Tracing its history back seven decades this year, Centerchem has solidified its position as a go-to distributor in the beauty and personal care category by forging deep and lasting partnerships on both sides. When beauty and personal care brands need active ingredients that can take their formulations to the next level, Centerchem is there. Likewise, when raw material suppliers have a big breakthrough in their pipeline, Centerchem plays a role in the how, when and where that ingredient finds success in finished formulation.
In fact, components provided through Centerchem’s partnerships can be found in leading products across the category, president Jon Packer told Happi during an interview held at the company’s headquarter in Norwalk, CT.
Packer, who has been with Centerchem since 1984, is not just the man in the c-suite; he’s the de facto head historian, too.
Packer traced Centerchem’s history with great detail from the earliest days, including company founder Rolf Benzian’s personal journey as young boy in Hamburg; he survived Kristallnacht, was whisked away to Copenhagen by his father, served in the Swedish Air Force and landed in Flushing, NY, where he eventually started his company.
In 1948, Benzian founded European Chemical Company—a name that would later be changed to Centerchem. In the early days, the firm was based in New York City (on Broadway), later moving to the Empire State Building and then to 32nd Street and Park Avenue South.
In 1985 Centerchem moved its headquarters to Tarrytown, finally becoming a Connecticut-based entity in 1990 and to the present time.
Making the most of his European roots and family’s experience in various aspects of the pharmaceutical sector, Benzian’s business began to take shape.
“He was intrigued with natural products, he was intrigued with alkaloids,” Packer said about Benzian. During the 1950s, Benzian worked on developing pharmaceutical connections to import alkaloids from tropical origins.
In 1971, Benzian formed a relationship with a Swiss-based company called Pentapharm—a company it would represent for decades. Around that same time, Benzian’s love of travel and exploration would lead to a business relationship in Indonesia with a producer of quinine hydrochloride and other quinine derivatives, an area where Centerchem is still actively involved today (the next time you pour Schweppes tonic, know that Centerchem is in there).
In the mid 1970s, Centerchem’s business included animal-derived extracts that had applications in human and veterinary health, and its relationship with Pentapharm was starting to flourish as the Basel-based company’s expertise in extraction evolved.
The Move into Skin Care
In 1975, Centerchem was working with Pentapharm’s 1% collagen solution intermediary, an ingredient with potential medical and dental applications. A suggestion came from Dorit Stuerm, the wife of Caspar Stuerm, son of Pentapharm’s co-founder, to explore marketing this solution as a raw material to the cosmetic industry. Dorit’s insight proved to be a pivotal point for both companies.
“Pentapharm’s collagen solution is what started us on the journey 43 years ago into the skin care space,” explained Packer. Michael Boyar, vice president, led the marketing and sales initiative for Centerchem during this important foray into a new business area. His insights and marketing acumen were important contributions over his years of tenure.
During the mid-1980s, Centerchem rapidly expanded its skin care offerings, forging alliances with multiple companies.
When Packer came on board in 1984, Centerchem had established a relationship with a new company, Provital, and the relationship with that Barcelona-based company continues today. Long-lasting relationships are the norm at Centerchem, as the company’s principals have forged alliances with companies providing unique ingredients and technologies for personal care and cosmetics including DSM, Provital Group, Amyris/Apprinova, Pentapharm, Lipotec, Gist Brocades/Cosmoferm, Hispano Chemica, Ajinomoto, Indena and Sederma, to name just a few.
The company’s current roster of ingredients includes natural and synthetic anti-aging ingredients, peptides, botanical extracts, certified organic materials, delivery systems and components that provide sensorial benefits, moisturization, increased cell turnover and much more for skin, hair and scalp. Centerchem also has a food and beverage group which offers a range of ingredients like MasterCoat polishes, glazes and surface treatment agents, colorants, quinine bittering agents and enzymes for confection products, fruit and vegetable processing.
Over the years, Centerchem has been front and center with cutting edge research and active ingredients, and its team is well respected for its wealth of knowledge and experience. University relationships and outside research has also been an important source of innovation.
“People come to us and ask ‘what’s going on in the microbiome? What do you have in blue light, mitochondria or miRNA?’” Packer said.
And it is not only skin care marketers that turn to Centerchem; raw material suppliers come to Centerchem to grow their businesses.
“It is not unusual for us to partner with them to develop information or explore a new direction or create new opportunities,” Packer said.
Centerchem has grown from the days when Packer was the lone junior salesperson. Today, there are 12 full-time sales people in the field and Centerchem sells to more than 700 companies from small start-ups to the most high-profile brands in the business.
That depth and breadth comes from Centerchem’s history of investment in its own capabilities, according to Packer.
“We invest in basic research, invest in basic science, we invest in cell biology and tissue biology. We invest in in vitro and in vivo studies,” he explained.
But success also comes from personnel, according to Packer.
“It is thematically who we are—people who have real world experience, who are well educated and can actively talk the talk and walk the walk with people in R&D, and where it is relevant, in production settings and with the marketing people.”
Centerchem’s highly specialized technical staff has a firm grasp on unique, functional technologies for modern formulations. That wealth of expertise is evident in Centerchem’s library of starting point formulations that are among the most-read and accessed content in Happi, both in print and online.
As it marks 70 years in the business, Centerchem’s team isn’t taking its foot off the pedal.
Said Packer, “We’re continuing to get better—establishing a dialogue so that when your partner or your potential customers are doing work, they pick up the phone and call you and say ‘I’m working on something now, can we talk?”
The category, as we know, is competitive and always on the hunt for the next big thing—and that’s where key partners, like Centerchem, need to be armed and ready.
“The challenge is to have a high-quality ammunition in the armory, but also knowledge and insight to be able to listen, synthesize and develop, and fit ideas together,” noted Packer.
For 70 years, Centerchem has proved time and again that it will always be up for that challenge.