The Pros and Cons of Working for a Large Company vs. A Small Company

Mark Frishberg, VP Business Development, JenKem Technology compares the two
Industry Matters Newsletter
Pros and cons chart
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What has been more rewarding for you? The business or chemistry aspect of your career?

It has always been about the chemistry! Leaving the lab actually allowed me to experience more chemistry, just not hands-on anymore. I have been involved in thousands of project evaluations and hundreds of active chemistry projects where I have been able to contribute from both chemistry and business expertise. Very satisfying is knowing that my involvement made positive contributions to the success of eighteen commercial drugs, medical devices, and similar products, including four blockbusters.

Beyond the value of those products to customers and my employer, is the knowledge that my contributions have made these products more economical and on the market months or years sooner than anticipated for people in need. Most of all, there has been the privilege to meet, work with, mentor, and learn from thousands of very special people worldwide along the way! By “rewarding,” I may not have gotten rich in the monetary sense, but have certainly had the opportunity to collect an amazing amount of stories.

You have worked for some really large companies and some much smaller companies. What do people – particularly younger scientists – need to know about the pros and cons of working for larger companies vs. smaller companies?

This is a good topic for a roundtable discussion with students because there are many pros and cons, often not considered by students who have not experienced each culture, which can be hard to gauge from the outside.

With a large company usually comes extensive expertise and equipment capabilities, access to technicians to help drive projects, along with many co-workers of similar backgrounds with whom to share knowledge and make connections for outside of work activities. If working in the mainstream of current company product or service lines, there is usually strong support for one’s efforts and opportunities for further training and advancement, although with internal competition.

There can be substantial employee benefits such as medical and dental coverage, life insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, and 401K savings plans with company contributions – although the trend has been to cut back on these types of benefits. The starting salary is likely to be higher than in a small company, and there can be more job security. Along with these benefits comes a certain degree of bureaucracy and - depending on one’s supervision - a degree of micromanagement that can slow the pace of work and cause worker frustration. In most large companies there is likely to be some internal politics and a company culture to fit into – or not.

In a small company the pace tends to be quicker, with less bureaucracy, but with fewer resources and support services. Benefits and salary are usually less than in a large company, but more freedom of action and exposure to management can make up for that. Product focus is narrower, often with a single goal or product line. Depending on the company objectives and funding, the small company may be stable or give everyone the feeling of pressure to deliver in order to stay in business. The company culture is usually derived from the Founder(s), who may be benevolent, a tyrant, or somewhere in between. 

How did your parents influence your leadership style?

My parents did not have the opportunity to attend college, with my father enlisting in the Navy after high school and serving as a radioman on a PPY Catalina seaplane in the South Pacific during World War II, and then using the skills learned to get into TV and radio repair and then working for government agencies, while my mother ran the house.

Consequently, finances were usually very tight so growing up I did not have very many possessions. This gave me an appreciation for how to enjoy life and get things done with limited resources, and how to value people and experiences over “things.”

As far as my leadership style development, that was influenced more by high school experiences in working on projects and teams, especially based on the actions and encouragement of certain teachers. Undergraduate and graduate school, unfortunately, led to more negative influencers, while initial industry influences broke both ways. Exposure to members of National ACS governance relatively early in my career was generally positive, often being unexpectedly more impressed with the leadership styles of certain academic members than industrial ones.

As part of your job with Eastman Kodak, you delivered presentations featuring company capabilities and chemical building blocks at 80 customer R&D labs. What did you learn from that experience regarding connecting customer needs with company solutions?

The presentations you mention were just in the U.S. in the first two years of this effort while I was still in the lab. There were many more presentations in the years afterward, worldwide. Considering that I was promoting the company’s extensive custom organic synthesis capabilities, the first thing that I needed to learn was to feel comfortable in telling a customer audience that I did not know the answer to their question – but that I would find out and get back to them. Finding the answer would usually take me to unfamiliar parts of the company for the answer, so the overall process repeated many times taught me a lot about each potential customer’s needs, as well as helping me expand my network and understanding of the capabilities within my own company. Eventually, I became the “go to” guy for others within the company who were in need of such information.

For a more complete story of my transition from the lab to business development, please refer to my book chapter in the ACS Symposium Series 1169, “Careers, Entrepreneurship, and Diversity: Challenges and Opportunities in the Global Chemistry, Enterprise,” 2014, pp 69-81.

When you reflect back on the start of your role as a Business Development Executive with Eastman Chemical, what parts of the job were you least prepared and best prepared to execute? For the parts that you were least prepared to execute, what did you do to close the gaps?

That title came relatively late in my career with Eastman when the Eastman Fine Chemicals business unit was formed. Since I promoted the formation of that organization after Kodak purchased Sterling Drug, I was in a good position to execute right away, other than needing to adapt to the new organizational structure and some new personnel.

The big challenge arose several years later when Kodak split off Eastman Chemical resulting in the loss of access to the small scale and cGMP equipment within the Kodak organization in Rochester, NY and the Sterling Organics capabilities. While trying to hold on to established customers and internally encouraging the replacement of the lost equipment and capabilities at other Eastman sites, I was given the opportunity to promote a major technology advance taking place at Texas Eastman; the continuous process mono epoxidation of 1,4-butadiene that provided economical entry into a myriad of building block intermediates for use in pharmaceutical, agrochemical, and industrial products.

This led to the need for a quick learning curve and more presentations to customers worldwide. A very exciting time, as the structures of pharmaceutical and agrochemical products, commercial and in development, were sent to me and I took on the responsibility of deciding whether there were any potential Eastman building blocks in them and how to proceed in making the necessary customer connections to explore each opportunity.

Should undergraduate chemistry students take business courses? Why?

I think it is best to take undergraduate courses when you know what you want to get out of them, so I am inclined to say no. The caveat here would be if the student was confident that they wanted to get into the business side upon graduation. It still might be better to go the MBA route later.

Certainly, do not replace a core chemistry course, and this holds for anything outside your major. Do not forget that industry can teach you the chemistry and business aspects pertinent to their operations, but expects new hires to come in with a strong foundation in the basics, and does not expect to have to do any remedial teaching.

What do you think about a culture that makes heroes of actors, recording artists, and athletes but has little love for scientists who develop medicines to keep us healthy, innovative solutions to keep us fed, new energy sources to transport us, advanced materials to keep us comfortable, and new approaches to improve the environment?

While disappointing at multiple levels, this is not surprising since scientists are not set up to provide the public with the instant gratification they seem to need and get from a home run or rock star concert performance, although I do cringe at the amount of attention that some of the “reality” shows attract. Still, that does not mean that scientists should withdraw from the competition. It is important to keep promoting the teaching of science and promoting it to the public in as many positive ways as possible. I have not given up on the premise that an informed public is our most worthy goal and have been proud of the many actions that ACS has taken in this area. Throughout my career, and actually earlier, I have tried to take chemistry to the public through demonstrations whenever I had the opportunity.

Many of us find ourselves in situations where we are asked to lead without authority. Might be running a project, leading a cross-divisional team, or some other situation. How does one do this successfully?

Most of my career has required managing with ambiguous authority. To do this well, it is important to treat team members with respect, be someone with whom it is easy to talk, be a good listener, know the goal(s) that needs to be achieved and maintain focus, be a leader not a boss, share information freely, keep overall supervision informed, mediate arguments well, be creative in obtaining project resources, do your homework and be as much of an expert as possible so that team members will respect your position.

 In times of project stress, you need to be actively and positively engaged. While such assignments, at least initially, can lead to a certain amount of performance anxiety, one of my guiding principles has been that there are times when you need to get out of your comfort zone in order to grow. An important thing to remember is that projects come and go, but build your network and relationships to last.        

What non-technical skills were most instrumental to your career success?

Communication skills - speaking, writing, and listening were crucial! During much of my career the ability to put together and present an interesting and engaging presentation was critical to establishing and maintaining connections inside and outside of my company. Also, during project work it was important to stay alert. Even with a great project, a great team, and a great customer, it is unrealistic to assume that significant communication problems will not occur during the course of a project. Even on the most highly technical projects, communication is the most important ingredient to ensure project success and the most likely cause of project problems.

While often not considered, the ability to travel is an important acquired non-technical skill. Technical people often get stressed out in situations where they are not in control, and traveling on business presents many of those situations. On business trips, I have had a plane catch on fire over the ocean, had planes cancelled multiple times in crucial situations, have had my travel plans changed in route due to more important priorities, have had to be persistent with airline personnel to obtain lodging and meals while stranded, and have missed many good meals along the way. From my experiences, the best travel advice that I can offer is never check your luggage, and bring along some work, a good book, a snack, and your sense of humor. 

Here is one of the keys findings from the fifth annual Women in the Workplace study conducted by Lean In and McKinsey: “We often talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager. Fixing this “broken rung” is key to achieving parity.”  Based on your experience in industry, what’s your assessment of that analysis?

Since I have been away from the day to day industry workplace and have been consulting for almost 10 years, I am not sure that I can speak to the current situation being reported by this study. That being said, if the study is referring to women not being proactive in asking to be considered for a management position, or women not being asked by their companies whether they aspire to a management position as often as the company asks men, then I am likely to concur.

My only personal experience, from over 30 years ago, was a positive one with my former company. A member of my lab, who reported to me and who did not have a Ph.D. degree, shared that she did not see a chance for advancement in competing with the Ph.D.’s in our Research Division. Instead, she had her eye on a Product Manager’s position in the Marketing and Sales Division and asked for help in moving her career in that direction. To the best of my knowledge, at that time there had never been a female product manager in the company, which she took as a challenge rather than a deterrence. In her support, I followed the proper channels to bring her interest to our management.

Shortly afterward I was presented an opportunity to move to a new position at Kodak and lost contact with her for a few years. Eventually, we reconnected and I found that she was able to achieve her goal, which certainly would not have happened had she not been proactive.

Most of our readers don’t know you lost your home in California - and virtually all your possessions - to a raging wildfire just over two years ago. What was that like? And how have things progressed in the aftermath?    

The fire started about 20 miles away from my home in Santa Rosa, CA at 10:30pm Sunday night, Oct. 8, 2017. Had gone to bed at 10pm. Awoken at 1:30am by a vehicle going down our street with a bullhorn announcing “large fire headed this way -evacuate immediately.” Looked outside to see high winds and thick, choking smoke. No electricity, no land line or cell service, and no internet.

Stumbled around half asleep to find a flashlight. In about 10 minutes, my wife and I threw on some clothes, grabbed cell phones, laptops, and camera and headed to cars. One car had a cracked windshield from a downed tree limb. Made best guess as to likely evacuation center and drove in that direction ahead of the fire. Later that morning we learned that most of our neighborhood was destroyed by the fire, including our home, which we had just finished renovating two weeks before the fire. Over 5000 homes were destroyed that night, with 24 deaths.

Over the next two months, we lived in six different places, most 25-40 miles away, before finding a rental house back in Santa Rosa. Spent weeks sifting through debris at our house to try to put together a “contents” list for insurance, but found nothing salvageable. The last two years have been taken up with resolving insurance claims (some still pending) and evaluating options to rebuild. With rebuilding found not to be financially viable, we put the lot up for sale and moved to the Seattle area last May to be closer to our daughter.

The loss of all family and professional history has been difficult to take and never a day goes by without missing something and feeling that sense of loss. Most importantly, however, my wife and I escaped without physical harm. In many ways this takes me full circle back to my reply to question one above, where from the start I valued people and experiences greater than “things.” While all our “things” are gone, this has been one experience that we could have lived without and would not wish on anyone.

Mark Frishberg, VP Business Development, JenKem Technology
Mark Frishberg, VP Business Development, JenKem Technology

Mark Frishberg, Ph.D. is an ACS Fellow, ACS Career Consultant and Workshop Presenter, Councilor for the California Local Section, and elected member of the ACS Council Policy Committee. He has been active in ACS on the national and local level for over 40 years and has been involved in the career counseling of students and members in job transitions since being Chair of the ACS Younger Chemists Committee in the early 1980’s. Mark is a synthetic organic chemist by training and is currently working part time as the VP Business Development for JenKem Technology USA and as a custom organic synthesis and business development consultant for pharma and biotech companies after a 28 year career with Eastman Kodak and Eastman Chemical Company followed by eight years as President of Seres Laboratories, Inc., a FDA registered kilo scale synthetic laboratory.  He has been involved in the scale-up and commercialization of 18 active pharmaceutical ingredients and medical devices, including four blockbusters. Mark received his B.S. degree from Case Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon University.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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