The pandemic brought many challenges to smaller businesses and chemical distributors. Learn how Eric Byer, President and CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), led the association and supported the chemical distribution industry, including many small, family-owned businesses, during the ups-and-downs of 2020 and 2021. Join your host Victoria Meyer and her guest Eric Byer as they discuss the pandemic, its effect on small business, the vital part that chemical distribution plays in the economy and the role that NACD has taken to support its members. How have chemical distributors managed the challenges posed by the logistics disruptions and the pandemic? Find out by listening to today's episode of The Chemical Show Podcast.
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Steering Chemical Distribution Through A Pandemic With Eric Byer
I'm excited to be talking with Eric Byer, who is President and CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors or NACD. Eric joined NACD in January 2014 as President after spending twenty years in government and public affairs, and organizational operations at organizations including the National Air Transportation Association. Early in his career, Eric served as a Legislative Assistant to the US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform and Oversight Chair William Clinger Jr from Pennsylvania. As you might expect, Eric is uniquely suited to his role at NACD where he supports the chemical industry at the intersection of government, regulation, and business. Eric, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Victoria, and congratulations on the Top 10 rank. That's awesome. It's great to hear.
Thank you. It was a really good surprise.
We will see if I can drag you down to the top 15%.
Please don’t do that. We are going to move on up to the top 5%!
Eric, why don't you start by telling us a little bit about NACD?
We are in a small 501(c)(6) trade association. We represent primarily small businesses but we have some big ones as well. Our member companies do a whole host of things. They are companies that will either process, blend or package the warehouse all times of chemical products throughout the supply chain. They have about 750,000 customers out there for the different end users that they service. Our folks are, I would call, quintessential small business activity folks. They care very much about their local community.
They are there to help out folks on charities and stuff like that. They are also politically very driven. They recognize the small businesses. They want to go out there and do the best they can to grow their business, which means they look at things like fewer taxes and what regulations are important, while at the same time making sure that they are incredibly safe and secure, which they very much are. They are the backbone of America for small businesses. They do deeply care about what they do and how they provide their different services.
I found that chemical distributors tend to be quite entrepreneurial as small business owners. We often think of entrepreneurs in technology and other spaces but chemical distributors are at their heart, especially as they start as small businesses, most of them are real entrepreneurs.
One of the things that all small businesses have always had to do since 2020 essentially identifies ways to make sure there's still the value of what you have to offer. Our guys have done that. They get into supply chain issues, shipping delays, and stuff like that a little bit. Every time there's a crisis, our folks usually rise to the very top to make sure that they keep their customers happy and keep doing what they are doing at the highest level possible.
I looked at the sanitation marketplace when COVID hit. Our guys were out there and they were ready to rock and roll to make sure that the products were usually ethanol or other products contained in the sanitizing marketplace, whether it's the pump you are putting on your hands, the wipes you use out of the bag or whatever. There were ones that stepped up and got a lot of that stuff done. They are always there to make sure it happens so that every day, Americans can continue to live comfortably.
Tell us a little bit more about you, though. I'm interested in your background in government relations. How did you get started in that space? And now, you are leading a major industry group. Tell us a little bit about your origin story.
I was a political junkie. I was one of those high school losers that watched C-SPAN. I’ve got the bug primarily because I had a cool internship with my Congressman from my district, Dean Gallo, up in New Jersey. He’s a really cool guy, somebody I admired and I’ve got interested that way. What sealed the deal for me was when I was in high school. I did a two-week seminar down at American University and I’ve got to meet President Bush 41. I’ve got to go in the White House alone, he came off Marine One, I’ve got to shake his hand and talked to him for a few minutes.
For me, that glided my path down to going as a Political Science Major at Gettysburg College, working on Capitol Hill for Bill Clinger as a Staff Assistant and a Legislative Assistant, and then getting off into other political issues and areas that were of interest to me. I would definitely say that President Bush was certainly one thing but always having a keen interest in politics and seeing how it operated, and the different ups and downs that you see. There's never a dull day in Washington.
You took some of that, and you translated that into supporting industry groups. That’s NATA and now at NACD.
I always wanted to was to run a business, and at the same time, I didn't want to lose what I'm passionate about, which is the public policy and the lobbying part of it. I learned a lot in the aviation industry. I was there for fifteen years representing small businesses there. I love representing those types of folks. A lot of former militaries care deeply about this country, served this country and did things. When you are operating a plane, you've got to do it safely, train properly and maintain the aircraft.
All those types of services, small businesses that provide support to the general aviation industry are what I help represent. For me, there was a natural, tremendous transition over to the chemical side when the CEO job opened up where I could do pretty much the same thing with a lot of the same issue subsets but do it as a CEO so I could handle working on the operation side but also continue my love for the public policy side.
That sounds like a great fit for you.
It has been great. I love what I do. I love the members that we represent and we have some great staff. they keep working hard and keep me entertained and vice versa. It all works out well for everybody.
NACD is celebrating its 50th anniversary this 2021, which is impressive. What's the significance of that to you?
When you hit the half-century mark, a lot of things come to mind. One is longevity. It sounds silly because it's 50 years. but for trade associations, it’s a pretty big deal. Not everybody lasts that long. The industry that we represent, the distribution part of the chemical industry, continues to maintain and show its value to the American economy and the public at large. We are the key to make sure that anything comes out of a manufacturing facility, whether it's by rail or by truck, it comes to our members' warehouses.
We go ahead and package it or whatever it may be and send it to the end-user. If we are not there, the product is not going to happen. It's not going to get there. The fact that our folks have evolved with time, you look at things like eCommerce, new trucks, rail upgrades and maritime issues. All those facets are important to what we do to make sure the product gets to your doorstep every day. It's something that has to happen but our folks are passionate about it and that’s the other thing.
Our members love what they do. They have been in business for 30, 40, 50 years. We have members that joined us back many years ago that are still very much in business. A lot of them are still family-run. The passion and the love for the industry are there. It motivates you as a staff member for an association that you are supposed to represent to do the very best you can.
For NACD, we have grown because of what we have been able to do for a membership-based that loves what they have to do. Training is huge nowadays. It's something that we focused a lot on. Advocacy and talked about fewer regulations and fewer taxes are certainly important for our folks but the most important thing they always focus on is not only the people that work for them but making sure that they are safe and secure in what they have to offer.
As long as they continue to do so as the number one priority, they will be around for another 50 years. That's the thing that I'm always impressed with. It’s the due diligence they put on safety, security, and training to keep operations safe and to make sure the products get out the door to whoever they serve every day.
Safety is so critical all the way across the chemical industry from production to end-users. I often call it license to operate, which makes it seem smaller than it is, and yet it is a significant part of everyone's business.
In getting good quality, folks come in, being trained, understanding the operation side, understanding how to operate forklifts, and all those types of nuances, people don't see that every day. It's critical to the supply chain in what we have to do and what ultimately leads to. You get either in a package at your doorstep, summarize how to provide those products in those containers, or to a business that might need it desperately like chlorine, water treatment facilities and things that are delivered. Everybody needs it. It's those types of things that you don't recognize that are important for an everyday living if you will.
How have the events since 2020. the pandemic, supply chain, disruptions and labor issues affected NACD and its members?
It has been a rocky road, which is probably the best way. It has been for everybody else, personally and professionally. Initially, the need for our members to provide things isopropyl alcohol and ethanol that go into things like hand sanitizer and sanitizer wipes. A lot of our folks were up to the task. They did it, there was a huge need for it first, and then things tapered off. We had the supply chain issues that we are seeing now, which is delayed products coming from Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Indonesia, whatever.
It has been a struggle. Our folks are so good at looking at new opportunities to service our customers. That's forced them to diversify what they have to offer. That's something I have always marveled at. When one line or revenue stream may go away, they are always looking at 3, 4 or 5 other ones that potentially could fill the gap for the now but also the longer-term.
Small business folks are the backbone of America.
It has been tricky but they have been able to navigate some pretty rocky waters here. Most of our folks have done pretty well getting through this, have been able to keep their employees on the payroll, and have been able to continue to maintain high-quality levels of service but it's certainly been a challenge. There's no doubt on that when you are talking about it. Our folks were deemed essential service providers by the Department of Homeland Security when COVID hit. They continue to operate, especially those in the back, who was working in the warehouse and stuff.
There's still an element of the administrative folks for a lot of our companies that are, either working remotely or doing hybrid. All those types of changes that we have all encountered are certainly applicable to our member companies. They have made it through and done well. It has always been an over-regulated industry in my opinion. That's one of those things where you’ve got to keep an eye on a big issue, we’ve got COVID, and then you have all the daily stuff you’ve got to worry about.
COVID took over for so long that we are starting to see a natural regression back to, “Here's the new normal. COVID is part of the process.” We also have to maintain and continue to grow our business safely. How do you figure that out is a constant work in progress, and our guys are doing a good job trying to adapt?
Did it change what NACD focused on and how you guys have been engaged, either your chemical distributor constituents or the legislation and government bodies?
From an external offering perspective, we had lots of things that we had done in person, and all those events were canceled initially. What we have been able to do is moved to a virtual format for the first twelve months, which was very well received by our members but ultimately our guys wanted to meet in person. We were able to do our events back in person during May or June 2021. They have done that, they have come to our events in waves and it has been great.
From a public policy perspective, the biggest thing for us is to make sure that what we saw with COVID where a whole bunch of emergency provisions put in, which allowed our folks to continue to operate. As those things have dialed back, we’ve got to make sure we continue to educate not only the Federal Government but the state governments.
It's clear that as you look at transportation regulations, chemical regulations, and environmental regulations, we look at the evidence of cannabis, the use of it, and how that affects truck drivers in certain states with those rules versus other states and their rules. All those things, the state level, in particular, have come to the forefront. We are paying a lot more attention to them. We are more focused on state-centric issues. It has certainly been something we have had to pay more attention to from a public policy perspective.