“Do you know why I like airports? They are my pathways to our global network. As a member of Brenntag`s Global Key Account Team, I fly the world to build connections. Meeting with our customers, understanding their changing needs and creating dynamic business solutions in order to help them write their own success stories.
It`s my job to create tangible value against these business solutions. Facilitating connections between our customer`s operations and the expertise of Brenntag's assets and employees supports a proposition around reducing complexity, increasing efficiency and offering outsourcing of non-core activities.
In my 22 years at Brenntag, I’ve always thrived on connecting people and sharing my experiences. It’s this combination which makes life in Brenntag fascinating. This motivates me to go the extra mile, wherever it takes me.”
Interview about Jons Career at Brenntag
“We had entered a new chemical era.”
Saving his clients hundreds of thousands of Euros, successfully working through an economic crisis, and supporting legislative processes — Jon Birrell, Head of the Key Account Team for Europe, Middle East and Africa, has dealt with all kinds of situations during his 22-year career. In this interview, he explains why he has never lost interest in his job and how his profession influences his gardening hobby at home.
Jon, your Brenntag career started unexpectedly. How did that happen?
Jon (laughs): Yes! I actually planned to start working in the construction industry as an engineer. However, on the day I was due to start, they told me the job no longer existed. As I was about to be married, I really needed to find employment quickly. The first role I came across was in chemical sales. This was back in 1994 for Hays, who became Albion Chemicals, prior to being acquired by Brenntag. Whilst it feels like yesterday, that was over two decades ago and my failed ambition to join the construction industry really turned out to be a great thing.
You joined Brenntag through an acquisition. Did it feel like you had been taken-over?
Not at all! I saw this acquisition as a great opportunity. Whilst Albion was tremendously successful, it was felt that the business was reaching maturity in its traditional markets. With the introduction of Brenntag's full-line offering and specialty expertise, we had definitely entered a new era of seemingly endless new opportunities. Brenntag recognised the UK & Ireland team's knowledge and passion for its customers and were very supportive in helping to build and deliver this new value proposition.
This is a recipe which has stood the test of time and still applies today. For example take Brenntag’s recent acquisition Trychem in Dubai. Having established a footprint in this region, our network combined with local expertise has immediately generated significant interest from our key accounts. We have a number of exciting projects in the pipeline and have already struck some new supply agreements.
Speaking of key accounts, what exactly does a Key Account Manager at Brenntag do?
One of our most important jobs is to discover our major customers’ explicit strategic needs. Once established it's our job to create value against these needs through connecting the customer's operations with the expertise of Brenntag's employees and assets. Often major customers want to get rid of complexity, increase efficiency and outsource non-core activities. Through this type of activity the tangible benefits we can measure are numerous: For example, "Cost out" through our global sourcing capability, "Cash out" by freeing up working capital and improved stock turn and "Capex Avoidance" through utilising Brenntag's unrivalled asset base including mixing, blending and packaging. We can even measure projects on sustainability.
Does your work involve more than just chemistry?
Yes for sure, nothing is off the table when it comes to working with Key Accounts. One good example is a customer that we supported in a legislative matter. They had been informed that a substance was to be withdrawn by their existing supply chain due to complexity and cost associated with REACH. Having listened carefully to the customer and on understanding the strategic need, Brenntag agreed to undertake a protracted 18 month authorisation process to secure the continued use in their application. Without our support the customer would have been forced to totally redesign their manufacturing methods at a cost that would run into hundreds of thousands of Euros.
During your leadership roles, surely you’ve seen your share of crises?
Indeed, but a standout moment for me was when working in the UK during the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Oil prices had gone up to US$150 per barrel, forcing incredible price pressure and as the bubble burst we were faced with our own crisis of rapidly declining volumes, at a level which threaten the sustainability of our supply chain model.
It was a moment in time where it was sort of “all hands on deck” and I felt the whole organization rallied to take control of its own destiny. From a sales point of view, there was only one thing to do — we had to go out and pound the pavement to acquire market share at a level and a pace that we had never done before.
I vividly remember an approach to prospecting: The local sales teams were challenged to plan day’s foot canvassing industrial parks. At each event a member of the executive board would join the “door knocking” day which was designed to talk to companies face to face and establish new chemical process locations. During this period, we also bucked the trend, by heavily investing in the training of our sales force and implemented a series of other business development initiatives.
And did the plan work out?
If you look at our results during the financial crisis, you’ll see that we really did have tremendous organic growth while enhancing profitability at a time when our competitors found it extremely challenging. I really believe it was down to our “can do” approach compared to the rest of the market and remaining very focused on being customer-centric.
Brenntag has been growing rapidly. Is the company still able to deal with urgent matters?
Whilst challenging on occasions, this is one of our key qualities. Despite the size, coverage and complexity of our global organisation, hierarchies are still relatively flat and that’s really important when it comes to acting quickly within our key accounts. Let me give you an example: Just last weekend, one of our Key Account Managers received a call on a Sunday from a customer advising that one of their factories had been let down by a supplier for a key material. That very same day, he was able to connect with a manager of the local Brenntag facility and the delivery was organised for first thing on Monday morning to get the factory up and running again. A great example of how Brenntag is rapidly ConnectingChemistry at every level. It’s great to frequently hear of such occurrences, as it is so important to remain nimble in a competitive market.
Brenntag has six core values:
- Safety First
- Leadership and Accountability
- Employee Involvement and Ownership
- Commitment to Excellence
- Integrity and Responsibility and
- Value Creation for Partners
Which one is most important to you?
Safety! What can be more important than doing the utmost to ensure your friends, colleagues, and customers return safely to their families at the end of the day? Safety impacts our daily work on a number of levels in so many areas. Take handrails for example, the use of these is so important when you consider the number of accidents caused by slips, trips and falls. I do my upmost to remind colleagues to use these, and at the same time, I hope to be reminded if I have a lapse in safety awareness. I can also claim that Brenntag has taught me to take health and safety home! When grass cutting, I always wear eye and ear protection. Without Brenntag's safety culture, I am not sure that I would be quite so diligent.
Fact sheet Jon Birrell
Born in London, raised in Suffolk (UK)
Studied construction management at University of Suffolk
Career at Brenntag:
Jon joined chemical distributor Hays as an Account Manager and rapidly moved into General Management of operating sites. When Hays sold to Albion, Jon moved into a senior commercial role and soon after Brenntag’s acquisition of Albion in 2006, Jon was promoted to Sales & Marketing Director UK & Ireland. In 2015, he joined the Brenntag EMEA organisation as Head of Key Account Team for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Since his role demands extensive travel, Jon much prefers to spend time at home with his family (including his dogs & horses), helping his wife maintain their equestrian facilities. When he's not busy at home, he follows his local rugby team and cycles with a group of friends.
A few years ago, Jon took part in a four-day charity bike ride from Ermeonville, France, to Bury St. Edmunds, England. It was in memory of the 18 Bury St. Edmunds Rugby Club family member and friends who tragically lost their lives on Turkish Airline Flight 981 forty years ago. To mark the 40th anniversary, the cyclists fund-raised for two charities: St. Nicholas Hospice Care and The Haberden Trust, a total of £160,000 were raised.
Past or present famous people to have dinner with?
Present, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the famous explorer and adventurer.
Coffee or tea?
Definitely coffee, Jon needs his caffeine to get started in the mornings.