Chemical Sales

Is a Synergy of Scientific and Business Expertise?

"I was nine months away from getting my Ph.D. when I decided I didn't want to work in a lab," says Ken Christy, general manager for specialties at Olin Chemical. Instead of finishing his doctorate, Christy switched to a master's in business administration (M.B.A.) program and started a career in sales and marketing.

His story is not unusual. Two-thirds of marketers in the chemical industry have a technical degree. Ten years ago this was not the case, but business has become increasingly technical, and scientific inquiry is more geared toward product development. Today, the synergy of scientific and business knowledge is more important than ever.

Is Understanding Customers' Needs

Dante Rutstrom, business manager for cosmetics and personal care at Eastman, did not know he would be working in sales and marketing when he first entered the chemical industry with a Ph.D. in electroanalytical chemistry. But he realized he was well-suited for the more social aspects of marketing. "In the lab, I started to feel like I was creating things in a vacuum," he says. "There's a likelihood I'll go back to research, and if I do, I'll have a better understanding of customer needs."

Zivile Jech, division vice president at Nalco Chemical, also started on the research side. "It wasn't that I didn't like what I was doing," she says. "But I knew that in order to advance in my career, I needed more exposure to customers."

Jech says she works with Nalco's customers at petroleum companies and also with the commodity chemical manufacturers who supply Nalco with the raw materials for their products. "Having a background in chemistry gives me a real feel for what people do on both sides," she says. Christy agrees: "I don't think I could work in marketing outside the chemical industry. I like that I have a technical understanding of the products and that I can always add my two cents to the discussion."

Is Keeping Up With the Changes

Sales and marketing personnel are involved in product development and in getting products on the market. "In the 1930s and 1940s, industry could afford to invent products and go out and find markets," says Christy. "But now, there needs to be much more interface with business during product development. It's my job to be the devil's advocate with the technical side, to remind them of the customers' needs."

To do this Christy, Rutstrom, and Jech use their chemistry training every day. They all stress the importance of a technical degree for a career in sales and marketing. "The key is to have enough training in your background to give you flexibility in the future, " says Rutstrom. "As chemists, we tend to overspecialize. That's why it's helpful to take business courses whenever you can."

And as business becomes more global, it is becoming necessary for sales and marketing managers to have a facility for languages. French and German will enable you to communicate with most people in Europe, but Spanish, Chinese, or Russian may be more useful as new markets develop worldwide.

Is For Individuals Who Are Looking For a Challenge

Typically, a new employee in sales and marketing starts out in customer service or market research. Here, he or she will get exposure to how products are used and what the customers' needs are. The progression up the career ladder is different at every company, but many sales and marketing representatives go through a series of jobs, including business evaluation, market development, sales, market management, and business management. Christy recommends working in business evaluation as an instructive and valuable career opportunity. "In this department, you evaluate production costs and the market. You get a sense of the whole picture," he says.

In sales, individuals are given a product line and a territory. They spend most of their time traveling in their territory and going to sales conventions and trade shows. People with outgoing and social personalities are well suited to sales positions, but they must also be able to work independently. As companies downsize and restructure, many are eliminating sales management positions and count on individual sales representatives to be their own bosses and, sometimes, work out of their own homes. "People in sales have to be more independent than they have been in the past," says Christy.

In sales and marketing, it is important to be flexible, to be able to bridge the technical and scientific side of the business, to work both independently and with other people, and to keep an eye on current customer needs while projecting what the market may demand in the future. If this breadth of opportunity appeals to you, your future in chemistry may be in business rather than in the lab.

Work Description

Sales and marketing managers meet with customers and suppliers and work with the scientists in their own firm. They often link the technical staff at a company with its markets. Whereas scientists always interact with customers on specific product issues, sales and marketing managers try to track the long-term needs of a market and focus research on these needs.

Working Conditions

Generally, sales marketing managers are assigned a product line and a territory. They spend a good deal of time traveling and meeting with customers in their territory. They also attend between six and ten trade shows each year, where they make contacts with customers and representatives from other companies.

Places of Employment

Many trained chemists work as sales and marketing representatives in the chemical industry. They may market the products of a commodity or specialty chemicals manufacturer, or they may be employed by companies that use these chemicals. These include oil and petroleum companies and service companies such as environmental management firms, hazardous waste handlers, and water treatment companies.

Personal Characteristics

Extroverted by nature is the way many sales and marketing personnel describe themselves. Some say they felt unsuited to the life of a bench chemist and are happier now that they are out traveling and meeting new people. On the other hand, much of their travel time is spent alone, and many sales representatives work out of their homes. For this lifestyle, they stress the importance of being independent and self-motivated.

Education and Training

About 60 percent of chemical sales personnel have degrees in chemistry (B.S., M.S., or Ph.D.), and most say they use their chemical training daily. They add that any courses in business, particularly ones in industrial sales, will be good preparation for sales and marketing positions. Languages are also important: French or German for the European market; Spanish, Chinese, and Russian as business develops globally.

Job Outlook

Sales and marketing representatives say the chemical industry is pulling out of the doldrums. Sales are coming back, but companies will take a more conservative approach to hiring than they have in the past. Turnover in these positions is more frequent than for scientists in the lab, and people tend to change companies frequently during their careers.

Salary Information

To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.

For More Information

Sales and marketing representatives often are members of the American Chemical Society. In addition, they join the trade associations to which their customers belong (e.g., The Society of Automotive Engineers or the National Association of Corrosion Engineers). Information about specific jobs can be obtained from the human resources department at many chemical companies, and more information about training for sales and marketing positions is available through business schools.

What You Can Do Now

If you know you are interested in sales and marketing as an undergraduate, it is to your advantage to take as many business courses as you can. Even if you go on to work in a lab, an understanding of business is becoming crucial in today’s market. Internships and cooperative education programs run through your college or university are always a good way to get exposure to industry and to show potential employers a commitment to developing your career. Visit expositions at trade shows and professional society meetings, and talk to those who are actually in the business.