Confronting Change In The Chemical Industry: Discussing Leadership And Sustainability

Updated: Nov 22


Chemical Industry

The COVID pandemic hit many industries hard, including the chemical industry. It is now adapting, with many companies facing the changes that lie ahead. In this episode, Victoria Meyer discusses how the pandemic has reshaped the chemical industry with Zeochem LLC’s Global Business Director for Chemicals and Energy, Patty Summers. Patty and Victoria analyze the changes in the industry and how they have adapted, and we hear their exciting views on the future. Learn more about how the chemical industry is changing with the times by tuning in to this episode.

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Confronting Change In The Chemical Industry: Discussing Leadership And Sustainability With Patty Summers

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Today, I am speaking with Patty Summers. She is the Global Business Director for Chemicals and Energy at Zeochem. She's got a long history in the chemical industry at companies including SpectraSensors, UOP Honeywell and ExxonMobil. We're going to have a great conversation. Welcome to the show.


It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.


I’m glad to have you. First of all, tell us a little bit about Zeochem.


It is a Swiss-based company. We've been making specialty chemicals for many years. We've got three major business groups, molecular sieves, chromatography gels and deuterium-labeled compounds. They're used in OLED screens for cell phones. They're going into some of the new curved-screen TVs as well. We have production across the globe. Molecular sieves are made in the US, China and Europe. I lead the chemicals and energy business so I am on the molecular sieves items.


What is the molecular sieve, for those of us that don't know what it is?


I like to talk about them as synthetic sand because it's silica and alumina but we build them on the molecular level so that they can act as absorbents or sponges to absorb certain materials but not everything. That's why they're called sieves. On the molecular level, you are sieving chemicals so you can let in, for example, moisture but not let in other compounds like longer hydrocarbon chains. In my particular applications that I'm responsible for, we're doing a lot of contaminant removal but especially water removal from hydrocarbon streams.

We see natural gas and LNG as a transition fuel as people move away from coal around the globe.

The sieves are regenerated usually with temperature but sometimes pressure so that you can use them on a continual basis to take these hydrocarbon streams and purify them so they can either be transported in pipelines because you don't want moisture and other HTS and things because you do get corrosion. You can either transport them or they meet the specifications for the customers that you're selling to.


They take the chemical, clean it up and make it better. I know you're running a global business so you've got responsibility around the world. How have the events of 2020 and 2021 affected your business? We've got everything from the pandemic to supply chain disruptions. We've had power challenges here in the US for a short while but we're also seeing that around the world. How is that affecting your business in your markets?


It's been very dynamic, to say the least. Anybody in the chemical industry around the globe has seen demand destruction, especially initially as everything closed down. The energy markets were in a state of shock and how our customers operated and behaved changed. Many of them had shutdowns. Those who did not shut down had reduced production rates, both of those dramatically affected how much molecular sieves they needed and needed to repurchase. When you run at reduced rates, the sieves last longer.


It changed our business as a whole. What was also interesting was how the customer's buying cycle changed. Not only did they need less material but when they needed it, they had shorter lead times. By the time they got through their purchasing cycle, which was longer because they needed, in many cases, higher-level approval just to be able to spend the money, even if they had budgeted for it. By the time we got the PO, it was a shorter lead time. We had to be faster to respond, which was a little bit of a challenge in a market where things were very unpredictable. It wasn't like we could look at the prior years or even the prior five years and get an order pattern on which to base our production and our forecasting. It was a big change. What surprised me was the change in the customer's behaviors.


Are you still seeing that here as we approach the end of 2021? Have they gone back to normal? Are we still in a disruptive period for you?


Chemical Industry
Chemical Industry: In the relatively short term, even five to 10 years, natural gas is going to be a big player as the globe makes some changes.

It's more normal but it is still disruptive. It's still can be highly unpredictable but our customers themselves are up and running. They seem to be doing a lot better. With natural gas prices high, oil prices high, more drilling and production in the Permian Basin, we are seeing that the market is healthier than it had been and that's a good thing. We haven't gotten yet to the point where we're seeing business like it used to be. We hope we get there but we had a lot of great years in the US midstream industry, a huge build-out with the whole shale gas. I don't expect that we'll get back to kinds of levels but I'd like to get to a healthier spot. I think we'll get there. Natural gas in the energy markets and even petrochemicals and the related fields are not going anywhere.


I know the supply chain has been a big issue for everybody and then you talk about how your customers have lengthened their approval process, shortened their lead time and yet we also know the supply chains are still a mess. How are you and your team adapting your supply chain to be able to respond?


That whole thing was such a surprise. I'm not sure any part of it could have been predicted. It's funny you ask because I was just thinking back to the very beginning when the port started to shut down over in China. At that point, we thought it was going to be a China thing. Naturally, it went from that to shutdowns around the globe, with ships not being allowed in certain ports. It's fascinating to look back and see how that changed. It was painful along the way. What have we done? We certainly had to buckle down and dig it hard. We had to work so hard to stay on top of all the details, what's where and extra planning. Through that process, I know that we've grown as a company and we're much stronger in our Supply & Operations Planning processes.


Even though we had three manufacturing plants around the globe and a great international team that works well together, we managed our S&OP and our production planning a little bit separately. The pandemic and supply chain challenges, through that process, we've grown a lot closer. We now have a single process. We're doing better at forecasting. Even in the crazy world, we're looking out farther. That's the biggest thing.


We're spending more time on forecasting. We're working together as a global team with a very structured process, not only during the month we do it and all the steps that have to lead up to it. Each week has its own different activity but we're doing it together as a team globally. That's been good for Zeochem. I wouldn't be surprised if other companies are doing the same.

If you set the bar high, your team will be there.

Everybody has to stay a little bit tighter and connected inside and outside the company.


Not only are we more flexible but we're thinking more locally again. Certainly, the freight rates are just absolutely climbing high. I'm now reading about some demerged charges out on the West Coast and those will start kicking in soon.


I've heard even that we may end up migrating to a supply and logistics system that is a bit more geographically-oriented North-South as opposed to East-West. This is across products in industries. So, rather rather than having to fully cross the ocean so bringing the product from China into the US, maybe we're getting it from South America so that it stays a bit more regionally-oriented. We'll see. It varies.


There are a lot of discussions these days on the energy transition. What role does that play in your business?


I was re-listening to John Stekla's discussion about the ethylene industry and all the changes he's seen we've all seen, especially in the US market over the past years. We are heading into a time of big change for the energy business overall. We do a lot in natural gas because it does need to be dehydrated and purified to go into the pipelines but also to have the moisture removed for LNG.


I see natural gas and LNG as a transition fuels. As people move away from coal around the globe and before we have a lot of the new developing technologies taking over the bulk of the energy supply, I see natural gas and LNG filling that gap. For us in the relatively short-term, even 5 to 10 years, I think natural gas is going to be a big player as the globe makes some of those changes. We'll see the world through that transition. Molecular sieves will play a big part in that but also there's a lot of talk about hydrogen and molecular sieves are used in those hydrogen applications as well. Purifying the hydrogen so it can be used in many applications.


Chemical Industry
Chemical Industry: It was always technically driven and it was always about solving customers' problems.

You are a little bit indifferent. You're in the middle of that transition going from what people would categorize as dirty your chemistries within energy production into the cleaner stuff. Natural gas, obviously for years, was viewed as being a very clean energy producer. It still is but then we're looking now more at carbon emissions, etc.


We'll have to look down the road but I think there's time for us given the play that we have in these other applications.


Let's talk leadership. You have made some non-traditional choices in your career, including working part-time for years. That's not something we see happening frequently, particularly in energy and chemicals and with women in leadership roles. You've managed to achieve a lot of success because of or maybe in spite of that. Tell us a little bit about those decisions and how it's influenced your career?


The funny thing about it is a lot of it was unintentional. I knew I always wanted a family. That part of it was definitely intentional but I do enjoy what I do. As I entered the workforce, however, I was looking for a job, not a career. It blossomed that way. I love engineering because it allows you to do a lot of problem-solving. Even though I've been on the business side through sales and business development, it's always been a technical sale. I started out in coatings intermediates and then did a little bit of midstream with glycols and amines but along the way, it was always technically-driven. It was always about solving customers’ problems. I love the problem-solving part of it.


I did often have my own views of what I wanted from management and strategic inputs. I could see it. I had this vision. That's what pulled me into the management roles that I felt I had something to offer there and that was about it. Along the way, I had kids and I didn't want to stop. I was fortunate enough to have an employer that was working with me on that level. I said, “Let me go part-time. I can do this,” and it worked very well. I made it a priority. I learned how to prioritize very well. I learned to work the different days of the week and other people's schedules. I knew I had to send off all my requests by the third day of the week so that by the time I came back, those answers are waiting for me so I could get into business.

With products that will last longer for our customers, they get the benefit of fewer turnarounds to do reloading and dumping. It's less disposal, less waste.

That's been extremely valuable now that I'm on a global team and I'm working in different time zones. I'm very sensitive to getting things sent so people have them first thing in the morning during their time. That's helped. Another secret that has worked well for me over the years is having three top things to do every day. You might get more done, typically not less but three always seem so manageable. Sometimes they're big bites. One item can take you all morning but I loved the Rule of Three and tried to get those things done. I do think that helped me in my management throughout the years.


When you start talking about me as a manager, I do set high expectations. I expect a lot of people. If you set the bar high, they will be there. What I do as a manager is I coach, support and I'm there with my team. I'm there with them, helping them meet those goals and we get there together. I'm very open and make sure that I explain not only why are we doing something because I hate being given a task without understanding the purpose behind it. It doesn't work for me. I want to know the value.


Especially to link back to the staying home factor part-time, I didn't want to waste my time. I do remember a vice president once saying, “Please come to headquarters and work for us.” I said, “When my time will be well spent and not in so many meetings, I'll consider it.” There was a lot of time back in the day that I was spending a lot of meetings that were not as productive as they should have been. We've all seen that evolve.