Chemico CEO Takes on Pandemic Recovery with Military Precision
Marine Vet Leon Richardson Improvising and Adapting to Overcome Supply Chain Challenges
Leon Richardson’s eight years of exemplary service in the United States Marine Corps and the rigors of military training have proven to be invaluable in preparing him him for the rollercoaster ride that comes with entrepreneurship. But the president and CEO of Chemico Group, a Southfield, Michigan-based chemical management service provider, is tapping into those lessons learned and leveraging his military acumen to fight back against the pandemic’s impact on business and supply chain challenges to keep growing the business he founded 33 years ago.
With approximately 500 employees and nearly $200 million in annual revenues, Chemico Group is one of the largest minority-owned chemical management and distribution companies in the United States. The company works with manufacturing facilities to identify and secure the chemicals required in manufacturing processes as well as oversee the proper use, storage and disposal of toxic and non-toxic properties. Chemico’s clients include General Motors, Toyota, Ford Motor Co., Boeing, Honeywell and the Defense Logistics Agency.
A 2014 Michigan Chronicle Company of the Year, Chemico and Richardson have racked up their share of awards and accolades under Richardson’s leadership. Among them are the Minority Business Enterprise Luminary of the Year honor bestowed by the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, along with a score of prestigious awards from General Motors, Toyota and Chrysler Capital, to name a few. But even all those lofty tributes couldn’t insulate Chemico’s leadership from the devastating impact of a pandemic and its aftereffects have had on the automotive industry. Instead, strong leadership and grit have kept the business on solid footing, and Richardson is not resting on his laurels to level up in the marketplace.
COPING WITH COVID
Richardson fully embraced the Marine motto, “improvise, adapt and overcome,” when the pandemic hit in 2020. Chemico, with its heavy exposure to the auto industry, was dealt a serious blow when automakers were producing less than 13 million vehicles in the U.S. instead of the expected 17 million prior to the pandemic. It was time to pivot. “Fortunately, the state of Michigan deemed us essential manufacturing, so we switched from manufacturing solid-based materials to manufacturing hand sanitizer,” Richardson explained.
So, the company did just that. In 2020, hand sanitizer sales were around $2 million with extremely strong sales for several months. “So, when we lost a lot of production in our standard materials, we picked up production in cleansers and sanitizing based materials,” says the longtime Michigan resident. All told, revenues were down around 19 percent as a lack of fully operational manufacturing facilities meant fewer orders for chemicals. “We were still busy in the plants, moving chemistries around and making sure that chemistries continued to circulate and didn’t become spoiled goods.”
Chemico’s recovery from COVID’s impact is slow-going due to the same supply chain issues that have plagued virtually every industry worldwide. “We’re expecting the first quarter of 2023 to be the recovery period when we think the supply chain issues will be dealt with,” Richardson predicts. “The automotive industry at large should have somewhere around 4.5 million vehicles in inventory, and I think that number is down to about 1.5 million. We think the industry is going to start making progress to make up that volume in the first quarter and greatly improve.”
Of course, downturns are nothing new to Richardson. U.S. military combat in Kuwait in the 1990s severely impacted production, as did later conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “This is our 33rd year in business, and we’ve seen feast and famine, fires and floods,” Richardson attests. “This is just another business challenge that we had to adapt to.”
Born in Hamtramck, Michigan, and raised in West Haven, Connecticut, Richardson served in the Marine Corps Exchange, an outfit tasked with ensuring Marines have the accouterments of home – no matter where they are and no matter what combat theater they are involved in. “It really helped me with logistics and helped me understand how to move materials around the world,” he recalls. “It helped me understand how to get things done, how to focus, work with others, and team building.”
When Richardson was transferred to the U.S. East Coast while in the service, he enrolled in a University of Maryland off-campus program to pursue a business management degree, later relocating to Michigan and continuing his education at the Detroit College of Business. While in Michigan, he landed a job at a chemical supplier to the automotive industry. Richardson quickly learned the business, starting as a lab technician before transferring to the company’s production department and later sales – where he excelled. These experiences gave him a comprehensive understanding of chemical manufacturing, development, sales and marketing, and resolving supply chain issues.
“The aha moment for me was when the company decided to change how we were compensated. I decided that I wanted to control my own destiny and create my own opportunities,” Richardson recalls. “I felt I understood the industry and wanted to control my own destiny after I had been taken advantage of how I was compensated.” Chemico Systems, Inc. opened its doors on September 13, 1989, and has since become one of the leading suppliers of chemical products and chemical management services to the automotive, biotech, and academia industries.
SHAPING THE NEXT GENERATION
Taking the business from a startup to a leading supplier across several industries is no small feat, but Richardson believes he has much more to do. “We’re close to a $200 million company in a trillion-dollar industry. I think we could do a lot more,” he admits. “The internal combustion engine and the fossil fuel business are going to change dramatically through electrification. I really want to work with companies that see that electric future. I think we could double our size in the next five years.”
Richardson is also active in developing the next generation of diverse entrepreneurs by mentoring leadership at nearly a dozen small businesses and hiring interns from HBCUs. “I want to get more minorities involved. I want to help other entrepreneurs. And I want to inspire others to do what we’ve done. I shouldn’t be the exception, and I shouldn’t be the anomaly,” he says. “We weren’t special. We just worked really hard. Others should have the same opportunities that we’ve had.