Leading The Charge In The Booming Cleaning Products Industry With Melissa Hockstad

Updated: Jun 2

Holding a $60 billion slice in the chemical manufacturing pie, the cleaning products industry has always been a mainstay of society, but it rose to unprecedented prominence with the impact of COVID-19. When droves of manufacturers pivoted to the production of disinfectants and hand sanitizers, it became incumbent for industry leaders to set the standards of how things are done. Foremost among these prominent organizations is the American Cleaning Institute, a 95-year-old association that represents the cleaning product supply chain that is currently headed by President and CEO Melissa Hockstad. In this chat with Victoria Meyer, Melissa shares the challenges of being a leader in an essential industry during these pivotal times, including the task of managing teams in a virtual or hybrid setting. She also shares about the association’s efforts around sustainability, digitalization and other trends that affect the chemical industry as a whole.


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Leading The Charge In The Booming Cleaning Products Industry With Melissa Hockstad, President And CEO Of The American Cleaning Institute

I am delighted to have with me, Melissa Hockstad, who is the President and CEO of ACI, the American Cleaning Institute. Melissa became the President and CEO in 2017. Prior to that, she started her career as an engineer in an industry job before she moved on to industry groups and supporting the chemical and plastics industry in places including SOCMA, AFPM and as the Head of ACI. I’m delighted to have Melissa here on the show and we're going to have a great conversation. Melissa, welcome. Thanks for joining.

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. I love the chemical industry, so I’m always happy to talk about it.

A lot of people probably don't know what the ACI is. Can you give us a little background on ACI and the role of the place?

The American Cleaning Institute represents the $60 billion US cleaning products industry value chain. The members that belong to ACI are companies that make those products that are probably underneath your kitchen sink or in your laundry room. Those that make industrial, institutional or healthcare cleaning products as well as all the companies that make all of the ingredients that go into those products. ACI is an organization. We've been around for more than 95 years and we're located in Washington, DC. Everything we do ties around business, science, sustainability and communications.

2020 was an interesting year with COVID. Cleaning products of all varieties were certainly highlighted. Tell me about how COVID and the pandemic affected ACI itself and ACI’s member of companies. How did this play out in 2020?

I don't think any of us started 2020 thinking it would go down the pathway that it did. I can honestly say I was so proud of the cleaning products industry. From us as an organization, we had to pivot quickly in terms of what was most important for our members. First and foremost, it was making sure our member companies were deemed essential business so that the manufacturing facilities could stay open, people could get to those plants and producing these critical products.

We also had to focus a lot on communications, tons of questions about cleaning products, doing our part to educate about proper use and helping people work through some of the questions they had about COVID and cleaning. I can tell you from the member company side of things, they were working 24/7, ramped up production quickly. Some of them were building new facilities but making sure that all of their customers had the products they needed throughout the year and 2021 continues.

It's been quite a journey. What is interesting as well is the number of new companies that got into the cleaning game. I think about hand sanitizers in particular. Distilleries, small chemical companies, distributors and people that would not normally be in that business jumped in. Was that an area that you had any influence in, in terms of making sure it was done right? I know there's a lot of standards that you have helped support through the years in the industry. Was that a role that you were able to take part in? Did that just happen and you rolled with it?

Sustainability is one of the four core strategic pillars of the ACI. The company has been working in that space for 15 years.

It definitely happened organically. The distillers stepping up, for example, to make hand sanitizer. For us, we made sure as we continue to work with the agencies like the Food and Drug Administration who oversee hand sanitizers or the Environmental Protection Agency who deals with disinfectants. Number one, there were a lot of changes going on at the agency level to try to accommodate some of these startups. For us, it was important to make sure number one, the agencies knew we were a resource and then number two, helping keep our own members up to speed because things were changing so fast as you know.

It was definitely a dynamic year. One of the things that changed for everybody is virtual working. How did that play out in your world both from a virtual perspective with your team and with your companies? I know if we fast forward to 2021, you held your annual meeting virtually.

It was a quick change. It's interesting. I was looking at my calendar and on March 12th of 2020, we told everybody, “On the 13th, we're going to do a test case.” We want everybody to go home for the day, we'll be back on a Monday and we'll test all of our IT. We sent everybody home for what we thought was just a test case and then on that Monday, the Washington, DC government said everybody's got to work from home so we changed quickly. I’m fortunate we have a phenomenal head of IT at our organization. We have no issues and things did move smoothly.

We were fortunate, we were slowly able to bring employees back into the office on a bit of a rotating schedule. We're still in that hybrid mix of some days you're working from home and some days you're in the office. You mentioned our big event. Normally, we have a 1,000-plus person industry event every January in Orlando and it's the biggest around the globe. There's no way we could bring 1,000-plus people together safely, so we had to make some changes and did it virtually. We didn't know how it worked. We're all trying these new technologies and platforms.

We wanted to have a great mix of educational programming, networking in a virtual world as well as a lot of our committees were meeting. We were pleased with how it turned out. We had about 800 attendees at our virtual summit. A lot of companies took it as a great opportunity to involve colleagues who maybe can't always travel to our annual event in Florida but were able to get a flavor for ACI. Maybe they hadn't worked with us much in the past just to help build knowledge and understanding, which I thought was phenomenal.

I've had the opportunity to attend ACI several times, and it's always an annual event and it's always a great event. I can see we're bringing some new people in and the virtual format is helpful. It seemed like you had a lot of different things on your agenda. How do you guys play into this? When we talk about current trends in the chemical industry, a couple of things that certainly come to mind is sustainability and digitalization. How does ACI play into that or support its member companies?

Maybe we'll start with sustainability. That's 1 of our 4 core strategic pillars. ACI has been working in the sustainability space for fifteen years, so it's not something that's new to us. It's something that's ingrained in who we are as an organization. For us, what was interesting was a couple of years ago, we worked with our leadership to take a step back and say, “Where do we want to go as ACI and help our members?” I was proud of our board and our leadership. They said, “We need to be defining and driving what this means for our industry and taking bold, collective action. It’s not just things that might be easy but pushing the industry.

For us, what we did with sustainability is we have it under this umbrella of uniting for a cleaner world. Elements of that include increased transparency. Communicating more about our industry and our products, reducing emissions, which is also important with the Biden administration and focusing on valuing nature and that can be everything from what we're doing with packaging or water usage. Trying to align what we do with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. That's given us the framework and then we've been able to build off of that in terms of where we want to push the industry, how are we going to track our progress and how do we know if we're going to be successful.

It is a big topic. I know certainly from an industry perspective, things like biosurfactants and stuff have also had a big role to play in that. Even your company's leaving that is super helpful. You mentioned the Biden administration. It's still early days. You guys are in Washington and you're at an intermediary in many ways between the government, the member companies, the needs and the directions of that. What do you see happening? What are you watching for? What do the early indicators say? How do you treat this administration as you go forth in your agenda?

TCSP Melissa | Cleaning Products Industry
Cleaning Products Industry: With this new administration, there is a hunger for stability and progress on issues that matter to the industry to make sure that businesses and markets thrive.

I would say it's a whole new ballgame. We've got a new administration and we've got democratic control of Congress. We think that there's this hunger for stability and progress on issues that matter to us to make sure that businesses and marketplaces thrive. ACI is an organization. We've always had a history of working in a bipartisan manner with lawmakers and regulators and people will say, “Are you Democratic, Republican, red or blue?” We say, “We’re purple.” Our job is we have to work with whoever is in charge. We always have to work with both sides of the aisle.

For us, it's important to make sure that the administration knows where is our source of information and expertise and we’ll continue to engage with the key agencies that do a lot with our industry like EPA, FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission. We're excited. We've been busy, as you might imagine, with all these new faces and changes. We'll also see faces that are familiar. At the Environmental Protection Agency some of the names that are getting mentioned for the higher-level positions are people who had been in Washington during the Obama administration. It'll be a mix of some new and familiar. We have been focused on ramping up what we're doing in these spaces, bringing on some new staff and working in slightly different ways than we had in the past. It'll definitely be an interesting year.

One of the things I'm always interested in is leadership. A couple of questions here for you. One, you came into the ACI a couple of years ago as the leader of this organization, following somebody who had been there for twenty-plus years, Ernie Rosenberg. It's not easy to come in after somebody who had been there for so long, who was well established in his relationships whether it was inside or outside. How did you handle that transition? How did you approach it as a leader? What was important to you? What have you found has been effective in managing that?

When I came in, one of the first things I did on my first month on the job is I met with every single member of the board of directors and I said, “What's important to you that we maintain and you don't want to lose?” One of the things I can say is Ernie did a great job with the team. When I came on board, I had a phenomenal team and I am appreciative of that. I also asked each of the board members, “What do you want to see that we change? What matters?” That helped get to be the framework of what was important to them. What I appreciated was that the membership was open to some new ways of doing things and some new ideas.

Also I'm always receptive to, “I don't have all the answers. Help me figure this out.” I was able to work with our board of directors on fine-tuning our purposes as an organization and also developing and putting in place a brand-new strategic plan. Sometimes, in organizations, you create a plan that may be sitting in a drawer somewhere and you don't use it. I wanted to make sure the board was invested in what we were doing and where we were headed, working with our leaders and the ACI collective team because we're the ones that are having to implement it.

That helped give us a nice structure. What we did was it’s important to prioritize because the danger in a trade association is you say yes to everything and suddenly, you’re working on 60 or 70 different things. We were thoughtful on how would we prioritize and figure out what were the issues that mattered most where we were going to put more of our resources? What were the issues that maybe some other organization was leading and we could support them? What were those areas that maybe served as well but it was time to say farewell? That helped give us some guidance as well.

The other interesting piece is you talked about the board of directors, which changes regularly. The challenge always is how do you adapt to that evolving leadership? People sometimes struggle with is there a new regime coming in? How do you influence this board? Can you cite what have you found to be successful with that?

One of the things right off the bat when I started is my fourth week on the job was my first board meeting. At the meeting I said, “I have 25 brilliant people sitting around the table. My expectation is that you're not here to sit and hear updates. I need you engaged and involved.” For me, setting expectations upfront about what I was looking for from them. You're right. There is turnover on our board.

I always tell my team, “The turnover happens because members of the board are getting promoted to newer levels within their company or they retire. It happens.” I do a thoughtful job in terms of how I onboard new members. One of the things we implemented is what I call a buddy system. Pairing up one of my new board members with a veteran board member who can give that company perspective about how to engage, how to maximize the time and energy that we put into the ACI board. That's worked out well.

There is no one secret to success. It varies from organization to organization.

Prioritization is difficult when you are inside a single company with an allegedly aligned point of view. It's difficult when you've got 50-plus companies who may have different priorities. How do you make that work? Is there one secret to success with this?

There's no one secret to success and it probably always varies based on the organization. We have an annual prioritization process and it is a mix of quantitative and qualitative data so that speaks well with our members. We are able to use data from our annual member survey where members tell us what's important to them. We have another data point where one of our key committees oversees a lot of what ACI is doing so they have a good handle on whether it's government affairs or sustainability.

I tell them, “You’ve got 100 points. I want you to divvy up that 100 points with what matters most to you.” We take all of that data as well and then we also try to focus on issues where ACI can play a unique role. What's the return on investment if we're going to put the effort in? What's the chance of success? You don't want to put the time into it if you understand it's not going to move the issue anywhere. We put this formal process in place and it's worked well. That gives us the structure for our budgeting at the start of the year. As you know, issues emerge, things you never could have planned for come up.

When that happens, we work with our board to figure out, is this emerging issue something that's ratcheted up and is high on our priority list? If that's the case, where are we going to make some changes because you can't do everything? Not necessarily the secret for success but it's worked well for ACI. Also when companies say, “How did you determine you're going to work on issue X?” It's not just me saying, “I pulled this out of thin air.” It's a clear process when we can share with them and that helps with their understanding as well.

It takes a lot of buy-in through the process it sounds like, which is always critical. That's awesome. With that then, what are your top three priorities?

Number one for us is the overall issue of ingredient communication. Over the last decade-plus, the cleaning products industry has done a lot to increase the availability of information about what's in the actual products. We found a few years ago the state of California put some legislation in place about what they will require online and on the package itself. New York's talking about doing something slightly different. We are ramping up our investment in federal ingredient communication legislation.

Instead of 50 different states doing 50 different things, making sure we have one policy across the country to minimize confusion for consumers but also to add that certainty for the companies that produce it. Ingredient communication is top of the list. Sustainability continues to be something important for our members. We'll be working more on the climate and packaging space so that will continue to be critical. Another area we talked about is topical antiseptics, which would be hand sanitizers and consumer hand washing or hand rub. In this environment, we know how critical that is for the industry.

I've seen the Safer Choice program. Does that tie into that first one, ingredient communications? Is that something different?

It's slightly different but there's a little bit of a connection. Through the Environmental Protection Agency, there's a Safer Choice program where you can get ingredients approved through Safer Choice. It helps out in terms of what companies have to report. It's a program that ACI has been supportive of for the last number of years. There have been some changes in the Safer Choice programs and reduction in staffing and resourcing. We've been pressing with the new Biden administration on how important it is to increase the resourcing and the staffing because it is critical for the cleaning product supply chain.

This is a big job that you're in. You are visible both externally with your member companies and internally with ACI. There’s a lot on your plate. What do you do outside of ACI? There's got to be more to life than the job. What are your priorities or favorite things when you step away from the desk?

I'm with you. It's funny the last question I always do when I interview people is I say, “What do you do for fun because work is important but there's more to it?” For me personally, I'd say it's my two things. One, I love to travel. It’s been tough because like everybody else, I got to curtail where you can go. My husband and I are already starting to pull together our list of when it is safe to travel again, where would we go. I love to travel. I like learning about different cultures, seeing different things and being in places different than Washington, DC. The other thing is I love being active. Here in Washington, there are many opportunities whether it's hiking or biking. I’m making sure I'm getting my exercise in, versus as you know especially in this virtual world, sitting all the time.

TCSP Melissa | Cleaning Products Industry
Cleaning Products Industry: Over the last decade, the cleaning products industry has done a lot to increase the availability of information about what's in the actual products.

I am definitely looking forward to traveling. When you do it all the time, you think you're not going to miss it and then all of a sudden, my suitcase is lonely, my passport is empty and it's time to go do something. I am looking forward to that again. Melissa, thank you. I have enjoyed this conversation. The audience is going to love it. Tell me where can they learn more about ACI? How do they connect with ACI and with you?

I would always recommend our fabulous website, CleaningInstitute.org. Follow us on social media whether it's LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest. We try to make it as easy and accessible as possible. I want to say I am so proud of the cleaning products industry in everything that they do each and every day. They have been phenomenal and have stepped up. It continues to make me proud to be a part of the cleaning products industry and the chemical industry overall so kudos to them.

That is a great way to end this. Thanks for joining us, Melissa. Thanks for reading The Chemical Show.

Thank you.

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About Melissa Hockstad

President & CEO

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.