Plastic has changed the world in ways good and bad. For almost every daily convenience, there’s an environmental concern. While the plastic manufacturing industry has been slow to adopt sustainable changes, some companies are stepping up and taking a leadership position on the issue.
One such business is Trinseo, a plastics and latex binders provider, founded in 2010 as a combination of four Dow Chemical Company business units.
This heritage means Trinseo has a unique blend of proven plastic technologies and modern approaches in its DNA. As such, the company has been able to lead the charge for change in a number of areas, including sustainability.
It’s a similar story for Trinseo’s Senior Vice President of Latex Binders, James Ni. A long-time veteran of the company and its predecessors, Ni spent more than 15 years in Trinseo’s Latex Binders business. By the time he stepped into his current global role in 2020, Ni had a firm understanding of Trinseo’s ins and outs.
“I was most interested in the new venture for two reasons,” he says. “First, I have a great passion for the business; I had been with Dow and then Trinseo for a combined 25 years. Second, I also saw great potential to advance the Latex Binders business under the new market conditions.”
That potential was largely ingrained in its history, Ni says. “The Latex Binders business, for instance, had been operating for more than 70 years. Our long history gave us great experience and expertise, but it also meant that some of our people had a fixed way of thinking about how things should be done,” he says.
“I believed, as many others did, too, it was time to implement change and transform Trinseo’s Latex Binders business division into a more profitable, less cyclical and, most importantly, sustainable business aligned with the company’s overall vision.”
Untroubled by the entrenched mindset and a looming global pandemic, the new Senior Vice President got to work immediately. “I’ve always been fortunate to know how to strike an appropriate balance between long-term vision and short-term results,” Ni says. “I’m also open minded and dare to make changes.”
Ni’s first move was to develop a new five-year business strategy with the help of a freshly-minted cross-functional team. “I had to have the right people on side, especially in those critical positions that drive change,” he says. “So we developed the new strategy with incremental milestones. Those changes are already delivering excellent results as we progress.”
In the last three years alone, Trinseo’s Latex Binders arm has grown earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) by more than 50 percent. “That was a significant accomplishment,” Ni says. “But, perhaps what has been even more important is witnessing higher levels of employee motivation and alignment toward achieving the five-year plan.”
However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, brought about supply chain and logistics challenges. Another, hurdle, Ni says, was to change internal mindsets as the business moved from being sales-volume oriented to value-focused.
To ease this process, Ni focused on helping his teams understand the reasons for the change. “We also granted our people the ‘right to fail’, which was essential,” he says. “For example, we let them know it’s OK to make mistakes and lose low-value business even if it’s high volume.”
We granted our people the ‘right to fail’.
Supporting the change was an overhaul of company culture, which took place in 2021. Trinseo introduced its proactive, agile, accountable, collaborative and engaged (PAACE) culture. “PAACE has been embraced throughout the company,” Ni says.
“Ultimately, that’s what sets us apart from the competition, not products or technologies. Great culture and people deliver great results.”
And one of the greatest results is shaping up to be Trinseo’s sustainability plan. In May 2020, the company announced its 2030 sustainability goals. “Our goals fall into five categories: climate change; sustainable product portfolio; supplier responsibility; responsible operations; and sustainable workforce,” Ni says.
“We’ve named a chief sustainability officer to drive the agenda and we’ve extended our expectations across all departments and regions – and even to suppliers, vendors and value-chain partners.”
These sustainability goals now drive Trinseo’s daily business decisions and each business within the company has its own sustainability road map to ensure that the 2030 goals are met.
The fact that I can make a difference is what I love most about my job.
“We’re already making significant progress in improving sustainability by developing sustainable materials for our customers and evaluating and improving our operations to minimize environmental impact,” he says.
Trinseo has also been publicly recognized for these efforts. In early 2022, the company was named among the most responsible in America by Newsweek for the third consecutive year. “We ranked 97 out of 500 listed United States companies and 12th among companies in the Materials and Chemicals industry.”
Embarking on a company-wide journey of such change is a daunting task in anyone’s book, but Ni says it comes down to having a goal and making a difference. “The fact that I can make a difference is what I love most about my job,” he says. “I enjoy helping develop our next generation of leaders because they are the company’s future and will drive our long-term success.”
That those on the rise have a place in the Trinseo family is due, in no small part, to Ni’s actions today. He says further success is possible for those with a well-balanced business perspective and work ethic.
“The fact that I can make a difference is what I love most about my job,” he says. A saying I’m fond of is, ‘look up at the stars, but keep your feet on the ground’,” Ni says.
“It’s important for future leaders to not be so anxious for instant success that they don’t invest the time to nurture a potential long-term win. Instead, we need to have a dream and a vision and put in the hard work to achieve it.”