As part of our focus on distributors in this issue, PCI met with Univar Solutions’ Chris Fitzgerald, global vice president for Coatings, Adhesives, Sealants & Elastomers, and Rubber & Plastic Additives to talk about the role that distributors play, benefits they offer, challenges they face, and innovation in the coatings industry today.

PCI: How has the role and function of distributors in the coatings industry evolved over time?

Fitzgerald: Distribution may have started out as meeting face to face with customers and moving materials from one location to another. However, it has evolved over time to mean many different things to many different customers around the globe. Safely storing and handling materials are a must, but bringing value-added services for both our customers and suppliers is what distribution encompasses today.

What do “value-added services” look like? Today, services mean providing:

  • formulation assistance
  • testing laboratories
  • regulatory assistance
  • just-in-time delivery
  • back-up stock
  • market information
  • digital marketing
  • sustainable solutions partnerships

PCI: What are the benefits of working with a distributor – for both coatings suppliers and manufacturers?

Fitzgerald: In my eyes, a distributor clearly brings value to both the customer, and the chemical and ingredient manufacturer. Let’s face it, we are all doing more with less in many cases. When working with a trusted distribution partner, a manufacturer gains an extension of their sales force that can meet with customers and answer questions on a much more regular basis than a limited direct sales force can.

We’ve also realized that supplier partners benefit from our capability to benchmark their products outside the anticipated end use as well as penetrate a wider spectrum of the customer landscape from a scale and capabilities perspective. This gives the customer greater regular access to technology and solutions to their challenging and ever-changing needs. It enables the customer’s product to arrive faster in the quantities they want versus waiting for the minimum order quantity the manufacturer may need to ship.

Working with a distributor also optimizes delivery routes and minimizes CO2 emissions, especially when the distributor can take in key ingredients and chemicals via rail and stock them locally or deliver the last mile on a clean electric vehicle (something Univar Solutions is testing out today). Another value add to the customer is that a distributor with a complete line card gives the customer an opportunity to limit the number of purchase orders and invoices they need to deal with, thereby simplifying another step in the process. And if a distribution partner has a solution center with R&D capabilities, they can provide formulation help across those multiple chemistries.

PCI: Do you have an example of a special project that Univar Solutions has worked on that benefits the companies that you work with?

Fitzgerald: We have quite a few! Currently, we’re in the process of working with several of our producers to assess our vast infrastructure of warehousing and rail terminals. Our goal is to determine how we can best optimize our full-service supply chain solutions that provide safety and security, reliability, and availability at the national, local, and regional levels, and ultimately reduce CO2 emissions by 82% by shipping via rail car versus bulk tank trucks on highways. In some cases, we can bring further value by repackaging these materials in drums and totes for our customers as well as storing the material in bulk tanks. With local stock, it greatly improves on-time deliveries and reliability of deliveries for our customers.

Another example of special projects is when we take a product to market, like a new waterborne acrylic for elastomeric roof coating that greatly improves adhesion over aged TPO. Our solution center conducted preliminary lab work to support the formulation and performed real-world testing, all of which resulted in the first commercial sale for the supplier in North America, and the product has since become a standard offering for the supplier today.

PCI: What should a company look for when considering which distributor to work with?

Fitzgerald: If I were choosing a distributor, I would seek one who could offer safe and secure, full-service supply chain solutions, with reliability and availability nationally and locally. I would look at the depth of their line card, local warehousing capabilities, and the availability of technical and sales teams, with lab and application specialists who can help formulate and shorten the time it takes to solve product problems and bring new products to market.

In my experience, a quality distributor acts as your personal consultant within your given market. Doing business with a company that is more than just a distributor means you’re focusing on the near- and long-term needs of your business and planning accordingly. The right distributor can help you develop a successful playbook of offerings to avoid future supply issues, allowing you to focus on bringing to market the product you’re known and loved for delivering.

PCI: What is Univar Solutions' outlook on the coatings industry in 2023?

Fitzgerald: We have a global team dedicated to looking at all facets of the coatings industry, and we feel the coatings market will remain strong. There may be a slight slowdown in growth of architectural paints, for instance, given how many people have painted their homes during the COVID period. However, the coatings market is critical to the protection and beautification of most of the things around us. When we think about the demand and need for new homes, and infrastructure and construction spending that needs to be completed in the next 10 years, I’m extremely optimistic about what’s yet to come for the coatings industry. In addition, we see the major developments in the coatings markets, especially in developed nations, lies in sustainability. Enabling solutions for longevity and performance, plus formulating with renewable or bio-based products, when possible, in this industry is a key focus of ours and our supplier partners.