Hayley Birch finds out why investing in graduate development is so essential to Afton Chemical’s success

Like most students, undergraduate chemists could be expected to spend a fair amount of their spare time in the pub. But not Mourad Amokrane. He spent his spare time studying for another degree - in business. Now at Afton Chemical, a global company making additives for the fuels and lubricants industry, Amokrane’s unusual combination of qualifications is being put to good use.

Afton deals with both global and national oil companies, producing additives that, for example, make fuels cleaner and more efficient (Chemistry World, October 2011, p48). Working in a position that spans business and chemistry, Amokrane shares his time between a customer-facing role - presenting products and advising on technical aspects - and research and development.

With over two years in Afton’s graduate programme behind him, Amokrane says his experiences have tipped the balance of his interest toward business. ‘I wanted to maintain and build on my technical capability and knowledge, but I didn’t want to stay only in technical,’ he says. ‘At the moment, I would like to keep the split, but in the future, I would like to go to the business side.’

Like many of Afton’s employees, Amokrane is constantly working with teams in other areas of the business, and in other offices internationally. The company’s style of management calls for collaboration at all levels, meaning even exceptionally well qualified candidates need the interpersonal skills to match. According to recruitment manager Ann-Marie O’Donnell, Amokrane’s academic record spoke for itself but his openness and natural ability to communicate got him the job.

Helen Dyer, a graduate development chemist in the company’s industrial global division, devotes more of her time to project managing R&D work. Gaining her doctorate in synthetic chemistry at the University of Oxford, UK, she was taken on as a graduate by Afton in late 2010 and is currently managing the formulation of lubricant additives for hydraulic applications.

‘We work with complex mixtures of different molecules, each with a given function or multi-functionality,’ she explains. ‘What we’re really doing is looking for a performance benefit of those molecules in collaboration with the other molecules. So, for example, we might be looking for anti-wear performance or detergency.’

For one so new to the industry, it’s a role with plenty of responsibility, but Dyer relishes it. ‘As a graduate, it was what I was looking for - to have ownership of a task and responsibility,’ she says. In the next year, she hopes to deliver new products to market. And like Amokrane, Dyer enjoys the regular contact with other areas of business that Afton’s non-hierarchical structure affords.

Feels like home

With around 1600 employees, Afton isn’t a huge corporation - it’s still small enough to feel like home - but with big customers and global reach. Larger companies might take on more graduates, but Afton excels at keeping them, says O’Donnell. ‘We’ve got a lot of people who’ve been with us an awful long time,’ she says. ‘We look to reward talent, develop talent and promote talent, and I think our retention rate is testimony to that.’ The company’s size also makes it easy to identify skills and provide support for movement or development, while offices in Asia and North and South America provide ample opportunity for working abroad.

Until recently, Afton had no formal graduate recruitment programme, but worked closely with universities to identify potential candidates. Amokrane was handpicked from the French Institute of Petroleum (IFP), where he gained his third degree on a programme focusing on petroleum products and engines. Afton sponsors students at IFP as well as at UK universities including the University of Bristol. Graduates of the University of Edinburgh now working for Afton also return as alumni to talk about their experiences in industry.

However, recognising the limited pool of talent in what is a niche industry, Afton is going to have to work harder to find the right candidates as its business expands. ‘It’s a fairly specialist industry, so it can be challenging to find people that bring to the table the experience that we need straight away,’ says O’Donnell. ‘So to meet our growth plans in coming years, we’re going to have to home-grow some talent.’ The plan is to develop a more finely honed graduate programme, which will expose graduates to a range of different technical areas, giving them the opportunity to specialise over a two to three year period. O’Donnell says this should give the new generation of Afton graduates the best chance of finding a role to suit their interests and passions.

Hayley Birch is a science writer based in Bristol, UK