.
You spent the vast majority of your career as a producer and manufacturer with the ways of doing business and business relationships that chemical producers have. Now you are a distributor. What’s been the biggest difference or the biggest surprise that you have seen?
The pace of business and the distributor is a lot different than in a manufacturer. I am used to taking a product and developing it through years, launching it, and then promoting it to a set of customers who are multinational. It might take them 4 to 6 years to bring it to market. There is a long cycle there. Also, the number of products that you work on is a lot smaller.
You might have 100 products that you promote and sell as a manufacturer. In the realm of the distributor world, we have over 2,000 products that we promote and sell in the marketplace. That is a lot different. We have many different suppliers in the personal care area. If you think about a bottle of shampoo on the shelf, we pretty much can supply anything that goes in that bottle. Our basket of products is designed to fill the bottle up.
When you joined EI in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, in a supply chain role, of which supply chain is the hot topic that even the person on the street now talks about, what has been the challenges? How did you guys navigate that?
It has been a crazy ride in 2020 and 2021. Coming back to the idea of relationships with our suppliers and customers, one of the things that we intentionally do as a distributor is trying to stock 60 days of inventory. It is because that gives us a cushion. Unfortunately, it did not give us enough cushion in 2021, but it did help alleviate some of the stress for some of our suppliers and customers.
I wish I could say that we did not let a single customer down. I am sad to say that is not true. Unfortunately, we did. The thing that I learned most in the crisis is it is all about fast and effective communication, both to our suppliers and customers. It is about delivering that bad news fast, even if it is bad.
It is because then they can pivot and say, “This material is not going to be here. Let me make this one instead.” It was about leaning in there, being transparent, and having genuine care for both the suppliers and customers. Suppliers are really suffering because most large multinational manufacturers do not have a lot of inventory. They are doing this just in time thing. It was an opportunity for us to lean in and live out our purpose again, helping and supporting them.
It is an interesting perspective, going from a place of lean inventory in a manufacturer to one where your assumption is 60 days of inventory, which is a lot of inventory unless you are going into a shutdown. No chemical manufacturer wants to be sitting on 60 days of inventory. That is going to blow up over that. It is crazy.
That is the value we bring to the marketplace as a distributor. We are able to fill in the gaps between the manufacturers and end-users. That is our sweet spot.
We talked a little bit about this already. Customer experience is such a critical, often overlooked, and frankly undervalued differentiator in the chemical industry. As a distributor sitting right there in the middle, in your customer experience in many ways as both to your suppliers, the producers, as well as to the formulators, the final customer, what have you found that makes the difference in creating that value through that customer experience? What is unique about what EI does? How do you see the market evolving with that?
Focus on long term goals. Envision your business to be a hundred-year company.
It still comes back to communication and transparency. Whether we are working with our suppliers or customers, it is all about speed of response and transparency that then builds trust between the supplier and us or the customer and us. On the customer side, if we are working with them on new material, it is about getting the sample to them in days, not weeks of when they asked for it. It is about getting them the regulatory dossier within days, not weeks. It is getting them that first drum for their launch when they need it.
On the supply side, this is the same thing. It is getting them that market intel back from our vast customers. We have got a pretty widespread understanding of what is going on in the marketplace. We can provide that information back to our suppliers, and that is highly valuable. That creates this great experience for both the suppliers and customers.
What lessons have you taken from Clariant and been able to apply over to EI? How has that flange together? Your experiences have been so vastly different in both areas.
In a lot of ways different, but also in a lot of ways the same. In years of working for a Swiss-German chemical company, there is a bit of structure that comes with that. The one thing I take away is the structure and building the structure that is needed for the future organization. As we continue to grow as Essential Ingredients, we are going to need to continue to build the organization and the capabilities to be able to deliver in the future. If we want to be a 100-year company, we are going to have to be able to pivot, grow, and develop. One of the things that I am taking away from my time at Clariant is the experience of growing over time and how to position that for the future.
As a company matures and grows, and if you go beyond where you are now to more people in longevity, having that repeatability or process focused on knowing how you continue to replicate and build upon yourself becomes critical.
It is very well said. I could not have said it better myself.
What about leadership? How have you found leadership to be different inside of a small entrepreneurial distributor versus in a bigger company? What is the put up in the leadership differences that you have seen?
There is a lot more of just doing it. You do not have to ask a lot. If you are showing them that you know where you are going, they are very happy to let you run and do those things, which is very refreshing. It is more of an entrepreneurial attitude. I like that. I feel like I am thriving under that. That is one thing I see that fits well with me.
Is EI a US company?
It is a US company. We operate in the US and Canada now. That is also a nice thing coming out of a global company. Many mornings, I was up at 4:00 AM on conference calls. We do not start work until 8:00 in the morning, which is nice.
I had to be somewhere now at 7:00 AM. The whole time, I am like, “This is uncivilized to have to get up, get dressed, and leave the house at 6:00 AM, although I did it for decades.” I had done it for so many years, but now I am like, “That is hard to get up and get going that early.” You are right. With global companies having calls at 6:00 AM and 7:00 AM are pretty routine, whereas being in one general time zone is much easier to navigate.
Our biggest issue is trying to find time to talk with the West Coast.
I believe that. What is next for EI? What do you see happening as we look forward to 2022 and beyond?
2022 is looking good for us. We have just finished our five-year strategic planning cycle, which was exciting. I have been through quite a few strategic planning cycles in my career, but this one was unique because we invited over half of our employee base to participate in the building of the strategy. We had ten different strategic initiative teams. We had different folks with different experiences and backgrounds.
To be a hundred-year company, we need to pivot and grow.
A couple of great things come from that. One is we get a lot of great ideas because not all the great ideas come from the top. We know that. We got some good ideas. The second thing that came out of that is we got immediate buy-in and ownership of the final strategic product because we were all involved in building it. There was none of this trying to get people on board. They were already on board. We have hit the ground running in 2022. We rolled out in Australia in January and we are already working through game plans and milestones. It has been a great experience from a strategy build perspective.
That is one of the things I talk to folks about when I work with clients. My thing is it has got to be personal. You have to involve more people in your strategy because when you involve them, they buy-in. You can make your strategy effective and execute because so many companies have difficulties. Strategy is easy to set, “We are going to go do this, and this is why.” Living up to it, executing, and getting your teams on board is hard. If you incorporate them early, it helps that success come through.
It has been exciting to see different folks in the organization step up, ask for additional responsibility, and ask to be a leader in this or that other initiative. For me, that is what leadership is about if you can help folks to find their voice to be able to be their best self within the organization, then done.
That is it. That is awesome to know.
It is super exciting.
It sounds like you have found a great place to be. I am happy to see that. A lot of people across the chemical industry have step 1 and step 2 careers. It is always good to see when you make this pivot. It is an awesome successful pivot for you. Well done.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
Thank you for joining us on the show. This has been great.
Thank you. It is always a pleasure to see and talk with you, Victoria.
Thank you to all of our readers. Keep reading and sharing the show. Follow us online and on your favorite podcast player. We will see you again next time.
About April Yeager
April Yeager is the Senior Vice President of Operations for Essential Ingredients. She is responsible for Customer Service, Sampling, Regulatory & Compliance, Supply Chain, and Supplier Relationships. She joined Ei in December 2020. Essential Ingredients is a specialty chemical distributor serving the Personal Care and HI&I markets.
April is an accomplished specialty chemical professional with 30 years of experience in senior commercial and procurement roles, with an in-depth understanding of both consumer care and industrial markets. April spent the majority of her career with Clariant, a global leader in specialty chemicals, headquartered in Switzerland, in positions with increasing responsibility, from Product Development Chemist, Market Development Manager for Functional Fluids and Oilfield to Business Segment Manager for Personal Care, to North America Sales Manager for Industrial & Consumer Specialties, where she was responsible for $110Mp.a. sales for the North America business, pricing and product strategies and more.
As the Head of North America Procurement, she managed the regional supply base and supported the growing needs of Clariant’s Business Units through the introduction of innovative, new suppliers and supply strategies, supporting over $700M direct and indirect purchasing spend.
April has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina and is a graduate of the 2-year Queens College Management Program in Finance, Accounting, Ethics and Logistics. She is also the co-inventor and patent holder for “Process for the preparation of N-acyl-aminodiacids” US Patent – 5837872A. April resides in The Woodlands, Texas with her fiancé, Jon.
She has two adult sons, Zach and Dillon and a grandson, Jack. In her free time, she enjoys exercise, reading, cooking and spending time with family.