The way Stephan Schnabel sees it, there’s no way a company can succeed by operating entirely on its own. Rather, there’s strength in numbers and power in partnerships. “We can’t do everything alone,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “We don’t know everything. So as long as we have this open approach in sharing information, we believe that we can get much more back than if we were only to sit with our knowledge in our house, which would block us more than help us.”
Indeed, this culture of collaboration exists both internally and externally at HELM, the Hamburg-based chemicals marketing, logistics and distribution company of which Stephan is Chair and CEO. And given its reach is to more than 30 countries across the globe, it’s crystal clear just how vital these partnerships are. However, according to Stephan, one of the myriad ways that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted business was exposing holes in the supply chain.
“I think the supply chain became much more vulnerable over the past year – it’s been turned upside down,” he explains. “How to deal with this has become the biggest challenge for almost every industry, because we are so closely connected to each other. I think it’s easy to say, ‘OK, we have to become less dependent on China.’ But if the industries are not as established in Europe or in the US, it is not so easy to change this.
“I think for many companies and many industries, this will be our largest challenge in the future, because we depend so heavily on certain products from so few countries. Here, long-term contracts where you have a certain security play a significant role.”
Another challenge posed by COVID-19 has been the impact on the production of certain chemicals, as well as their distribution. While most of us are aware of the detrimental impact on the travel industry as a result of flights being suspended for so long, there have been a number of other unforeseen consequences.
“On certain days, there was only 20 per cent of the normal number of planes in the sky,” Stephan says. “In your washing powder to clean your clothes, there’s one component that is a by-product of the production of jet fuel. If there are no planes in the air, there’s none of this by-product for your washing power. It’s something nobody would think of, but it just shows how vulnerable our whole supply chain is.”
Power and responsibility
Since 1950, when Hermann Schnabel acquired the company from Karl Otto Helm, who had founded it in 1900, the business has remained family owned and run. And as the third generation now holding the reins, Stephan says he feels a great responsibility to continue the evolution of HELM.
“You could say I’ve been here from the first day of my life!” he says. “I’ve been here for more than 25 years, and on the board for 10, and through my career I have seen so many different aspects of the business. So even before I took on the role of CEO in April last year, I’d had ideas about what we could improve or do differently, and could start them before I commenced the role.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the chemical industry and sustainability would be inherently incompatible, but Stephan argues that couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather, HELM is on a quest to lead the way when it comes to its environmental policies.
“The growth of the population is not stopping,” he points out. “We need higher food production, but also combined with a much more careful utilization of the resources we have. It’s a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, we need much more. At the same time, we have to take much more care than we did in the past. With this in mind, and especially now after the past 24 months, the reduction of CO2 emissions is at the forefront of discussions.”
Putting its money where its mouth is, HELM has also recently entered into a joint venture with agricultural company Cargill to build a US$300 million commercial-scale facility to produce a renewable butanediol (BDO) through the fermentation of plant-based sugars – the first such project in the US.
The bio-intermediate product, titled QIRA, is a 1,4-BDO that saves up to 93 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions during production compared to a conventional BDO. The groundbreaking product will provide the apparel, automotive, electronics and packaging industries with the chance to reduce their environmental footprint without compromising quality or manufacturing processes.
It’s all part of a step change in the chemical industry, Stephan argues. “The whole industry is changing,” he says. “Customers are demanding sustainable options, and these companies are making the difference by creating more alternatives.”
Ultimately, Stephan sees HELM’s role in this global challenge to reduce emissions as vital. “As a chemical company, we can and should contribute to solving these problems,” he insists. “Because in the end, the chemical industry is consuming and producing a lot of CO2 emissions. We have a responsibility in this respect.
“At the same time, this is an enormous opportunity, which becomes more and more clear as time passes. The industry is gradually moving away from oil and gas resources to much more bio-based products and resources, to include more green chemicals into systems than before. This will be the next big development.”