Ticona's deck has many cards. Tony O'Driscoll's job is to separate the jokers from the aces.
As Americas sales and marketing director for Ticona - an engineering resins maker based in Florence - O'Driscoll has to determine which of the firm's many products are best for its legion of customers in a variety of industries.
Does a part require acetal or polybutylene terephthalate? Liquid-crystal polymer or copolyester? O'Driscoll and his colleagues take a look, shuffle the deck and search for the right answer.
The 45-year-old St. Louis native joined Ticona - a 2,000-employee firm that rang up sales of almost $900 million last year - in August 2004 after an 18-year career with Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corp. While at Ciba, O'Driscoll held a variety of sales and marketing positions, including stints in product management and business development.
O'Driscoll - who is based in Auburn Hills, Mich. - spoke with Plastics News during a May 10 visit to Ticona's headquarters.
Q: Is it challenging to get customers to think globally? Or are customers already on board with that approach?
O'Driscoll: You can't be too far ahead of your customers. You have to be ahead enough to offer them a sustainable advantage, but you can't drag them across if they're not ready to go. You have to be there waiting for them. It's not so much about converting customers as it is about advising those who are on their way.
Q: So, at Ticona, it's more of a market-driven approach?
O'Driscoll: We start with megatrends, areas to focus on where we can look for partners to develop technology. That's not to say we don't do our own research. There's a constant feedback loop. We identify the markets we want to work in, identify leading partners, then progress toward a success where we can use that knowledge to come up with organically generated ideas as well. We don't want to be too far ahead or have a wonderful idea that no one understands what its value is. That would be a failure, and we can't afford failures.
Whether your company has completely gotten rid of [research and development] or is keeping it, you can't have too many misfires. You need to develop products faster, and you need a higher success rate. Whether you're working with the market or doing something that's organically driven, you have to use the voice of the customer over and over again to make sure you don't have that failure.
Q: It sounds like customers are still looking for straight material substitution instead of looking for improvements in existing plastic applications.
O'Driscoll: They're going from material to material within plastics but also looking for traditional replacements in wood, plastic, ceramic, glass and metal.
Q: Has the situation with higher metal prices also played a role during the last few years?
O'Driscoll: Absolutely. It's made it a lot easier to open a lot more targets.
Q: You're getting inquiries from people whom you hadn't before?
O'Driscoll: We've opened a lot of new opportunities in some surprising areas like hand tools. Not the inexpensive kind, but professional tools where manufacturers are looking for metal replacement.
Q: And you're presenting the complete product line to customers? Or are you going in and suggesting a certain material like a copolyester or PBT?
O'Driscoll: It's more like what's the best solution. If you're a very good golfer, from 180 yards out, you can pick a club based on how much loft you want or whether you want to draw or not. Me, I'm always stuck with the same club. But a good golfer can use many clubs to attack the same ball, based on conditions, and that's how we use our portfolio. It's not just one material; it's what material is best for the situation.
Q: In the automotive market, what are you seeing now? Is the worst behind us?
O'Driscoll: There are going to be 15 [million] to 18 million cars built in North America. With our balance of business, globally and geographically, we're positioned to supply whoever manufactures those cars and the parts that go into those cars. From Ticona's viewpoint, we're trying to be in a position to supply and make a success of whoever's in that market.
Q: Some say there aren't going to be any new polymers discovered, that there are just going to be refinements of existing grades. Do you agree?
O'Driscoll: I tend to disagree with that. The pace of invention of polymers is going to hit walls all over the place in traditional development areas, but innovation will increase. Are new materials absolutely dead? I doubt it. Certainly, there are niches and niches and niches. It might be challenging to come up with the next polypropylene, but there will be no shortage of new polymeric materials.
We have a whole new generation of kids growing up with computers. They don't offer typing in school anymore; kids just go to the keyboard. We still have sales guys who type with two fingers. There's a whole generation coming up integrating, thinking with and using computers. They're growing up with it, which is why I think the pace of innovation is going to accelerate.
I can't imagine what the next generation is going to do. My grandmother was born in 1899, and before she died, mankind had gone to the moon. I can't imagine her even seriously contemplating that. What will it be like when our children become grandparents? Can you imagine, at the pace we're going at?
Q: It's almost like a human characteristic that we can't see beyond our own lifetimes. We tend to think, ``How can it get better than what I've experienced?''
O'Driscoll: Exactly. I'm a bit of a historian. I'm trained as a chemist, but I like history. I read a translation of the memoir of a 12th century monk, and he was just sick over this future generation of children who just wouldn't amount to anything. This ego, this inability to anticipate the future, is really something.
Q: Along those same lines, are processors more sophisticated now than they were a few years ago?
O'Driscoll: Without question. They're far more receptive to the whole concept of adding value. They have an understanding of what it takes to develop and maintain a competitive advantage. They're very receptive to our value-sell equation, where we go and provide solutions that provide them - and us - with a sustainable competitive advantage.
Q: We're aware of how high energy costs and high raw material costs are affecting resin makers, but how are they affecting your customers? Does that affect their decisions on how to use Ticona's material? Are projects not running or being delayed because of energy costs?
O'Driscoll: The biggest influence has been on what they're working on next. Like metal replacement on seat-belt retractors. It used to be car companies would replace that with plastic because it was lower cost. Now it's, ``Oh my gosh, we need an integrated solution, because if we don't, we're out of business.''
There's no way to be competitive in the future if you don't have a systems approach. And you can't get them with a price-per-pound mind-set. You need someone with an integrated mind-set with a number of different materials and a number of different applications within one system.
A great example is that we have one of the best gear engineers on the planet, but if you look at our literature, we don't have a market focus on gears. We have technical information for gears, but that's not a market. Gears go into everything, and that's an integrated solution. Into DVD players or [global positioning systems] or whatever. It doesn't matter if [the gears] are made in Malaysia or Europe.
Q: What do North American processors need to do to be competitive in the future?
O'Driscoll: Everyone has a strategy for success. In my opinion, the ones that are going to find a sustainable competitive advantage are the ones who are going to continue to innovate and find novel solutions for existing or new problems. Ongoing product enhancement is needed by everybody. It's a basic requirement to be competitive in the world today. The key to success is innovation. That allows you to find a solution for your customers and your markets.