At his first board meeting of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates in 2010, incoming President and Chief Executive Officer Lawrence D. Sloan was a little on edge.
The Washington, D.C.-based association, which is known as SOCMA and represents small to medium-sized specialty chemical manufacturers, faced a challenge from the American Chemistry Council, a much larger association whose members include huge commodity chemical firms. ACC was offering three years of free membership as a signing bonus for new members—an offer that Sloan saw as a play for small companies.
He was most alarmed that nobody else at the SOCMA board meeting was taking the threat seriously.
“I said, ‘This is a serious issue,’ ” Sloan recalls. “Their budget was like $120 million, ours was more like $5 million. They could eat us alive.” The board shrugged it off. “Everyone was saying, ‘Yeah, you know, they’ll do their little offer, it’s not a big deal, our members are loyal,’ ” Sloan recalls. “But I was not going to take this bad news lying down.”
Nor did he. Starting in his first year, Sloan implemented a raft of outreach and member support programs he claims are responsible for boosting membership retention from about 80% to 90%. Membership has grown 6% in the past two years and numbers about 220 firms today.
Sloan’s membership development skills were apparent to his predecessor at SOCMA, Joseph Acker, when the two first met in 2002. Acker offered Sloan, who was working at the Adhesive & Sealant Council, the job of membership development director. Sloan stayed put, however, becoming the head of the adhesives group in 2005. Acker called him again in 2009, this time to offer an interview for the corner office.
Thus, in 2010, a culture change was initiated by a shift at the top of the 93-year-old association. But it was not the first. In the mid-1990s, SOCMA was headed by Graydon Powers, who had spent his career managing trade organizations. During his tenure and for some years after, SOCMA was best known for, if not thought synonymous with, its annual Informex exhibition.
Powers was followed in the post by industry executives. Edmund H. Fording Jr., former president of Crompton & Knowles Colors took the helm in 1998, followed in 2003 by Acker, formerly CEO of DanChem Technologies.
Acker made big changes, most notably selling Informex to UBM, an exhibition management firm, and dropping Responsible Care, an environment, health, and safety (EHS) program sponsored by ACC. SOCMA launched its own safety program, ChemStewards, which caters to batch chemical producers.
Both of Acker’s moves benefited the bottom line. The sale of Informex netted SOCMA $24 million, and the association anticipated having to pay to license Responsible Care after a contract with ACC ran out in October 2005.
Acker is also credited with beginning the process of reengineering the association, taking necessary steps to bring it back to its roots as a regulatory and business support hub for small companies. Most agree, however, that when Sloan arrived, SOCMA had not made significant strides in this direction. Members describe the association as it was in 2010 as moribund, one using the term “old boys’ club.”
Sloan’s background is right up the middle between the association director Powers and the industry executive Acker. He is a chemical engineer by training who worked for Air Products & Chemicals, Nalco, and his father’s water treatment equipment firm before taking a position and ultimately the helm at the adhesives council. His instincts informed him that his first order of business at SOCMA was to get out of Washington on a regular basis to meet with members, and not only with the “good old boys.”
Often accompanied by J. Holland Jordan, managing director of ChemStewards, and William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government and public relations, Sloan has made it a point to visit up to 40 companies a year. “It’s an opportunity to meet folks I don’t normally encounter at SOCMA events—EHS folks, communications professionals, human resources professionals, sales professionals,” he says. The association also launched online outreach efforts, including its Marketplace & Chemical Services Directory, a site on which members can list products and services.
SOCMA maintains a consulting relationship with UBM on Informex and cosponsors the event. Sloan says the association is still perceived as running Informex. “Even today, when you walk around this floor,” he told C&EN at the event earlier this year in Miami, “you find dozens of people who still think we own the show.”
Sloan has also focused on making ChemStewards easier to navigate, adding online training and program management. “We are taking the program to the cloud,” says Sloan, referring to Web-based hosting services. “Over the next year we are going to roll out a method to manage the program in its entirety on the Web.”
But SOCMA’s wheels are also hitting the ground in Washington. In addition to fly ins, during which company executives from around the country meet with legislators, representatives from SOCMA and its members testify frequently before Congress on behalf of small producers.
Sloan points to two Environmental Protection Agency regulations—the Chemical Manufacturing Area Sources rule and the Chemical Data Reporting rule—as successes. Both rules are required under federal law. SOCMA’s face-to-face lobbying efforts with Congress, which oversees EPA, and meetings with agency officials about the draft rules resulted in changes favorable to small chemical producers.
For Allmond, the focus is on lawmaking in Washington and making Congress aware of the existence of small chemical companies. “Most members of Congress are very unaware of the diversity of the industry and the specific needs of different manufacturers,” he says. “You can’t have one-size-fits-all legislation. When we’re talking about industry priorities such as competitiveness and market expansion, the voice of the smaller producer has to be represented.”
The association’s biggest problem on Capitol Hill, not surprisingly, is Congress’s seeming inability to pass legislation. The general election this fall is likely to make 2014 a particularly inactive year for congressional action on the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Insuring Access to Clean Water Act, drug safety reform, and other pending legislation. SOCMA is ramping up regulatory compliance support, Sloan says, and has launched SOCMA PAC, a political action committee.
SOCMA members recognize Sloan’s achievements in executing the reorganization envisioned by Acker. Longtime member V. M. James DeLisi, CEO of New Jersey-based Fanwood Chemical, has watched SOCMA’s activities since the 1990s.
“It would be 100% correct to say that I was vehemently opposed to selling Informex, until I heard how much money they got for it,” DeLisi says. With a $24 million endowment from the sale, SOCMA was strong financially but clearly needed to adjust its direction, he recalls. “The association effectively doubled down on the things it did well, and Larry has done a good job putting that plan into action.”
For Sloan, the past four years have been about finding a focus. “In 2010 we didn’t know who we were,” he says. “Our brand was lost.” Since then, he says, the association has managed to balance its portfolio of services; optimize its efforts on EHS, regulatory advocacy, and member outreach; and maintain a presence at Informex.
SOCMA, Sloan says, is now completing a formal rebranding that will be unveiled later this year. He is willing to share the group’s working tagline ahead of time, however, and it should come as a surprise to no one: “We are the voice of the specialty chemical industry.”