Mays, William G. 1946–
William G. Mays 1946–
It is hard to separate William G. Mays the man from Mays Chemical Company—the man launched the company, and the company culture and mission reflect the man. Mays started up Mays Chemical, a distributorship, in 1980, and it remained a one-man operation in a small office for less than a year. It quickly became evident that Mays needed more help as he expanded his fast-growing business. He developed Mays Chemical into one of the 20 largest chemical distributors in North America, which does business in all 50 states as well as in Canada and Puerto Rico, providing solvents, additives, preservatives, and other chemicals to the food, pharmaceutical, and automotive manufacturing industries.
Mays is considered Indiana’s most successful African-American businessman. He holds several firsts in his home state: he is the first African American to serve as campaign chairman for the United Way of Central Indiana; the first to chair the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the first to be elected to the Indianapolis University Foundation board, and the first appointed to chair the Indiana Lottery Commission. He has served on a number of boards, has earned many honors and awards, and has received three honorary doctorates.
Mays was born in Indiana in 1946. His father was a chemistry professor, and Mays went into the chemistry field as well. In 1967 he worked for six months as a test chemist for Linkbelt Facility but soon moved into sales for Procter & Gamble Company. He also worked in marketing for Eli Lilly and Company. Mays earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1970 and a master’s degree in business administration in 1973, both from Indiana University.
Mays went to work for Cummins Engine Company in 1973, where he forecast engine demand and oversaw operations and planning. But in 1977 he moved into what would be the forerunner of his life work when he became president of Specialty Chemicals, the distribution division of Chemical Investors (CI), a minority-owned company. Here he made contacts in the chemical manufacturing industry and negotiated seven-figure contracts. Mays built company sales from $300,000 to $5 million between 1977 and 1980. In 1980, when minority shareholders lost control, Mays decided it was time to leave and go out on his own. He told Black Enterprise, ” I knew if I was able to help build CI into a $5 million company in a few short years, I could do it for myself.”
In March of 1980, despite a slumping economy, he started Mays Chemical with $60,000 in seed money—$10,000 from personal savings and a $50,000 loan from Superior Solvents of Indianapolis. He also put his home up for collateral in order to establish a credit line. Mays set a goal of $1 million in sales. The skills he developed at Specialty Chemicals served him well, and in one month he negotiated contracts worth $750,000. In its first year the business grossed $2.2 million in sales. In 1981 Mays hired a vice president of operations and a controller. Eventually he would negotiate an $8 million deal with Pillsbury Company and a $30 million contract with General Motors, although the
At a Glance…
Born William G. Mays, in 1946, in Indiana; son of a chemical professor; married Rose Cole; children: Kristin and Heather. Education: Indiana University, B.S., 1970, M.B.A., 1973.
Career: Test chemist, Linkbelt Facility, Indianapolis, 1967; account manager, Procter & Gamble, 1967; market planning, Eli Lilly and Co.; assistant to president, Cummins Engine Co.; president, Specialty Chemicals; founder and president, Mays Chemical Co., Indianapolis, 1980-.
selected Memberships: Chair, Consortium for Graduate Study in Management; bd director: Anthem Insurance, Inc.; Bank One, IN; IN State Chamber of Commerce; IN Univ. Foundation; IN Univ. President’s Council; Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce; National Minority Supplier Development Council; and Natl. Urban League and United Way of Central IN.
Selected Awards: Recipient, Man of the Year award, B’Nai B’Rith Isidora Feibleman award, 1990; IN Minority Small Business Advocate of the Year, 1991; Distinguished Hoosier, 1992; 13th in Black Enterprise Top 100 Industrial/Svc Cos.; President’s Award, Black President’s Roundtable Assn., 1992; Anti-Defamation League Americanism award, 1993; Charles Whistler award, 1993; Indianapolis Education Assn’s Human Rights award, 1994; IN State Conference NAACP Labor and Industry award, 1994; carried Olympic flame during trip through Indianapolis, 1995; Herman B. Wells Visionary award, 2000; honorary doctorates: Univ. of Evansville; Marlin Univ.; IN Univ.; numerous other honors and awards.
Address: Mays Chemical Company Inc., CEO, 5611 E 71st St., Indianapolis, IN 46220.
latter fell through. In 1987 Mays bought United Chemical, another minority-controlled company, and one which served the automotive industry. Five years after its start-up, Mays Chemical bought what remained of Specialty Chemical after Chemical Investors (CI) failed. While other businesses, especially those in the $300 billion U.S. chemical industry, experienced economy-related woes in the 1990s, Mays Chemical remained strong.
One obstacle he would always face was the stigma of failed minority businesses. He told the New Standard, ” Those failures are remembered for years and years. I frequently hear from a potential client something like, ‘I used to do business with a black company that went under in 1984, why should I do business with you?”’ He went on to relate how even though he had no connection to a failed minority company in Chicago, Mays Chemical was put on credit hold by a corporation that had done business with Mays as well as the failed company. Mays also told the New Standard, ” It was as if they wanted to check whether all black-owned companies were connected or conspiring. Corporate America has the memory of an elephant when it comes to forgetting any negative dealings with black-owned companies and it retracks that at any opportunity.”
Mays recognized the importance of diversification, and the strategy has been successful for him. In 1990 Mays purchased the Indianapolis Recorder, the fourth-oldest black newspaper in the nation. The publication had been languishing in circulation and financial departments but Mays’s business savvy turned it around and made it profitable, garnering many awards, including Merit Awards from the National Newspaper Publishers Association. He also invested in Hoosier Radio and Television Properties, becoming a majority owner. In 1992 Mays Chemical made the Black Enterprise top 100 list for the first time.
Mays’s strategy in running a chemical distributorship has been to concentrate on specialty or high value products that are not widely manufactured or sold by the majority of distributors. Thirty percent of the chemical business is in the automotive industry, while the remainder serves the food and beverage and pharmaceutical-related industries. “People get sick and people have to eat. That’s about as recession-proof as you can get,” Mays told Black Enterprise. His clients have included Pepsi-Cola, Miller Brewing Company, Kellogg USA, Kraft Foods, Ford Motor, Daimler-Chrysler, General Mills, Eli Lilly, Abbot, Pharmacia, Philip Morris, and Procter & Gamble.
In the fall of 2000, Mays Chemical experienced its first setback. The company had projected sales of $200 million, but overextending itself resulted in a soured deal with General Motors, costing Mays Chemical a $30 million contract and forcing the elimination of 20 jobs that had been created because of the deal. Others in the in the chemical business had also suffered severe setbacks because of the oil and gas crisis of late 2000, and Mays’s own setback caused him to rethink his business and strategic planning. Nevertheless, in October of 2001, a trade fair announcement from the National Minority Supplier Development Council described Mays Chemical as having sales of more than $150 million, more than 190 employees, and running facilities located in Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The Council also reported that since 1995, Mays Chemical had ranked in the top 20 of Black Enterprise magazine’s most successful black-owned firms in the United States.
Business appears to be the focus of May’s life. When asked in a Black Enterprise interview what he did for fun, he replied, “I like spectator sports, and I might piddle around with tennis. There’s not really anything I’m that passionate about.” But he does have a special interest in minority-owned businesses and strives to see them succeed. In the past, Mays held investments in a number of young businesses. But the energy involved in hands-on management, coupled with frustration at the poor growth of some businesses, convinced him to reduce the number of his investments. He told The Indianapolis Star, ” If you talk to minority companies, they will claim lack of access to money is their biggest problem. That’s a problem, but management is a bigger problem.” Mays said people desiring to go into business for themselves constantly approach him to seek funding. But Mays has a business intuition about deals as well as people. This knowledge impacts his decisions: “Whenever I make investments, I’m taking money—directly or indirectly—out of Mays Chemical.” His investments in new companies are undertaken as much for helping out as they are for monetary return: “For the most part, the reason I got involved was not to seek a high return. I was really trying to help plant a more stable minority business community so more black-owned businesses would participate in the growth of Indianapolis,” he told the Star.
Mays acknowledged the contributions of his employees and the fact that Mays Chemical would not be successful without them. And he realized that today’s worker is different from himself. Loyalty is an important trait and he does what he can to foster it. He’s been known to do “crazy” things for his employees. In one instance, Mays chartered a plane so that an employee’s terminally ill father could be flown home to Jamaica, accompanied by his medical team. Mays told Black Enterprise, ” We’re not trying to hold people in the company, but you do have to try to do unique things that separate you from other companies and earn loyalty from your people.”
Mays has made it a point to give back to his alma mater, and to help those who come after him. For nearly 30 years he has made charitable donations to the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, an alliance of 14 schools of business in partnership with corporate America. Mays serves as chairman of the Consortium’s Alumni Leadership Giving Program. It has been his goal to increase giving by encouraging alumni gifts on an annual basis. He told The View, a Consortium for Graduate Study in Management publication, “My original pledge when I came out of school in 1973 was to give back the money the Consortium contributed to me for my tuition and fellowships. I wanted others who came after me to have the resources to go to school, because without the Consortium fellowship, I would not have been able to go to graduate school at that point. After I graduated and began to make significant money, then I upped that pledge myself. I said that I would give back ten times what the Consortium has given me.”
Black Enterprise, June 1992, p. 186; June 2001, p. 136.
Indianapolis Star, February 4, 2002.
National Commission on Entrepreneurship, www.ncoe.org/about/commissioners.html
National Minority Supplier Development Council, Inc., www.nmsdcus.org/News/Honoree2.htm
New Standard, June 11, 1995, www.s-t.com/daily/06-95/06-11-95/061lblackexecs.HTML
The View, Winter, 2001, www.cgsm.org/view/2001Winter/Alumnigiving.htm
University of Indiana, www.iuinfo.indiana.edu/ocm/releases/visionary.htm
—Sandy J. Stiefer
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