▸ Hometown: Mount Laurel, N.J.
▸ Education: BA, international studies, American University, 1995; MBA, University of Maryland, 2003
▸ Previous position: president, International Fragrance Association North America, 2008–2016
▸ Last book read: “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr
▸ Extra-SOCMA activity: Soccer mom
Walk into the new offices of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA) in Arlington, Va., and you’ll find an environment utterly different from the association’s previous headquarters across the river in Washington, D.C. The spacious office boasts plenty of windows offering a prospect of the capital. Activity is more visible, with staff and visiting members darting between open work spaces. And the corner office is fundamentally changed.
When Jennifer Abril took that office in late 2016, she personified transition. The first woman to head the association of fine and specialty chemical makers, Abril is also its first CEO without a degree in chemistry or any other science. Nor has she any experience working for, much less running, a chemical company.
With an undergraduate degree in international studies and a master’s degree in business management, Abril can be viewed as typical of a new breed of industrial association manager—one with demonstrated skill in leading nonprofit groups and facilitating interaction between a large number of members.
It is also true, given the advance of women in industrial leadership, that Abril’s role as head of a chemical association is less of an anomaly than it would have been a decade ago. Indeed, a radical break from tradition is not a topic of particular interest to Abril.
“I think we are seeing quite a number of women in executive leadership positions at the CEO level now,” she says. “What I’m hearing in our own specialty chemical industry is that there is a lot of focus on diversity.”
Nor is Abril new to this industry. She began work with trade associations at the Chemical Manufacturers Association, now the American Chemistry Council (ACC), in 1997. There she met staff from SOCMA while developing GlobalChem, an annual policy and regulatory conference.
“I respected them and liked them,” she says. “At the end of my tenure with ACC, I moved to SOCMA to eventually head the performance improvement department.” She would leave SOCMA in 2008 for the opportunity to run the International Fragrance Association North America, returning eight years later to once again work on performance improvement—this time as CEO with a focus on improving SOCMA’s performance as an association.
To hear Abril tell it, her first and second arrivals at the specialty chemical association coincided with periods of change.
“SOCMA was definitely going through a major transition at that point,” she says of her first stint. The organization had just sold Informex, the trade show at the center of its activity for over a decade. It had recently decided not to renew its subscription to Responsible Care, ACC’s environment, health, and safety (EHS) code, opting to develop its own regimen, called ChemStewards. It also decided to repurpose its brand acronym, putting Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association out of its misery.
When Abril came back in 2016 she noticed a new set of changes. “Whereas my first time here it was all about tolling and contract manufacturing,” she says, “it has now moved beyond transactional relationships to partnerships and strategic alignment between the specialty chemical manufacturer and its clients.”
The challenge was clear: SOCMA needed to demonstrate its value to members in a commercial context. That meant broadening its focus beyond establishing and implementing performance codes, reporting on the regulatory front, and flying members in for meetings on Capitol Hill.
In the past, tallying up SOCMA’s activities was enough to make the case for membership, Abril says. “But these days, associations need to really demonstrate a specific impact, a business impact.” In essence, she says, SOCMA needed to return to its core offering in the Informex years—providing batch and specialty chemical manufacturers with a venue for commercial networking.
The job would require some organizational finesse; many of the skills she’d honed in the world of fragrance came into play.
Abril says she had gained a new perspective on the chemical supply chain during her years away from SOCMA. “I had always thought of it from the raw materials side of the business,” she said. “I was only seeing part of the way down the chain. But the fragrance industry is much closer to the end of the chain.”
Fragrance makers, she says, are more focused on providing customized manufacturing and marketing services to demanding customers, such as L’Oréal Paris and Procter & Gamble, than the specialty chemical companies she’d worked with at SOCMA. But she’d come to understand that SOCMA’s membership had a lot in common with fragrance suppliers—some of which are members themselves—when it comes to dealing with customers.
“They really have to understand the use of their specialized material and how it is going to interrelate and interplay with all the other components of the formulated product,” she says. “It was also clear to me that the pace of the industry had quickened. Private equity ownership had driven it to a quicker pace and higher yield, with a stronger clarity of focus.”
Abril established a new industry development and strategic partnership position and hired Paul Hirsh to fill it. With 25 years of association management experience at ACC and other organizations, Hirsh is catering SOCMA’s services to members via three newly established groupings: pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, and performance chemicals.
According to Abril, the new structure replaces one that divided members into pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical groups. It’s intended to better acknowledge members that serve agriculture and other industries.
The key to Abril’s new approach is networking. “During the past year and a half, I’ve seen that small regional meetings are what people want,” she says. “New this year, SOCMA will host a series of specialties forums focusing on each of the three new sectors.” The first meeting on pharmaceutical chemicals will take place in Philadelphia in June.
SOCMA is also continuing a program of regional EHS roundtables, with events planned for Pittsburgh, Houston, and Marietta, Ga., this month. Government affairs staff will now attend these meetings, Abril says. And the annual fly-in, which gives members face time with congressional representatives, will now also feature meetings with staff from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and the Small Business Administration.
“I am a big believer, and I know some of my counterparts are big believers, that what is going to be useful in trade associations from this point forward is creating opportunities for personalized experiences,” Abril says. Concurrently, SOCMA will scale back internet-based programs such as webinars that have proved ineffective. The association will also work to establish a SOCMA presence at trade shows that cater to end markets for fine and specialty chemicals.
A SOCMA-hosted meeting area at CPhI North America—an annual trade show into which Informex was folded in 2016 by the conference company that acquired it—was packed last month as members cycled in and out for meetings with customers. Abril points to this kind of networking, rooted in SOCMA’s former core activities, as the look of the future.
“I think the role of the trade association is changing,” she says. “We talk about that when association directors get together. All of us recognize that the traditional model of advocacy, education, and networking continues to be important, but there needs to be a specific return on investment. We need to know what impact we’re having, how we’re helping move the needle for this industry, and why each individual member company should care.”