The Specialty Gases segment is one of the few markets that has been resilient in this recession and represents an excellent growth path for the independent gas distributor. Critical to success in this marketplace is a professional and knowledgeable specialty gas force. 

From our experience in the specialty gas business, which includes working with pure gas production and fill operations,developing difficult mixing and certification procedures, marketing and selling spec gas products, and organizing specialty gas operations, we will discuss how to recruit, hire, and train personnel for specialty gas positions in this article.

Specialty gas customers are found in many markets — Life Sciences, Chemical R&D, and Environmental Sciences, for example— and require differentiated products and capabilities, so the business model for this segment tends to vary by company. Two requirements are basic to any spec gas business, however, knowledge and service. As described in Mike Lee’s article on page 40 of this issue, being conversant in the products and applications of specialty gases is key to your success. So is providing a high level of service to its customer base. The success of any specialty gas business, therefore, hinges on its personnel.

A specialty gas business is driven by a single, critical objective — to consistently provide reliable performance in both analytical and process gas applications.  Specialty gases are used for research and development, quality control, and emissions testing — areas in which the quality of analytical results is critical. These gases and mixtures have unique properties and technical purity levels for very specific applications and often have difficult blend and strict analytical tolerances. High purities and gas blending require substantial investment in a good laboratory and welltrained personnel. And to sell them requires a knowledgeable sales team.

THE INSIDER AND THE OUTSIDER 

There are two key positions that are significant to a successful specialty gas business — the “Insider” and the “Outsider.” The Insider is responsible for the production of high quality products. The Outsider develops the customer base and defines the products and services you will be selling based on customer requirements.

A gases and welding distributor in the $5–8 million revenue range that is just beginning to sell specialty gases needs to hire a good specialty gas technician. This is the company’s Insider who can work with the distributor’s existing internal capabilities — instruments, lab equipment, and sales personnel.

If a distributor’s specialty gas business develops, particularly on the gases side, and the company passes into the $15+ million revenue range, the company’s competent inside person or persons will need to be supported by a strong outside marketing/sales person that is focused on specialty gases. This is your Outsider.

The Insider 

The Insider is the specialty gas technician or laboratory manager. His/her primary role is the production and analysis of the specialty gases you want to sell. This person is responsible for producing and analyzing high purity gases and determining purity levels in the parts per million range (ppm). This requires the use of reference standards to qualify and certify results and the ability to utilize analytical equipment. The Insider must be familiar with gravimetric mixing/filling, flow control, and the use and refinement of the specialty gas Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). It is highly desirable for your specialty gas expert to have experience with gas chromatographs and other trace gas analytical instrumentation. In addition, the individual should be capable of directing and supervising others in the manufacture of these gases and teaching them the intricacies of the manufacturing and analytical processes. This person is the company’s technical expert for interface internally and externally and it is desirable that he/she has prior experience in science and manufacturing — the more the better.

The Insider is the specialty gas technician or laboratory manager. His/her primary role is the production and analysis of the specialty gases you want to sell.

The Outsider 

The primary roles of the Outsider are to determine the specialty gas needs of your marketplace, develop your basket of products and services, and sell those products and services. Because the typical industrial gas customer is generally not the same as specialty gas customers, developing a spec gas business requires a designated and knowledgeable sales person devoted to this market. This person spearheads the outside sales efforts, including the development of sales and marketing literature. The Outsider also assists other staff members involved in sales related to spec gases, develops technical spec gas resources that provide training to both outside sales and inside customer service, and provides pricing guidance on specialty gas products and related equipment. Sales experience is preferred for this position as well as some technical experience in specialty gases. In lieu of technical experience, a technical degree would be beneficial.

RECRUITING Consider Your Company’s Culture 

Any new hire must fit the culture of your company. A synopsis of your culture should include your company’s mission, values, and approach to work, goals, etc. During your recruiting and hiring process, refer to this document and ask, “Will this person be successful within our company?” An independent distributor needs employees with an entrepreneurial spirit. People with extensive experience and good technical experience within the more rigid corporate structure are not always the right fit.

Needs Analysis 

Develop a needs analysis for each position you wish to fill. What exactly is the Insider or Outsider expected to do? Get input from company managers. The sales manager may demand a seasoned sales person; the operations manager will look for technical capabilities that are not currently in place; the President might see the need for someone that can train other staff members or be especially versatile.

The Talent Pool 

People with technical depth in specialty gas production and gas analysis are in short supply, so finding qualified personnel is difficult. In the past, major manufacturers groomed personnel to ensure there were always replacements for technical positions. As business strategies changed, company training programs dwindled. Today, there are fewer technicians with industry training and the majors and independents alike have to work at finding qualified individuals for specialty gas positions. For the small-medium gas distributor, competing with the majors for someone with a broad base of specialty gas knowledge, without breaking the bank, is extremely difficult.

Recent graduates with chemistry degrees can make good job candidates for lab manager. They bring knowledge and enthusiasm to the job. There are some drawbacks to this choice, however. The recent grad is both under- and over-educated. On the one hand, a cylinder fill operation is not something you learn in college; on the other hand, a successful distributor program requires only a fraction of the information mastered as part of a chemistry degree.

A person with a two-year technical degree in analytical chemistry or instrumentation analysis can be a good choice for your lab manager position also, as they tend to have the math skills needed for specialty gas work. Look for a candidate that shows a propensity toward independent study, something necessary to developing new analytical methods.

People leaving positions at major gas companies are good candidates for specialty gas jobs with a distributor. A talented individual may take a position with a growing distributor, particularly one that is starting a new division. Accepting a position with a regional industrial and welding supply company that wants to build a specialty gas business from scratch is a growth opportunity that an entrepreneur would relish. A position that allows the candidate to expand his general business knowledge and to develop skills outside traditional technical boundaries is exciting. Present positions at your company in this light. We know of several people that have made the move to a regional distributor of spec gases after years of successful experience with a major.

People you have worked with in the past, both suppliers and customers, are often good job candidates. A customer can make the jump from user to supplier very comfortably and they already understand the importance of quality and consistency in calibration gas mixtures.

Where to Look 

When filling specialty gas positions, it is important to think out-of-the-box; the “right stuff” may not come through your usual recruiting efforts. Start the search from within. Someone in your group may already know your best candidate. For example, your sales manager may know a customer that would be appropriate, or the operations manager may have a good contact at a supplier. While this approach requires some sensitivity in recruitment, it should not be overlooked.

For outside help in finding specialty gas personnel, the Gases and Welding Distributors Association (GAWDA) (www.gawda. org) is a good source within our industry. There are also gas industry recruiting specialists that may have quality candidates. The online job community, including sites like Monster.com and Craigslist (particularly if you are looking for young talent) can also be useful. On-line sites offer ways to both search for candidates and post jobs and can be targeted to your particular industry or geographic area.

When hiring the Insider look to local trade schools with significant teaching in technical courses, particularly in computing and instrumentation, and Junior Colleges that offer associates degrees in chemistry. Veterans who have had military experience in chemical operations or warfare, employees of analytical and instrumentation companies, and technicians from R&D labs also make good Insider candidates. Plan plenty of time to fill this position as candidates need to be screened very carefully and are hard to find.

The Outsider sales position is not that different from a regular industrial gas sales position in that, first and foremost, it requires a highly motivated individual. Your specialty gas sales person, however, should also have an affinity for science and be a quick study in specialty gases’ rapidly emerging and technical process environments.

The Interview 

You are looking for the person whose experience best matches your job description and your needs analysis. Ask questions. Take candidates to your specialty gas lab so you can determine how much they know about the business. Whenever possible, use a team of employees with different perspectives to conduct interviews. This helps you understand if the candidate is ready to be a part of an entrepreneurial company. Remember, retaining your specialty gas specialists starts with good recruiting and hiring strategies. We advise against creating or describing a “customized” career path as this tends to box you in to a set path before you know how the candidate will really work out.

We advise against creating or describing a “customized” career path as this tends to box you in to a set path before you know how the candidate will really work out.

When interviewing candidates with longterm experience, particularly if it is with one of your competitors, determine what those years involved. Consider whether this longterm tenure with another company will impede the candidate’s ability to adapt to your business culture and service model.

Training 

While you always attempt to hire the best person, this does not preclude the necessity to train new personnel, particularly in the specialty gas business. For example, it is unlikely that your production process, from beginning to end, will be familiar to a new hire. And cross-training between lab and fill procedures is always essential. When out-of-specification materials are produced, it is the lab manager (your new Insider) that must work with fill plant personnel to insure that the processes are changed to prevent rejects that cost time and money.

An outside consultant can help with recruiting, hiring, and training the personnel required to make your specialty gas business a success. Week-long courses in specialty gas production and gas analysis are offered by companies like Special Gas Services (www.specialgas.com). Courses are excellent forums for your new specialty gas people to acquire hands-on training in a specialty gas mixture lab using state-of-the-art equipment and analyzers.

Find and Train, Then Retain 

Finding new talent for specialty gas positions is a process. Plan for the challenges outlined above. It is difficult to find good employees and you want to retain them. Place high value on the talents of your employees and encourage them to participate in business planning and decisions where appropriate. Assume that your employees want to make your business successful. Train them well. And remember, a successful employee is a long-term asset.