Braskem S.A., a major international manufacturer of petrochemicals that it ships in trucks and rail cars to other manufacturers, is forging its own digital path forward in digital commerce.
In fact, Braskem is building an edge in ecommerce—more specifically, a MyEdgePortal.com site where it’s introducing industrial customers to an entirely new ecommerce experience, says Jason Vagnozzi, Braskem’s director of North American New Ventures & Digital.
Still operating in a pilot phase, the MyEdgePortal ecommerce site is designed to cater to how customers want to search for, order and purchase large loads of chemicals with complex sets of specifications—and to attract and nurture more customers purchasing more products. The portal, for now, is operating for the U.S. market, but will eventually expand to serve Sao Paulo, Brazil-based Braskem’s online operations in Brazil, Mexico and Europe as well as the United States.
“It’s somewhat of a new concept for Braskem,” Vagnozzi says. “Two years ago, we were not really in digital commerce at all.”
But the manufacturer of plastic resin pellets—whose manufacturing customers use its materials to make widely used products like plastic bottles and yogurt cups—is pushing ahead with digital commerce in a multipronged growth strategy: It’s out to improve how it attracts, engages and services customers, and how it gets them to make more purchases across product lines, says Vagnozzi, who’s based out of Braskem USA’s headquarters in Philadelphia.
Stuck behind email technology
Moreover, Braskem, with about $14 billion in global sales, also is looking to build its expertise in digital commerce as a way to remain competitive in an increasingly digital world—and in the process, help lead the way for the petrochemicals manufacturing industry. “The oil-and-gas and chemicals sector drastically lags the rest of the B2B industries on the digital front,” he says. “The whole industry does business by emails and phone calls—the last new technology was email in the ‘90s, and it’s not gone beyond that.”
While there is some activity among chemicals manufacturers and distributors to develop digital commerce technology and operations, it’s still far from the norm, industry experts say.
The American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers, a trade association that represents a majority of the petrochemical manufacturers in the United States, including 229 petrochemical facilities, maintains no information on digital commerce among its members and did not approach the topic at its recent annual conference, a spokeswoman says.
For some, digital is ‘top of mind’
Paul do Forno, managing director for the B2B ecommerce practice at global consulting firm Deloitte Digital, says his firm is helping three large corporations conceptualize and develop B2B ecommerce channels for their chemicals divisions. Deloitte has also worked with chemicals distributor Univar Solutions, which already has a growing digital commerce operation running on the Commerce Cloud B2B ecommerce platform (formerly known as CloudCraze) from Salesforce.com Inc.
Do Forno isn’t free to name the other three clients but notes that each of them sees digital commerce as a must-have strategy. “They’re behind in ecommerce, and they want to get in there,” he says. “It is top of mind.”
But other companies require more prodding, particularly at a time when chemicals companies without a digital strategy stand to fall behind emerging industry ecommerce sites and growing online chemicals industry marketplaces like Knowde.com, do Forno says. “Part of the urgency we share when talking to chemical companies is: ‘You better get your digital going or Amazon and other specialized marketplaces will eat your lunch.”
Andy Hoar, CEO of consulting firm Paradigm B2B, says that, overall, “large manufacturers have been slow to adapt to a digital-first environment out of fear of disrupting existing channel relationships and grappling with complex fulfillment issues—for example, delivering dangerous fluids and chemicals that may require special shipping. But leaders in the manufacturing space are taking the opportunity today to rethink how they operate from top to bottom by using digital to streamline the supply chain and reimagine customer-facing relationships.”
Still, it’s still fairly common for chemicals suppliers to operate without any online ordering options for customers, or even a website or any way to provide customers with order status.
‘Will people order online?’
In some cases, chemical manufacturers actually tried kicking off an ecommerce portal in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, but found it difficult on early and relatively rudimentary ecommerce platforms to provide the type of complex ordering and customer service their customers required. “So they’re reticent to do it again,” do Forno says. “And they haven’t kept up with the advancements since then in the improved functionality and security of today’s platforms.”
“With some companies, it’s like I’m having a conversation from 20 years ago,” do Forno adds. “Companies ask, ‘Will people really order online? Is it safe?’”
Considering how far the industry is behind overall with reaping the benefits of digital commerce operations, Braskem’s Vagnozzi offers an unexpected analogy to the Domino’s Pizza chain: “It’s crazy, the chemicals and plastics industry doesn’t provide shipment tracking, but for $5.99 you can order a pizza and see when it’s put in the oven, when it will be delivered. How could we not be implementing this technology in our industry?”
Eyes on becoming a digital leader
In 2018, Braskem set out to get some answers. It worked with Boston Consulting Group, which produced a digital transformation study looking at Braskem’s industry, the company’s own operations and adjacent markets. The study confirmed that other industries were passing by the chemicals industry with forward-looking and effective digital commerce operations, and that Braskem itself had much to gain by standing out among petrochemicals suppliers and shifting to more efficient digital commerce operations and potentially lucrative opportunities.
“It became pretty clear that it was viable for us to have a more aggressive push to implement non-traditional technologies,” Vagnozzi recalls. “We decided then that we wanted Braskem to be a digital leader.”
And it realized it had much work ahead.
The company checked its options for developing a digital commerce platform that could handle complex orders of petrochemical products, which can vary widely by their mix of ingredients and such characteristics as tensile strength, and also track bulk shipments across trucks, rail and other modes of transportation. It also wanted a platform that could integrate well both with its own SAP enterprise resource planning system and with the many different flavors of ERP its customers use.
‘We’re not shipping widgets’
Braskem began working in late 2018 with web design and systems integration agency AAXIS and opted to deploy the OroCommerce digital commerce platform from Oro Inc.
“Because we deal in chemicals and plastics, and are not shipping widgets, a lot of digital technology platforms don’t fit our business model for the way we sell and ship,” Vagnozzi says.
Braskem figured OroCommerce also had the flexibility to more easily integrate with the many different ERP systems operated by its customers as well as with its own SAP system, Vagnozzi says.
After a three-month web design period, Braskem launched phase one of its ecommerce pilot project in January 2019, with two customers testing the site’s basic functionality.
Throughout the rest of 2019, it gradually added more customers as users to test the ecommerce site, learning along the way what improvements the site needed to keep such customers happy. “We wanted to use the agile approach: get customers to use the site as fast as possible and in the process tweak the site according to their wants and needs,” Vagnozzi says.
Learning how customers buy online
Early in the testing period, customers navigated through the product listings without product images or a site search feature. “We wanted to learn how they like to view product properties,” he says.
Braskem’s digital team and AAXIS checked in with their test customers every two weeks to see what improvements they wanted in the ecommerce site; after six weeks, they brought several more customers onto the site as steady users to learn more about what needed improvement. “We probably implemented over 500 enhancements over eight months,” Vagnozzi says.
In some cases, Braskem let its customers vote among a few options, such as how to segment site search results. In addition to adding product images to search results, for example, Braskem let buyers search among products tailored to their industry, such as automotive; it also let them search for petrochemical products within ranges of required tensile strength, or the degree to which a finished plastic product can withstand pressure without breaking.
The manufacturer also designed MyEdgePortal to help smooth the complexities of managing shipments of chemicals and providing order status to customers.
Tracking rail car shipments
Braskem typically processes more than 1,500 shipments per month via rail cars, which can take up to 14 days for delivery. “We would email a notification when it ships, but for 14 days the customer would be in a blind,” Vagnozzi says. Winter weather often adds two days to shipments, and even in good weather, it takes time to manually check on shipment status. When customers call customer service, “they would have to wait one, two or even several hours to get an answer on shipment status,” he says.
Customers also would routinely get barraged with documents flooding their email inboxes. “Some of our larger customers may get 15 shipments a month, and for every shipment, we’ll send five emails—including free-shipping notifications, bill of lading, invoices,” he says. “Their inbox fills up pretty quickly.”
Andy Wagner, executive director of AAXIS, says Braskem now pulls in shipment status for each customer order into its SAP ERP system from numerous checkpoints of railroad companies and presents that information to customers on MyEdgePortal. It’s also connecting with trucking companies to provide shipment status online.
Wagner says the OroCommerce platform’s overall flexibility and built-in B2B features has suited Braskem’s needs for how it connects with and engages customers as well as shipping carriers and other business partners online.
Forecasting chemicals orders
For example, the new ecommerce portal was designed with a feature that helps customers and their sales reps enter forecasted amounts of chemicals they plan to order in a coming year—a critical service for customers who want to improve their accuracy in ordering the right mix of chemicals products in multiple rail-car loads each year. Throughout the year, the MyEdgePortal provides reports comparing the mix of chemicals that a customer ordered with what it actually wound up consuming.
The more data the system compiles and analyzes, Wagner says, the more accurate it should become in helping customers set forecasts. Eventually, he adds, Braskem may also embed machine learning and artificial intelligence software to further improve forecasting and help customers order only what they will actually use.
Braskem is also figuring out other new applications for MyEdgePortal, Vagnozzi says. For example, Braskem is exploring how it can use the portal to support its commitment to sustainability in the plastics industry.
Attracting more buyers long-term
“If we have customers with plastic waste from their manufacturing process and don’t know how to effectively recycle it back into the market, we could connect them with buyers,” Vagnozzi says. “And work with our customer base to see how they can use more recycled plastics in their manufacturing.”
There’s “not a lot of money” in recycled resin, but such a recycling program would bring more traffic to Braskem, he adds.
“The easier it is to do business with us, it will drive more revenue to our core business,” Vagnozzi says. “Customers who buy only some products will buy more, and we’ll find new customers.”
“We have to realize our industry is changing,” he says. “And if you don’t change, you may not be around long.”
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