Not so long ago, before I traded in my bench for a desk, you were more likely to see me in front of a mass spectrometer than a laptop. My pre-Celanese life was spent as an analytical chemist and my daily routine was, at first glance, rather different to my reincarnation as a new business development guy. I implore you, however, to cast aside the obvious differences and explore with me the notion that both business and science, boil down (pun intended) to a perpetual search for the truth.
When I first joined Celanese, I evaluated new business ideas for our AI business. Like most fresh- faced graduates I completely missed the point. I wanted every project to be an overwhelming success and was deflated when an ROI looked unfavorable or we couldn’t justify the resources needed for a project.
The second time around I am learning that, in business as in academia, the truth is not just important, it’s everything when evaluating a new business concept. If we cannot achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in an industry, better to learn this early and shelve it than to continue evaluating in vain. Our “failure” is not only helpful for future generations of value seekers, but it allows us to find and execute concepts that truly have the potential to grow our businesses.
The Emulsions new business development team, led by Dr Lu Zhang and spanning three continents, is an example of where we can add significant value to our potential customers. In this group we are assessing the markets where we have, oftentimes, no history of ever participating and asking “why not?” Celanese is particularly interested in new businesses which are sustainable for the long run.
The apparel industry, for example, is an area where we haven’t participated but is an attractive long term proposition. The healthy margins in this industry provide the scope to actually be paid for innovation.
Without exception, every industry that we look into is already being supplied by large chemical companies similar to ourselves. Why are we greeted with statements like “You needed to approach us 20 years ago, you could have prevented many sleepless nights?” In short, why do we think Celanese can address problems that have remained unsolved for decades?
The answer is rather simple. For us, these are unchartered waters and we come with a different perspective. We seek out the voice of not just one customer, but entire industries. We send our top scientific minds to work at small startups that could not believe a large multinational would visit them, let alone partner with them. In short, we listen, we understand our strengths and we are willing to partner in areas outside of our core competencies.
Another lesson for this ex lab-dweller has been the need for thoughtful segmentation. We took time to understand which end users had the biggest need for the improvements that our technology delivers, while simultaneously ensuring that their supply base was well-positioned to implement change.
After understanding needs, carefully selecting where those needs were greatest and delivering increased value, we have product in the market place just 18 months after the inception of the group.
I look forward to more lessons.