[Executive Forum] Amy O'Shea

Features - People

The newly appointed director of FMC Professional Solutions is focusing her efforts on customer-driven innovation.

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June 28, 2011

Amy O’Shea, director of FMC’s Professional Solutions business, appreciates the "family-oriented" nature of the pest management industry. The oldest of three children who grew up in a traditional New England household, O’Shea graduated from Boston University with a degree in Classical Civilization, much to the consternation of her father, Steve, who would have preferred his daughter pursue a degree in something more "practical." Despite her choice of a liberal arts education, O’Shea hit the ground running upon graduating from college, joining a bio-tech company in the Boston area called EcoScience. The small, start-up business hoped to tap into America’s burgeoning appetite for "green" insecticides, but its proprietary technology failed to generate much interest among skeptical PMPs. "It wasn’t fast-acting enough," O’Shea said, "but it was a great experience nonetheless."

One day while filling in for an EcoScience sales rep at a trade show, O’Shea struck up a conversation with a colleague at Liphatech, a well-known supplier of rodent control products. Impressed with the young woman’s strong interpersonal skills, he suggested O’Shea apply for a job at the company. "I told him I didn’t know anything about sales. He said, ‘That’s good. You won’t have any bad habits to break.’"

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At-A-Glance

Career Highlights: Director, FMC Professional Solutions, 2010-present; General Manager, Agroquimica de Mexico, 2007-2010; Agricultural Marketing & Zone Manager, Agroquimica de Mexico, 2004-2007; Marketing Manager, FMC Professional Solutions, 2001-2004; Product Manager, FMC Professional Solutions, 1999-2001; Midwest Sales Representative, FMC Professional Solutions, 1996-1999; Midwest Sales Representative, Liphatech, 1994-1996; Sales Representative, EcoScience, 1992-1994.

Personal: Boston University, Bachelor’s Degree, Classical Civilization, 1991; MBA, Drexel University, 2003; Married with three children, twins Jack and Zoe (6) and Quinn (4); Husband, Sean is a chemical engineer and real estate professional; Interests include reading, golf, following New England sports teams, family activities.

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O’Shea applied for a field sales position at Liphatech and, much to her surprise, was offered a job. "At the time, I didn’t know anything about the pest control industry, but it was a transformational experience for me," she recalls.

For someone who grew up in the Northeast, the North American headquarters location of Liphatech, Milwaukee, Wis., seemed like a foreign country. "I didn’t know how to do the job. I didn’t know anybody in Milwaukee. And I didn’t know anything about the pest control industry. I was completely out of my element." O’Shea said there weren’t many women in field sales in those days, so it "was a struggle" earning her stripes, particularly with some of the industry’s old-timers, but she persevered and eventually won them over.

After learning the ropes at Liphatech – moving from Milwaukee to Chicago – O’Shea began to consider other career opportunities. "I resigned the first week (Liphatech President) Carl Tanner was on the job," she says with a laugh. "I remember going into his office and he said, ‘I’m so excited to work with you,’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to resign.’ It was horrible. We’re good friends now, but I dreaded having that conversation. To this day, Carl still teases me about the parking tickets I left behind in Chicago."

O’Shea cemented her reputation as one of the industry’s up-and-comers upon joining FMC as its Midwest sales representative. She quickly drew the attention of upper management, being promoted to product manager in 1999. "It’s a position that grew out of the work that was being done out of our Princeton (New Jersey) lab at the time," she said. "You don’t have any real power within the organization, but you have to get a lot of people to work together, which is a good skill to develop."

It taxed all of O’Shea’s interpersonal and leadership skills, but she made a success of it, leading to her first foreign assignment when she was named agricultural marketing and export zone manager for FMC’s Agroquimica de Mexico. The move to Mexico proved to be another time of transition for O’Shea, who took on the new role only six months after marrying husband, Sean, a chemical engineer. "That was definitely a life changer," she says with a laugh. In 2007, she was promoted to general manager.

O’Shea managed the company’s ag business in Mexico and the Caribbean for six years, essentially operating her own business within the context of a broader corporate culture. While south of the border, she experienced another transition in her life, welcoming twins, Jack and Zoe, to the family, followed two years later by son, Quinn, who is now 4.

"I’ve been very fortunate to have career opportunities that have allowed me to broaden my horizons," she says. The most recent "horizon" occurred when she was named director of FMC’s Professional Solutions business last summer, replacing Dan Rosenbaum, who was promoted general manager of FMC’s Pharmaceuticals business. PCT recently sat down with O’Shea to discuss a wide array of industry topics important to PMPs and to gain a better understanding of her vision for FMC’s Professional Solutions Group.
 

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PCT: What was it like moving to the Midwest from New England for your first job in the pest control industry?

O’Shea: When I moved to the Midwest, I was so impressed by the openness of the people and how friendly they were. It comes very naturally to them. I love New Englanders, having grown up in the region, but they’re typically much more reserved. I adapted quickly however. After my first year in Milwaukee, I found myself making friends at the supermarket.

PCT: How did your experiences in the Midwest impact the way you approached the second major move in your career, relocating your family to a foreign country to serve as general manager of APG Mexico?

O’Shea: A lot of what I learned in the Midwest in terms of interacting with people I took with me to Mexico. While Mexico is a very different culture, like the Midwest it’s a place where people readily open their homes to you. I can’t count the number of weddings, graduations, baptisms and other family events I was invited to during those years, so I learned to embrace those experiences over time. Whether on an "expat" assignment or moving across the country from Boston to Milwaukee, you have to embrace change to be successful. In both cases, it was a great experience.

PCT: When you got started in the pest control industry, there weren’t a lot of women in field sales. Given that market reality, what challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

O’Shea: I come from a family where the contributions of women are respected, regardless of whether they work outside the home or serve a more traditional home-based role. Growing up, my parents also had a core belief in the value of education. We weren’t going to go to school just to go to school. We were expected to excel and use our education to advance our lives. As a young person, I was always the math and science girl, which pleased my dad, who was a former banker who started his own tool and die business. When I got to college (Boston University), I took a Greek and Roman Mythology class and absolutely loved it, so I switched my major to Classical Civilization. My dad wasn’t very happy with my decision at the time. He was worried I wouldn’t be able to make a living with a Classical Civilization degree, but I promised him I would go to law school. As it turns out, I never earned a law degree, but he’s forgiven me.

PCT: Since your father was a longtime entrepreneur, and you’re essentially running your own business at FMC Professional Solutions, do you find you have a growing respect for one another?

O’Shea: At first, it was a little odd, but then it felt really good to be able to talk business with him. He’s a great source of insight and support. Even without his business background, however, I’ve always sought out my parents’ advice. There’s something about the perspective of a family member who knows and understands you – who has a personal history with you – that is irreplaceable. One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was from my mom. After accepting the job at Lipha-tech and facing the reality of moving to the Midwest, I began to have second thoughts about my decision. I didn’t even know precisely where Milwaukee was and I was nervous about leaving my friends and family behind, but my mom said, "You can do anything for a year, so don’t let those fears get in the way of you growing as a person. Just embrace it. If it’s a good or bad experience, at the end of your time with the company you’re going to have more perspective on your career and who you are as a person." Like so many things in my life, she was right.

PCT: How has the industry evolved since those early days at Liphatech and the 15 subsequent years at FMC?

O’Shea: I was fortunate to be at an event we hosted late last year where I met a PMP in New York who I think represents the "new normal" for the industry. His business was very different several years ago, but he’s been successful because he was open to change. The companies that have grown over the last 10 years – those that survived the Great Recession – have been the ones that have been open to learning from their peers. They don’t think they have all the answers. Another quality they have is they’re extremely adaptable. They don’t say, "I had a pre-treat business, but the housing market is miserable so I’m just going to wait it out." They diversified their business. They expanded into the commercial market or considered offering turf and ornamental services. They’ve had to be more pro-active than previous generations because they needed to change in order to survive. Those are the companies that have been able to weather this economic storm.

PCT: What was the thinking behind the recent restructuring of FMC’s Professional Solutions Business?

O’Shea: We’ve expanded and reorganized our field operations to better support the pest control, turf and ornamental industries. There are now more folks in the field as market specialists whose primary responsibility it is to call directly on distributor sales reps and PMPs, offering support and training, while soliciting feedback from each of these customers. In the past, we had far fewer people calling on PMPs, so we didn’t have the opportunity to interact with the end user quite as much. The distributors are our customers as well, but distributors are called on all the time by manufacturers’ reps, with everyone claiming they have the best product. Distributors need to be educated about what we do – the R&D and marketing support that accompanies our products – but we also need to help them expand their business by offering new opportunities for growth (new products), so they can add value for their customer, the PMP. By expanding our field sales force, we’re looking to increase the "touch points" across the entire value chain.

We also sell into multiple markets and previously we had folks with multiple responsibilities crisscrossing those markets. While there are some benefits to having the same people servicing several different markets, it also can result in a lack of focus, so we decided to have our field staff concentrate on a single market (pest control, turf and ornamental, and strategic accounts). We think it will make them more responsive to their individual markets and better able to gain market insights that will play a role in our future growth.

PCT: What other things has FMC done as a result of the restructuring?

O’Shea: We’ve created a commercial development manager position – one for the pest control market and another for the turf and ornamental market – who will manage our market specialists throughout the U.S. Their role is to close the loop between the customer and FMC, providing feedback about what’s happening in the field. The commercial development manager is the "go between" for management and marketing, providing a reality check about what’s happening in the field – how our products are being used, and what the customer is actually thinking, not what they think we want to hear.

We want to hear about what we’re doing well and, more important, what we’re not doing so well. What’s working and what we can improve upon? Once we have a performance benchmark, it’s up to us to improve upon that performance.

We’ve also created key account manager positions for each market segment that will focus on distribution and national accounts, with the goal of strengthening those relationships. The marketing specialists will report to the commercial development manager, who – along with the key account manager – will report to Mike Bonner, pro pest segment sales manager. Both Mike and Maureen Thompson, his counterpart on the turf and ornamental side of our business, will report directly to me, as will Wendell Codner, who is in charge of strategic and international accounts.

PCT: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the pest control market since returning from Mexico?

O’Shea: I left in 2003 and at that time the market was relatively strong. Since then the market has been devalued tremendously. At the manufacturer level, millions of dollars have evaporated from the marketplace. The generic pressure on basic manufacturers was nowhere near where it is today. When I left, Talstar sold at five times the price it is selling today. From a scale standpoint, that’s insane. There’s been a complete lack of pricing discipline for an entire range of products and, as a result, the anxiety level has gotten really intense for distributors and basic manufacturers.

In addition, we were predominantly a pre- and post-treatment termiticide business when I left, but that’s no longer our primary business today. When I left, the bulk of our business was generated by the professional pest control and retail markets, with 70 percent of the professional pest control market in pre-treat business. But the entry of generic chemistry and the decline in the housing market changed all that and significantly impacted FMC’s business. If we hadn’t adapted to those changing market conditions, we would be in big trouble today. Fortunately, thanks to my predecessor Dan Rosenbaum, we evolved as a company, which was part of the impetus for the CB acquisition from the Waterbury Companies in 2009. The CB line helped balance out our portfolio. We have a much broader product portfolio now, including a comprehensive aerosol line, and we’ve increased the number of herbicides in our portfolio, as well as added some proprietary fungicides, which have helped offset the losses we incurred from the introduction of generic bifenthrin. It was a tough couple of years, but we’re competitive once again, and I think the industry recognizes we’re investing in the marketplace, in addition to supporting Legislative Day and defending our molecules.

Finally, when I left the United States I didn’t even know what a bed bug was, but that’s no longer the case today. Now, like a lot of people, I’m totally freaked out by them. Whenever I travel, I immediately inspect the room when I arrive at a hotel. Fortunately, the industry – including FMC – is developing new products to address the country’s bed bug problems.

PCT: How do you think the average PMP views FMC, particularly given all of the changes that have occurred at the company in recent years?

O’Shea: Since accepting this position, I’ve traveled around the country a great deal, so I think I have a fairly accurate sense of how PMPs view the company. I think they view FMC as a responsible and ethical company with a staff that is technically proficient. I also think we’re viewed as a company that can be depended upon. Some folks may see us as slow to react to the introduction of generic competitors, but whether or not that permeates through distribution to the end user, I don’t know. Overall, I think PMPs recognize that we’re committed to the pest control market.

PCT: What are some of the key issues facing FMC moving forward?

O’Shea: One of the biggest concerns for FMC and other companies serving the pest management industry is the issue of pesticides and water quality. How we participate in that discussion at both an industry and regulatory level is something I think about every day. I’m a member of the RISE Board, which is monitoring this issue very carefully. It’s an important issue for the industry and I think it’s important for PMPs to realize they have a voice in this discussion as well. They need to be as active as they can be locally should a water quality issue arise in their community. Local activism on the part of PMPs is important because it’s local activism we’re fighting when dealing with anti-pesticide special interest groups.

California DPR is looking at bifenthrin and other active ingredients, so we’re not the only ones under the microscope. It’s not about one active ingredient. You can lop off bifrenthrin, but tomorrow it’s going to be another a.i., and I don’t think DPR wants to play the a.i. "merry-go-round." We all have to understand how to do a better job of mitigating pesticide exposure, making sure any decisions that are made about a particular active ingredient are made not just with emotion. We’re active in the Pyrethroid Working Group, investing a lot of time and energy in this organization. We’re not just defending our molecule, but all molecules. The work we do to defend FMC’s molecules also benefits other molecules, as well as the generics. I urge everyone to participate in this effort of defending our products for the benefit of the entire industry. It’s currently bifenthrin’s turn in California, but it will be a different a.i. in a different state tomorrow. We all need to get involved.

PCT: For years, many thought FMC would be purchased by a larger competitor, but the company continues to remain independent. What do you attribute FMC’s ability to stay relevant in a rapidly changing marketplace?

O’Shea: I attribute any success we’ve had to our people. This is really a neat group of folks. We’re really scrappy. These folks don’t fall down when they get kicked. They are highly self-motivated individuals who have a genuine desire to grow this business. I think our people have a lot to do with our success.

In addition, FMC historically has had very strong distributor relationships, which has served us well. While we were getting our butts kicked from a generic perspective, I have to give our distributor partners credit for sticking by us when our products weren’t flying off the shelves.

I report to Milton Steele, who heads our Ag Products Group. He supported Dan (Rosenbaum) and the field staff as we went through that transition. It’s why we’re still standing today. He could have said, let’s just get rid of that segment of our business because it’s a pain in the butt, but he didn’t. Instead, he said, we’re not going to let you keep losing market share. We’re going to invest in your business and help you turn it around.

PCT: A number of years ago, FMC decided to reduce its investment in research and development. What impact has that had on the Professional Solutions business?

O’Shea: I would disagree with your premise. We haven’t reduced our investment in R&D. In fact, we’ve always invested in research and development, but now have a hybrid R&D Department. Just because we got out of the a.i. discovery business, doesn’t mean we’re outsourcing 100 percent of our R&D activities. We are continuing to invest in enhanced formulations and new products. While we’re not actively involved in discovering new a.i.’s – which can take many years to bring to market – we’re still purchasing access to a.i.’s. A lot of companies are developing excellent a.i.’s, but they don’t have access to a particular market. That’s what FMC Professional Solutions can offer in a partnership relationship, market access. We don’t want to wait 20 years to introduce the next great a.i., but that doesn’t mean we aren’t continuing to do a lot of research in house. Some of what we do is we get an a.i. from this corner of the world and we combine it with a formulation from that corner of the world, creating something unique in the process.

Transport Mikron is a good example. The active ingredients in Mikron are bifentrhin, which is a FMC a.i., and acetamiprid, which we purchased from a Japanese firm, while the formulation technology we used in the product was acquired from a third company. Such relationships can add great value to the industry. We still spend almost the same amount of money from a global standpoint in R&D; we just don’t spend it on a.i. discovery. We’re focusing more on formulations. It’s actually quite a dynamic way of doing business and it is paying dividends for us.

Just in the past few years we’ve introduced Transport Mikron Insecticide featuring a unique clear formulation that eliminates staining and residues, while delivering uniform tank mixing and stability; Talstar XTRA, a new granular insecticide containing bifenthrin and zeta-cypermethrin, a new active ingredient that eliminates ant colonies in four hours or less; all-natural Topia Insecticide, a low-impact pesticide available in an aerosol formulation; and Talstar EZ Insecticide with Verge Technology, a clay-based, rapidly disintegrating granular technology from Oil-Dri Corp., which provides more uniform distribution of active ingredient across the treatment area. Additionally, just last month, we introduced Talstar insecticide, the first-ever aerosol formulation of Talstar. It’s a water-based formulation that provides quick knockdown and long-lasting residual control of bed bugs, spiders and more than 40 additional pests.

PCT: What’s next for FMC?

O’Shea: We’re going to continue investing in enhanced formulations and new products. As mentioned previously, we’re also going to concentrate on getting closer to our customers and developing the talent in our organization. We have a relatively small organization today and we hope to continue to expand the Professional Solutions Group as the business grows. I would love our division to be a place where talented people can come and grow professionally, enhancing the overall organization. We need to create career opportunities at FMC Professional Solutions for our industry.
 

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An Aptitude for Juggling

Amy O’Shea is not only business director of FMC Professional Solutions, but also the mother of three children (twins Jack and Zoe, 6, and Quinn, 4), so she understands the challenges of juggling work and family. O’Shea, the family’s primary bread-winner while husband Sean, a chemical engineer and real estate professional, cares for their children at home, said one of the most profound comments she had ever heard about balancing work and family came during a speech by Brian Dyson, former CEO of Coca-Cola. "He said in life we all juggle five balls," she said, "family, health, work, friends and spirit. Of the five balls, all of them are made of glass except work, which is a rubber ball. You can’t drop your family; you can’t drop your health; you can’t drop your friends; you can’t drop your spirituality. Those are precisely the things that make the rubber ball bounce. I thought that was quite profound, so I shared that with our staff at our recent annual meeting. My message wasn’t that you shouldn’t worry about doing a good job at work, but at work you have a support system. You’ve got to be right with your family to be a good contributor to this team, and when one of those five balls gets out of balance, the team will support you."