Trying to categorise Buckman Laboratories today is not as easy as it was in the past. Ten or even five years ago, the leather industry would have identified Buckman as the microbiocide company, manufacturers of the industry’s Busan products and experts in handling complex microbiologically-related problems.

This categorisation stands in stark contrast to the 150 finished leathers on display at the last APLF in Hong Kong, exhibited under the banner: ‘Technologies from raw to finish’.

Elton Hurlow, marketing manager for Buckman’s leather interests, says: ‘In the last decade we have been moving away from a product focused or niche marketing approach and have embraced an industry and customer oriented approach. This has had a profound effect on the way we are structured and the way we do business.’

Buckman Laboratories remain privately held and are ‘not for sale’ says CEO Steve Buckman. Buckman have witnessed many chemical companies consolidate and merge to cut costs or simply downsize.

Buckman, on the other hand, have been increasing their number of technical sales staff serving the leather industry and have been investing in capacity to expand international sales with a plant currently under construction in Shanghai, China.

According to Buckman, there are many chemical supply companies in the leather industry that claim a market approach and a commitment to focus on customer needs.

However, what does such an approach look like and how is such commitment measured? The leather industry is very fragmented, with a great diversity of regional markets. The specific needs of each customer are also very different.

Understanding the customer

‘In our view, the key to a customer focused approach starts with people’, says Hurlow. ‘Superior individuals with a good understanding of the local industry, its strengths and its limitations are crucial to our success. This is the first step. The next step is to provide first-rate training. Training concentrates on products, including both technical training as well as the development of people skills. While the chemistry is available in the bag or drum, the people chemistry is absolutely necessary to ensure the customer’s requirements are defined.’

Besides training, a key element to successful problem solving for the tanner or finisher is communication. At Buckman, every employee is supplied with a laptop computer and training on how to use it. They have interactive forums that are used for training, problem solving and sharing of experience. This places the global expertise of the company at the associate’s fingertips.

Many times, the solution to a particular problem will come from the other side of the world, with a response time measured in hours, rather than days or weeks. In addition, an internet based forum structure facilitates a common learning curve throughout the organisation and an electronic library ensures that valuable knowledge is captured for future use.

You may not find a common product line for the leather industry at each of the regional Buckman companies. What is common, is Buckman’s approach in working with customers to define problems and then provide the chemistry and technology to solve those problems.

Elton Hurlow provides examples of the Buckman approach: ‘We were recently involved in a wet-blue start-up programme where we provided all of the speciality chemical products. We developed the tanning recipe, assisted with sourcing of commodity products and provided on-line product monitoring and electronic ordering facilities for certain bulk chemicals.

‘Elsewhere we have established laboratory facilities for tanneries and trained tannery staff on standard analytical techniques. Buckman have also developed crust leather recipes for a start-up tannery and have advised customers with finishing techniques. We conduct safety seminars for customers and training programmes for supervisory tannery staff.

‘Further examples include assisting customers in solving effluent problems and the running of effluent treatment plants. We have also set up ISO programmes for clientele and helped establish quality and safety programmes. You do not get involved in such diverse activities by selling. You have to start listening.’