Strem Chemicals – A Model of Success for 50 Years

'This should be a course in how business can really, really work,' says longtime employee

By Jenny Gaines, Manager, Public Relations & Media

NEWBURYPORT, MA – Mike Strem is the epitome of a successful entrepreneur. Seizing an opportunity from his college research, Strem started a small chemical business in 1964 with two employees – himself and one other person – and has quietly grown the business into what longtime employees consider a model for success.

Strem Chemicals – A Model of Success for 50 YearsWhat’s his secret? Strem found his niche in the industry, surrounds himself with quality employees and, most importantly, gives back to the community. Strem and members of his staff recently shared insight about the company’s recipe for success.

As an undergraduate seeking a degree in history from Brown University, Strem began to think about life after college. The Pittsburgh native wasn’t sure what he could do with a history degree, so he started taking science courses at the University of Pittsburgh when he was home for summer break. Once Strem completed his undergraduate degree at Brown, Dr. E.M. Arnett, one of his chemistry professors at Pitt, encouraged him to go to graduate school and pursue a degree in chemistry. It was through research projects for Dr. Arnett that Strem was introduced to organometallics, which proved to be the roots of Strem Chemicals.

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What is Specialty Manufacturing?

  • Specialty chemicals are manufactured on the basis of their performance or function. They can be single-chemical entities or formulations whose composition influences the performance and processing of the end product. Individual customer service to provide innovative technical solutions is an important component of the service provided by specialty chemical producers.

The process in which specialty chemicals are created is called batch processing:

  • A batch process is one in which a finite quantity of product is made during a period of a few hours or days. The batch process most often consists of introducing measured amounts of starting materials into a vessel followed by a series of unit operations (mixing, heating, reaction, distillation, etc.) taking place at discrete scheduled intervals. This is then followed by the removal and storage of the products, by-products, and waste streams. The equipment is then cleaned and made ready for the next process.

What is Specialty Manufacturing?Specialty chemical manufacturers produce organic chemicals that are used in thousands of products vital to consumers and U.S. industry. Specialty chemical manufacturing is sometimes referred to as custom or fine chemical manufacturing. The term specialty chemical is based on use and fine chemical is based on purity, yet they are both considered a part of specialty chemical manufacturing.

This unique niche in the chemical industry is innovative, entrepreneurial and consumer-driven. Specialty manufacturers make smaller quantities of chemicals that have specific performance applications.

In contrast to the production of commodity chemicals, specialty manufacturing requires that the raw materials, processes, operating conditions and equipment change on a regular basis to respond to the needs of customers.

Specialty vs. Commodity

How Specialty Chemicals Differ from Commodity Chemicals

Specialty chemicals differ from commodity chemicals in that each one may have only one or two uses, while commodities may have dozens of different applications for each chemical. While commodity chemicals make up most of the production volume (by weight) in the global marketplace, specialty chemicals make up most of the diversity (number of different chemicals) in commerce at any given time.

Commodity chemicals are typically produced in continuous processes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Specialty chemicals, because of their complex chemistries and narrowly focused applications, are frequently produced batch-by-batch in a reaction vessel. Since continuous processes employ continuous feeds and yields, the production volume is usually far greater, per chemical, than for batch processes. The main difference, however, is that a batch process is not necessarily automated, and the chemical reaction (which yields the desired product) has a distinct beginning and ending for each batch.


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Manufacturing Processes

Chemical Manufacturing Methods: Batch vs. Continuous Processing

Chemicals are manufactured using one of two distinct methods: batch or continuous. A continuous operation requires a constant raw material feed to the process vessel and continual product withdrawal. A batch process, which is used by specialty chemical manufacturers, requires intermittent introduction of frequently changing raw materials, varying process conditions within the vessel, and different removal methods. In batch processing, vessels are often idle while waiting for raw materials or undergoing quality control checks and cleaning. Thus, emissions from batch processing are substantially different from those of continuously operating processes.

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SOCMA and Specialty Manufacturing

The major concern of specialty chemical manufacturers in 1921 was the need for barriers to foreign manufacturers importing into the United States. Members of this specialized sector of the infant chemical industry felt that American companies had the knowledge and capacity to compete against these more well-established companies in countries like Germany that were dominating the U.S. market. Thus, they created a trade association – then the Synthetic Organic Chemicals Manufacturers Association – to advocate for their needs.

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Ask the Expert

Dave Hurder, Vice President of Operations and Specialty Chemicals at McGean, Inc.Dave Hurder is Vice President of Operations and Specialty Chemicals at McGean, Inc.

Q: 1. How or why did you become involved in the specialty chemical industry and how long have you been a part of the industry?

A: My first experience with specialty chemicals was in 1981, working as a production engineer in a batch polymer plant for Air Products and Chemicals in Calvert City, KY. The opportunity was presented, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back, I would say it was a good move to make...

Legislative & Regulatory Issues

There are many legislative and regulatory issues facing the specialty chemical industry. With recent movement in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, long-term extension of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) is the hottest industry issue.

Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards

July was a stellar month in Congress for the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, the law governing our nation’s chemical safety and security. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 4007 – ...

Industry News

Industrial Biotechnology

With a total population of nearly 7.2 billion people, and a new birth every eight seconds, our modest planet is straining at the seams. Finding ways to maximize the sustainability of the resources that support us all is of critical importance...

Batch Processing Facts

  •   Process is a chemical reaction that takes place in a reactor (stainless steel, glass lined, etc.).
  •   Reactors range in size from kilogram-scale containers to units up to several hundred kilograms in size and are typically less than 16 feet high.
  •   Batch processing allows different products to be made in the same reactor or system.
  •   A batch producer can make more than 100 different chemicals in a given year.
  •   Batch processing is used when there is not enough product demand to make continuously.
  •   Batch processing is more practical and feasible for multi-step synthesis.
  •   Batch processing allows chemists to maximize the yield of a desired compound, which reduces waste.
  •   Batch processing can reduce overall process complexity.

By the Numbers

The following numbers represent the impact of SOCMA member companies on the specialty chemical sector.

  •    $24 billion – Total value of SOCMA member products and services.
  •   46,500 – Number of employees SOCMA members employ in the United States.
  •   93 and 192 – SOCMA members export to as few as 93 and as many as 192 countries.
  •   18% – Percentage of sales member companies generate through exports.
  •   $815,000 – Average expenditure of SOCMA members on meeting government regulations in 2010.

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Laboratory Products Glossary

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HPLC, High performance Liquid Chromatography – a way to tell purity of non-volatile materials, a technique used in analytical chemistry to separate compounds in a mixture. It is used in the medical industry detecting vitamins in blood samples, separating synthetic chemicals from each other.



Specialty chemicals go into many different sectors...


Product Applications

Specialty chemicals go into many different sectors, including:

  •   Adhesives and pressure-sensitive tapes
  •   Automobiles
  •   Clothing and textiles
  •   Computers
  •   Cosmetics, soaps, personal hygiene products
  •   Crop protection
  •   Detergents and cleaners
  •   Electronics
  •   Flavors and fragrances
  •   Food Products
  •   Gasoline, tires and lubricants
  •   Inks, dyes and pigments
  •   Medicine
  •   Paints, varnishes, sealers, and other coatings
  •   Performance chemicals
  •   Petrochemicals
  •   Plastics

Specialty Chemicals

Specialty chemicals can be material additives that enhance performance, ingredients in a formulation or mixture or intermediates, which are compounds used to make other chemicals.



Why They’re Special

What’s Special about Specialty Chemicals?


Specialty chemicals:


  •   Are generally characterized by their innovative aspects.
  •   Are sold for what they can do rather than what they contain.
  •   Are relatively high valued, rapidly growing chemicals with diverse end product markets.
  •   Have unique characteristics with applications in a myriad of sectors.
  •   Have higher market growth rates and prices.

Specialty Businesses

Specialty Manufacturing Businesses


  •   Contract Manufacturing
    •     •  Batch producer makes a compound, under contract, for another chemical company

    •     •  Often done in small quantities
  •   Research & Development
    •     •  Specialize in specific type of chemistry and perform R&D for other companies
  •   Pilot and Development
    •     •  Test production methods and techniques on a small scale prior to commercialization
  •   Niche chemical market companies for small quantity chemicals

Industries Served

Curious about which industries SOCMA members serve?


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