It’s more than 23 years since I graduated from university. I remember it as if it were yesterday, and I still dream about it sometimes. It used to be nightmares, but not anymore. They are now just “anxiety dreams.” I had a bit of a hard time understanding quantum physics . . . still do . . . but I got through in the end.
I graduated in 1997, had a few commercial jobs (not my cup of tea, but I learned a lot) and in 1999, by accident, I started working for a company called Norit Cosmara in the Netherlands. They were searching for a “right-hand person” for the manager of product development at the time. Cosmara was the biggest producer of “white cosmetics” (emulsions) in the Benelux, developing skin and body care as well as sun care products. I was an organic chemist, so I thought I knew a bit about how certain molecules can interact with each other in complex mixtures, such as cosmetic emulsions. I thought it was interesting, applied for the job and to my surprise (it wasn’t easy to find a job as an organic chemist at that time) got it.
In my first year at the company I learned that 20% was indeed about chemistry proper, but 30% was microbiology, biochemistry (which I hated with a vengeance at that time) and things like colloid chemistry and rheology. The remaining 50% was all about being a great cook—mixing different ingredients to obtain a great product in the end, with each and every material in the mix playing a dedicated role to obtain something which is stable, feels well, looks good, and is pleasant to use. It was really just like cooking, but instead of putting the final product in your mouth, the ones I developed were put on the skin. I enjoyed working in the lab, often talking to our customers and getting their product development briefs, taking these back to the lab and making formulations for them as well and as quickly as possible. I was having the greatest time of my life. My professional life at least.
So many questions, and the answers came with time, hard work and experience. I was not just enjoying it, I was loving my job!
After twelve months working in the lab, our management decided to part ways with our manager of product development, and they offered me the job. I definitely did not see that coming, but I accepted the challenge. Talk about steep learning curves! All of a sudden, I was the head of a department with eight people working for me. I don’t know if you know the Dutch, but we like to discuss things. We have a bit of a problem with authority, especially when the boss is 30–31 (which I was at the time) with just a year’s worth of experience. I guess I managed, and after a year or two I started having fun at my job again.
Friday afternoons were for the lab. I wanted to take the time to keep on developing creams and lotions. I needed the experience and the knowledge. As most cosmetic chemists, I developed the habit of checking all the INCIs on every cosmetic product I got my hands on. What emulsifiers are they using? How have they preserved their formulation? How the hell come this formulation can be so thin and yet so stable and still have an SPF of 30? So many questions, and the answers came with time, hard work and experience. I was not just enjoying it, I was loving my job.
I think it must have been 2004 when I changed jobs. Mades Cosmetics from The Hague offered me a job. Mades was a small company at the time. They were building a new factory, aiming to start with contract manufacturing, and wanted me to set up all the aspects of the company concerned with developing and producing cosmetic formulations. Good for them was that I already had a few customers who were rather dedicated to the formulations I had developed for them (don’t ask me why), so these customers were happy to start working with Mades.
Setting up labs and building a factory and making sure that it complied with hygiene standards and everything was a great and interesting challenge. Our factory was in an area of the Netherlands called Friesland. They speak their own language there, literally. Frisians know how to speak Dutch, but they refuse to do so . . . or at least they are reluctant. They rather speak Frisian, even to a guy who doesn’t speak it. Only a few hundred thousand people speak Frisian, but I was one of them at the time. Not anymore, though. I’ve forgotten all about it.
It was an interesting and good experience, and what I loved most about it was that, as a chemist, I was working with customers and our own marketing department.
It was an interesting and good experience, and what I loved most about it was that, as a chemist, I was working with customers and our own marketing department. The head of our marketing department was an incredible woman called Byanca Knaap. She knew what she wanted and didn’t take no for an answer. As colleagues we loved and hated each other at the same time. She asked me to make something, I told her that it couldn’t be done and offered her an alternative, she didn’t like the alternative, I offered her another alternative, she liked this alternative better, but she wanted more, I offered her yet another alternative which was still not good enough, I told her to put her project where the sun doesn’t shine, she got mad, she stopped being mad, we laughed about it and found a compromise where she and I were both happy. That was the story of our lives. More than 14 years ago now, but I still miss it sometimes.
Since 1999 one fundamental thing has changed in my professional life. As an organic chemist, by definition, you hate biochemistry and “strange things” like cell biology. Organic chemistry is logical, and when it isn’t, it can be explained with good old-fashioned statistics. But there is nothing logical about biological chemistry, I thought. I didn’t want to understand it, as I thought there was nothing to understand. Well, developing cosmetic emulsions automatically puts you in contact with skin, and skin is all about biochemistry and cell biology. So, I put my disliking for these what I considered “soft” sciences aside and started learning.
As a cosmetic chemist you need to be a generalist. You need to know a bit about a lot. You need to keep on learning though.
As a cosmetic chemist you need to be a generalist. You need to know a bit about a lot. You need to keep on learning though. I learned from reading books, but mostly from my suppliers. I had a list of preferred suppliers which was definitely different from the list our buying department used. I chose my suppliers for the level of quality service they gave me. That is how I got to know Rolf Petersen, who was R&D Director at CLR at the time and had been for 20+ years. In the beginning, I didn’t understand 80% of what he was telling me, but I was intrigued. Interleukin-8, p53, transforming growth factor-beta. I had heard about all these things, but didn’t have a clue what they meant. This triggered me to learn more about the skin, what happens in it, and what I can do with a cream to do something good for the skin.
Rolf Petersen was going to retire, and all of a sudden I was moving to Berlin to be his successor. Clichés like “jump in the deep end” and “steep learning curve” do not begin to describe my first few years at CLR. I have not told anybody, but in the first year I lost 10 kg (which I gained back rapidly afterwards). I don’t think it was a type of stress which I suffered from psychologically, but it did feel like I was on a mission. A mission of learning, learning and learning some more, just to get to a knowledge level where I felt I would be able to talk with all the smart people in our industry—on their level. This took me a few years. I started in September 2006 (on my first day at work we had our company’s summer party, that was a good start) and probably somewhere toward the end of 2008 I had that feeling where I was comfortable with my knowledge level . . . and started gaining weight again. I may be wrong, but I think, at 1.92 meters tall, a “real man” should weigh over 100 kg.
CLR is a fantastic company to work for. That long-term vision and the growth and expansion we have and are still going through, is a great experience.
CLR is a fantastic company to work for. That long-term vision and the growth and expansion we have and are still going through, is a great experience. I was R&D director doing research, working with the lab and providing technical support to our sales team and distributors all over the world, and combining hardcore science with commerce and marketing. That is something I had been doing all my life in the cosmetic industry and that is really what I want. The hardcore science part included cell biology, biochemistry, phytochemistry, biotechnology and much more.
It was still all about being a generalist, but now it was important to know a lot about a lot. At CLR we had and still have our specialists for the different disciplines. We worked tremendously well together and had lots of fun doing so. About eight years ago now, I got to a point that doing research in the lab and providing (technical) support could no longer be combined. It had become too much work. That is when I switched to technical marketing and became responsible for the marketing department, and Heiko Prade joined CLR as the new director of R&D.
I was able to gain knowledge and understanding about human beings and how they act as consumers of products from the cosmetic industry.
I was director of technical marketing and continued to join science with commerce and marketing, translating our science into something a “normal” person can understand and appreciate as well. In the meantime, I was able to gain knowledge and understanding about human beings and how they act as consumers of products from the cosmetic industry. It took me some time, but I learned that there is little logic in our behavior as consumers. Even I as a chemist, who thinks that every decision is made by applying logic, am not logical. As a consumer I am an emotional being. So, I learned a lot about myself as well. I find this realization and understanding to be very important for me and for us. We need to find the common denominator between our science and the consumer’s expectations.
Thanks to the great women in our marketing department I didn’t have to be involved much in many aspects of our marketing activities. All the great things we are very well known for in the cosmetic industry are organized by our marketing department, but I don’t do anything for it, I just sign off the invoices. It has been eight years now and there is lots to talk about, but that will be for another article I will write sometime in the future.
My role in product design and development gives me the opportunity to further grow in my role somewhere between science and sales and marketing.
Now I am director of product design and development. I just started a few months ago. What has changed for me? Nothing much, luckily. Nathalia Gruber is now director of marketing and corporate communications. Communication is going to be a big thing for CLR—external communication, but internal communication as well. I like to communicate, but I am not very good at it, at least not when it comes to “official” communication. My role in product design and development gives me the opportunity to further grow in my role somewhere between science and sales and marketing. There are lots of things to do, and I am looking forward to the future. Step by step we will learn and grow. It is all about developing active ingredients which are relevant to our customers and their consumers. Active ingredients will always be around, but many are gimmicks and “trendy.” As long as we keep on focusing on developing active ingredients which really do something good in the skin and this effect can be proven scientifically and in the eyes of the consumer, we are going to be alright. Probably more than that, actually.
Thank you, Harald!