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Rebecca Liebert, President and CEO of The Lubrizol Corporation, joins Knowde to share her insights on leveraging digital investments to accelerate product innovation and stay ahead of the curve.
Read the transcript.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: I’m your host, Ali, CEO & co-founder of Knowde, the leading Digital Customer Experience Platform for ingredients, polymers, and chemicals. It’s no secret that our industry is starting to transform right before our eyes. Companies are investing more than ever in their digital capabilities. Emerging market trends and software innovation is certainly changing the game. In this short executive series, we’re going to get the perspectives from the top on the key issues that relate to chemicals and digital. Our goal with this series is to share these perspectives with you to help you navigate the changing landscape.
We have a very exciting guest with us today. I’m thrilled to welcome today’s guest, Rebecca Liebert. Rebecca is President and CEO of the Lubrizol Corporation. She leads the Global Specialty Chemicals company in pursuing its mission to continually innovate, solve its customers’ most complex challenges, and help millions of people around the globe move cleaner, create smarter, and live better everyday. Prior to Lubrizol, Rebecca was EVP at PPG Industries. I’m just getting to know Rebecca, but I can certainly tell you that she’s an amazing human being and I’m so glad that she’s with us today.
Rebecca, thanks so much for making the time. Anything that you wanna share about yourself and Lubrizol before we jump right In?
Rebecca Liebert: Ali, thanks for having me. Well, let me just tell you and your watchers a little bit about Lubrizol. As you mentioned, we’re a specialty chemical company. We were formed in 1928 to solve the problems for those initial automobiles. They were creaky and the engine seized up, and you needed lubrication for all of that. Over the years, we’ve transformed to enable cleaner fuels, better mileage of your vehicles, longer wearing vehicles. The average car today is almost 13 years, and that’s possible because of products that Lubrizol would make. In addition, in the early two thousands we bought a former division of BF Goodrich that doubled the size of the company and expanded us into everything from health, beauty, home, and a lot of engineered products. So, we’re a pretty diverse company serving lots of people around the world. You probably use more Lubrizol products everyday than you know about.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: That is certainly true, and one of the gifts of this industry. Most consumers have no idea who the innovators are behind the brands, and Lubrizol is certainly one of those companies most probably don’t even realize all the different markets that you’re in today.
Let’s jump right into the questions. First one is this: We’re seeing most suppliers increase investments in all things digital, especially around customer experiences. Generally, suppliers are building capabilities to help digitize their product catalogs or help increase their customer reach or engage customers at a lower cost to touch. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for digital within Luol?
Rebecca Liebert: I think all those areas are definitely big focuses, but as we look at Lubrizol and using digital tools, we really see an area around innovation as the ability to leverage digital.
You think about how we need products that can do things differently than ever before, and using digital tools to determine that next molecule you can create, how you do it more quickly and more efficiently… Our customer’s timelines have sped up so fast. We all want the next product, almost before we’ve learned how to use the first product. And to do that, we need to speed up our innovation capability. And I think that there’s a lot of digital platforms that can help us do that. Again, by getting new molecules, uncovering new molecules, knowing how to integrate them into our innovations and leverage them more fully. So a lot about innovation for us.
Secondly, our customers are very interested in improved supply chains, and that really can’t happen unless we get better at manufacturing and using digital capabilities in our manufacturing assets so that we are using all the automation that are on our current equipments, but then linking it even further downstream into our supply chains, our inventories, our shipping, our logistics, our inventory availability. All of that has to be linked up so we can be more or less an Amazon-like experience for the chemical industry. We have a lot of heavy lifting to do there as an industry, and I know Lubrizol is putting our effort behind it.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: I love that you brought up that second use case. I mean, that is a topic that is top of mind for many, many CEOs and what you just did in terms of understanding the root of the problem that’s kind of holding the industry back from being able to provide those e-commerce experiences is really important. A lot of times folks just see the front end and disregard all the things that need to happen in the back end in order to support the front end. It is incredibly complex to be able to do simple things like present inventories in the user interface for customers. But, it’s amazing that you guys are thinking through all that.
Rebecca Liebert: It is complex because unlike when we go to buy something on the shelf or when we buy something that could be just shipped to our house… Oftentimes it’s shelf ready, right? It’s available. But lots of our products are made specifically for customers. And so that production time needs to be very well understood, because if it runs over, if it takes you longer to make than you’re planning, and then your supply chain sort of gets backed up, that inventory’s not gonna be available. So we have a lot of work to do to really link all that together, as you talked about. And, it comes back to the manufacturing assets and knowing you’re gonna make it when you say you’re gonna make it and have it available.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: We’ve heard from a lot of suppliers, and we hear it first hand all the time that customer expectations in this industry are changing. You just touched on a couple of those aspects. What additional trends have you seen at Lubrizol and how are you thinking through your digital strategy to help meet those new expectations?
Rebecca Liebert: Well, I think the biggest trend right now is sustainability. Whether you want feedstocks that are made from sustainable, bio-based methods, or you want things that can biodegrade or have other types of sustainable attributes, we’re gonna have to track all that, right? And that’s going to mean that we need digital information that comes from way upstream. Whether it’s a fermentation based product and how that’s coming into our network, or whether it’s a bio-based product or a fossil fuel base that might be made with lower carbon. We have to collect all that information and track it in some type of digital network, and we all need to do it in a similar way, or it’s gonna be almost impossible for us to add up all of that sustainable value that we’re creating. So I see that as a big challenge for the industry and look forward to us all getting on some type of similar platform and similar capability set, or I think it’s gonna be hard for us to deliver to the customer base.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: Of all the requests that we hear at Knowde from the customer’s customer, what you just brought up is by far the most common at this point. I mean, the amount of times we get questions and requests from the P&Gs and the Unilevers and everybody else out there around, carbon footprint data and any sort of sustainability data, it’s exploded over the past year and a half to two years. I mean, it was always kind of top of mind for a lot of customers, but now it is by far the most frequent request that we get. And that standardization that you refer to I think is so important because it’s kind of hard to tell how people are measuring it, and most folks aren’t ready to kind of disclose that data yet.
Rebecca Liebert: Yes. Something definitely as an industry and broader that we’re gonna have to do, right? Because many of those feedstocks today are not coming from our traditional industry – it was easy when they were all coming from the same set of suppliers and the same set of plants and basically oil or natural gas, right? But now they’re coming from anything, from fermentation, coming from Ag and other areas. So we’ve gotta figure out how to get all of those suppliers also working through the analysis in a consistent way.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: Totally. Okay, onto the last question and this is my favorite question.
When times are good in our industry, a lot of folks just sort of continue doing the same things they always do because they believe it’s working like in 2021, 2022. But then when there are market headwinds, people still in those environments continue doing kind of what they’ve always done. What advice would you give industry leaders as they’re attempting to balance short-term challenges with long-term investments, especially in tech?
Rebecca Liebert: Well, I worked at Honeywell for 12 years and Dave Cody was the CEO and he wrote a great book called Winning Now, Winning Later, and that was really how we operated at Honeywell those years. We would win now by doing things like continuous improvement, lean Six Sigma, general good operations… but we would always put some of that money towards winning later, which was making sure you’re investing for the future, whether you’re investing in your research, your plants, your digital footprint, your capability set, your people. You have to keep investing for the future. If you just invest for today, it makes tomorrow really, really tough.
And especially in the chemical industry where you have to think about assets and capability sets that you’re gonna need 5, 10 years out. So I just really urge people think about winning now, winning later, and get your orgs thinking about it. Just putting a few pennies that you save today for the future. It will really start to add up.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: Totally agree. I mean, I obviously can’t mention names, but there are certain folks out there that still believe that software and tech, a lot of the things that we’ve already talked about, is more of a discretionary spend and it’s like, things have moved on.
Rebecca Liebert: It will. I think if you treat software as a discretionary spend, you’ll be behind in a few years. Maybe not today in the chemical industry, maybe you can sort of keep up today by other brute force methods, but in a few years, if you’re using software discretionally, I think you’ll be behind.
Ali Amin-Javaheri: Agreed completely.