Some of the most successful companies always put their customers first. That is why, if you want to emulate their success, the first thing you need to do is focus on taking care of your customers and your people. Victoria Meyer’s guest in this episode is Megan E. Gluth-Bohan, the CEO and Founder of TRInternational. Megan shares with Victoria how the huge success of TRInternational leans heavily on standing relationships. After all, the most successful companies are those that are led by people with good character. Listen to this episode and discover how you can put your customers first. Tune in!
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Putting Your Customers First Is The Best Long-Term Plan With Megan Gluth-Bohan
I am speaking with Megan Gluth-Bohan. She is the Owner and CEO of TRInternational, which is a US-based chemical distributor headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Meg is an energetic and creative leader and one that has a pretty unique story and background as it relates to the chemical distribution business. Meg is an attorney by training. She brings that attorney background and her Midwestern values and mindset to chemical distribution. We’re going to be talking about that and other things. I hope you all enjoy this episode. Meg, welcome to show.
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
I’m delighted to have you. Meg, let’s keep it simple. Tell us a little bit about TRI.
TRI is a company that was founded in 1994 by my former business partner after he left the United States Military Academy at West Point and the professional rugby circuit. Since that time, we’ve obviously evolved and grown from a company that was started like most new enterprises in the United States in someone’s home to a company now that does a considerable amount of work across all states in the United States and has a pretty large footprint, frankly, across several different industries.
We are headquartered out of Seattle, but we have sales offices all over the United States and we represent products predominantly from overseas. We represent major product lines from South Korea and Europe. Our goal is to provide American manufacturers and American industry with a secondary or tertiary source of supply. The idea is to have supply chain and manufacturing continuity.
We will get to some of that because that’s all relevant in the world that we’re in nowadays. Tell us about how you got started in this, though. It’s not often that we see women owning distribution companies. That’s one thing. It’s not often that we see attorneys who are heading up chemical businesses. How did you venture forth into this wonderful world of chemicals and chemical distribution?
I joke that I might be the only attorney in this industry that anyone likes. I don’t know if that’s earned on either side, but it’s a very interesting story. In 2011, I believe it was I was relocating to Seattle and I called a friend of mine that I went to law school with and I said, “Do you know anyone that practices law in Seattle? I’d like to get a feel for the legal market.” I had been practicing in both Minnesota and Oregon prior to moving to Seattle. He said, “I don’t, but I know a guy who probably does. You should go meet him. He runs a chemical distribution company.” At that time, I had no idea what chemical distribution was and I still say to this day it’s a hidden industry. We maybe should do better to explain how vibrant and amazing this industry is.
The point is I’ve met him and his name was Tony Ridnell, Founder of TRInternational, TRI. He and I struck up, we’re like the odd couple. Even to this day, we’re no longer in business together, but we do have this yin and yang to us. By the time I left the meeting with him, which I thought was going to be to get some referrals and lay of the land for who’s who in Seattle, he had offered me a job a couple of days later to be the company’s first general counsel. Neither he nor I knew what I would do and whether this was needed, but we did know that it was a highly regulated industry and one that also favors a lot of contracts and what I would call compliance oversight.
Things took off faster than either of us thought it would. I grew to love this business. I’m challenged by it. I like it. I’m always excited every day to come to work with very rare exceptions. My excitement for that and the skills that I have as an attorney led me to be useful in several different leadership roles and it came to this point where I was the CEO of the company and he and I began to discuss his succession plan was. First, I acquired 55%. He and I thought we’d see how that went. It went marvelously by then a year later acquired the full 100% and he is at this very moment enjoying a much-coveted retirement sitting on his deck, looking out at Lake Washington, which he so richly deserves.
People are always first. The first thing you need to do is focus on taking care of your people.
It sounds like it was a bit of a leap of faith on both of your parts. Would you consider yourself a risk-taker? Is that part of your DNA and profile?
If you asked me to describe myself that way, I would not, but the truth is, I lean very heavily on my gut and intuition. I balance that well with the pragmatism that comes from being an attorney as well as a Midwesterner. We can get to that later, but that lends itself to that. Being an entrepreneur is, by definition, being a risk-taker. What makes me good is that I can balance that risk with a certain level of logic that where the two balanced each other out well. That makes me effective. If you asked me to describe myself, I would not say that. I will say, and I tell people this all the time, I was never a goal setter.
I am a person that when a door is in front of me, I have a moment where I stop and I pause. I consider why it’s there, and I tend to walk through it. There’s a statement, “Leap and the net will appear.” I do that a lot. As my life has progressed, I have a lot of confidence in that net. In that sense, it’s risk-taking but I wouldn’t say that’s part of my personality profile.
Maybe a different form of risk. The reality is risk-taking is measured. We sometimes forget that. When you think about risks, we all take risks every day. We may or may not recognize them. A lot about risk and let’s say, risk-based decisions are also understanding and managing that risk. It’s a different form of that. That’s awesome. That’s interesting. If we turn to the business and think about everything that’s gone on, the COVID pandemic has, in some ways, made and lost fortunes for everybody, depending on where you are in the spectrum of life and business. What’s been the biggest impact of the pandemic on your business? How have you guys been able to respond and thrive through this?
Number one, people first always. The first thing we did was to focus on what we needed to do to take care of our people. When the pandemic started, that was more difficult than we remember. We have the benefit of time now, and we don’t remember. You go back to the beginning. Should we wear masks? What we were all in the same room days ago and now we’re not coming back to the office. What impact does this have on people emotionally and all of that? We set ourselves up to be committed to taking care of the team first and foremost. A lot of people, when they say in businesspeople first, they forget that it’s not your people, it’s the people who rely on you and we noticed right away that we were going to have a lot of people that rely on us to provide goods and services that we needed to figure out how we were going to take care of them.
We have always had certain chemistries as part of our sales portfolio that are used in hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, all of that food and pharmaceuticals. What happened for us is that almost overnight, those product lines which before were on this cadence of predictability skyrocketed. The good thing about TRI is that we have been a company that, for many years, has always had logistics experience moving product around the globe. We were able to be very effective in that and continue to do what we do well and do better. I would be lying if I didn’t say I worried, even that some things were good. The past has been a level of uncertainty. I don’t even know how to forecast and how to move from one month to the next. It was stressful but also rewarding, too.
Where do you see things now? If I look at the first half of the year and it’s been different based on different segments and stuff. The first half of 2020, there were a lot of downturns. There were certain markets, hand sanitizing, cleaning, biocides, disinfectants that were skyrocketing. Second half of 2020 seemed to be doing well. First half of 2021, depending on where you are in the market unexpectedly well, unexpected outages. If I think about things that happen, for instance, in the US Gulf Coast with the freeze, that certainly had a big knock-on effect across a variety of industries. The first half of 2021 going, what are you seeing ahead for the second half of 2021?
I’m a big count your blessings lady. I have a daily gratitude practice and what I’ve said about 2021 is that I’m delighted that we’re here, we’re doing well, and we’ve made it through. We do have certain product segments and industry segments that are thriving. Most of our inventory is sold before it ever reaches the shore, which is atypical. It used to be that we are a stocking and import-based stocking distributor. It used to be that we had a pretty healthy inventory reserve from which to offer, and that is different. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. We’re not the only people that feel that way. Across the entire industry, we’re seeing people where the demand is there and in an ordinary supply cycle, you’d be excited to see this level of business, but the tricky part is making sure that you have something there to sell.
Long-standing relationships, both on the supply side and on the logistics side and we have a lot of collective experience in our company to handle that, but I couldn’t forecast necessarily going forward. Like everyone else I’m sure that you’ve talked to, I am wondering what the future brings in terms of some of the prices, particularly of commodities. I have a hard time understanding what the actual supply picture is at a root level. It’s a little bit harder to predict. I have taken special care. It’s a personal thing. I’m not trying to make life decisions and long-term decisions at this moment.
That’s why I’ve been talking to a number of people about this very thing that business is strong but what’s underneath it? Is it built on a foundation of salts? Is it built on a foundation of rock? What’s it built on? There’s a lot of uncertainty with that and there are ways to maybe manage it. It’s risk-based, and it’s maybe scenario-based. Thinking about what are those future scenarios and how are you going to respond? We’re living in a period of uncertainty. I’m even looking at the stock market. I’m like, “What the heck?” I don’t trust it. I’m like, “I’m delighted with my stock portfolio,” I trust it. Like everything to cash. Some countercyclical stuff. We’re living in a world of higher uncertainty, great results, but great uncertainty.
You talk about you’re concerned about the supply chain, and certainly, we’ve seen with this resurgence and concerned about the Delta variant of COVID, we’ve seen shutdowns at ports in China. How are you guys managing it? What strategies do you employ? What are you seeing and how do you tackle that for yourself and for your customers?
This is where the balance of being a risk-taker and also being a pragmatist come in. There’s a certain amount of knowing that it’s going to take longer to get goods to my customers than it used to. To get them even to my warehouse, to have a backup and safety stock. We are extending our buying cycle on our side and pre-buying a lot of products. The risky part of that is that it does leave you in a position to be holding high-priced inventory at a time when you don’t want to, but in my mind, I would rather be in a situation where I took care of that customer than not. All of business is a risk calculation. There are people in this industry nowadays who are saying, “I’m getting out. I’m sorry, I cannot serve you. I cannot provide that product because the risk of buying something 12 weeks or 9 weeks before you need it is too great.” I don’t blame them one bit. I’ve wrestled with that.
We are taking a position that we are going to stick with these customers and let them rely on us in the long term. We’ve put our energy behind that. In addition, we have a lot of longstanding relationships. Obviously, we have contracts with ocean carriers and things like that. Our suppliers are outstanding. They’re great companies. They make great products and great people. We’ve leaned hard into working on how we can manage the logistics but we work the solution at TRI. We do not work the problem. There is a lot of noise about what’s going on but at the end of the day, you cannot sell what you don’t have and we’re going to get it here.
Seattle is a chemical hub. When I think about chemicals in Seattle, I’m thinking anywhere along the West Coast. Do they want you there? Can you attract to employees? Do they want to be part of chemical companies? Tell me about doing business in Seattle as a chemical distributor. Is it easy? Is it hard?
We were founded in Seattle because I mentioned that when Tony left West Point, it was to come out to JBLM, Joint Base Lewis-McChord out here and he served as an officer there. This is where he had landed by military posting and it’s hard not to fall in love with this place. He set up shop here. Truthfully, Seattle is a great place to be if you are somebody who runs an international business like we do. Our customers are all over the United States.
We’ve never felt like we been at any disadvantage. We have to warehouse and move things near them regardless. It didn’t exactly matter where the locus of operations was for us. There are challenges at a regulatory and governmental level in any state that you go and the State of Washington at times presents a public policy level sometimes. It can feel difficult whether your business has chemical distribution or something else.
Count your blessings and practice daily gratitude.
If you study businesses in Washington, some of them love it and some of them feel hamstrung by that. We’re susceptible to all the same things, but it does make sense for us. The biggest challenge I would say is sometimes it’s harder to be three hours behind the East Coast. I cannot overstate the impact of that but it’s not too bad.
The whole time zone challenge, I’ve worked global businesses my whole career. At some point, you get used to saying, “I’m taking a 6:00 AM phone call, or I’m taking a phone call at 10:00 PM.” You live with it. I know on the flip side, when I’m working in Europe, I’m waiting for the US to wake up, “Could you guys wake up? I’ve got a phone call. I’ve got a question,” but you figure out how to work around it. Same thing with the whole East Coast-West Coast dynamic. If you’re working as an international company and a lot of your suppliers coming from Asia and stuff, there are probably benefits.
It’s also nice to be unique sometimes. One of the things I’ve been talking with folks about a lot is some of these key trends that we certainly see going on in the chemical industry. Sustainability and circularity are accelerating. The focus on that is accelerating. Digitization, people are making leapfrog movements in that space. How are you guys approaching either one of those? Are they important to you and your customers and your business, or are they secondary?
They’re important. I don’t have a criticism of the industry here, but we could do a better job of explaining that in a lot of ways, the chemical industry is at the forefront of sustainability and has been for a lot longer than anybody was talking about it. Now it has become a hot topic, but I’m not necessarily sure that it’s new for us. If you know any chemical distributors or chemical manufacturers, some of the waste removal treatment reduction, recycling, the amount of materials in this industry that are sold as a by-product, off-spec, or not sent to any waste are turned back into the chain of commerce in this country is amazing. We do that with statistically low incidents.
I say statistically because I don’t mean to diminish when something happens, but people fail to understand that is the numerator you’re seeing. There is a denominator of things that are going right. We maybe don’t talk enough about the denominator. We are certified by the NACD’s Responsible Distribution Program. We take great care to ensure that our products move and are delivered in a way that honors all environmental efforts and sustainability efforts that are put forth by the government, and frankly, which exceed that, which the pertinent agencies suggest. We take that seriously. I always want to remind people that chemistry travels in the communities that we live in, too. I never forget that it matters what we do with our products and it matters if people’s water and all of that are treated right.
It will also say that when it comes to digitization and things like that, this industry, like any other, can be improved by some of the technology that’s coming about. Making certain parts of our jobs easier. It’s great to be able to have access to needed information about products. It makes it easier for customers if they can speed up their ordering pattern. This is one of those industries where at the end of the day, two people getting on a phone together or being in a room together is a little bit required. I don’t know how that dance will end up but I look at our experience. Most of our chemicals are sold to people who are chemists and then a purchasing agent accelerates that process but at the end of the day, this is chemistry and the reaction has to work.
I don’t think we’ll ever get away from the fact that because many of these products have a lot of safety and handling requirements, they need to be effective in use. There’s always going to be a large degree of personalization, personal relationship, and confirming that your customer has the handling requirements appropriate and that the product is going to work in use and all that. Along the way, there’s a lot of digital streamlining that can take place. One of the things I always come back to is the fact that as individuals, many of us live on our phones. We have this expectation of I can track my Amazon package every moment of every day and see where it is on the truck. We somehow need to make sure we’re translating this to the people in our chemical businesses that we’re doing within.
It’s not easy because there’s not a clear return on investment and maybe one of the biggest challenges is figuring out, is there a return on investment? What is it? Sometimes it’s a leap of faith. I’ve certainly seen that. When I was at Shell and some of the investments that we made that we had no idea what they were going to do three years down the road, you’re like, “We’re able to do A, B, and C because we made this investment that we couldn’t figure out exactly whether it was a good investment or not.” It was the right digital investment. This is a moving target for all of us.
I’m going to come back around the sustainability. You’re right also in the sense that the chemical industry needs to own the narrative a whole lot better. We’ve been sustainable for a long time. Many of the value-added products came from offspring. There’s circularity as it relates to refineries and chemical plants. We haven’t owned the narrative well. We haven’t explained it well. We say, “This is what we do and there’s a certain amount of expectation.” The other thing I observed is Western companies. US, Canada, Europe, probably Mexico, to a large degree, have much better environmental profiles.
When we see what’s going on, even plastics, my kids show me a video of there’s all these plastics in the ocean. I’m like, “This is a problem.” It’s a problem that’s not originating from you and me. It’s a problem that’s originating in China, India, or elsewhere. Obviously, you’ve said that a lot of your supply comes from overseas, which is coming from Asia, which maybe has some different standards. How do you reconcile this for yourself, for your customers, or with your suppliers?
First of all, it’s important to note that even within any global company, in the US, there are chemical manufacturers that are at the top line and you want to do business with them, and there are some that aren’t doing it right. That’s here and that’s everywhere. The companies that we do business with overseas are in many ways setting the pace for us to follow in terms of their sustainability efforts and their commitment to the environment and being at the forefront of some of that technology. We work with some companies that are highly reputable and hold themselves to high standards. In a strange way, many of them had seen this coming maybe before we did.
In some places, if you are not necessarily a highly regulated industry but you sense that that could come, many of them had made those advancements in technology and done it before they were required to. Everybody will go to the standard that we hold them to. In the US, if you are a responsible buyer and at the end of the day, I am in some sense, I want to know that I’m doing business with companies overseas that get it and that are doing that. We ask those questions and we put those things in front of them. I have customers that want to know, “Tell me about the supply chain of the products that you’ve provided. Not just for you, Meg, but for your supplier.” What has happened over time is that because the customers are asking, because we’re asking and we’re responsible distributors, they’ve gotten there in a lot of ways first.
They all start elevating.
If they weren’t beforehand, there are a lot of great companies overseas that are seeing that. It’s great because they’re going to be the thought leaders for their entire continent for how to improve and how to clean that up. I’m excited to see what happens.
I’m going to turn this in a little bit, but just back to you. One of the things people are always interested in is your leadership. What’s your leadership style or your mantra when you think about running your company?
That would probably be a question for the people who work for me.
The chemical industry is at the forefront of sustainability.
We can go back and ask them.
To be honest, I’m pretty down to earth and I tend to be a person I don’t usually do a whole lot of asking for things that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I believe that the most successful companies are the companies that are led by people with good character. I try to have good character and model exactly what I expect. I also have a lot of faith in the people that work for me, and I don’t have anyone working for me that I don’t have faith in. That means being very slow to hire at times and a little quicker to end the relationship if it’s not working out. I want people working here that I can trust and that don’t require micromanagement and that frankly would be the people that would bristle under such methods.
I don’t want to have to do that to the extent that you have people that are excited about what they’re doing and talented and don’t require a lot of that. I don’t do that. I’m a pretty, what you see is what you get kind of lady and I’m known for being very plain and direct in what I think about a situation. I don’t have a temper, but people will tell you that they know when I’m serious.
Tell me, what’s next for TRI?
Growth. Continue to do what we do well and do more of it.
Are you for organic growth or some inorganic growth?
Both. We would be open to and would explore all kinds of growth. I am a person that likes the next challenge. I am always excited about what we can build and I like building things and businesses. I liked that part of my law career, helping people start and build their businesses and figure out their way out of a tricky situation. I can imagine a situation where I will ever be on coast around here. We’re going to keep doing that. I’m open to creative things and some of them will be organic. There is a place for some inorganic acquisition-seeking moves, too.
I’m looking forward to see what happens, coming soon. Meg, thank you so much. I have enjoyed speaking with you and I know my readers are going to love this and your perspectives.
Thank you so much. It’s been fun.
Thanks, everybody, for reading. Until next time.
About Megan Gluth-Bohan
Megan is the Owner and CEO of TRInternational, Inc., a US-based chemical distributor headquartered in Seattle, WA. Ever mindful that “the buck stops here,” Megan is ultimately accountable for Company performance. She is also an energetic leader who creates and implements a creative vision for the Company’s future. Megan’s background as an attorney makes her pragmatic. Megan is passionate about the development of people and commerce- she challenges her team to be both excellent and rigorous.
Megan currently serves as the Treasurer of the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) and The Chemical Education Foundation (CEF). She is a past NACD Director at Large. She has served as a member of several industry committees.
Education/Experience: BA- History, University of Minnesota; JD, University of St. Thomas School of Law; Licensed to practice in Minnesota, Oregon, the United States Federal Courts- District of Oregon, and Washington.