The pandemic has taught us a lot of things we thought weren’t important before. The whole chemical industry gradually learned to be more flexible, make big choices, and adapt to changes. Join your host Victoria Meyer as she sits down for a conversation with one of her initial guests when this podcast was launched. Today, Melissa Hockstad comes back to share her learnings in adapting to sudden changes, focusing on what matters, and making an impact in the world. She is the President & and CEO of the American Cleaning Institute. In this episode, she shares their goals, plans, and other activities to create a clean and vibrant future for everyone.
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The Different Impacts Of Chemical Industry That We Rarely Realize With Melissa Hockstad
I am speaking with Melissa Hockstad, who is CEO of The American Cleaning Institute. She joined ACI in 2017 as President and CEO. She has guided the organization through some unique times. She is helping it, and its constituent companies make a significant impact. This is Melissa’s second time on the show. She was our second guest when the show launched in 2021. If you have not read that episode, I recommend that you go back and do so because that was a great episode. I’m looking forward to this conversation. Melissa, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I’m glad to be back, and a lot has happened since then.
Let’s talk about that. It has been a while since we talk. A lot in the world has changed, and it feels like some things have not. You guys wrapped up the ACI annual meeting which was held in person for the first time in several years. How did that go? Tell us about the conference and the significant things that happen as a result of that.
As you might imagine, talking with members, there has this pent-up demand and interest in getting back together in person. Nothing replicates seeing one another in person. At the beginning of the month, we had our ACI convention in Orlando, Florida. We had about 500 attendees, about half of what we normally would have, but what we thought was pretty solid numbers based on the lack of consistency with where the world is now.
For us, it was a great opportunity because our convention is a mix of business meetings, educational programs, and committee meetings. We talked about everything from the state of the association and the industry, where we are at on Wall Street to Main Street from the perspective of those on Wall Street to day-to-day consumers, and to some of the hot issues that our industry is working on. Everything from sustainability to ingredient communications and more. I do not think I appreciated how much I missed seeing everyone. I saw some members had tears in their eyes because it was a long time. The chemical industry is like family. Being able to see each other was fantastic.
Every time the annual meeting happens, it’s like, “We are coming home. We are back together.” I missed it in 2022, unfortunately. I’m hoping to be there in 2023. It is always a great event and time for people across the industry to get together.
We were thrilled we were able to have an in-person, and we were committed to that. Virtual is fine for some things, but for that type of meeting, it does not work well. We were committed. We said, “Whoever is there, we are going to make it the absolute best event possible.” For those of you that missed it, I hope you realize, “I have got to be there next year.”
Were there any surprises? I know you guys covered a lot of topics, but is there any big a-ha moment that came up during the meeting?
I do not know if it is a big a-ha moment, but sometimes that feeling of you are not alone. Sometimes we have all been dealing with things. That lack of predictability is still with where we are at with COVID. We have a lot of conversations about the future of work and what that means for our industry. Pre COVID, we were in an industry that is five days a week in the office. We’re seeing some of the executives say, “There are some of the learnings we have had from COVID where we can be more flexible. In other cases, in manufacturing facilities, we still need you there seven days a week.”
For me, it’s seeing some of the transitions and things that years ago we were not talking about. The other big area for me was sustainability. Every single session that we had, no matter what the topic was, became clear how committed our industry is. We are looking ahead to where we want to be 10 to 20 years from now in the sustainability realm and what we are going to do, not only as individual companies but as that collective industry.
I’m going to hold that topic and maybe circle back to that later because I’m interested in that space. ACI published a report on the economic impact of the cleaning industry, which is frankly pretty incredible. The people inside the industry know that, but everybody else maybe does not. Can you share a little bit about that economic impact?
If you don’t have good numbers and data, you really can’t tell your story as effectively as possible.
We released a report on the economic impact of the US cleaning products industry. It has been a few years since we last did the report. What I love about this report is it is a bit different than last time. There are two things. One is we have the data, not only for our industry, which is an almost $60 billion industry employing over 67,000 people. It looks at the direct and indirect impacts as well. It is up and down the value chain. When you add those numbers together, we are talking about an industry that supports almost $200 billion in annual output and almost 700,000 jobs. It’s real numbers and a huge impact.
The other thing that is great about this report is we have specific data for all 50 states. It is important to be able to tell your story, whether you are talking to a congressman or your local community, to say, “Here’s the impact that we have where we live.” We were excited to be able to release that because, at the end of the day, if you do not have good numbers and good data. You can’t tell your story as effectively as possible. We have it not only for ACI use but also for all of our member companies as well.
What is interesting and unique about ACI and its member companies is that it touches everyone and everything from a personal and industrial cleaning perspective, hospitals, grocery stores, and what we have in our homes. Often the general public does not necessarily appreciate some of the benefits that the chemical industry brings. I link the cleaning products industry to that because it is both chemical producers and the actual cleaning product producers and stuff. It is amazing and pretty significant.
As an industry, we are a lot more than an ingredient in a bottle or a product on a shelf. We are an industry that positively impacts people’s lives every single day. The question we often get asked is, “What do you think are some of the trends that happened in the early stages of COVID? People washing their hands more and cleaning more, are those going to continue?”
Based on the survey data we have had and conversations with companies, a lot of those habits remain constant. We are seeing more of an increase, and you would know that. We both have traveled. You see more people at the airports and people getting out and about. That industrial, institutional space was a little quieter where people early in COVID were not traveling or going to restaurants. That is starting to see that uptick again because things are slowly getting back to a more normal balance.
From the changing landscape of COVID going from pandemic to endemic, there is a certain amount of fatigue on a personal level from both a cleaning perspective and a masking perspective, and yet the shifting behaviors of people getting out and about, going back to the office, movie theaters, and restaurants have shifted the dynamic.
I personally do not go into stores very often anymore. Maybe one of my personal behaviors that have changed is I rely a lot on curbside pickup. It was a huge change for me personally. Hand sanitizer is at huge discounts. If we go back several years ago, when hand sanitizer was in short supply, and everybody was trying to figure out how to make it, that has plateaued a bit. We have certainly seen that.
As ACI, we are the organization that oversees the hand sanitizer space. It is everything from getting the Food and Drug Administration, the safety and effectiveness data they need, and ensuring that consumers and customers have access to these products. When the pandemic hit, a lot of different people suddenly were making hand sanitizers, from distilleries to companies that maybe had not made it in the past.
In 2021, there was a glut in the marketplace. There were products out there that probably were not as safe as they needed to be. We saw the news stories. We went to the Food and Drug Administration. We said, “When the pandemic happened, there was temporary guidance to allow these newer entities to make hand sanitizers. That is not needed anymore.” The FDA agreed with us. At the end of 2021, they rescinded the temporary guidance. You do not need as many players in the market, and members like ours, who were consistently in the marketplace from pre-pandemic onwards, will continue doing the good work they do.
We need guidance. It is okay to loosen the guidance at some point, but your point of bringing it back in and bringing it back to the standards we need is critical. One of the things we talked about before was the early days of the Biden administration. Are the pathways for engaging and influencing the administration clear? Are they favorable to ACI and its constituents? How do you see this playing out now?
Even at the start of 2021, when we had a new president, new faces on Capitol Hill, and regulatory agencies, something that is always critical is connections. It is having relationships in place before you might ever need to call on them. 2021 was important for us. Number one is to look at the landscape of who is out there and who do we need to know, especially the regulatory agencies. We deal a lot with EPA, FDA, and a few others. We spent a lot of time in the first part of 2021 getting to know the new faces so they knew who we were as ACI, what we worked on, what we could provide, and finding opportunities for engagement on what will they be honing in on with this new administration.
What I appreciate is that everybody hit the ground running in 2021. We have seen some of those pathways for engaging and influencing the administration. They have been clear. We have been able to identify who you need to engage with on what topic and also realize it is not a one-and-done thing. You can’t talk to them once and say, “It is all been solved.” It is that ongoing connection. That has been helpful for us and also to help our members as they are trying to get their arms around, “Who do I need to talk to about what as an individual company, let alone is the broader industry?”
I had heard from some people, especially folks that were trying to bring some new products into the cleaning industry, but even the chemical industry, more broadly, that some of the regulatory approvals have been slower partly because of this turnover at the administration.
We have seen this at some agencies. I’ll focus on the Environmental Protection Agency because the companies we both deal with are heavily engaged there with new products getting approved. They have been significantly understaffed for quite a while. We are all seeing the Great Resignation and people reflecting on where they want to work.
They have been struggling to fill those open positions, which is what they have done on a temporary basis as they have moved individuals from other entities within EPA to say, “We need you in the chemicals office.” That is a short-term solution. What they are trying to hone in on is how we get good people to come and work for the agencies. It is a challenge. It’s not one that I have seen a quick correction on.
You touched on that about what is the future of the workforce. It seems to be that there is such demand in the private sector that it is often hard for the public sector to compete. It is also this whole way of working and where do you want to be. It is not an easy path to navigate.
During the pandemic, you reflect on things that maybe you had not been thinking about prior. It does impact perhaps the life choices that individuals are making.
I will share a story. I was at an event. I’m a part of an executive women’s group here in Houston. We had an event that I had to be Downtown at 7:00 AM, dressed up, ready to go. All I could say as I set my alarm for 5:00 and then got up at 5:15, I was fully showered and dressed by 6:00 AM, “This is completely uncivilized. Who does this?” Yet I did it for decades.
I worked in manufacturing early in my career. You had to be there early. That was the early 7:00 or 7:30 start, whatever it was. When I worked in a corporate environment at Shell and Clariant, I routinely had meetings that started at 7:00 AM every day of the week. You had to be Downtown and coffeed before 7:00 AM.
I was leaving the house at 5:36 or 5:00 to get Downtown. I can’t even imagine doing that now. That is part of these whole changing ways of working. I do not think people are reluctant to go back to the office. The reluctance to commit that time to personal preparation and commuting to get to the office is part of the rethinking that people are doing.
I was thinking about my first job in the industry, and it was 45 miles each way. To your point, I got up and did it every single day. Once I moved to Washington, I worked for associations, and it was a two-mile commute. I will be at city living, but I’m thinking, “That was a lot of time I got back every day, every week, to do things that I would not have had time to do before.” The pandemics have given us that opportunity. Most folks were working from home to say, “Once you start adding it up, there’s a lot you can do from the personal side of things that you don’t want to give back.”
One of the things that’s interesting to me with ACI is you have a wide variety of customers. How do you think about your customer groups? How do you balance the needs, outreach, and support you provide to each of these different groups?
The chemical industry is one that positively impacts people’s lives every single day.
From the membership side, as you had noted, we represent the full value chain. The majority of our members probably fall into one of two camps, the ingredient suppliers and the companies that make the products that are probably underneath your kitchen sink, in your laundry room, or that you might be using when you are out at a restaurant.
There always is a whole host of different entities that may want different things. For us, what has been so critical is when I joined ACI in 2017. Right off the bat, I went to the board, and I said, “We are trying to do about 75 different things here.” We need more clarity about where we are going to focus our efforts, where we might support somebody else who has a better resource to do it, or where we might say, “The project served us well, but it is time to cut it loose and say farewell.”
What we do at ACI is we have an annual prioritization process that helps give us clarity for the big picture for the year, how we want to budget, and resource things. As you know, things emerged, something you had not realized several months ago was going to hit and how you adapt to that. We got a process to figure out, “Does that rise to the level of active engagement?” versus saying, “Now we are not going to get involved.”
That has been important because we need our member’s feedback. Where do you think we need to be spending our time being able to use this process consistently? At the end of the day, you can’t do everything. You do not want somebody saying, “Melissa, you are the one who has made the decision. We are not going to do X.” It is like, “We have a process. Here is how we figured it out.” They may not always love our answer, but understand here is why we are working on one area and maybe not something else.
You also do a lot of community outreach, your engagement with education groups and stuff. You got your member constituents, government, regulatory constituents, general public, educators, and the other groups you are trying to influence.
That, for us, has been another area of growth. We had our website and certain programs that we did. For example, on hand-washing with school groups at the Center for Disease Control. We realized there was a need for other focus areas for us. Over the pandemic, we launched everything from our healthy returns program to helping small businesses.
They were reopening and trying to figure out, “How do I keep my employees safe? How can I keep the customers coming here, knowing that we value health and safety,” to a project we did for childcare centers. As they were reopening, we did a program also for college kids because it may be the first time they are doing laundry, cleaning on their own, or having a sick roommate. It is all about keeping it simple, straightforward and making it accessible for everyone.
My oldest daughter went to college, and I took that back to college checklist about the different cleaning things. I sent it to her, her roommates, and some other friends. I personally made use of that. That was awesome.
Our Class of Clean was a big hit. We joked because we got a few folks in the office that also sent kids to college for the first time. The joke was, “As part of the package you are sending them with.” They were able to help continue to spread the word. The other thing, too, is also figuring out who can help amplify the message. We make sure we connect, for example, with an entity that deals with all the university newspapers, helping to spread the word about the tools and figuring out, “ACI does a great job, but there are others that can help us amplify the message even more.”
Let’s talk about what your focus is for 2022 and beyond. We are at the beginning of 2022. What is the agenda? What do you see as your priorities in your outlook?
Everything we focus on always comes into one of four categories. It is everything from business to business activities like our convention to what we are doing with regulators or legislators. Science always has been the heart of ACI as an organization, sustainability, and communications. Some key areas for us are continuing to engage with the different regulatory agencies.
They are not going to be slowing down. We know that EPA will be very busy, continuing to be front and center with them and Food and Drug Administration, with all the hand sanitizer and topical antiseptics work. On Capitol Hill, our number one area we are focusing on is ingredient communications. We know consumers want to know more information about what ingredients are in our products, what they are, how they are used, and what their purpose is.
Our focus in 2022, and it is part of a multi-year plan, is to get federal ingredient communication legislation. Instead of 50 different states doing 50 different things, which causes consumer confusion, we wanted to hone in on a federal approach. In 2021, we were laying the groundwork, meetings with key offices on Capitol Hill, and doing our research, so we had the data. The feedback we got is people want more information. They are very supportive of a federal approach. The area of focus is working with Capitol Hill to make that happen. Probably it is a 3 to 5-year process.
Is this about labeling, or does it go beyond labeling?
It ties to making information available. We realize on a label there is limited real estate with what you can put on there, knowing most people are more tech-savvy that they are going to go to a website if they want the information. It is about finding the most effective ways to communicate the information and also making sure it is consistent. If they are buying a product from company A versus company B, the way you might be describing something is you want as much consistency as possible to help the consumer understand and reduce that confusion. That will be a big area and then sustainability.
I would imagine the cleaning products companies selling marketing products would welcome a simplification as a single standard across the US to manage versus multiple standards.
Several years ago, companies were saying, “We want to be proactive. We want to provide more information.” You started seeing companies stepping up then. A few years back, the state of California put their own legislation in place. It is a fear of one state doing it and 49 other states doing slightly different things, which inspired us to talk as an industry about how we can move forward with this federal approach.
Let’s talk sustainability. You mentioned this, and I know that this is one of your priorities as well in 2022. What is going on in the land of sustainability for ACI?
We have been involved in sustainability for many years. As an association, we were one of the earlier groups to get involved. A few years back, we had a real heart-to-heart conversation about what the future looks like for sustainability for our membership for ACI. The message we got is we need to have bold collective action, working together across the cleaning products value chain.
The focus over 2021, and continues in 2022, has been on two areas. One is on climate. This continues to be a big area of interest for our membership. In 2021, we activated the 1.5 Degree Climate Challenge, getting companies to step up and commit to practices they are going to institute. The policy that they are going to put in place is focused on zero net global emissions by 2050.
Knowing that the chemical industry positively impacts people’s lives is something to be proud of.
I realized it seems like it is a long way away. As ACI, what we focused on is developing a roadmap with tools and how we can help companies get there. We are trying to continue to be supporting them and help them with what they are trying to develop, whether they are a leading company in the space or somebody trying to figure out, “How do I get started?” That has been one of our areas.
The other is on the packaging. What I have been impressed by is seeing companies do everything from new engineering designs to thinking about reuse, reduction, recycling and how they can incorporate more of that. Our ambition here is, by 2040, to have zero cleaning product packaging waste. That is pretty ambitious.
We are focusing on helping our members with the roadmap, steps to take along the journey, tools that we can provide, and education that we can do. I also think this is important because it ties to more legislative, regulatory work because you are starting to see more states getting very active, especially on the coast, like New Jersey, New York, California, and Washington. We want to be a leader here versus having so many different states do many different things.
This whole aspect of owning the narrative is critical in defining what you want it to be because if you do not define it, somebody is going to define it for you. All too often across the chemical industry, in the cleaning products as well, but the companies, especially the consumer side of things, have been a bit more proactive. We assume that people understand it. It is like, “It makes sense.” I do not necessarily appreciate the fact that, as an industry, we have to own the narrative and set some definitions about what is reasonable, how we go forward with those standards, and how we make it work. It is great that you guys are leading this across the industry.
You also hit upon something important. It is not only owning the narrative but telling our story. As an industry through the years, we might have been a bit shy. We do a lot of great things, and we need to do more to tell that story. ACI is the collective voice. We are also trying to do more to tell, like the individual case studies and the great work our members are doing, because we can help amplify that message, which is good for the collective. People know this industry is taking charge here. They are doing great things.
How much work do you do on social media? Do you have a TikTok channel? Are you out on Instagram? Has ACI started to tackle where a lot of individuals are getting their information, which is not the boring World Wide Web but exciting app-based stuff?
The short answer is yes. We are actively involved in digital communications. A few years ago, we took a look at where we were with our communications program and where we wanted to be. One of the gaps we had identified is we did not have somebody here leading our digital social communications. We brought in. We have a phenomenal individual who leads that for us. We are involved in Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You are involved in all of these because they are different audiences. Facebook might be reaching more consumers versus TikTok. Others say, “The up-and-coming generations are looking for the quick little fun videos.” That’s all they want.
That is where my kids get their news, facts, opinions, etc. It is important.
LinkedIn is the business side of things. That has been critical for our overall communications strategy because there has been so much rapid growth over the last couple of years. I always laugh, thinking, “What new social media channel are they going to come up with in 2022?” You have to evaluate and say, “Do I need to be here? Am I going to be left behind?”
Not all the industry groups are doing this yet because they do not feel like they have the bandwidth within their remit. As an industry, we have to understand where people are getting their information, forming their opinion, and be there helping to create that message, sharing the value, and influencing the influencers.
You spot on the influencers because that is one of the things we think about. Are there individuals or entities we could or should be partnering with to help amplify that message? It is hard to do it all by yourself. A lot of the influencers have access to demographics, and ACI might not be on a typical day. That has been an important part of the strategy as well.
Before, we talked about getting back to travel. You have had the opportunity to, at the very least, travel to Florida with the annual conference. How is this looking for 2022? What do you see in the year ahead?
I’m excited to get back on the road. I have always been a big believer. You can’t sit around Washington DC and feel like you got a handle on what is going on in the industry. We did find in the fourth quarter of 2021 that some of our members were open again to having visitors and guests. We have what is called our member connect program. We get out there, and it is great. It was an opportunity to hear firsthand, “What is keeping you up at night? What are the things you think we should be working on? What are some emerging areas that, 3 to 5 years down the road, could hit us?”
It is great to have those candid conversations. We are mapping out our game plan for 2022. I will be out on the road a lot with some of my colleagues. I love getting to meet with members, getting to plan tours, and learning about their latest technology. On the international side, I still think it might be a little bit slower. It might be more of the second half of 2022. However, I’m ready. Tell me you want to visit. We can make it happen.
Melissa, this has been great connecting again. I appreciate you joining us on the show. Thanks for being part of it.
Thank you for having me. I continue to be so proud, not only of the cleaning products industry but also the overall chemical industry, for everything they have done and continue to do. Knowing that they positively impact people’s lives is something proud to be a part of.
Thank you for joining us, and thanks to all our readers. Keep reading, sharing, following the show, and we will continue to grow.
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- Leading The Charge In The Booming Cleaning Products Industry – Previous episode
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About Melissa Hockstad
Melissa Hockstad joined the American Cleaning Institute as the President & CEO in January 2017. She is responsible for the overall leadership of ACI including advocacy, science and research, communications, consumer education, sustainability, financial oversight and member engagement.
Prior to joining ACI she served as Vice President, Petrochemicals at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). In this capacity, she was responsible for managing AFPM’s petrochemical activities including oversight of various petrochemical committees, organization of the International Petrochemical Conference, and providing support for addressing legislative, regulatory and communications issues impacting the petrochemicals membership.
She previously held positions at the Plastics Industry Association where she was the Vice President – Science, Technology and Regulatory Affairs, the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA) where she served as Performance Improvement Director as well as at Basell Polyolefins (now LyondellBasell) where she was a Senior Engineer.
Melissa received a M.S. in Materials Science and Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University and a B.S. in Engineering Science from the University of Virginia.