Finding Opportunity Against Larger Competition

Episode 226

March 14, 2023

So many marketers are battling behemoth competition in their industries. So how does David arm themselves against Goliath? Amy Cooper of Atlas Carbon has found some particularly excellent stones to put in your sling. Amy works in an industry that is heavily influenced by regulation and legislation, meaning the competition is deeply entrenched. Still she has found a way to ensure her and Atlas Carbon can carve out their fair share (and maybe a little more), this week on The Kula Ring.

Finding Opportunity Against Larger Competition Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today as always is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate?

Carman Pirie: Doing well. Doing well. We’re a little snowed in here in Halifax for the first time this year, so there’s the Canadian in me having to talk about weather. 

Jeff White: But at the very least it will be almost 70 degrees on Thursday, so… You know-

Carman Pirie: Look at you, converting over for our U.S. friends with the whole 70. 

Jeff White: I want to be relatable. You have to go beyond being Canadian sometimes, Carman. 

Carman Pirie: If you want to be relatable, that’s for sure. There’s nothing less relatable than a Canadian, really. 

Jeff White: No, it’s true. You are the butt of many jokes, though. 

Carman Pirie: You guys are like up there. What do you do up there, really? I mean, you’re kind of like us, but you’re not like us at all. 

Jeff White: Understood, understood. But I do think we have an interesting guest and an interesting approach to a show coming up today, though, because-

Carman Pirie: Are we approaching the show differently?

Jeff White: Well, no, I don’t think the show approach is necessarily different, but just kind of how her job is shaped, maybe  a bit different than some of the marketers we get to talk to. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. Well, look. Let’s introduce our guest and get on with it. I’m excited. 

Jeff White: All right, so joining us today is Amy Cooper. Amy is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Atlas Carbon. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Amy. 

Amy Cooper: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Carman Pirie: Amy, it’s awesome to have you on the show. Let’s start by a bit more of a formal introduction to you and to Atlas Carbon, if you would. Tell us what you all are up to there. 

Amy Cooper: Well, Atlas Carbon manufactures activated carbon products that are used in air and water purification applications to create a cleaner and healthier world. We have patented technology, our Pneumatic Flash Calcination process, that is an innovation in the way activated carbon is made, and we are seeking to make innovative products that help people create a cleaner environment for us all. 

Jeff White: I think it’s worthwhile too just to kind of explain a bit what activated carbon is used for because when I first saw that you were coming on the show, I thought, “Oh, carbon,” and as a bike geek I was thinking carbon fiber, but it’s totally different than that. 

Amy Cooper: So, activated carbon is a filtration product, basically, and I don’t mean the container that holds the filter. I mean what’s inside of that filter is frequently activated carbon. So, the black charcoal looking material inside of the filter is activated carbon, and so it’s made from coal or other materials. Sometimes it’s made from wood, or coconut shells, rice hulls, all sorts of carbon-containing materials, but coal is the primary raw material used to make it. And I want everyone to envision popcorn. Imagine popcorn. A kernel of popcorn is a particle of coal, okay? So, we take that coal, and we superheat it up above its critical temperature, and it pops, and it forms that piece of popcorn that you and I would eat, and all of those nooks and crannies in that piece of popped popcorn capture impurities from the air and the water. That’s how activated carbon works, so when you run your drinking water through it, or you use it to brush your teeth, or use a face mask, or we put it in the silo or in the air exhaust system for a chemical plant, it’s capturing the impurities and holding them in all of those nooks and crannies.

Carman Pirie: I love your introduction to the technology. It’s incredibly clear. And that’s probably required in an industry that’s making cleaner air and cleaner drinking water using something that’s been demonized as much as coal. 

Amy Cooper: Absolutely. We like to think that we’re taking coal and moving it from the naughty list to the nice list. It’s a perfect circle, frankly, of sustainability. You take coal and use it to make a product that cleans up the waste from using coal. Power plants use coal to generate electricity and then they use activated carbon made from coal to clean up the exhaust from doing that. It’s actually kind of a beautiful thing. 

Carman Pirie: This isn’t an environmental podcast, to be clear, but I would think that even if you’re using wood or coconut shells, there’s still an environmental impact of that, of course. It’s not like the activated carbon comes without an environmental footprint in those categories, either. 

Amy Cooper: Oh, exactly. Yes. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, so we won’t beat up on coal anymore than we will the coconut shells. 

Amy Cooper: Thank you. 

Carman Pirie: But I do think it’s interesting, though, because it does mean that from a raw material perspective you are competing against those who are using it for other uses that are not necessarily as clean as what Atlas is up to. 

Amy Cooper: Absolutely. And so, the coal market for us, because my particular company, Atlas Carbon, we manufacture product in the United States at our facility, and our facility is located in Wyoming, which is kind of the heart of the largest deposit of coal in the United States, and there is a lot of pressure for that coal because the coal does go for power applications. The primary use of coal today is heating and cooling fueled by power generation. But with some of the geopolitics that are happening around the world, quite a bit of coal is exported outside of the United States, so I think people don’t realize that the price of coal has increased about 30% over the past year. And most of that’s driven by the demand for coal exports. 

So, I only have my own opinion, but I don’t believe that’s going to stop anytime soon, either the export or the cost of coal increasing. 

Carman Pirie: That’s an interesting dynamic as we think about the kind of nationalized industrial policy, kind of seeing more and more of the type of… Even in the State of the Union Address recently “buy American” being emphasized and things of that sort, and it’s like here’s an example where that’s kind of operating in the opposite direction. The fact that we’re exporting this is making it more difficult for us to use that resource domestically. Yeah, and having a negative, oddly, on the greening of the economy along the way. It’s making it more expensive for us to green the economy. I guess we gotta be careful we don’t try to turn this into another edition of CNN Crossfire or something. 

Amy Cooper: Absolutely. But you know, to the point that you’re making, the State of the Union was interesting. One of the things that President Biden said, and it’s come across a couple of times, is that he does not believe that oil, that use of oil and coal is going to end anytime sooner than at least 10 years from now. I don’t remember the exact words that he used, but he alluded to the fact that we were looking at use of oil and coal for at least another decade. And again, my belief is that it will be longer than that because we do need a baseline of power to fuel our citizenry and our economy, and renewables are fantastic. Let’s use them as much as we possibly can. But you know, instantaneous power demand when there are peaks comes from nuclear and it comes from coal and natural gas power. And so, I don’t think we’re gonna immediately be able to remove these things. 

So, I believe that of the 600… There were 600 coal-fired power plants in 2010, and today there are 200 left. 220. I don’t know how much lower we can go and still maintain the base that we need to fuel our power grid. 

Carman Pirie: Reliability. Yeah. Exactly. And just so people know, it’s not like this is kind of a sidebar conversation about politics. This is directly impacting your ability to compete as you’re competing against activated carbon that’s being produced by other materials. 

Amy Cooper: Exactly. This is what I think about every day. As a consumer of this raw material and as I think about our strategy to… As a fairly new company, our company had its first commercial sales in 2016. We’re the new kid on the block in this space. And you know, as we think about what is the strategy to grow in a fairly commoditized and fairly mature market? How do you do that? You have to pay attention to the market forces around you. 

Carman Pirie: Well, and the… I guess let’s drive into that. How do we do this? I mean, it’s a fairly mature category. You mentioned that you brought some kind of new innovations to the market. Are those innovations, excuse my ignorance, but are those innovations that the buyer actually realizes some performance difference? Or is it more innovation in the production of the activation of carbon? 

Amy Cooper: Great question. It’s more of an innovation in the production process. The end consumer, be that an individual consumer of a product made with activated carbon or our direct transactional partners, the water treatment facilities, power plants, cement plants that buy from us, they just need it to work. And so, it’s the process that’s the innovation. 

Carman Pirie: That must make your job even harder. 

Amy Cooper: But I’m good at it. I like to pay a lot of attention to mega trends. You’ve probably had guests that talk about global mega trends. And there are a couple things that are really driving, use of activated carbon and we lean very heavily into those. The first is the regulatory environment. So, there are very specific guidelines for different impurities that can be released as part of the Clean Air Act in the United States. In particular, one of those, the mercury and air toxic standards, limits the amount of mercury that can be released into the atmosphere, and activated carbon is the primary way to clean that up. 

So, there’s natural organic market growth that’s occurring because of regulations from the U.S. government. There’s a large new opportunity coming that Atlas Carbon anticipates. The EPA has been talking for several years now about their intent to start regulating several new contaminants in the water supply for the safety of all of us. One of the primary compounds that they want to start limiting are perfluoro compounds, PFAs, the forever chemicals, and for the first time they’re going to put a… We believe they’re going to put a limit on how much PFA can be in drinking water. And that too is primarily treated with activated carbon and will drive a significant amount of organic growth. 

In fact, the recently passed… I’m reading this. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $150 billion for building the infrastructure to do the cleaning that is going to be required of water because of the EPA regulation that may happen. So, my job as a marketer, and as the strategic leader for my business, is to figure out how to capitalize on that to fuel our growth. 

Jeff White: I mean, this isn’t a common skillset. Even amongst senior marketers, the people at the level that you’re at, and have been doing it as long as you have, and with an understanding of the industry that you have, because you have spent quite a long time in the chemicals industry and have a deep understanding of that, but it’s rare for a marketer to have to be looking into government pollution acts and other regulatory structures and things like that, and look at those from a strategic marketing and sales standpoint and say, “How can I leverage this? How can I stay ahead of the curve? How can I be someone who has a deep understanding of this?” Because if you don’t in the industry that you’re in, I think you’d be sunk. It would be difficult, wouldn’t it?

Amy Cooper: You know, I am very fortunate to have started my… One, I’m a chemical engineer, so I have a technical background, but I have a strong marketing orientation. I started my career in a manufacturing role as a plant engineer and very quickly learned that what I loved doing much more than making the products was helping customers use them more effectively. And ultimately I began focusing more and more on business development type work, because I loved the challenge of hunting down new opportunities and zeroing in on them. 

But I started my career with DuPont and worked for DuPont for more than 20 years before my part of the company spun off into a new standalone, Chemours, and then ultimately I left Chemours and joined Atlas Carbon, which was a change, because I went from very large, Fortune 500 companies, to kind of a small startup. And that’s probably a whole podcast in and of itself, the difference between large companies and small ones, but let me go back to DuPont and say that I was very fortunate to work in a company that had a very strong product stewardship and regulatory bias, and I learned to pay attention to not only the drivers for my specific product, but to pay attention to the larger world that was impacting those products. Not because I personally thought of that. It was just that’s how DuPont thought and so I got trained in that skillset. 

Carman Pirie: I think it’s interesting to consider the dynamics of a DuPont versus Atlas in this context, so bear with me for a moment, but you talk about paying attention to the regulatory environment, and of course both of the examples that you cited are examples that point to a regulatory-driven market expansion, organic market growth that is likely to occur as a result of a regulatory shift. And a company like DuPont, of course, is in most of the categories they’re in, they’re often the leaders in that category. If they’re competing in a category, they’re number one in it often. 

Amy Cooper: Yes. 

Carman Pirie: And therefore, when the category grows, well, they get most of the growth because they’re the leader. The flip side of that, of course, when you’re Atlas Carbon and you’re not the leader in the world of activated carbon, how do you think about making sure that Atlas Carbon gets more than their fair share of the growth that comes with those expanded regulatory markets? Or is just the fair share of growth enough for a company the size of Atlas Carbon might be the contrary point of view. 

Amy Cooper: Wow. Probably a fair share, perhaps a fair share is enough, but who among us is ever happy with our fair share? 

Carman Pirie: Amen. Yes. We’re marketers. Fair share is not what we’re after here. 

Amy Cooper: Exactly. We want more. So, in that environment you have to realize that you have to pick your target markets carefully, right? So, I’m a big fan of focusing on specific target spaces. Water, with all of the regulatory environment, water is the sexy new toy, right? Let’s develop technologies and all of our marketing campaigns to focus on water. So, Atlas Carbon is a distant number four U.S.-based manufacturer of activated carbon, right? Our three largest competitors are multiple times bigger than we are. They’re all very interested in water and developing products and offerings for that space. 

So, I need to put my foot in that door also, right? I have to participate in that space. But I’m not gonna try and compete with them. I’m gonna have a “me too” offering, right? “Me too. I can do that.” And get my foot in the door. But I believe that a smarter play is to pay attention to the markets that they’re no longer interested in, that are less attractive to them. Our opportunity to grow faster is to focus on the spaces that are no longer significant to them, but for us, still provide significant new opportunities to grow and expand. 

Carman Pirie: So, it’s really looking at that cross share of where the regulatory changes may be driving market growth, but they’re maybe not the areas that the competitors are mostly focused on from a product development or innovation standpoint. Interesting. 

Amy Cooper: Yes. Yes. 

Jeff White: You know, it is interesting to consider the idea of continuing to watch areas of the market that maybe aren’t the shiny object any longer and continue to service those areas in a way that is better than the competition that is kind of trailing behind. 

Carman Pirie: Or just by virtue of you’re the only one paying attention to that. You kind of stand out as a result. Yeah. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. 

Amy Cooper: I do believe as a small company, again, I grew up in an environment where there was a virtually unlimited research and development budget, and funds for marketing, and introducing legislation, and technology, and regulation around those innovations. Now, at a small company, I don’t have those resources, right? I don’t have those resources to do that work. So, I need to focus on selling the products that I have effectively, right? Let’s sell what we have well and to the maximum extent possible. 

And sometimes that means staying loyal. I know that’s an emotional word but staying loyal to a market like mercury removal in coal-fired power. It’s not really sexy anymore but a lot of people need it, so let’s focus on serving the needs of those people. 

Jeff White: Is part of that strategy… I mean, we see this a lot with companies that get really well aligned from a niche and kind of account-based revenue kind of competency side, where the marketing sales and also the customer service side of things are deeply aligned. Do you find that in this kind of space, where you are going after those areas that still need to be served very well, that you can elevate that, and that that is as much part of the marketing strategy as advertising or direct sales?

Amy Cooper: Absolutely. Because these are finite markets, right? There are a finite number of customers. And so, relationships are incredibly important. You know, word of mouth matters. And even in the Zoom world, much more remote world that we’re living in, travel, face-to-face engagement is so much less than it has been in the past, but those conversations that you have with people over video chat or on the phone really matter. Relationship, the need to have strong relationships has never gone away and it never will in a sales environment. You know, you just can’t get around it. I think all of us are loyal to brands and people that we know. 

Carman Pirie: That’s a whole different episode that we could pull off here because I desperately want to formulate a very contrary point of view and then argue with you about this. 

Jeff White: I’ve seen him do it, too. 

Amy Cooper: Thank you for being kind, not doing it. 

Carman Pirie: Well, no, but I won’t do it then, but what I will say is that I do find that some of the… I think it’s fun to play with the emphasis on relationships in sales because I’ll beat up on the odd salesperson I’ve found in my career who seemed to think that relationship was the only thing they could bring to the table and didn’t have any product, or category knowledge, or further their… And I always find it an interesting bit of banter to think about that. 

But with respect to the finite market and Jeff’s commentary around sales, marketing, and service working in concert, I really think there’s a missing secret sauce in the relationships that are built with the technical service people. Those people that aren’t salespeople at all. The technical service, people that help you use the product better, or help you figure out the challenges in those early onboarding stages or whatever. If you could find a way to unleash those people as secret salespeople, I have almost always found there’s secret sauce in that, I suppose, is the way I would say it. 

Amy Cooper: I agree with you 1,000%. That is such an important part of any account team, that relationship that the technical service organization has with the customers. I actually think that in my experience technical service people should be assigned accounts that have very specific account responsibilities and a sales partner. It’s a team. Frankly, your customer service rep who takes the orders and issues the invoices, the technical service engineer, and the account manager, they make up a relationship. It’s not any one. 

Carman Pirie: And it’s everybody expects the salesperson to be selling. 

Amy Cooper: Yes.

Carman Pirie: Right? So, you know, so that works, and there’s a place for it, and all of that, but my goodness, the technical service person, nobody expects them to be upselling in the ways that they’re capable of doing it. Yeah. 

Amy Cooper: Yes. 

Carman Pirie: But I appreciate you saying that about the notion of really it’s driving revenue in these kind of finite niche categories really is a team sport, isn’t it? 

Amy Cooper: Absolutely. Well, I feel that way very strongly, and always have, and I find it the most successful way to have longevity in a relationship. I know this is a very standard sales phrase, but it costs just as much if not more to get a new customer than to keep an old one, and you have to do both, right? I mean, you have to find a balance in both, but let’s keep what you have first and then go. 

Jeff White: When you’re talking about the fact that there’s only 220 coal-fired power… I don’t even know. 

Amy Cooper: You got it. 

Carman Pirie: Coal-fired power plants. You got it. You got it. 

Jeff White: Yeah. In the U.S. right now, losing one means losing like a half a percent of the possible people you can sell to, so I think it’s staying on top of that is certainly a major, major deal. 

Carman Pirie: I’d be curious as we’re kind of wrapping up to the end of our time together, I’m kind of opening up this can of worms, but I’m just kind of thinking you’ve seen… You spent quite a bit of time with DuPont, so you’ve seen this kind of team sport at work in different contexts. 

Amy Cooper: Yes.

Carman Pirie: Can you think of a characteristic or what would… When you’ve seen it working really, really well, what ingredient was at play that maybe wasn’t at play when you haven’t seen it working as well? I’m kind of curious. Is there a secret to really good synchronization of that revenue team? 

Amy Cooper: In my experience it works best when the people involved feel personally invested in the work. And actually, I don’t really even think it matters what work you’re doing. I feel like you have to be personally motivated and excited about the work that’s happening. It’s not just a job. And I realize chemical sales, some people would say it’s not a very exciting or interesting place to work, but it always has been to me, and I find that I have always been most successful when I’m surrounded by other people who are also energized by creating opportunities for everybody to win. Win-win-win scenarios. They want the customers to win, the finished consumers to win, my company to win, my customer’s company to win. Everybody needs to win. 

And when that’s not gonna happen, when everybody’s not equally motivated to make that happen, it never works as well. So, you know how you can get people who just come to work to do the job? They arrive at 9:00, they leave at 5:00, they do everything they’re supposed to do, but their heart’s not in it. So, maybe actually the secret ingredient is passion. Passion for the work. 

Carman Pirie: I love that as an answer. When I think I’m asking a question that could result in some sort of interesting comp structure or weird KPI that’s being measured across, it’s like, “No, no, no. Had nothing to do with that, you fool.” 

Jeff White: Multilateral wins. That’s all it is. Everybody gotta win. 

Carman Pirie: I love it. I love it. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Amy, this has been a fascinating chat. It’s been great to have you on the show and get the benefit of your expertise. It’s just… I feel like we could continue chatting for another half hour here.

Amy Cooper: I am in sales. Be careful. I could find plenty to talk about. 

Jeff White: Thank you so much, Amy. 

Amy Cooper: Thank you. 

Carman Pirie: All the best. 

Amy Cooper: All right. Bye-bye. 

 Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s

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Amy Cooper

VP of Sales and Marketing

Amy E. Cooper is a global sales & business development leader in the chemicals industry. She brings over 20 years of customer-facing relationship management and value chain driver identification experience to the Atlas executive team. Ms. Cooper worked for 22 years at DuPont in the Titanium Technologies and Fluoropolymers businesses in coatings, paper and plastics markets and held various roles in sales, production and project management. She managed a $90M portfolio of enterprise and high value specialty accounts and was awarded for sales excellence at the corporate level for extraordinary one year revenue growth. She transitioned to global roles and spearheaded offering development projects that resulted in significant expansion of the licensed product portfolio. In 2015, Ms. Cooper began working at The Chemours Company as the Global Business Development Leader-Licensing Sales. She created and executed a growth strategy for Teflon™ licensing via new market and application development, contract negotiation, administration, revenue recognition, and promotion of co-branded finished products in 65 countries, increasing the annual sales revenue from licensed products by 180% and launched a new offering with sales in 11 countries. She joined Atlas Carbon’s executive management team in 2020 with a focus on rapid growth for the company in the activated carbon market. Ms. Cooper has attained certifications in licensing (Licensing Executive Company), project management (Project Management Institute via DuPont), and branding (Kellogg School of Business). She is also a certified Six Sigma Black Belt. Ms. Cooper holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Kentucky and an MBA from Wilmington University.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

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Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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