It was his first day on the job at Booz & Company, a global consulting firm with the lofty guiding purpose “to think big and deliver big for our clients.” As a 27-year-old freshly minted graduate of the prestigious Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Abizar Zaki was eager to do just that, use his talents to “deliver big” for his clients from the firm’s bustling Houston offfice. There was only one problem. As Zaki was being introduced to his new work colleagues by a Booz & Company office administrator, she turned to him and said, “You know, Abizar isn’t going to work. If you’re visiting a client in the U.S., it’s going to take them four weeks to get your name straight, and by that time you’ll be on to your next consulting job. Do you have a nickname?”
To which Zaki responded, “The guys I played soccer with used to call me Zack.” She stopped, paused a few seconds, before enthusiastically proclaiming, “Zack Zaki… That should work!”
“At the time, I didn’t realize I was making such an important decision,” Zaki says with a bemused smile on his face, “but the name has stuck ever since,” much to the consternation of his parents – Mumtaz and Farhana – who refuse to call him Zack. “They still prefer to call me Abizar, an ancient Arabic name.”
Although born in Indore, India, Zaki moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with his parents and older sister, Farukh Sear, at an early age. “My parents moved to the Middle East in the 1970s during the oil boom,” he recalls. Zaki’s father was a business manager for Ali & Sons, an international conglomerate serving the UAE energy, manufacturing and health care sectors.
“I grew up around the energy industry, so that got me curious about the chemical space from a very early age,” he recalls. That childlike infatuation with the chemical industry eventually led Zaki back to his native India to attend college at The Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, earning a degree in chemical engineering. He was only 16 at the time, with his older sister serving as his guardian.
“It was hard to live apart, but we found ways to stay connected,” Zaki said, although it wasn’t easy in the days before Snapchat and Skype. In the end, he says, the time away from his parents proved beneficial, nurturing an independent streak that persists to this day, while introducing Zaki to diverse cultural influences that would serve him well later in life. “I spent a lot of time fending for myself as my parents were out working,” he says. “I think that helped me to be able to adapt to new situations. It also helped me to function in a multicultural environment. While living in Abu Dhabi, I grew up in a melting pot of cultures and I had friends from different countries who spoke different languages.”
Upon graduating from college, he expanded his multicultural network by working at Honeywell, accepting posts in China, Singapore and the Middle East, before traveling to the U.S. to pursue his MBA at Duke University in 2008. Zaki spent “two wonderful years” in North Carolina, which included a memorable national basketball championship, before joining Booz & Company, where he was reintroduced to the chemical sector.
Returning to his early roots, Zaki thrived in his new role, working with a number of Fortune 500 companies on a wide array of initiatives ranging from cost containment and mergers and acquisitions to data science and business analytics. It was also during this time that Zaki was exposed to companies outside the energy sector, which prompted him to consider other career opportunities.
After marrying Nazia, an aerospace engineer working for Sikorsky Helicopters at the time, Zaki grew weary of the constant travel required of management consultants. “Once we started thinking of growing our family that’s when travel became a little bit of a challenge,” he recalls. “I was looking to slow down from weekly travel to something less frequent. That’s when I came across the opportunity at FMC.”
It was actually a Booz & Company alumnus who introduced Zaki to the Philadelphia-based company. “FMC had a new management team come on board in 2010 and they really began to focus the company on specialty segments which appealed to me,” he says. “The other thing I found attractive is it’s a fairly flat organization which enhances accountability and speed of execution, something I was looking for in a company.”
The business was also the “right size,” according to Zaki. “We’re big enough to have the resources to innovate, but small enough to react to market changes quickly. And finally, I had just become a naturalized U.S. citizen, so it was a bonus to work for an American chemical company.”
Since Zaki’s career path has mirrored FMC’s transformation in recent years, PCT traveled to “The City of Brotherly Love” to interview the fast-rising executive, who was recently appointed to the Professional Pest Management Association (PPMA) board of directors, a rite of passage for future market influencers in the pest control industry.
Zaki met PCT on the 25th floor of FMC’s headquarters building, a recent addition to Philadelphia’s impressive skyline. Excerpts from the 90-minute interview appear below with additional editorial content available in the “Online Extras” section of the digital edition of PCT.
PCT: What prompted you to leave India for the United States after launching a successful career at Honeywell?
Zaki: The primary driver was to pursue an MBA at Duke, and once I relocated I was interested in identifying opportunities where my career could grow.
PCT: There are a number of quality business schools in the U.S. What made you choose The Fuqua School of Business at Duke?
Zaki: I spoke to a lot of Duke alumni in different parts of the world and they all had good things to say about the school. Duke’s emphasis on a team approach to problem-solving and leadership also appealed to me.
PCT: Tell our readers about your time at the consulting firm Booz & Company. How did that experience shape you professionally?
Zaki: It provided me with an opportunity to work on multiple projects and learn about multiple areas of business. They were both short- and long-term projects dealing with everything from growth strategies, product launches, new markets, and mergers and acquisitions, so it was very educational. It also gave me access to a number of different executive teams so I could learn how business leaders tackle various problems and how they balance shareholder expectations with internal expectations, which was enlightening.
PCT: Did it also teach you what not to do in certain situations?
Zaki: I’d be lying if I said all the projects we consulted on and all the recommendations we made were accepted by our clients. I always thought of my career in consulting as an extension of my education. You learn by making your own mistakes and you also learn by seeing others make mistakes.
PCT: So, as a consultant you provide your best advice, but ultimately it’s the client’s decision about how to proceed. Isn’t that incredibly frustrating when you see them heading in the wrong direction?
Zaki: It can be, but not always. While it was important to be dispassionate in those situations, that was difficult for me because I’m a firm believer in accountability. I had a vested interest in the outcome of our recommendations and I made it a point to follow-up on the projects I was involved in. And I’m proud to say we were successful more often than we were not.
PCT: As you considered your next career move, what was your perception of FMC and in hindsight was it accurate?
Zaki: I was familiar with FMC back when it still had a machinery business segment. Since that time, however, FMC has changed a lot. It started to focus on its specialty businesses, a trend that has continued to this day with FMC becoming a pure ag chem player. In that respect, I think FMC was ahead of the curve. And, as I mentioned previously, the size of the company was attractive to me. I wanted to be part of an organization where I could influence the decision-making process as opposed to being part of a much larger organization where it would be more difficult to have a voice.
PCT: Does the specialty products group have a strong voice within FMC?
Zaki: We’re a very flat organization and I have the pleasure of reporting directly to the COO, so we’ve been given a high level of visibility within the broader FMC, but also a fair bit of autonomy when it comes to creating our vision for the business.
PCT: In terms of being a pure ag chem player, why is that significant for PMPs?
Zaki: Our focus in the ag chem area has a direct correlation to the innovation capability that we bring to PMPs. We’ve committed approximately 7 percent of our total revenue to R&D innovation and all of those dollars are going to be dedicated to agricultural chemicals, a portion of which will find its way into the specialty space.
PCT: What prompted FMC’s leadership team to focus on the ag chem space?
Zaki: When I joined FMC, I started off in strategy, so I had the benefit of being close to some of these transformational decisions that were being made. And what I saw was an emphasis on specialized businesses as opposed to commodity-based businesses. The specialty businesses had the advantage of being strategically aligned with long-term macrotrends. Some of these macrotrends include global population growth and the increased need for nutrition, which tied into our health and nutrition business. What it took us away from was some of our more commodity-based businesses like soda ash. What we ended up with were three core businesses – the ag chem business; the health and nutrition business; and the lithium business.
PCT: What changes did those businesses undergo under the new regime?
Zaki: The lithium business was a high-growth, specialty business, but it attracted a very different shareholder base and had unique business needs. It was eventually spun off in an IPO. Our health and nutrition business ended up as part of a transaction with DuPont where FMC acquired a significant portion of DuPont’s crop protection business. Insecticide discovery, as you know, is a very resource-intensive activity that only a handful of companies are doing, but at the end of the day those companies are going to be the ones providing new products to the pest control industry. We’re particularly well positioned in this market because when you add our company’s formulation expertise to DuPont’s discovery engine, you have something special.
PCT: Could you expand a bit on FMC’s formulation expertise?
Zaki: Traditionally, FMC’s strength has been in the formulation arena. We would license or acquire molecules, then add our formulation capability over the top of that technology to bring world-class products to market. As a result, our product pipeline was closer to the finalization phase rather than the discovery phase. When we acquired DuPont’s R&D capability (including the Stine Research Center in nearby Newark, Del., see page 105), their pipeline was focused more on the discovery phase. There was almost no overlap between the two companies, which was perfect for us because now we have a comprehensive pipeline.
PCT: How would you assess FMC’s product pipeline moving forward?
Zaki: I think our pipeline is going to result in innovation for the pest management industry in the years ahead, and it won’t be limited to the introduction of new AIs, although that will be a focus of ours.
PCT: Since new active ingredients are generally developed for the agricultural market first, it must be daunting for companies like FMC to develop products designed to help meet the future food demands of a growing global population.
Zaki: There are a number of factors impacting the ability to meet global food demand, including the increased consumption of protein, which is more resource intensive, and the impact of changing weather patterns on efficiency and yield. So there is a responsibility that comes with having a robust discovery pipeline, but FMC and its peer companies are well- positioned to fulfill those expectations.
PCT: Among some consumers, there’s this perception that global ag chem companies pose a threat to the environment because they manufacture pesticides, but in reality they’re developing next-generation products with more modest environmental impacts. Where’s the disconnect in this discussion?
Zaki: I think the disconnect is sometimes in terms of access to information and the interpretation of data. If you look at the regulatory requirements that we face, from a specialty chemicals perspective, they’re significant in terms of the data and testing we need to provide before a product is accessible to a PMP. And I don’t think all of that is transparent and visible to folks who are questioning the role of chemicals in our society. It’s that information disconnect that needs to be bridged. What is FMC doing in that regard? As one of the basic manufacturers in this space, we take our leadership responsibilities and regulatory requirements seriously, but we’re also doing a lot in the area of sustainability. Take, for instance, the development of Scion Insecticide with UVX Technology, a new product we launched last year that has a significantly lower environmental footprint compared to other chemistries in the same class. So our innovation focus over the next few years is not just on bringing out new products which are effective and efficient, but also have a positive environmental story to tell.
PCT: It’s interesting that sustainability is a foundational principle of so many ag chem companies, yet many government entities around the globe have reduced their emphasis on sustainability. It’s almost as if business is leading the way in this arena. Is that an accurate observation?
Zaki: There was a joint statement put out by top business leaders just recently on this topic. In the past, the purpose of companies was solely to create shareholder value, but that’s no longer the case today. You also have a responsibility to serve the community, protect the environment, and develop your people. When I think about the specialty business within FMC, that’s our mission. Our involvement in NPMA’s PestVets program is a good example (see related story above). Through PestVets, we’re working to address important issues facing PMPs like our industry’s ongoing labor shortage. So PestVets is a way for us to give back to the pest control community we serve, but it’s being driven by the business imperative of making a positive difference in the world.
PCT: Do you think such an approach makes a company more attractive to a new generation of employees?
Zaki: Yes, I do, because sustainability is important to that generation. I’m not saying it isn’t important to other generations, but it’s especially important to the new generation of employees entering the workforce. If we share those values it makes us a more attractive potential employer.
PCT: Could you provide our readers with some additional insights about the development of Scion? It’s the first new product introduction from FMC in a number of years, so you have a lot riding on it.
Zaki: If you think about our portfolio before Scion, we had a strong emphasis on Talstar and the general insect control (GIC) segment, in addition to the mosquito market. What we were missing in our portfolio was an advanced product that would provide quick kill, but also offer longer residual control under high-stress conditions and on harsh surfaces like concrete. We had the initial formulation of Scion in hand two or three years ago, but we decided to delay its introduction to perfect the formulation. It’s actually the most sophisticated formulation that FMC has ever developed both on the crop side and the specialty side, so we made the conscious decision to delay the release of the product to make sure it would be the best product possible for the perimeter space.
PCT: Could you take a moment to walk our readers through the rest of your product portfolio?
Zaki: Scion, as mentioned previously, is our most recent product launch. Talstar, a cost-effective option for a variety of treatment situations, is our workhorse. The product has been around for over three decades and it’s the gold standard for addressing a number of general insect control (GIC) issues. And finally, I’d like to highlight our food-handling portfolio which consists of Transport and the aerosols CB80 and D Force.
PCT: What has allowed Talstar to remain relevant for so many years?
Zaki: One of the most attractive things about Talstar is its label. It’s an easy product to work with and it can solve multiple problems, so it’s a valuable tool for many PCOs. It would be difficult to identify a PMP who is not either using Talstar currently or has used the product in the past. We’ve continued to enhance the Talstar formulation over time, which has also helped the product to remain relevant.
PCT: Is there anything we haven’t asked you about that you would like to share with our readers?
Zaki: I’m optimistic about the future of the pest management industry for a number of reasons. I think there will be increasing pest pressure year-over-year due to weather conditions becoming more extreme over time. I think there is also an increasing awareness among the public about diseases spread by pest vectors. I also think there is a steady rate at which the pest control industry will continue to grow, putting aside any economic downturn that we might go through. In fact, I think the PMP industry will continue to grow in the U.S. at a pace higher than GDP. Outside the U.S., there’s a whole trend towards urbanization where people are moving into urban areas in growing numbers, which will increase demand for pest control. There’s also a growing middle class around the globe with the disposable income required to purchase our services. I think outside the U.S., the growth is going to be more robust in the next three to five years. Consumer sentiment is also strong, which also bodes well for the industry, so the signs are good for continued growth.