Listen to Victoria and Jeff Talk Talent and the 2024 Job Market Here:


Navigating the talent landscape of the chemical industry can be as complex and nuanced as the industry itself. This week, Victoria Meyer is joined by Jeff Bennett from Boaz Partners, a recruiter specializing in senior leadership placements within multiple sectors such as fragrances, cosmetics, and plastics. 

Victoria and Jeff discuss the strategies for succession planning, the art of retaining top talent, and the ever-evolving market challenges and opportunities. Additionally, Victoria and Jeff also address the changing norms of workplace environments, the impact of remote work on company culture, and the “gray tsunami”—an exodus of senior expertise leading to significant talent gaps.

 

Join Victoria and Jeff as they discuss the following:

  • What are the job market trends today?
  • Workplace norms are changing
  • Succession planning amidst the gray tsunami
  • Talent war: What skills do companies value the most?
  • Job markets for the rest of 2024

 

Killer Quote: “There are three types of people that you want to have in your back pocket. A good doctor, a good lawyer, and a good recruiter.” – Jeff Bennett

 

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Watch Victoria and Jeff Talk About Attracting Talent on Youtube Here:


Succession Planning and Attracting Talent in 2024 with Jeff Bennett of Boaz Partners

Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show, where chemicals means business. Today, I am speaking with Jeff Bennett from Boaz partners. Jeff is a senior search consultant with expertise in recruiting senior leadership talent, including C-suite and senior leadership across multiple sectors in chemicals and process industries, such as fragrances, flavors, cosmetics, personal care and plastics, and more.

Jeff and I are going to be having a great conversation about talent and chemicals, including succession planning, how to retain top talent, and some of the challenges and opportunities in the market. Jeff, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here and talking with you.

Awesome. I’m so glad to have you here as well. So recruiting and talent management and specialty chemicals is a non-traditional role for many people. Yet you have been working in this your entire career. What sparked your interest in this space and what’s kept you here?

So I have a little bit of an interesting story. When I left college with my business degree I was actually very intrigued by just talent management. I was intrigued by sports and negotiation and those types of things. I actually have a family member that’s in law, and I clerked at the state attorney’s office. So I was thinking maybe I want to do something like that and go down the law school path.

But I had somebody that I knew that was in recruiting who said, “Hey, I’m growing a firm. Why don’t you join us?” And I realized this is a lot like what I want to do. I want to be able to negotiate and help people. And I don’t have the law school bill behind it. Almost 20 years later, this is what I’ve been doing.

That’s awesome. I think the there’s probably a lot of contractual and legal aspects to what you do, even though you’re not a lawyer. Obviously can’t provide legal advice, but I know that certainly when we think about employment contracts and all the things that you have to deal with, it’s something that comes into bear.

That is very true. There’s a lot of things that you’ve got to understand, certain nuances and while not giving legal advice, helping people understand that maybe there’s some things that they’re not necessarily seeing or understanding clearly and being able to provide them the best advice possible for their career.

Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I sometimes joke I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve done so many contracts throughout my career. When I was at Shell, we had tremendous training legal training around commercial contracts and terms and conditions. I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on TV just knowing enough just to be dangerous.

That’s right. Our owner often says there are three types of people that you want to have in your back pocket. A good doctor, a good lawyer, and a good recruiter.

Perfect, and you’re one of the three. So that’s excellent.

There you go.

So what’s going on in job markets today, in particular, when we’re thinking about senior talent, what’s going on in the market?

I would say it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of companies hiring, looking at opportunities, but people are still moving and making changes. That has not stopped. As we’re talking with companies, we are seeing some of the larger chemical companies like the DOWs and BASFs may be hesitant to pull their foot off the brake. But as we leave Q1, which is a little bit flat and moving into Q2, seeing some positivity and people willing to make changes, especially small to mid cap companies. They’re taking advantage of that, and they’re taking advantage of individuals who may have gotten removed from their organization or carved out making changes. So there’s still moving and shaking going on within the industry.

I’ve certainly heard that there’s been some, what I would characterize as quiet layoffs across the industry from several companies, that obviously change the dynamic of the marketplace as far as you’re concerned.

That’s true. I think that much like the housing marketplace, the candidates had a little bit of the power and 2021 and 2022 because we had that hockey stick recovery. Now in 2023 and 2024, the pendulum is starting to swing back more towards the company side. That’s what we’re seeing right now.

So obviously, if we think about what’s going on in this decade, in the 2020s, workplace norms have changed tremendously. When I think about 2020, 2021, maybe even into 2022, this expectation, and in some cases, a requirement to be able to work from home and expectation around hybrid working a certain number of days a week. Even in companies where employers are required to go to the office. There’s a lot of companies that are doing that. It seems like the norms have changed, in terms of ways of working, how people are working, what’s important. What are the trends that you see and how is that helping or hindering the process?

I think employers are just having to get more creative in offering different solutions. They’re looking at their whole organization and asking themselves, okay, we’ve got our CFO where we’ve got a finance department. Do they really need to be here majority of the time? Can they have a hybrid or even a fully remote type of position? Whereas a plant manager or a VP of OPS, that’s somebody that’s critically important and they’ve got to be either in the lab or they’ve got to be at the manufacturing site. I think they also have to approach it with the various generations that are coming into play. Younger employees, they look at it and go, if somebody is going to require me to be at work constantly or be at the office, it’s more of an old school mentality.

Whereas some people I talk with they’re like, I need to be with my coworkers. I’m tired of working from home. They often find that they’re working more while they’re at home than they are at the office because there’s really no escape. So it just takes some creativity. I’m one of those remote people. I live in the Pensacola area, my team’s in Atlanta, so I certainly get that aspect.

I think that aspect of just being together, and finding those times to be together. I’ve often wondered how do companies really create culture and create opportunity when everybody’s remote, it’s different. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it’s not the same as it was when I started in the industry. I think it’s continuing to evolve, but there’s a certain amount of connectivity that’s really needed to create culture, to build relationships, to build that trust. Then even thinking about long term career paths and career planning, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how successfully it can be navigated without those personal touch points.

That’s very true, but I think that’s where the creativity comes in being strategic and we try to not only replacing individuals within organizations, but we try to work with our clients on retention, helping them maintain and retain top employees and that’s one of the services that we offer. So you’re right. It takes creativity. Making sure you maintain a solid touch point with your team, bringing them in, doing things on a zoom call, maybe having games or parties. That’s what we did in the 2020 time period to maintain that connectivity with the team.

It seemed a lot more fun in 2020 than it does in 2024. That’s for sure.

So a number of companies I’ve spoken with and leaders that I’ve spoken with have expressed this concern or just a focus on succession planning and really planning for the future when they think about people development, ensuring that they’ve got people in the right roles at the right places and times. It seems to be particularly a concern for companies with smaller business teams. Where you don’t necessarily have the number of roles available or the variety of roles available to give people the opportunity to develop, to let them hang out in a place until the spot that you want them in is open. How do you and Boaz and others help address that?

So we’re having conversations with companies and as they identify certain aspects on the succession planning the big aspect now is that term gray tsunami. I was speaking with someone at the SACMA 30 or so days ago, and there was a major company that offered a early retirement package. They anticipated about 2,500. But there was 7,500 roughly that took that early retirement package, and that’s a huge gap now that they have in their talent pool. So we’re working with these companies. Coming in, we may talk about one particular type of role and then start to brainstorm and look at operations or R&D. Where do they see top grading issues improving employees? Where do they see retirement issues? And starting to think about what are you going to do in 12, 18, 24 months about that particular need. So we try to brainstorm with them, get creative and then also say, hey, you’ve got a high performer here. What are you doing with this particular individual? Maybe to move them around, get them cross training to make sure that they stay on track to be a leader within your organization.

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I know you work with a number of private equity firms, do you see those companies moving mid level talent across portfolio companies in order to create that experience, or is that something that’s typically reserved for maybe the more senior leaders?

We see it more at the C-suite and senior leadership level. Now there may be someone that’s at an individual contributor level or a middle level management that they identify as a high performer and their skills translate across different portfolio companies. But oftentimes when you work with a PE firm, you’re working with them to identify a CEO or a CFO, someone in that C-suite ladder and those that are successful in helping transition the company to its next owner, that’s where you can see them translate and develop that relationship with the private equity firm where they can go and duplicate the success that they’ve had. And then the portfolio company keeps that talent internally. So not necessarily as much at the middle level management.

Of course then, the front of the chain when we think about recent college grads, It definitely seems to be a war for talent and in fact, I know, in the industry we’ve often focused on bringing engineers and scientists into the industry. We need people that have supply chain and finance and other experience. And even it seems like we’re fighting not just with chemical companies, but trying to get talent across a much broader pool. Can you talk about that?

The type of talent that’s coming in, not just chemical engineers, but mechanical engineers, engineering in general. Those types of individuals aren’t necessarily going to school to go into engineering. I think there’s a desire to go into more computer science, AI, Google. There’s an individual I know out in the marketplace who left chemicals to go and work for Meta now as an operations leader. So leaving the chemical industry altogether and that’s what you’re seeing, but you’re also seeing young people going into Goldman Sachs and the investment banking area So that’s a way for that talent to go into the chemical industry, but now going outside.

Yeah. So I guess leaning into the skills that they gained in engineering school and applying them in other markets and business environments.

That’s not just something we’re dealing with here in the U. S. I actually came across another search executive from a recruiting firm at SACMA and he’s based in the U. K. And we were talking about this, so this is a global issue, not just here in the U.S.

Yeah and I think it’s hard. One, getting young people to go into STEM fields in college is difficult. I could go on my soapbox about STEM education, since I have a couple of college students who are experiencing this firsthand and the pros and cons of how we approach STEM education at the university level, different topic. But I think getting enough people that want to go into STEM, but then also wanted to work in let’s just call it a “dirty industry” and an old industry like chemicals, it’s just a bigger hurdle in terms of getting people into the workforce.

It’s very true and that’s why companies need to focus on topics like sustainability or green chemistry. You use the term dirty, what are companies going to do to focus on those types of topics and attract young people where that may be a point of passion for them?

So it’s a good segue into just thinking about skills and experiences that companies are looking for. What do you see as the trend in this space? What is it that companies are looking for when they think about the kinds of experiences, what candidates bring to the table that are most successful, certainly going into these companies and recognizing, of course, that you’re working with senior leadership. So what is it? What are we looking for in senior leadership today?

I think that the need for soft skills is critical. So if you’re going to move into that senior leadership type of role, people who have more of a technical vein to them, are they going to be able to have conversations with employees cross functionally leading people. Versus are they just someone who wants to sit at the bench, be under the hood, working on scale up or formulating. There certainly is a need for that type of talent, but if you want to progress your career, most of the companies need that person who is not only strong technically, but also smart commercially. Someone who can be a leader, handle professionals and be at a level where they can speak to a non technical audience to get movement forward.

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Jeff do companies value MBAs today? Is that a critical experience or degree? There’s also a lot of certificate programs that it seems like are being offered by colleges and universities across the board, how did those factor in are those valuable experiences and pieces of paper, so to speak, for candidates?

I always think it’s very valuable. You’re certainly not going to get dinged for having one, especially from a prestigious school like a Carnegie Mellon or something along those lines.

Kellogg, I’ll just give my Kellogg plug there. How’s that?

There you go, you can plug Kellogg. But when we’re going through our intake process at the very beginning to launch a search with a client, I would say it’s more of a nice to have versus a must have. The must haves deal more with the soft skills. Like we were just talking about the leadership capabilities and how they can motivate and lead people. Help take a company to the next level and if that person happened to have an MBA, great. But if they also have those street smarts and interpersonal skills, I think that’s more of the must have there.

So how do you find candidates or maybe more importantly, how do candidates find you? I often have people say, “Hey, can you introduce me to, a recruiter or something?” And I guess the question is, is that a good way to go or how do you find candidates?

Multi-tiered type of question here. So how do we find candidates? First of all I would say as a boutique firm, we’re one of the larger boutique firms out there in Boaz versus just myself and maybe one other employee. We have our own in house research team, and we’ve got roughly five professionals on the research side that partner with us in an intake process. So from a database standpoint, in our course of being open now for about 10 years we have 150,000 to 200,000 chemical industry professionals at all levels that we’ve interviewed. So they tap into that, but there’s also various resources out there. LinkedIn being one of the main ones that they are then able to call down and match must haves with our database linked in for my team to start to call and have conversations and understand, is this individual or these individuals going to be the right match and the right fit for the clients that we do have? What can candidates do to be more out there? I would say always continue to brush up your resume.

That’s something that you should do at least once a year, like spring cleaning for your career and your resume. You want to do that. Then updating your picture. Everybody wants to see you holding that fish. I would say brush it up, make it a look, look a little bit more professional out there.

And please have it be a photo that’s been taken in the last five years. Cause I think it’s comical to see these pictures that are at least a decade old and you’re like, I know you don’t look like that anymore. Like age, the pandemic, COVID, everything has changed each one of us. If you don’t recognize your photo, nobody else will either.

That is very true, although there is a service out there to use AI to make your LinkedIn profile look that much better.

I’ve heard about this. Yeah.

But in any case, just brush up your LinkedIn profile, making sure that you are putting on their keywords. So if you’re a scale up expert, put it on there, make it easier to find. If you’re a sales professional, putting on their quantifiable data versus qualifiable data, I was able to improve my territory and grow it by 10 percent or 15%, whatever it is. Those are the types of things that are going to immediately stand out to our research team and then ultimately to us.

Of course it also seems that there are people that have nothing on their LinkedIn profile that seemed to be the ones that get tapped to move. How does that happen?

That’s why you come to us to have those conversations and find the passive talent. So that’s what we try to do. I find it funny when people say, you know what, I really don’t need to have a conversation with you. Okay, but if I could improve your career, improve your life, that’s what I want to know about and I want to educate myself. And just having that openness, that willingness to talk and have a conversation with a firm.

Yeah. There’s no commitment on either side, I guess is the thing to recognize.

Absolutely. I always tell people and try to help them understand, if you walk onto a car lot and in the back of your mind, you want a sports car and the salesperson tells you about a van or a truck, they don’t know they’re trying to give you something that you really don’t want and it helps them understand and paint the picture that we need to know.

That’s great. So if I think about where we are in 2024, when you look at the year ahead, we’re one quarter down. Three quarters to go. What are you seeing out there in terms of talent, job markets, et cetera? How are we looking for the rest of the year?

I don’t know if you can look that far ahead. I think you’ve gotta take it quarter by quarter. Like I said, Q1 seemed to be a little bit flat. Q2 seems to be heading in the right direction. Someone at the SACMA event recently put it, it’s like a gumbo of things that you hear. You hear positive, you hear negative, and then there’s somewhere in between. Overall, we’re seeing a lot of companies that are still hiring. They’re making those moves, but it’s more of the small to mid tier players.

They’re being able to take advantage of companies that aren’t ready to make the change or maybe slow to change. And being able to offer opportunities for talent out there. Being a bigger fish in a smaller pond, so to speak.

Cool. We will be looking ahead to that. I think my word for the rest of the year was cautiously optimistic. It sounds like you might be in the same place.

Yes.

Jeff, thank you for joining us today on The Chemical Show. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.

Absolutely. Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Thank you. And everybody keep listening, keep following, keep sharing, and we will talk to you again soon.


About Jeff Bennett:

Jeff is a Sr. Search Executive within the Florida office and a member of Boaz Partners Specialty Chemicals practice. Jeff’s expertise is recruiting leadership talent across multiple sectors in the chemicals and process industries such as fragrances, flavors, cosmetic, personal care, and plastics.

Over his 20 year career as an executive search and talent consultant, Jeff has conducted Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Commercial Officer, and Senior Leadership Projects. Jeff’s clients include portfolio companies of leveraged buyout and venture  capital firms, middle market manufacturing organizations and small tolling/custom manufacturing organizations.

When he’s not helping his clients, Jeff enjoys spending time with his wife Rachel and 3 kids (Allie, Troy, and Declan) coaching youth league baseball, and grilling out by the pool.