Old World Industries CEO On Changing The Culture Of A 46-Year Old Company

Charles Culverhouse, CEO of Old World Industries

Charles Culverhouse had a chance to take part in the emerging diesel exhaust fluid market in the mid 2000s for a startup company out of Atlanta.

It was through this experience that Culverhouse met with people from Northbrook, Illinois-based Old World Industries, one of the largest privately-held companies competing in the automotive aftermarket. They were interested in throwing their hat in the market and recruited Culverhouse to come aboard and run the division. Eventually, OWI became the number one supplier of diesel exhaust fluid in America under Culverhouse’s leadership.

As the head of that division, Culverhouse spent his time working with every functional group within the company. When Old World Industries was looking for a new CEO in 2018, he was a natural choice for the job. Culverhouse is now focused on helping the 46-year-old privately held company reorganize its structure in more of a matrix model that brings about enhanced collaboration.

“We’ve got core teams now that are part of divisions or product lines—such as coolants, lubricants, diesel exhaust fluid, lighting and car care products. We have agricultural and chemical divisions. Each of those product lines and divisions have core teams from the other functional areas and they really must collaborate in order for us to successfully achieve our goals as a company,” Culverhouse tells Chief Executive. “It’s truly been a step forward with regard to transforming our business.”

Culverhouse spoke with Chief Executive about the biggest challenges the company faces, how OWI tackles sustainability and more. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What are the biggest challenges Old World Industries is facing?

Competition is always there and quite frankly, I love competition. I’m competitive. I think the entire team that I’m building is competitive. But at the end of the day, you got to be able to do it better than your competition. And one of the transitions we’ve made is really digging deeper into the market and listening to the voice of the consumer. In terms of the automotive aftermarket, a lot of times that industry is really about how can you bring value to the buyer, who is one of your major retailers. How can you show them that you can bring value? We’re taking it a step further and really looking at not only how do we bring value to our retail and commercial customers, but how do we make certain that we’re listening to the voice of their customer and then they’re distributing it out to that end user.

So we’re doing more research. We’re doing more homework with regards to why consumers would buy our product over the competition. What’s missing in the market? Where are opportunities for innovation? And we’re highly focused on that. And then another challenge is just in growing. We’re changing the culture of a 46-year-old business. There are some aspects of it that are phenomenal, but there are other areas where we’re looking for continuous improvement. And then when you’re dealing with people, that can be challenging. You’ve got to get that team to see the vision and quite frankly, they’d want us to be a part of bringing that to fruition and being a part of that success.

What is your take on electric cars? Do they possess a threat to your business?

Well, I wouldn’t say I’m concerned about it. I would say we are actively following what’s going on in the market and quite frankly involved with some of the original equipment suppliers (OES). Our company has worked with automotive OES for many, many years. In many cases we’re working with them to develop the latest technology that they will be using, not only for first fill at their manufacturing plants, but also the aftermarket when that consumer buys a vehicle and they need to replenish their coolants, their lubricants or their diesel exhaust fluid, or windshield wash fluids. So our technical team, and I believe we’ve got one of the best in the industry, works closely with the technical teams of these OES manufacturers.

As a matter of fact, we were just awarded a piece of business with one of the top OES manufacturers that’s out there. And working with them and working with our technical people, you get a true sense of the direction of the market. From a technology standpoint, we understand the direction they are going with regard to the engines that they’re utilizing or the motors that they’re utilizing. And that allows us to really prepare for servicing the market as those pieces of equipment or those vehicles roll out into the vehicle part. So it gives us a unique perspective as to what is coming in the market because we try to be a part of the team that is really developing what we’re going to see in the future.

What kind of issues or initiatives have you guys taken on with regards to sustainability?

One of the reasons that Old World got into the diesel exhaust fluid market, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with that market or not, but that market was driven by an EPA mandate. And basically the requirement was, in the North American market that in 2010 all diesel engines for on-road applications, so passenger vehicles up to class eight tractor-trailer rigs, had to have an emission reduction system on them to clean up NOx and particulate matter that was going out into the environment. Heavy pollutants were coming out of these diesel engines.

And through that mandate, the company was looking at the industry, looking at the product and felt that it was something that we could truly get behind as a company and put out in the marketplace. And what it’s doing is it’s cleaning the environment. These diesel engines are more efficient from a fuel efficiency standpoint, they produce less pollutants than they ever have before, and this product that we produce and distribute out into the marketplace is playing a major part within that system.

What advice do you have for your fellow CEOs?

If you think about from a leadership philosophy perspective, I’ve always started with reflection. Start with being self-aware and quite frankly, genuinely humble as a leader. I thrive on building teams, collaborative teams, and for those teams at the end of the day, it’s all about delivering results. Just as in any business, I report to a board. We make commitments every year to that board on what we’re going to deliver for the stakeholders within that organization.

And I think that really by focusing on building the right team, make certain that you’ve got the right person responsible and as well as accountable, they’ve got the responsibilities, the ownership for the role that they play, but there’s also the accountability there. I find that a collaborative approach really allows innovation that allows new ideas and new concepts. But at the end of the day, there must be a decision-maker. So for me it’s about starting with myself and then, you know, really making certain that your team understands the part that they play and understands that they are a major part of bringing your plan to execution.