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Leon Richardson Improvising and Adapting for Supply Chain Challenges

Marine Vet Leon Richardson Improvising and Adapting to Overcome Supply Chain Challenges

By Alan Hughes

Leon Richardson’s eight years of service in the United States Marine Corps may have prepared him for the rollercoaster ride that comes with entrepreneurship. But the President and CEO of Chemico Group, a Southfield, Michigan-based chemical management services provider, will have to leverage all his military training and fortitude to navigate the pandemic’s impact on business, supply chain challenges and inflation worries 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 the chemicals required in the manufacturing process and procure, deliver, and oversee the proper use, storage and disposal of that chemistry. 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 has racked up its share of awards under Richardson’s leadership. Among them is the Minority Business Enterprise Luminary of the Year bestowed by the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, multiple “Supplier of the Year” and its equivalents from General Motors, Toyota and Chrysler Capital to name a few. While all the accolades in the world couldn’t prepare Chemico’s leadership for the devastating impact of a pandemic and its aftereffects have had on the automotive industry, strong leadership and grit have kept the business on solid footing.

 

COPING WITH COVID

Richardson fully embraced the old 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 because of 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 recalls.

So, the company did just that. In April 2019, Chemico produced about $2,000 of hand sanitizer. In 2020, hand sanitizer sales were around $2 million with 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% as a lack of fully operational manufacturing facilities meant fewer orders for new 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 that dominated headlines in the 1990s had 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.”

 

SEMPER FI

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, 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 chemicals 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 complete 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 on 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 mean 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 is 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 mentoring 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.



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