Industry veteran continuously cultivates & shares knowledge
Charles “Chubb” Michaud, CEO and technical director for Systematix Co., said the best teacher he ever had was his flight instructor.
“If you picked up a book on how to fly an airplane and you read it and you took notes and you wrote between the lines; and then you read it again with a highlighter and picked out the important parts; and then you listened to the book on tape,” Michaud said. “And then they put you in the front seat of an airplane and said, ‘Think you can do it?’ No, because you can’t learn everything out of a book. You have to experience it.”
The day he learned how to fly, approximately 30 years ago at his first lesson, his flight instructor “punched the throttle all the way to the firewall, sat back with his arms crossed and said ‘Fly it.’” Many elements of Michaud’s professional education experience and relationship to knowledge have followed a similar path as his experience learning to fly. When he founded Systematix Co. in 1982, he read and re-read textbooks on ion exchange technology before jumping into the field and learning as he went. He went from continuously determined to learn to becoming one of the water industry’s top experts on ion exchange technology and more.
His approach to knowledge sharing is comparable. Those who have had the pleasure of learning from him throughout his vast career agree that he has always been willing to freely share his knowledge. However, he will not just tell you what to do with a problem, he will give you tools for understanding the how and the why, as well. This trait and the determination it highlights push the water industry collectively forward. They mark the true characteristics of an Industry Icon.
An Approaching Six Decades Water Industry Journey
Community helped shape Michaud’s career trajectory early on. Growing up in Presque Isle, Maine, Michaud had little intention of pursuing higher education following his completion of high school. One day in late summer after he graduated from high school, he was working as a lifeguard at a local state park when he decided to take the day off to get a haircut. As he was leaving the barber shop, he stumbled across the army recruitment office and seriously considered that path. Yet, as he was leaving the army recruitment office, he literally bumped into his high school principal who inquired after his continuing education plans. Long story short, the principal helped secure Michaud a spot at the University of Maine at Orono studying chemical engineering; in fact, he even sent along a ride to pick him up.
From the beginning, Michaud was drawn to chemical engineering and went on to pursue both a bachelors (‘63) and masters (‘64) degree in the subject. As he continued his education, an opportunity arose to pick up an additional degree in pulp and paper, where if he promised to work in the paper industry for a few years after graduation he would be eligible for additional scholarships.
“In part it was my desire to go into that specific industry and in part it was just serendipity by chance,” Michaud said of the move to join the pulp and paper industry. “That was the original orientation into the engineering aspects and the water kinda trickled in. Every time I went up a little bit in rank and seniority, I got more involved in water.”
Following graduation, Michaud joined Philadelphia-based Rohm & Haas Co. in 1965, focusing on pulp and paper. However, as time went on, he was increasingly drawn into the water-related aspects of the paper industry. In 1967, he started working in the wastewater sector of the industry and then in 1979, he began to focus on ion exchange, one of his key areas of focus to this day.
In 1970, Rohm & Haas transferred Michaud to Los Angeles on the West Coast. He continued to climb the corporate ladder and became the regional manager of the ion exchange group there in 1979.
“When I first went into the water industry, it was a manager of people,” Michaud recalled. “I was not in direct sales, so the knowledge was not key.”
From that initial introduction to water purification more than 40 years ago, he has since become known and recognized as an industry-wide expert.
In 1982, Michaud faced a major career shift after working with Rohm & Haas Co. for 17 years. 1982 was not a good year for business, he said, and the company was consolidating departments. He had the option to transfer to another office 3,000 miles away or leave the company. With three kids in high school, soon to be college, and his wife currently working to get her Ph.D, he made the choice to stay in California.
Starting his own company was not his initial plan when leaving Rohm & Haas Co. After six months of job searching, an employment counselor recommended he consider starting his own business as a manufacturer’s representative. The idea stuck—though it evolved into ion exchange water treatment—and Systematix Co. was launched in 1982. It wasn’t “like a bolt of lightning,” Michaud said as he reflected on his initial reasons for starting his own business. It was out of necessity, he noted.
The early years as a fledgling business owner were challenging, as the U.S. was still coming out of a recession period, and while Michaud had an initial introduction to ion exchange through his work at Rohm & Haas Co., he still had a lot to learn and little room for error.
“From there it has been, believe it or not, self taught,” Michaud said of launching the business and becoming the expert he is today. “I inherited a library of excellent textbooks — probably 25 or 30 textbooks — and really authoritative books written by the people who had invented ion exchange. I read those books one summer, wrote a report on each one and then I re-read them.”
The foundation those textbooks provided him proved invaluable in the years to come. They also exemplify Michaud’s work philosophies to always continue learning, challenge oneself, and importantly, fact-check oneself. For that first year of business, he spent a lot of time studying and learning how to run a business. The earmark he used to judge business growth was how many days into the year before the business hit $1 million in sales, he said. While that did not occur the first year of the business, it gradually became earlier and earlier each subsequent year as the business began to take off. While the initial business was strictly water softening and residential water treatment, eventually it expanded to cover industrial, wastewater and full-line steel tanks. Though he cites that growth curve occurred over a 20-year period.
Systematix Co. was also founded on a simple philosophy that still holds true today, which is to level the playing field for the “little guys.” When the company was founded, it was challenging to get in the door with big companies so Michaud went straight to the smaller companies, which in turn helped the smaller companies remain competitive with the larger ones. In that capacity, he has always strived to be a resource to help smaller businesses and all members of the water treatment industry thrive.
“That was the primary driving force for me not retiring 15 years ago—keep going, keep learning, keep sharing,” Michaud said. “That’s the part that really keeps me going. I love it when the phone rings and somebody has a problem, because that’s what I do and it just feels good.”
Never Stop Learning & Sharing Knowledge
One such example of both Michaud’s tenacity for problem solving and dedication to sharing knowledge can be found in the story behind four patents he shares with Hydromatix, a former division of Systematix Co. that Michaud gave to a former employee to incorporate and expand. In the 1990’s, Michaud said, he developed a process for recycling regenerate waste streams from softeners called zero discharge (D).
An employee at the time was intrigued by the concept and wondered if it was possible to apply the same principle to industrial deionization waste. So the pair set about the challenge, with the goal of decreasing metals in waste and designing a deionizer system that allowed a plating shop to send its rinse water through a process that would pull out any metals from the plating process and then recycle that water back as deionized water. Furthermore, they continued on to determine a method to recycle the backwater from the process and increase efficiencies. What eventually resulted was four patents in chemical recycling, metal recovery, water recycling and minimal waste.
“The short story is I have one idea with four patents, but I assigned the patents to Hydromatix,” Michaud said. “I gave them to my employee, and my pay on that was I got my name on a patent. I took no money for it.”
The former employee went on to incorporate the Hydromatix name and launch a very successful business running with these ideas. In return, Hydromatix purchased all of its filter media and ion exchange from Systematix Co. Michaud called the decision a good move, citing simply that he enjoys learning and sharing.
“When you think about it, that every invention is described with words that you and I understand. Everyday words,” he said of the process of problem solving. “And when something new comes along, you read about it and say, ‘You know, it’s just a combination of words that describes this new invention.’ The words are old, but putting them in the right order. The thing is, if nothing triggers that thought process they go on unnoticed, but as soon as you’re challenged, the words fall in line and they describe a whole brand new thing.”
Throughout his entire career, Michaud has regularly shared his knowledge with the industry at large. He has been a frequent speaker at national and regional Water Quality Association (WQA) conferences, as well as the Ion Exchange Conference. He is currently a member of WQA, the Pacific WQA (PWQA) and an honorary member of the Texas WQA. Previously, he has been a member of the American Water Works Association and Arizona WQA. He has also served on the WQA Board of Governors, as the technical director and education director at PWQA, as a member of the WQA Water Sciences Committee and he has chaired the WQA Commercial/Industrial Section, he said. In these various roles and beyond, freely sharing knowledge has been a vital driver to him and his business philosophy.
Learning & Teaching: Mentors & Mentees
There were several individuals throughout his career who helped shape him. One such person was Dean Owens, his predecessor at Rohm & Haas and skiing companion. When describing their relationship, Michaud reflected that “I was the sponge and he was the water.” The two would brainstorm regarding Owens’ book on ion exchange while riding the ski lift together. Later in life after Owens retired, they both traveled together and Owens introduced Michaud as “the new guy on the block.”
Other mentors included Tom Van Arden, Robert Kunin and Dr. Friedrich G. Helffrerich. The three authors wrote the aforementioned books on ion exchange that Michaud studied so closely when he first entered the industry and launched Systematix Co. While Kunin had worked at Rohm & Haas previously, Michaud fondly recalls a moment he was able to sit down to lunch with all three authors by chance at the Ion Exchange Conference in Cambridge, England, in 2000.
“There were four chairs at the table and three elderly gentlemen walked over and said, ‘May we join you?’ And it was Tom Van Arden, Helffrerich and Bob Kunin,” Michaud reflected. “So my dream came true. My textbook guardians and I sat at this table together and had a chance to discuss ion exchange and life’s little quirks for the next two hours.”
While Michaud has always soaked knowledge up like a sponge, he has never been afraid to share it. Others in the industry have bore witness to this willingness to share knowledge.
“He seems to be one of the ‘answer men’ when people are looking for information on how to address an issue and he’s one of the people contacted for knowledge and opinions,” said Melanie Michaud, VP of operations for Systematix Co. and Charles “Chubb” Michaud’s daughter. “People contact him because of what he can do as far as telling them ‘what’ you need to do to address an issue, but he also tries to teach them the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ for the what.”
Similarly, Greg Reyneke, managing director for Red Fox Advisors and self-described mentee of Michaud’s describes how their relationship began in January of 1996 when Reyneke was working at a regional OEM and Michaud was known as the business’ “resin guy.” Reyneke had a long list of questions, at the time, and Michaud took the time to answer each one.
“He immediately impressed me,” Reyneke recalls of that first meeting. “He didn’t talk down to me. He wasn’t condescending. He didn’t know who I was, but he was free and liberal with his knowledge, and I’ve observed that ever since. If you’re willing to listen, he will teach.”
Since that initial meeting, Reyenke said Michaud became a mentor to him. Over time, it evolved to be a more collaborative relationship, though Michaud has always pushed him and encouraged him to grow professionally. Reyneke also speculated that it would be simple to find at least 20 people in the industry with a similar experience learning from Michaud as himself, he said.
“I can’t think anybody more deserving [of Industry Icon recognition],” Reyneke stressed. “If there was one person to think of who represents the progressive water treatment industry, Chubb Michaud’s name comes to mind.”
Reyneke’s relationship with Michaud also spans 20-years and counting. In that time, he has seen Michaud continue to learn and adapt to an ever-changing technological landscape.
An Evolving Industry & Lessons Learned
Similarly, Michaud cites the evolution of technology in the workplace as one of the biggest changes he has seen in the industry throughout his career. One example of the evolving role of technology is that in the 1990s, Systematix Co. operated with 23 employees but is now able to complete the same level of operation with five employees. Further back, when Michaud was just starting out in a sales capacity with Rohm & Haas Co., communications between sales representatives, clients and the home office could take months due to the period of time it took to mail correspondence and schedule phone calls. Another major industry change he has noticed is the expansion of the economy from a “good old boy network” into a global economy.
As far as continuing to share his vast breadth of knowledge, Michaud has a few key business and sales philosophies that he has fine-tuned and developed over the years. First, for young professionals and seasoned pros alike, always keep learning and asking questions, he said, though there is no substitute for experience.
Second, there is no prize for finishing second place, Michaud said. This is something he learned first-hand building his business and that he sees as vital for sales professionals to understand.
“When you’re in grade school, if you finished in second place, you get a silver star,” he said. “When you’re in the world of commerce and you finish in second place, you starved. There’s absolutely no reward in second place.”
Finally, he cautions to be careful of who you trust. Do not trust someone who does not know what they do not know or does not own up to that, he warned.
“Don’t trust the words of anyone who doesn’t know what he/she doesn’t know,” Michaud said. “...Seek out those that know what they know.”
Moving forward, Michaud hopes to retire soon but continue to consult and learn in the industry. He jokes he would like to carve more fish and go fishing more, but it is inevitable that he will always continue learning, as well. While the path forward is not entirely clear, it is clear that Michaud has succeeded in one of his key professional goals.
“I made it a personal goal to become not only knowledgeable, but a recognized source of knowledge within the industry and share it,” he said.
Those who have worked with him and learned from him over the years have been shaped by that knowledge sharing. In spite of it all though, Michaud, or “Chubb” as he is affectionately known by peers, remains humble regarding his career trajectory.
“The more I talk, the more I realize that all the good fortune in my life has been the right place at the right time and reacting the right way to the right situations,” he said. “It wasn’t laid out. It is not a crystal ball.”