INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Redefining the world of chemistry

Dr. Ilham Kadri, CEO and Chairman of the Executive Committee, Solvay, talks to GPCA Insight about the intersection between COVID and sustainability, and how the pandemic redefined the meaning of value creation altogether. As one of the few women at the helm of a multi-national chemical company, she says the key to increasing women’s participation in leadership roles is to ensure that the “door of education, especially in STEM subjects, is open to every woman and girl”.

At the beginning of 2020, before COVID-19 disrupted businesses and our lives, you announced Solvay’s new purpose which aims to reinvent progress. What role do you anticipate Solvay’s new purpose to play in the new reality post COVID and how did the pandemic-led crisis affect your company’s transformation journey?

The COVID crisis has turbo-charged our purpose – to “bond people, ideas and elements to reinvent progress”. I like to say we have one eye on the telescope, to ensure we are well positioned for the long term, and one eye on the microscope, concentrating on what we can control in the short term. Our relentless focus on cost, cash and customers helped us achieve a strong financial performance in 2020 with record cash generation during the most critical moments of the crisis.

Looking to the future, as part of our GROW strategy and our Solvay ONE Planet sustainability roadmap, our portfolio is aligned with major trends that will reshape the post COVID world. For instance, we developed platforms to enable the circular electric vehicle batteries of the future and the hydrogen (mobility) economy.

To unleash the full potential of the Group, we accelerated our transition to a new more agile and efficient operating structure. This will enable us to work more closely with our customers on solutions that will create a more sustainable future.

What would you describe as the top priorities for the chemical industry as it recovers from the pandemic? What role will innovation and technology play in a post pandemic world, particularly as far as advancing the sustainability agenda is concerned?

Our world is confronted with significant sustainability challenges and it is clear that these issues will need to be addressed with major innovations and paradigm shifts.

The pandemic further highlighted the fact that we live in a fragile environment but also that science-based innovation can generate solutions to major issues. These two points naturally lead to revisiting the sustainability agenda and the priority we give to it. The level of urgency applied during the pandemic to the development of tests, vaccines and hygiene solutions demonstrated what can be done. Applying the same approach to solving sustainability issues is not a dream anymore but a truly valid option.

The pandemic also highlighted the critical role of trusted data and experts. We expect scientists to have a bigger impact on public policies in the future, leading to a better balance between business, societal and environmental needs.

Innovation is all about creating value from new solutions. The pandemic and, more broadly, the sustainability issues that the world is dealing with are redefining what value really is. It is now clearer than ever that just considering the financial component of the value generated by future innovations is not enough to make the right decisions. We have to generate financial value and address sustainability issues. In other words, or is not an option anymore. This fundamentally changes the way companies, academia and governments define their innovation priorities and investments.

Last but not least, the potential of large-scale collaboration on major innovation initiatives became even more obvious during the pandemic. We expect to see more major public-private partnerships aimed at accelerating the economic recovery, while pushing the sustainability agenda. A good example is what is done today in Europe in the area of clean mobility.

What are your thoughts on the future of chemicals, in particular performance and specialty chemicals? Do you expect demand for these materials to increase in the future, and what would be the drivers behind this growth?

We have to acknowledge that chemistry or, more precisely, the way it was used, has contributed to the environmental problems the planet is confronted with. It is also true that any viable solution will require (sustainable) chemistry-enabled innovations in addition to changes in behaviors.

In a nutshell, chemistry is part of the solution:

  • Lightweight materials, high performance batteries and hydrogen will enable clean mobility.
  • Surface engineering and colloid science will enable long lasting clean surfaces.
  • Next generation catalysts will enable the cleaner production of existing products.
  • Biotechnology and separation science will enable low energy production of chemicals.
  • Biodegradable polymers will enable precise delivery and the reduction of concentration of active ingredients in pharma and agro applications.

The common theme between all these examples is that they refer to highly sophisticated solutions requiring high performance chemicals and materials with exceptional combinations of properties. We see this as a fundamental trend generating major opportunities for companies having a strong scientific base and a deep understanding of applications, as it is the case of Solvay.

With the mobility trend accelerating globally, what role can the chemical industry play in moving this trend forward? Also, what are the key focus areas for Solvay in this aspect?

The crisis has absolutely accelerated progress towards clean mobility and chemistry is the key to making it happen. In fact, without chemistry there would be no hydrogen fuel cells and no electric vehicle batteries.

Solvay is focusing on several clean mobility trends. We are strengthening our position for the battery market by creating a dedicated growth platform for electric vehicle (EV) batteries. As sustainability is at the core of our developments, we also partnered with Veolia to create a circular recycling process for metals in lithium-ion batteries. In fact, we are the only company in the world that has a unique chemical refining process that optimizes the extraction and purification of critical metals and transforms them into high-purity raw materials for new batteries.

Green hydrogen will be one of the most competitive low carbon solutions for transportation applications and Solvay has launched a platform to help enable this transition. Our membrane technology (ion conducting polymer) is a key enabler for the proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyser and hydrogen fuel cell markets, and is crucial for their performance and durability.

We are also a leader in light weighting and we’ve been working closely with our customers to provide solutions for their lightweight application challenges. One exciting example is our recently announced partnership with Vertical Aerospace to develop the composite structure of the aircraft for their air-taxi program. The aircraft will carry 4 passengers and 1 pilot for 100 miles.

Last but not least, our chemistry helps create tires that reduce CO2 emissions by millions of tons over a vehicle’s life. We recently announced a partnership with Bridgestone and ARLANXEO to launch TECHSYN, which combines chemically optimized synthetic rubber with tailor-made silica to create tyres that achieve better rolling resistance and 30% better wear efficiency, reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

What’s the role of leadership in addressing the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you personally address these issues? Particularly, in the context of workforce agility, which was one of the main imperatives for businesses during the pandemic, how did you approach the ‘people’ aspect of your organization?

As a leader you need to have emotional intelligence and empathy. You need to create strong bonds with your people, especially in tough times.

One of the most important focuses for me during the crisis was looking after our people, while ensuring business strength and continuity. That’s why we launched the Solvay Solidarity Fund, which provides additional support to Solvay employees who are going through especially hard times due to the pandemic. I’m so grateful to our shareholders, Executive Committee members and everyone who donated to the fund. We raised EUR 15 million and have so far distributed aid to over 6,200 people, as well as communities close to Solvay operations.

We also introduced an umbrella scheme that ensures employees are protected with the continuation of their salary and health benefits if on medical leave, and 70% of their salary if on furlough. We also dedicated a portion of the cash generated this year to award a special bonus to all non-executive employees.

Focusing on people allows employees to be at their best and is essential for business continuity during a crisis. I truly believe leaders who do not have emotional intelligence and empathy are going to fail.

Finally, ‘How can we better support women to advance in leadership positions in the chemical industry in particular? And how would you describe your journey as a female leader who has worked within the chemical sector in the region in the past?

I often say that my story is used as an anecdote – and if that inspires more women to pursue a career in chemistry, then I am happy. There are still too few women leaders in our industry, but fortunately things are changing. There’s no doubt that the more diverse we can become, the better our businesses will perform.

In my own personal journey, the key was education. My grandmother, a cleaning lady in Morocco, told me that “in a woman’s life, there are two exit doors: the one that leads from the father’s house to that of her husband, and the one that leads to the grave.” She encouraged me to open the third door of education. Inspired by her, I became a doctor in polymer physics and chemistry.

Now it’s our job to make sure the door of education, especially in STEM subjects, is open to every woman and girl. That’s why at Solvay we’ve put a particular emphasis on supporting women in STEM and we devoted our 2020 Solvay Citizen Day to education.

We must also do more to foster the career paths of emerging female leaders already in the field. At Solvay we’ve committed to achieve gender parity in our mid and senior management by 2035.