Ask the Expert

Gene Williams, President, Optima Chemical Group

Gene Williams is President of Optima Chemical and Group and a member of SOCMA’s Board of Governors. Williams is also active in his community, with Optima donating $30,000 last year to help establish a Boys and Girls Club in Douglas and Coffee County, GA. He has also served as President of the local Rotary Club, been on the Board of Directors for Junior Achievement and is an industry segment liaison for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He holds a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from Southern Polytechnic/Georgia Institute of Technology and has a master of science degree in engineering management from the University of Tennessee.

Q&A

How or why did you become involved in the specialty chemical industry and how long have you been a part of the industry? We started our company in 1990 to provide a performance product to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Using that business, technology and relationship platform, as well as networking opportunities, references and recommendations, we found applications for our chemistry and manufacturing expertise in a variety of industries. Today, we serve very diverse markets with a variety of products and custom manufacturing services.

Starting our business based on a relationship with the U.S. DOE helped discipline our organization in many ways, but most importantly, it helped our Quality and Management of Change systems. As a supplier of Nuclear Quality Assurance Level 1 materials, the discipline required molded our organization from its inception and has served as a great foundation to build our organization as we’ve grown over the years.

What do you think are the most pressing challenges facing the specialty chemical industry and what solutions do you recommend for addressing them? Regulatory uncertainty makes long-term strategic planning more challenging. Without clear direction of where the target is, we are much like archers with blindfolds. I would encourage all of my peers in the industry to become actively involved in Government Relations. SOCMA offers tremendous support in this area for all size companies, but particularly for smaller companies without a GR staff. SOCMA keeps members informed of legislative activity and changes on the Hill that can affect issues important to the industry, organizes annual Washington Fly-Ins where we can meet with our legislative representatives, and provides other support functions as well. My advice is get involved and let your Congressmen and Senators know first-hand about the issues you face and how they impact your ability to grow and sustain your business and jobs.

Do you think there should be common goals within the industry? If so, what would those goals be? We absolutely have many common goals as an industry. Among the highest of priorities is maintaining world-class environmental, health, safety and security (EHS&S) performance. Everything about our business – employees, customers, chemistry, etc. – is a stewardship responsibility. Regardless of regulatory requirements, we have a moral responsibility to insure we have continual, systemic and effective efforts to constantly improve our performance in EHS&S. All who depend our industry, directly or indirectly, should expect no less. Once again, SOCMA is a tremendous resource in this area. I would strongly encourage anyone not familiar with the support SOCMA can offer in the EHS&S areas to learn more about this program.

How would you define and measure innovation in chemistry? Innovation can be viewed simply as development and implementation of better solutions and is the driving force for the specialty chemistry industry. Innovation is exactly what successful companies bring to the marketplace. I would offer one of the most important factors in a robust innovation process is insuring diversity in decision-making. Manufacturers have a tendency to lean heavily on science, and understandably so. However, a successful innovation team will include very diverse and equally weighted representation from all aspects of the business. Measuring innovation is unique to each organization and dependent on the business unit/function. Making sure innovation metrics are relevant and controllable is key.

Please share a couple of personal or professional strategies you intend to pursue in 2015. We have been and will continue to invest heavily in continuous professional development at all levels and departments in our organization. Our people are the basis for any success we have as a company. Anyone can purchase equipment and technology; however, it is our staff that makes our business.

We invest not only in professional development but personal as well. Programs we offer, such as personal financial wellness, can make a difference in an employee’s life. As I mentioned earlier, our business, including our employees, are a stewardship responsibility, and we strive to keep that in mind in how we run our business. It only seems logical to invest in our most valuable asset – our people.

What are some of the major changes you have seen in the industry since you became a part of it? Without a doubt - speed to market. I began my career in 1977 and the timeline from idea to lab to market has shortened considerably over the years. We now live in a “next-day delivery” world (soon to be “same-day” delivery via drones), and our industry is no different. This places tremendous demands on managing product and process development efficiently and safely. Likewise, the life cycles for specialty performance products are much shorter. As soon as a product is entering the market, development of the next generation replacement is under way.

I also believe these changes can create new business opportunities. Companies that can accept, adapt and embrace these changes of pace will find opportunities with customers glad to have supply chain support for their business subjected to the same demands.

What advice would you give a young person thinking about going into the specialty chemical industry? My first advice to young people deciding on a career is to determine what it is you like to do. What are you passionate about? What do you feel like you’re gifted to do? Set aside the money factor initially and answer these questions first. After all, you’re going to be working a long time, so you need to enjoy what you do. If you work at what you’re really passionate about, the financial piece of the puzzle will work out.

If the answer to these questions results in pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, you’re in luck! There appears to be no shortage of need in the foreseeable future for people with this skill set, particularly so in the specialty chemical industry. The changes and challenges in our industry now and in the future will require our best and brightest to manage.

Not only will there be ample opportunities for employment, but in the specialty chemistry field your work can make a real difference in the world. Products from our industry improve life and health in so many ways. To be a part of this field can be a truly rewarding experience during your entire career.  

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