Challenge Accepted: Blazing a Trail in the Powder Coating Industry

Posted on Thursday, March 4, 2021

By Sheila LaMothe

Shelley Verdun is the first to admit she likes a challenge. It’s a big part of who she is, quite frankly something she’s proud of, and rightfully so. No doubt her childhood is chock full of conquered challenges, but it’s Shelley’s journey to a career in powder coatings that serves as an inspiration for those just starting out, perhaps even more so to those already in the industry considering taking on a completely new role.

When Shelley enrolled at St. Vincent College near her hometown in the Pittsburgh, PA, area, she envisioned a future in teaching. She always loved math, and while she had interest in the sciences, she found them to be, you guessed it, a challenge. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that rather than majoring in math, which came easy to her, Shelley chose to pursue a degree in chemistry with a math minor. At the time, she was one of only a few females in the chemistry program, and while she initially had zero interest in becoming a chemist, she quickly realized she enjoyed the detail-oriented nature of chemistry. Just as quickly, she learned that this would not be an easy path. Coursework and labs were trying and time-consuming, and rather than enjoying a much- deserved break in the summer, Shelley chose to enroll in additional courses. Sometimes she envied students who chose to pursue seemingly easier studies, but stayed the course hoping her dedication would one day pay off.

With her sights set on teaching math or chemistry, Shelley’s junior year brought with it a job shadow opportunity at a local high school, an opportunity that would swiftly prove teaching was not for her. So now what? Her academic advisors told her she would have lots of opportunity, but what exactly did that mean? With little-to- no exposure to manufacturing growing up, an industrial- related STEM career was something completely unfamiliar to her and not at all on her radar.

Opportunity Knocks…Again, and Again
During the first semester of Shelley’s senior year, she attended a PPG career day on campus, spearheaded by a St. Vincent alumna and PPG employee. The woman’s praises about the company and its employees, combined with its “backyard” location, piqued Shelley’s interest. She submitted an application and soon found herself in a full-day, whirlwind of an interview where she recalls meeting with at least ten people. Turns out that first interview would also be her last. While many of her classmates were just beginning their job searches, Shelley accepted a position as a chemist at PPG within the industrial coatings segment.

Coming up on 33 years with PPG, Shelley reflects on her early days with the company. “I didn’t know a lot about polymer chemistry, but as it turns out it was a great place to start,” she shares. “It taught me the fundamentals and has served as a springboard to do other things.” And a springboard it was. Throughout her PPG career, Shelley advanced through progressively responsible roles in the company’s coil and extrusion coatings group, including development chemist, color services manager, and technical manager before being appointed global program manager for industrial coatings in 2012.

In 2014, PPG’s imminent acquisition of IVC Industrial Coatings brought about new challenges, and a departure from the technical roles in which Shelley excelled. PPG has a long history as a leading company in liquid coating products. However, the IVC acquisition served as a pathway to expand their powder coating activities, which the company recognized as a growing technology. Shelley was selected to serve as product manager industrial powder coatings, and acquisition integration manager. “Product management was a big step away from my technical roles,” admits Shelley. “It’s the central point between the internal technical team, the sales rep network, and the customer.” Shelley explains that her technical positions were more tactical, while product management was less about accomplishing specific tasks and more about looking forward, developing the next generation of products. While she loved the technical part of her career and credits that experience with building the foundation for her current endeavors, the transition to product management exposed her true passion, business strategy.

Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone
Shelley’s role leading the integration of IVC revealed something else she never expected—powder was where she wanted to be. She was impressed with its durability, high- performance, and environment-friendly characteristics. With powder coatings identified as a strategic initiative for PPG, Shelley saw opportunity. Armed with a passion for innovation and her propensity for a good challenge, in 2017 she jumped at the chance to become global product manager for powder coatings. While she had a library of knowledge about liquid formulations, powder was still new to her. So, she set out to engage with a trade association that would help her succeed at her newest challenge, and that association was PCI.

Following the mantra of her vice president, ‘life begins at the end of your comfort zone,’ Shelley boarded a plane to PCI’s 2017 Annual Meeting in Albuquerque, NM. “I didn’t know a single person,” she admits. What she did know was if the next phase of her career was going to be in powder coatings, she needed to get involved. She hoped the annual meeting would provide the opportunity to learn more about powder, how to get involved with PCI, its various committees, education programs, and more.

Looking back, it’s safe to say that first annual meeting delivered. Shortly after joining PCI in 2017, Shelley became chairperson of the Certification Committee and in 2018 she was elected to PCI’s Board of Directors. She led the effort to secure PPG’s commitment to the association’s Corporate Named Scholarship Program in 2019, with PPG awarding their first PCI scholarship in 2020. Reelected to the Board for a second term in 2020, a larger leadership role within PCI would await her in 2021 when she was selected by her fellow Board members to join the Executive Committee as Secretary/Treasurer. Only the second woman to serve on PCI’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee, Shelley will work her way through the officer rotation and is slated to become the association’s first female president in 2023.

As a member of PCI’s leadership team, Shelley’s goals are summed up in three words: education, innovation, and membership. While the influence of powder continues to grow in the world of industrial coatings, Shelley shares, “It’s up to us [PCI] to drive the advancement of powder coatings. We need to continue to promote the benefits of using powder. Likewise, we need to overcome perceived limitations, an area where our suppliers are making great strides through new innovations.”

Representing the powder coatings industry in North America, PCI’s members come together to serve as the voice of the industry. However, Shelley believes that voice could be louder and more influential with increased membership. “There are many key suppliers who aren’t members, and we need to recruit younger members to lead our charge well into the future,” states Shelley. “We need everyone to get involved and promote the benefits of powder.”

Mentors Matter
Without question, Shelley’s career accomplishments are impressive. In addition to her ongoing climb up the corporate ladder, she is named as an inventor or co-inventor on four U.S. patents. While she’s worked hard for each of her achievements, Shelley credits a network of mentors with providing guidance along the way. “I’ve had many mentors in my life,” she shares, and recalls one in particular from her early days in the technical lab. “She was the only female salesperson for aluminum extrusion coatings and a true trailblazer in her time. She took me under her wing,” remembers Shelley. “She put me in front of our customers. I traveled with her, and she included me in meetings—even invited me to customer Christmas parties.”

Shelley describes this pioneering saleswoman, who would retire after 50 years of service with PPG, as “the picture of customer service” but also admits she was very demanding and could be challenging at times. Still, as Shelley looks back on what was likely one of the most formative mentorships of her professional life, she realizes the significant impact of this relationship, which evolved into just as much a friendship as a mentorship.

Over the years, Shelley has gone back to her mentors seeking their advice and opinion on a variety of matters. She feels the most successful mentor relationships are those you create and grow on your own. It’s a message she shares with younger PPG employees. “It’s your career and therefore, your responsibility to develop relationships and network to get where you want to go,” asserts Shelley. She also strongly recommends expanding your network outside of your immediate circle. “Getting involved provides an opportunity to further development and grow connections.”

Diversity Propels Innovation
While there were very few women in the industry when Shelley entered the world of coatings, over the years she’s seen a slow but continual movement towards more women in all roles at PPG, and the industry in general. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are as relevant today as ever,” she notes. “Companies are putting policy in place to ensure talent and thought from people of all walks of life to create diverse and effective teams,” comments Shelley. One of PPG’s core values is innovation, and Shelley believes strongly that without diverse thought throughout the creative and innovation process you don’t get the best outcome. “That’s what’s so important about ensuring women and other under- represented groups are included,” she explains. She’s proud to work for a talented, passionate powder team where 29% of the members are women.

Focusing specifically on women for a moment, Shelley is excited to see that while traditionally the industry and manufacturing workforce has been predominantly men, women are breaking barriers every day. She encourages women at all life stages to consider a career in manufacturing and STEM, noting, “Manufacturing is essential to life. It offers advantages that should not be overlooked: job security, pay, benefits, and more. It might not be an equal playing field for women quite yet, but it’s getting closer every day. There’s lots of opportunity where you can influence and make a difference, and that will continue.”

Shelley offers some sage advice to young women—and men—who may be undecided in their academic or career pursuits. (Remember, for the majority of her time at St. Vincent College, Shelley was headed down a path towards a career in teaching.) “Specialized skills come in lots of different forms. Find what you are passionate about and use education to advance your dreams.” To bring context to this advice, Shelley shares a real-life example. “My cousin started off his career as a design engineer with GM. After investing fifteen years with the company, he decided to pursue his passion and start a microbrewery. He was able to apply the fundamentals he learned through his engineering education and experience to virtually every aspect of his new venture; from beer formulation to designing and building the necessary equipment and facility,” recounts Shelley.

The Eleventh Hour
With an extensive background in liquid coatings spanning more than a quarter century, Shelley never envisioned a career in powder coatings. In her own words, “In the eleventh hour, my career path changed from liquid to powder.” A slew of challenges accompanied this change, challenges that Shelley welcomed and subsequently conquered. Today, with more than three decades with PPG under her belt, you might think Shelley would be looking towards the sunset of her career with her urge to take on new challenges beginning to quell, but you’d be wrong. In 2019, she was promoted to business manager, powder coatings— Americas Region. She is excited for the opportunity to lead PPG’s powder initiative in the region and is ready for the challenges this role may bring.

Without question, an inspiration to those beginning their career in powder coatings, Shelley Verdun is a shining example for those considering a new path. It’s never too late to take on, and conquer, a new challenge.

Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.