Reflections and learnings from a corporate veteran.
Over the past forty years working for multinational chemical companies, my experience has been that setbacks will happen. But your personal resilience and self belief will ultimately provide you opportunities for success.
While in college, I started working part time in a chemical manufacturing company. It was out of necessity—little did I know that it was the beginning of a forty year career. I always knew that I wanted to work in sales. Of all the people that I knew, it seemed sales people had the ability to increase their income faster than others. Additionally, they seemed to have more freedom and were not confined to an office. Both of these aspects were important to me.
During my final semester of college, I began my job search. Back then, career support from colleges was even worse than it is today. So, instead, I leveraged the people I knew. My future mother in law worked for Digital Equipment, a mainframe computer company that was ultimately acquired by Compaq. She forwarded my resume to her contacts. This led to a job offer that I ultimately declined in an emerging field of computer vision. I suspect I made a mistake.
While working for the chemical manufacturing company, I asked my supervisor to identify the company’s most successful sales person. He provided me with a name and I proceeded to call that individual twice a week until he returned my call and agreed to meet me. Ultimately, he offered me a position as a sales trainee, which I accepted. Through all of this, I learned that generally people want to see young adults succeed. They remember when someone helped them or one of their children get that first job. Additionally, l learned that my own actions could effect the outcome of any situation. Make that phone call today, send that email, even if it is likely they are not going to answer.
Through all of this, I learned that generally people want to see young adults succeed. They remember when someone helped them or one of their children get that first job. Additionally, l learned that my own actions could effect the outcome of any situation. Make that phone call today, send that email, even if it is likely they are not going to answer.
My first sales job was everything I expected and more. I relocated to North Carolina and covered the southeast, a geographical region I knew nothing about. I happened to be in a growth industry and my territory grew from 100K in revenue to over three million in three years. My success in this role was a direct result of my supervisor’s good advice. He told me to get to know people within the industry and ask for their help. That was exactly what I did. I was selling powder coating, which was a consumable. Spray equipment is required to apply the consumable. I reached out to the leading equipment manufacturers, explained my situation, acknowledged I knew very little, but voiced that I intended to work very hard at my job. They were appreciative of my honesty and rewarded me with leads for small projects. Once they were confident of my follow-up, they provided me bigger opportunities. Lesson learned. Hard work gets noticed.
Lesson learned. Hard work gets noticed.
Because we were a small division at this time, my sales success resulted in a promotion to East Coast sales manager at the age of twenty-five. While this may sound like a big deal, the only person I was managing was myself. My responsibility was to hire a team for this growing geographical region. Over the next five years, my territory revenue grew from three million to twenty-five million. I personally hired an entire team of six people. At the time, I did not realize how rare the opportunity to hire an entire team actually is. All subsequent managerial jobs resulted in inheriting a team that needed to be reworked in some way. I was very fortunate and it was very rewarding.
The division I was working for continued to grow. With it, opportunities for personal growth continued as well. I was asked to start up a global marketing department, take over R&D, and was ultimately responsible for North America sales. My career goal was to become the General Manager of the business, something that was consistent with my career development plan and supported by my boss, the current General Manager. Suddenly he was promoted and another person was brought in above me. The company decided I was not going to get the job I had sought. When things looked like they could not get worse, the 9/11 recession took hold, sales dropped, and I was in the hot seat. The company decided a change was necessary and after a hugely successful eighteen-year run, I found myself without a job.
While obviously painful, I did not give up. I once again leveraged my internal network to seek opportunities. This resulted in a step backwards that allowed visibility to a different group of senior managers. I was very fortunate that one of the managers I was exposed to was relatively new to the company and was on a fast track to ultimately become our CEO. My past experiences and skills carried over to this new division. That manager appreciated the work I was doing, and I was promoted to Managing Director of North Asia. Finally, I was given the opportunity to “run” my own business. Over three years, I stabilized voluntary turnover. Additionally, the business went from losing money to making a slight profit, while growing top line at a double-digit percentage. This was critical as it allowed the company to absorb the necessary fixed costs we ultimately needed to be a viable player in the geography. During this time, we moved the regional headquarters to Shanghai and built a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Nanjing, both of which positioned the company for long-term success in the fastest growing geographical region in the world.
The opportunity to work as an expat was one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire career. Not only did it allow for significant professional growth, but the personal benefits were immense. My entire family benefited from the foreign experience. My daughter began her journey learning Mandarin. My younger son, a hockey player since he was three, had the opportunity to play with a very diverse team flying all over Asia to play hockey. I was the coach. Throughout my career, whenever given an opportunity to relocate and do something different, I always took the risk. I am not suggesting this turned out well for my career in all cases, but it certainly had a positive impact on me and my family overall. If given the opportunity, I would encourage you to take risks!
Throughout my career, whenever given an opportunity to relocate and do something different, I always took the risk. I am not suggesting this turned out well for my career in all cases, but it certainly had a positive impact on me and my family overall. If given the opportunity, I would encourage you to take risks!
As often happens with expat assignments, repatriation was difficult both professionally and personally. While away in Asia, the jobs I had once aspired to were given to others. Additionally, we had a rather significant team of people join the company from a competitor. This group knew each other well and were very supportive of one another. During this period of my career, I took on many different roles, including Director of Customer and Technical Service. Based on my global commercial experience and diversity of businesses within the company, I was asked to develop and implement a Global Sales Excellence program. Although not general management, this was a extremely rewarding job because I was able to give back to others the learnings of my past thirty years. Additionally, it was global in scope, something I truly enjoyed.
After two years of getting Global Sales Excellence up and running, I was asked to join a global team tasked with implementing SAP as head of Order to Cash (OTC) and Change Management. Most people who have been involved with ERP implementations will tell you that while they learned a lot, it generally is not something they want to do again. This was certainly my experience. At the conclusion of the project, I, along with a significant portion of the SAP team, found myself without a future position.
I did what most people do upon leaving a company after thirty-two years. I notified my professional contacts of my new email address. Literally the next day I was contacted by a friend I had gone to graduate school with twenty-two years prior. He wanted to know if I would be interested in a commercial role at the company he worked for. I ended up accepting an individual contributor role as a Key Account Manager. Some would question the wisdom of taking a much lower-level job. For me, it was a relatively easy decision. After more than thirty-two years with my prior employer, I rationalized it would be a great way to enter a new organization and learn something very valuable about the lifeblood of the organization—its customers. This turned out very well for me. Over the next five years, I was promoted to Vice President of Marketing and Commercial Services and ultimately Senior Vice President of Value Chain. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to move to Germany as an expat for two years. At this point, my kids were both in college and it afforded me and my wife the opportunity to live and travel in Europe. Once again, a fabulous experience.
Over these many years, I have learned that ultimately you are accountable and responsible for yourself. You must fulfill your contract with your employer and provide them with what they are paying you to do, but you work for yourself. This means that the skills you develop must be transferable to future opportunities. I have learned that even the most successful of people have setbacks in their careers. What is important is how you respond to the setback. Are you resilient enough to convince future employers of the value you can bring them? Are the skills you developed transferable to other organizations? Are you willing to take a step backwards in order to ultimately meet your career aspirations?
I have learned that even the most successful of people have setbacks in their careers. What is important is how you respond to the setback. Are you resilient enough to convince future employers of the value you can bring them? Are the skills you developed transferable to other organizations? Are you willing to take a step backwards in order to ultimately meet your career aspirations?
These are questions only you can decide. Remember the people you meet along this journey will undoubtedly impact you throughout your career. I cannot stress enough how the relationships built along the way continue to be intertwined with future opportunities. Frankly this is the most rewarding part of your professional journey. Enjoy it!
About the author: Jeff Wroblewski is the Senior VP of Value Chain at Kronos Worldwide, a chemicals industry leader in the production of whitening agents. Previously Jeff spent 32 years working in various management and executive roles at HB Fuller (a global adhesives manufacturer). His career has spanned three continents. He currently resides in Wisconsin with his wife.
October 28, 2020