Business Leadership In Transformative Times: Discussions With Laura Schwinn

Updated: Jul 16

TCSP Laura | Business Leadership

Change and transformations are a fact of life. It’s how you deal with change that sets you apart from the crowd. Victoria Meyer is joined by Laura Schwinn, President of the Specialty Catalysts division at W.R Grace, Co., to talk about transformations and business leadership in contemporary times. Laura discusses customer engagement, listening to customers, and knowing when to get out of the way of employees so they can get things done. She also talks about inspiring innovation and the challenges of being the only woman on a board full of men.


Watch the episode here:

Listen to the podcast here:

Business Leadership In Transformative Times: Discussions With Laura Schwinn

I'm delighted to be speaking with Laura Schwinn. She is the President of the Specialty Catalyst business at W.R Grace. She's been there since 2018. Prior to that, Laura has had a successful career in the oil field services business predominantly and a number of leading organizations. I'm delighted to have Laura share with you her business at Grace, her ideas on leadership and more.


Laura, welcome to the show.

Victoria, thank you so much for inviting me. Congratulations on your show.

Thank you. I appreciate that. First things first, the most exciting news of the day that we're not going to be able to talk about, which is Grace entered an agreement to be acquired by Standard Industries. As the deal is not yet closed, we're not going to talk about that. For everybody that's disappointed, stay tuned. We'll have Laura back in a few months. She can share some insights at that point in time. In the meantime, let's talk about Grace. It is an old company that has been through a number of transformations over that history. How would you describe Grace now?

Grace is a focused company that is a pleasure to work for. It went through a pretty major transformation going from being a holding company. We had a cruise line at one time. We had animal husbandry. As we evolved over those years, we focused on chemistry, refining material technologies, specialty catalyst, and put together a strategy and a focus to be able to deliver to our customers. After we spun out the construction business, we became a pure play business. The leadership that we have has been fantastic. A growth company that has a lot of potential in the future.

Some other companies think so as well. You've been with Grace for several years. When you come into a leadership role, there's an opportunity to leave your mark. What strategic pivots have you led Grace and the Specialty Catalyst business through since you've been there?

Starting in 2013, Grace started to make some acquisitions. Over the course of 2013 to 2018, Grace made acquisitions totaling to about $1.2 billion. We were doing well. We’re reporting good profitability and good growth. When I came in, what I have done historically has come into businesses that are performing well and have them have that breakthrough. There's a playbook that I've used at least two times before in the past that I'm applying at Grace. First and foremost, figure out what you're good at. The team that I have at Grace knows what we're good at. What we didn't have was a team that was working well together. We have a licensing business that was almost pushed off to the side. We didn't think about that 40-year relationship that we have with our customers.

One of the first things that we did was to bring them back into the fold and think about how we can leverage the skillsets, the expertise and what our customers want from us more together. We then took a step back and said, “Who do we want to be in the future?” We call it our back from the future exercise. My whole leadership team, R&D, sales, HR, finance, licensing, everybody got together and we said, “Who are we going to be in the future?” We sat back and said, “How do we get there?” Often, you can have a strategy and a vision, but if you're not thinking about what is it that you need to do every single day to deliver it, you're not going to make the progress that you need.

The job of any leader is to make sure that you're getting the best out of people and the skillset that they have.

The job of any leader is to make sure that you're getting the best out of the people and the skillset that you have. I was fortunate in coming in to lead a team that have strong competencies and technical knowledge. I needed to figure out how they could understand their interdependencies and deliver that value back to our customers so we could benefit from that value as well. It’s been a lot of work and changes, doing what you said you were going to do and hold people accountable. That's what we've been focused on over the last few years.

From an external point of view, what would people recognize as some of those changes, if anything?

There's a couple that comes to mind right away. First is how we’re engaging with our customers. Historically, we behaved that doing everything that our customers wanted was delivering them the most value. You feel responsive and you're giving them everything they need. What they want and the difference they've probably seen from us over the course of the last little while is we're listening to them, understanding what they need, and then proposing fewer alternatives because of our expertise. We have expertise in polyolefins broader than anybody. We’re coming back to them and saying, “Here's what we believe is best for you.” The engagement with our customers of listening better as opposed to just telling them there's a whole bunch of things that we could do for them would be the biggest difference that they've seen from us. Also, collaboratively working on what we should do that would be custom, and what is it that we should suggest to them that they don't need to be customized in the way that they're thinking. It’s more collaboration and as my mother would say, we've put our listening ears on more.

The year 2020 and even into 2021 have been unprecedented in so many ways with the pandemic and the changing global business requirements. How has that played out for you at Grace? What are you seeing with your customers and your business when you look at what's the events of 2020 and even into 2021?

We’ve realized that we could do a lot more on video and we could engage with them differently. If I look back to March of 2020 when many of our employees went to go work from home, we still had a considerable number of employees that were in the plants producing the catalysts that our customers needed. One of the first things that we did was ensured that we could still safely deliver the catalyst. What we focused on and what we did right off the bat was to safely deliver to our customers and we were able to continue that. The next thing, especially in the second quarter of 2020, is we took an opportunity to take a step back as a team together and understand what our customers needed.

We had more time. Things were slower. We were all at home. We were able to engage more. We spent that time focusing on, what do our customers need from us? Very quickly, we pivoted to having pretty significant supplier review meetings or in the case of licensing, our TechEx had it remotely online with even bigger attendance or larger numbers of people there than we had before. We realized that although traveling around is important and there are times where you need to get into the plant and you need to be able to help them with their efficiencies there, we could do a lot of it online. It has fundamentally changed how we engage. There are some late nights when we're on Zoom or Teams, and there are some meetings that have 50 to 60 people at them. We've learned that there are ways that we can technologically engage with our customers that still have a great return for both of us. That's one of the biggest. We can engage differently and still be efficient with our customers.

TCSP Laura | Business Leadership
Business Leadership: Often, you can have a strategy and a vision, but if you're not thinking about what is it that you need to do every single day to deliver it, you're not going to make the progress that you need.

That's been one of the things that the pandemic has highlighted. Everybody is working from home. There are far more technology and video conferencing on various platforms. It will be interesting what's going to happen as we start coming out of this, marketplaces start reopening and businesses start inviting people back into the offices. I've seen it myself and I've talked to people. You miss getting on an airplane to go see your customers. On the other hand, through the wonders of the technology we have now, you can still see your customers. Maybe not sharing a meal with them, but sharing a conversation and getting that engagement. It's going to be interesting to see what we take out of it going forward when we get back to whatever normal is.

Our technical teams have done trials on video with technology experts in the office and somebody with a phone and a camera in the plant helping out. We would have never thought that we could have done that before.

We would never have considered it. There are a lot of different things going on in the chemical industry. When you look at some of the key trends in the industry in 2021, it's things like digitalization, sustainability and geopolitics. What do you see is the most significant for Grace in how you're responding to those trends and how they affect your markets and customers?

First, I think about sustainability, given that there are laws that are changing and evolving probably more quickly than any of us would have thought. We are engaging more directly with our customers whether it's on the circular economy, recyclability, our catalysts going into any resin. What are the drivers that have changed? How do we need to be able to address that for our customers from the standpoint of changing some of the composition of those resins, whether or not there are phthalates or aromatics in general? What does that mean and how do we need to be able to participate in recyclability? What can we do as a specialty catalyst company to help with that recyclability in the future? How does our process technology reduce emissions? Those are the things that we're thinking about and talking about a lot more. It’s becoming increasingly important that we work collaboratively with resin producers and converters to understand what some of those obligations and needs are.

As a large polyolefin catalyst supplier, perhaps the largest, your future is closely tied to the future of your customers, these polyethylene and polypropylene producers. You guys have joined ACC’s plastics division.

We're pretty excited about this. We were one of the first to join this new Value Chain Group. We've been involved with ACC for years. This is a big step both for that group and for our customers and the resin producers that we get engaged to hear early on. As many people probably know, you don't just develop a new catalyst overnight. How do we make sure that we are addressing what's needed? We're excited to be one of the first to join that group and get more involved.

Laura, you've been a leader in the industry for a long time. How do you see your role? What principles do you bring to leadership as you lead teams and businesses especially through transformative times?

My role is to get the things out of the way that I can get out of the way, and galvanize the team to do what they don't think is possible to be done. It is what I try to live by. I should not be a hindrance to their innovation, creativity and opportunities that they bring. I got to make sure that I get the stuff out of the way even if it's some of their own thinking that is hindering their creativity or their ability to get something done. As a leader, that's what we have to do. Get the best out of your team and get stuff out of the way.

You're also on the board of Pason Systems. First of all, congratulations. You're one of a shortlist of women that are on public company boards. How does your board experience influence your leadership and business decisions?

Having your listening ears on is always a good thing.

When I think about my fiduciary duty and my obligations to the shareholders of Pason, it makes me take a step back and ensure that I am listening to the other experts in the room who are also representing those shareholders, challenging the management on their strategy, and whether or not they're thinking about things broadly enough. I take a lot of those experiences back into when I'm running the business of Specialty Catalyst. Listening and not just driving for action is part of what a board has to do. The fiduciary duty that you feel on a board is sometimes daunting. Taking that into my day-to-day business has given me more critical thinking, broadened my perspective a little bit, and thought about how to work with my peers in a way that I can leverage their skillset into my business as well. That's all of those things that you have to do on a board. I'm fortunate that the board that I'm on has very experienced board members and a group of nice people. I quite enjoy the experience. Taking it back into not just driving for results and execution, but also thinking a bit more long-term and strategically, and the implications of those decisions that you're driving.

One of the fun facts that were shared with me about you is that you're gradually writing a book, truly or facetiously, Stay In the Van Unless it's On Fire. What's the story there?

That is the title. The story of Stay In the Van Unless it's On Fire can be applied to so many things. It came up on a trip to Basra, Iraq that I had to take. Halliburton had just set up in Iraq as it was starting to open up. When I was running the Drill Bits and Services business for Halliburton, which was one of my previous roles, our CEO’s view at the time was if we're going to have a big group of people there, we need to make sure that the leadership has been there, which I admired. We needed to see the environment that those people were going to be working under and the opportunity. It was an inspirational trip. When we arrived at Basra Airport, we were picked up by our security service. There were 3 or 4 of us.

We had a safety briefing and in the safety briefing, we got into the van. It looked like a hotel pickup van, except that it was armored. We were sent over to one car first, and in the back were our Kevlar vests that we had to put on, which was the first sobering moment to being transported to where you were going to sleep in a Kevlar vest. We got into the van and he was giving off our safety briefing. It went along these lines, “There's a lead car ahead of us. There's a duplicate van behind us that's empty. You're in this van. If anything happens, stay in the van, I'll get you out. Don't worry. It's going to take us anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes to get to the compound, depending on how the roads are.”

It was nighttime. He said, “Remember, stay in the van unless it's on fire.” That was the safety moment. I thought that's sage advice. If I think about it as a summary of the challenges of often being the only woman at the table, having lived in Venezuela and traveled through Africa with work, there's usually a reason to keep going, continue to try and not get too discouraged. There are times when you do have to pull the plug and when you have to decide that it's not right for you in this situation. For all of us, whether your need resilience, determination or to keep trying if something doesn't go right the exact first time, always remember, there was a time you have to pull the plug. That's why it works both ways. Both in the inspirational trip with the people who were there that I'd met, who worked there all the time, the Iraqis, the foreigners, and then that whole trip and the experience. I hope to finish it one day.

In your retirement or your copious free time, whenever that might be.

Hopefully, the two will be connected, retirement and copious free time.

I know it's been a busy year for you with everything going on. What do you do for fun? Is there fun outside of work or is it all work all the time?

I believe you've got to turn off your computer. If you're fortunate enough to have a space that's your dedicated office, you've got to shut the door and get out. I try hard not to work on the weekend. I usually don't succeed all the time. I try not to be on my phone and my email at night because if people see that from me, they're going to think that that's what's expected. It is part of the culture at Grace that you don't need to be on all the time. Even from my boss, I'll get a bunch of emails Monday morning because he might've written them during the weekend but he doesn't send them until Monday morning for that reason. It sets the right tone.