The pandemic brought many challenges to smaller businesses and chemical distributors. Learn how Eric Byer, President and CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), led the association and supported the chemical distribution industry, including many small, family-owned businesses, during the ups-and-downs of 2020 and 2021. Join your host Victoria Meyer and her guest Eric Byer as they discuss the pandemic, its effect on small business, the vital part that chemical distribution plays in the economy and the role that NACD has taken to support its members. How have chemical distributors managed the challenges posed by the logistics disruptions and the pandemic? Find out by listening to today’s episode of The Chemical Show Podcast.
Watch the episode here:
Steering Chemical Distribution Through A Pandemic With Eric Byer
I’m excited to be talking with Eric Byer, who is President and CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors or NACD. Eric joined NACD in January 2014 as President after spending twenty years in government and public affairs, and organizational operations at organizations including the National Air Transportation Association. Early in his career, Eric served as a Legislative Assistant to the US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform and Oversight Chair William Clinger Jr from Pennsylvania. As you might expect, Eric is uniquely suited to his role at NACD where he supports the chemical industry at the intersection of government, regulation, and business. Eric, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Victoria, and congratulations on the Top 10 rank. That’s awesome. It’s great to hear.
Thank you. It was a really good surprise.
We will see if I can drag you down to the top 15%.
Please don’t do that. We are going to move on up to the top 5%!
Eric, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about NACD?
We are in a small 501(c)(6) trade association. We represent primarily small businesses but we have some big ones as well. Our member companies do a whole host of things. They are companies that will either process, blend or package the warehouse all times of chemical products throughout the supply chain. They have about 750,000 customers out there for the different end users that they service. Our folks are, I would call, quintessential small business activity folks. They care very much about their local community.
They are there to help out folks on charities and stuff like that. They are also politically very driven. They recognize the small businesses. They want to go out there and do the best they can to grow their business, which means they look at things like fewer taxes and what regulations are important, while at the same time making sure that they are incredibly safe and secure, which they very much are. They are the backbone of America for small businesses. They do deeply care about what they do and how they provide their different services.
I found that chemical distributors tend to be quite entrepreneurial as small business owners. We often think of entrepreneurs in technology and other spaces but chemical distributors are at their heart, especially as they start as small businesses, most of them are real entrepreneurs.
One of the things that all small businesses have always had to do since 2020 essentially identifies ways to make sure there’s still the value of what you have to offer. Our guys have done that. They get into supply chain issues, shipping delays, and stuff like that a little bit. Every time there’s a crisis, our folks usually rise to the very top to make sure that they keep their customers happy and keep doing what they are doing at the highest level possible.
I looked at the sanitation marketplace when COVID hit. Our guys were out there and they were ready to rock and roll to make sure that the products were usually ethanol or other products contained in the sanitizing marketplace, whether it’s the pump you are putting on your hands, the wipes you use out of the bag or whatever. There were ones that stepped up and got a lot of that stuff done. They are always there to make sure it happens so that every day, Americans can continue to live comfortably.
Tell us a little bit more about you, though. I’m interested in your background in government relations. How did you get started in that space? And now, you are leading a major industry group. Tell us a little bit about your origin story.
I was a political junkie. I was one of those high school losers that watched C-SPAN. I’ve got the bug primarily because I had a cool internship with my Congressman from my district, Dean Gallo, up in New Jersey. He’s a really cool guy, somebody I admired and I’ve got interested that way. What sealed the deal for me was when I was in high school. I did a two-week seminar down at American University and I’ve got to meet President Bush 41. I’ve got to go in the White House alone, he came off Marine One, I’ve got to shake his hand and talked to him for a few minutes.
For me, that glided my path down to going as a Political Science Major at Gettysburg College, working on Capitol Hill for Bill Clinger as a Staff Assistant and a Legislative Assistant, and then getting off into other political issues and areas that were of interest to me. I would definitely say that President Bush was certainly one thing but always having a keen interest in politics and seeing how it operated, and the different ups and downs that you see. There’s never a dull day in Washington.
You took some of that, and you translated that into supporting industry groups. That’s NATA and now at NACD.
I always wanted to was to run a business, and at the same time, I didn’t want to lose what I’m passionate about, which is the public policy and the lobbying part of it. I learned a lot in the aviation industry. I was there for fifteen years representing small businesses there. I love representing those types of folks. A lot of former militaries care deeply about this country, served this country and did things. When you are operating a plane, you’ve got to do it safely, train properly and maintain the aircraft.
All those types of services, small businesses that provide support to the general aviation industry are what I help represent. For me, there was a natural, tremendous transition over to the chemical side when the CEO job opened up where I could do pretty much the same thing with a lot of the same issue subsets but do it as a CEO so I could handle working on the operation side but also continue my love for the public policy side.
That sounds like a great fit for you.
It has been great. I love what I do. I love the members that we represent and we have some great staff. they keep working hard and keep me entertained and vice versa. It all works out well for everybody.
NACD is celebrating its 50th anniversary this 2021, which is impressive. What’s the significance of that to you?
When you hit the half-century mark, a lot of things come to mind. One is longevity. It sounds silly because it’s 50 years. but for trade associations, it’s a pretty big deal. Not everybody lasts that long. The industry that we represent, the distribution part of the chemical industry, continues to maintain and show its value to the American economy and the public at large. We are the key to make sure that anything comes out of a manufacturing facility, whether it’s by rail or by truck, it comes to our members’ warehouses.
We go ahead and package it or whatever it may be and send it to the end-user. If we are not there, the product is not going to happen. It’s not going to get there. The fact that our folks have evolved with time, you look at things like eCommerce, new trucks, rail upgrades and maritime issues. All those facets are important to what we do to make sure the product gets to your doorstep every day. It’s something that has to happen but our folks are passionate about it and that’s the other thing.
Our members love what they do. They have been in business for 30, 40, 50 years. We have members that joined us back many years ago that are still very much in business. A lot of them are still family-run. The passion and the love for the industry are there. It motivates you as a staff member for an association that you are supposed to represent to do the very best you can.
For NACD, we have grown because of what we have been able to do for a membership-based that loves what they have to do. Training is huge nowadays. It’s something that we focused a lot on. Advocacy and talked about fewer regulations and fewer taxes are certainly important for our folks but the most important thing they always focus on is not only the people that work for them but making sure that they are safe and secure in what they have to offer.
As long as they continue to do so as the number one priority, they will be around for another 50 years. That’s the thing that I’m always impressed with. It’s the due diligence they put on safety, security, and training to keep operations safe and to make sure the products get out the door to whoever they serve every day.
Safety is so critical all the way across the chemical industry from production to end-users. I often call it license to operate, which makes it seem smaller than it is, and yet it is a significant part of everyone’s business.
In getting good quality, folks come in, being trained, understanding the operation side, understanding how to operate forklifts, and all those types of nuances, people don’t see that every day. It’s critical to the supply chain in what we have to do and what ultimately leads to. You get either in a package at your doorstep, summarize how to provide those products in those containers, or to a business that might need it desperately like chlorine, water treatment facilities and things that are delivered. Everybody needs it. It’s those types of things that you don’t recognize that are important for an everyday living if you will.
How have the events since 2020. the pandemic, supply chain, disruptions and labor issues affected NACD and its members?
It has been a rocky road, which is probably the best way. It has been for everybody else, personally and professionally. Initially, the need for our members to provide things isopropyl alcohol and ethanol that go into things like hand sanitizer and sanitizer wipes. A lot of our folks were up to the task. They did it, there was a huge need for it first, and then things tapered off. We had the supply chain issues that we are seeing now, which is delayed products coming from Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Indonesia, whatever.
It has been a struggle. Our folks are so good at looking at new opportunities to service our customers. That’s forced them to diversify what they have to offer. That’s something I have always marveled at. When one line or revenue stream may go away, they are always looking at 3, 4 or 5 other ones that potentially could fill the gap for the now but also the longer-term.
Small business folks are the backbone of America.
It has been tricky but they have been able to navigate some pretty rocky waters here. Most of our folks have done pretty well getting through this, have been able to keep their employees on the payroll, and have been able to continue to maintain high-quality levels of service but it’s certainly been a challenge. There’s no doubt on that when you are talking about it. Our folks were deemed essential service providers by the Department of Homeland Security when COVID hit. They continue to operate, especially those in the back, who was working in the warehouse and stuff.
There’s still an element of the administrative folks for a lot of our companies that are, either working remotely or doing hybrid. All those types of changes that we have all encountered are certainly applicable to our member companies. They have made it through and done well. It has always been an over-regulated industry in my opinion. That’s one of those things where you’ve got to keep an eye on a big issue, we’ve got COVID, and then you have all the daily stuff you’ve got to worry about.
COVID took over for so long that we are starting to see a natural regression back to, “Here’s the new normal. COVID is part of the process.” We also have to maintain and continue to grow our business safely. How do you figure that out is a constant work in progress, and our guys are doing a good job trying to adapt?
Did it change what NACD focused on and how you guys have been engaged, either your chemical distributor constituents or the legislation and government bodies?
From an external offering perspective, we had lots of things that we had done in person, and all those events were canceled initially. What we have been able to do is moved to a virtual format for the first twelve months, which was very well received by our members but ultimately our guys wanted to meet in person. We were able to do our events back in person during May or June 2021. They have done that, they have come to our events in waves and it has been great.
From a public policy perspective, the biggest thing for us is to make sure that what we saw with COVID where a whole bunch of emergency provisions put in, which allowed our folks to continue to operate. As those things have dialed back, we’ve got to make sure we continue to educate not only the Federal Government but the state governments.
It’s clear that as you look at transportation regulations, chemical regulations, and environmental regulations, we look at the evidence of cannabis, the use of it, and how that affects truck drivers in certain states with those rules versus other states and their rules. All those things, the state level, in particular, have come to the forefront. We are paying a lot more attention to them. We are more focused on state-centric issues. It has certainly been something we have had to pay more attention to from a public policy perspective.
From the Federal Government, we maintain a pretty aggressive eye on things with them. They don’t do a whole lot nowadays on Capitol Hill, to be frank with you, but it’s something we have to keep a very close eye on because it’s something that sneaks-in in a bill or a provision that can hamper our folks. We still have a pretty keen eye on what’s going on from the legislative level on Capitol Hill.
I know logistics have been a big challenge and a hot topic everywhere. What has been critical to NACD and its members in helping work through those challenges? How has NACD helped to influence solutions?
Logistics is what our guys do best, whether you have a product and you’ve got to get it to a remote location in the country, our guys will always figure out how to do that. There have been many hindrances since COVID, and even prior to COVID, that have been real stressors. This gets into that supply chain. You’ve got products that are coming from abroad and a lot of our folks’ import stuff from Asia. They come in on these big container ships that are essentially anchored about the side of the ports from Seattle all the way through to New York and Boston that are delaying things.
You have huge issues with shipping and drivers. You don’t have a lot of them and our guys are specialized. A lot of move hazards materials. They are not just getting their CDL but they are also getting specialized training. The availability of qualified drivers to move the product once they get into the ports, and then rail issues. Those three areas have been the triangle of doom of what I would like to call it because it has been a challenge for our guys to figure out how to get their product through that gauntlet to their hands, so they can get it to their end-user and customer. Not doing so means they lose their customers, so they are highly motivated to make sure that it all happens.
The number one issue because of the pandemic is making sure your customer gets what they want.
Logistically, they are always trying to find new and better ways to move products. In nowadays world, it’s really hard. We are seeing probably the worst shipping crisis we have ever seen in this country. We will continue to go from where it has been this 2021 through 2022 and probably into 2023. For them, that has been the number one issue. It’s how to make sure I get what I need so I can provide it to our customers without losing our customers. It’s a daily grind for most of our folks.
I have seen that NACD has taken a stance and some of these policy topics that would relate to that.
We have been very frustrated with the ocean carriers. We are not shy about it. One of the things that I take issue with is that these are big organizations that we are not making money for a couple of years in a row, and all of a sudden, they had record profits in 2020. In the first quarter of 2021, they had more money that quarter than all of 2020. In the second quarter of 2021, they had more money than all of 2021 first quarter and all of 2020. It’s never-ending. It’s price-gouging in my opinion.
It’s one of those things where it doesn’t have to be that way. When you are making that much money, there’s got to be some recognition that, to be frank with you, these crews are small guys. I feel like a lot of my members are getting pushed aside by the bigger box companies that are bringing in cargo and freight, and that’s a challenge. We have been very aggressive in talking about the fee structure that the ocean carriers have loaded against our members and we very much opposed it.
A lot of the chemical distributors are moving products in via containers, then it’s competing with space for all the personal products that everybody is buying.
If you look at Walmart, Costco and Targets, these guys all bring in literally tens of thousands of containers on these big 24,000 container ships. Our guys that are bringing in a dozen, 5, 6 or whatever it may be, it’s tough for them to get into that line and make sure their products ensure to get on a ship, getting across the Pacific, into a port, unload it and out to their facility. It’s a complicated, laborious process and they have to compete against the big guys that throw money at the problem. For our guys, that’s not always a viable option because they are trying to do the best they can in a tough regulatory environment.
What are some other priorities that NACD has?
We are doing our very best to look at what is going on with Capitol Hill and the infrastructure. They were supposed to have a bill on the floor and it never happened because both parties are fighting over having a budget reconciliation package, which they are calling soft infrastructure, a lot of social program funding. There’s a hard infrastructure bill that we are supportive of that came out of the Senate. Two of our big priorities are making sure that we see good quality infrastructure funding comes out for roads, highways, rail, water or whatever it may be and help the port improvements.
At the same time, we don’t want to see a lot of the provisions that are in that Budget Reconciliation Bill that have new taxes, especially on plastics, resins and super fund tax clean up. These types of things that shouldn’t be in there are being considered by some Democrats and a little bit of Republicans, but it’s something we are opposed to.
For us, the legislative priorities are working on those. We also have some issues with some of the things that have come out from the administration within the Department of Labor that we are working on. With every new administration, you have a new set of regulations that are getting unveiled, whether it’s through the EPA or DOT, and every day, we go through to make sure that the impact is minimized, and if we’ve got problems, we fight the good fight against them.
How do you work with the other industry organizations? There’s a number that represents the chemical industry in various bits and pieces. ACC is obviously one of the biggies, ACI, and others. Do you coordinate and collaborate on some of these?
It’s a very good group. First of all, there’s a group called the Council of Chemical Association Executives and I’m running that group for the next couple of years. We all take turns. Chris Jahn at ACC just finished up his time, so I have been doing point on that for the time being. We meet every quarter but we talk a whole lot more than that to make sure that we are all on the same page when it comes to legislative issues, regulatory issues and media campaigns.
Chris is going to come down to our annual meeting and Chet Thompson with the AFPM would come down and talk to our board. These types of things, we do this fairly frequently. Our members are aware of the other groups we are working with, what they are covering, how they are supporting them and vice versa. It’s a constant open line of communication for sure.
When a challenge comes, always be willing to go to bat for your company and find a solution.
Let’s turn a little bit to leadership. At NACD, you are leading and working with a wide variety of stakeholders: your employees, the Chemicals Distributor Executives, politicians and people on Capitol Hill. How do you make it work? What have you found to be really critical to lead such a wide variety of people, organizations and perhaps different agendas?
It’s a challenge. First of all, we are blessed to have some great staff. If you don’t have a good staff structure, you are not going to be very successful. We are blessed to have it. We have some great folks and they are led by our Chief Operating Officer, Lucinda Schofer, who has been a godsend to me but also to the organization for some time. If you have those quality folks who you can lean on, that’s always the first pillar.
Our members, they care. Any membership organization that has a membership structure that cares so deeply about what they do, it’s easy to represent them because they know they are going to give you the support you need to tackle policy issues, regulatory issues, media issues or whatever it’s going to be. Whenever I pick up the phone and answer, and there’s a challenge, I am always willing to go to bat for them and find out a solution.
Whenever I call them to ask them for a favor to do a press interview or give me some technical expertise in a regulatory issue, they are there to help me out. The partnership between the member and staff has been fantastic ever since I’ve got here, so we are blessed to have that. Between the staff and the membership, then you put those two together helps you to politically drive your agenda. We have always had it up until COVID and we are getting back on the dime here.
We can have it again, hopefully as soon as we have a grassroots lobby day in Washington where we get 100 people, and we cover half of Congress in a 24-hour window. In the chemical industry, no one does it better than we do. That’s a true telltale sign of how involved our members are political, both at a local level but also coming into Capitol Hill, where it can be intimidating to meet with your members of Congress and go talk about your business, talk about things like CFATS or Tasco, or whatever it’s going to be. You’ve got to spend the time, make the investment and say, “I need to understand the issue. I’ve got to go in and talk to a member of Congress and their staff. I’ve got to do it in five minutes or less, or they are not going to have an interest.”
That’s not an easy task to do. Our guys come in and they do a fantastic job doing it. We usually come out of that meeting with a whole bunch of co-sponsors in the bill and letters put together asking the regulatory issues to address something. The fact that we have great staff and members allows us to politically push the needle on areas where we need to have movement. It works well together.
When we look out at the next 50 or the next 5 years, what’s the vision or what’s next for the organization?
There are many things. One, the training side is always a work in progress. As much as we have, we have an NACD online training tool, we offer in-person events but we have to change and adapt just like the working environment is. For us, that’s always a moving target. It’s a short-term and a long-term discussion. We want to make sure that we are prepared for our folks but also make sure we are planning in advance so that they have the tools necessary for 18 months to 3 years down the road.
Training is always one of those issues that we spend a lot of time on and we will continue to do so. Providing value in terms of networking for our members, that’s always the number one issue when you look at our surveys is how do I make sure that the value is there for our members, especially from a networking perspective. Part of that is going to be, “Can we get back to our robust in-person events scheduled?” We have been and we will be able to continue to do so.
We’ve got an annual meeting coming up here where we’ve got former President Bush speaking, and we’ve got fantastic attendance down in Miami. That’s a pretty telltale sign that our members are embracing that idea of getting back in in-person. We are going to look at growing in what we are doing there. The things that I always consider to be of value to our members outside of the networking and the training is how do we make sure that they continue to grow their business safely.
A lot of that is driven by legislation and regulatory actions. We are going to look at ways to make sure that our guys can continue to grow their business with fewer regulations but do so as effectively and as safely as possible. Those three pillars have always been what we focused on and what we will continue to look at growing as we move through the years.
This has been a great conversation. Eric, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity and I look forward to speaking to you again, hopefully sometime soon.
You are now officially on the list.
Hopefully, that’s a good list but I can’t wait. That sounds good.
It is a good list. I want to thank everyone for reading. Remember, we are going to be doing some drawing for some very cool, The Chemical Show gear. There are three ways to enter. 1) Rate and leave a review on your podcast player. 2) Post a message about the podcast on Twitter, #TheChemicalShow, and #Eric as well on this one. 3) Share the podcast on LinkedIn and tag us in your share. Thanks for joining us.
About Eric Byer
Eric Byer is president and CEO of National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD). Eric joined NACD in January 2014. He came to NACD with nearly twenty years of experience in government and public affairs as well as organizational operations. Prior to NACD, Eric was senior vice president at Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein, PLC, (OFMK) where he led strategic communications, marketing, programs, and government affairs as well as policy initiatives for the firm’s largest clients.
Before his tenure at OFMK, Eric was the chief operating officer and vice president of government and industry affairs at the National Air Transportation Association, where he led external affairs and internal operations for the $6.1 million organization.
Earlier in his career, he served as senior government relations coordinator for Smith, Bucklin, and Associates. He was also a legislative assistant to U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Reform and Oversight Chairman William F. Clinger, Jr. (R-Pa.). He also served as an intern for the late Rep. Dean Gallo (R-N.J.).
Eric holds a B.A. in Political Science from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and an M.A. in Government from Johns Hopkins University.