A successful formula Featured

11:24am EDT March 17, 2004
William Mays possessed three things when he started Mays Chemical Co. 24 years ago -- integrity, an innovative spirit and a passion for the business. And the successful combination of these elements has helped him survive and thrive ever since.

What began as a one-person operation in 1980 is today one of the largest minority-owned firms in Indianapolis, with $166 million in annual revenue and nearly 200 employees. Mays Chemical Co. serves as a source for chemicals, related raw materials, formulated products, outsourcing services, cleaning and sanitation systems and chemical management expertise.

Its clients are businesses small and large, in industries including beverage, food, pharmaceutical, automotive, personal care and electronics.

"My philosophy is we're more than just a business," says Mays, president and CEO. "Because we are family owned and controlled, we can set high standards."

Mays, an Indiana University-trained chemist, acquired his passion for the business when he served as president of another chemical distributor, Specialty Chemicals. He left that job to launch Mays Chemical with $60,000 in start-up funds, and his new company grossed $2.2 million in sales the first year.

Mays' success hasn't gone unnoticed. He is considered one of the region's top power brokers, and his company landed at No. 22 on Black Enterprise's 2003 list of the top 100 Industrial/Service companies.

Mays says his biggest challenge is attracting and retaining quality employees. But he's found that, as a minority-owned business, he has an edge in attracting minority employees. And he's also found success in that area because he approaches it through the first of his three key elements -- integrity.

"You have to do business with integrity," says Mays. "Pay your bills on time. We try to do it right the first time."

But, he says, the biggest attraction for potential employees is that the company encourages their input from Day One.

"In today's business environment, you need everyone's input and ideas to stay cutting edge," says Mays. "We pride ourselves on thinking outside the box."

And, says Mays, his employees have the ability to help mold the company and make decisions.

"I allow senior managers to run their areas," he says. "I'm here for guidance and direction, but they run their areas."

And while the company offers competitive salaries and benefit packages, that's just part of what keeps employees happy on the job.

Says Mays, "We treat everyone like family. Our hourly employees don't punch a time clock. We get better results when people don't feel that they are being watched."

And Mays allows employees to work at home when they need to, due to a child's illness or other family emergency.

"We've never had a serious attempt at a union here because the employees are happy," he says.


Element No. 2: Innovation

Ranked among the top 20 chemical distributors in the country (No. 13 on Purchasing.com's list), Mays Chemical faces fierce competition.

"We are competing for the same business as $3 billion companies with branches in 35 cities," Mays says.

But it's not easy, he says.

"If a company wants to do business with Mays Chemical, and wants us to service a plant in California, we are at a distinct disadvantage," he says.

Current operations adequately service clients throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast, but Mays says it takes extra planning and effort to do business on the West Coast. To overcome that operational disadvantage, Mays has developed innovative collaborations, forging both formal and informal alliances with independent distributors nationwide.

"If we call on Pepsi in Rye, New York, and they offer us a contract for 40 Pepsi plants, some of which are in California, with the alliance, we can do it," Mays says. "We all handle the same products. The other distributor delivers to the California plants, and we bill the client and split the profits with them."

It's an innovative strategy that keeps Mays competing for major contracts without having to build or acquire new properties, trucks or personnel to fulfill the contract needs.

"The alliance benefits both companies," Mays says. "The California distributor couldn't have gotten the contract in New York. And it's better to get half the loaf than none of it. It makes more sense and is a better utilization of the resources that exist."

Mays points to another competitive advantage he's developed -- agility.

"The large national companies have their own problems," he says. "They have several layers of decision-makers. You smack it on the tail and it takes awhile to get to the head."

At Mays, decision are made much more quickly.


Element No. 3: Passion

Mays' passion for excellence means that the company is always looking for ways to get better.

"There's always room for improvement," he says, noting that he's charged employees with looking at continuous improvement opportunities. "More efficiency means higher productivity. We should not have to replace person for person when employees leave."

Areas targeted most often are in quality control and product inspections. Mays says it takes a lot of attention to detail and more sophisticated technology and employees to meet today's customer demands.

"I would rather have the shipment arrive one day late but absent of mistakes than one day early and there is a problem," he says. "And we have to have the ability to pay attention to detail -- ship the correct product the first time."

This is not always easy, considering the complexity of the chemicals needed by customers and the added security requirements in the post-Sept. 11 environment.

"We have to know who's driving every truck and keep licenses on file," Mays says.

Because of the sophisticated needs of its customers, the company requires a highly educated work force.

"Two-thirds of our employees need to have a degree in science and a significant number have graduate degrees in chemistry," Mays says. "We serve more technical industries today. There's a big difference between a product that is formulated to go into a food source for Kellogg versus a waste water treatment facility."

And with the complexity of the business, communication with the employees is vital.

"Keeping people at all levels of the company communicating can be a challenge," says Mays. "It takes open and honest communication, talking about the good and bad. You don't sweep the negative stuff under the rug until it smells."

While Mays, 58, doesn't plan to retire any time soon, succession planning is on his mind. His daughter and son-in-law work for the company, but he insists that whoever leads it in the future must have the same passion for the business as he does.

If that isn't a family member, he isn't opposed to going outside the family to find that person.

"This business was my passion 24 years ago, but it may not be their passion," Mays says. "And it takes that passion to be successful. It may make more sense for them to sell the company to senior managers to fulfill their own passion." How to reach: Mays Chemical Co., (317) 842-8722 or www.mayschemical.com