Hired! Switching Lanes from Auto to Chemical Sales

An automotive salesperson switches industries and lands a job selling specialty chemicals.


“Dan” was working as a salesperson for a semiconductor supplier in the automotive sector last year, when he started thinking about his future. At the age of 29, he realized that he might not be able to continue working in the auto industry forever.

“I felt like I was mid-career, and I wasn’t in the automotive industry for the long term,” the SalesLadder member said. “I started looking for a growth industry.”

Pinpointing a growth industry: Specialty chemicals
He wasn’t looking for just any growth industry, but something that would challenge him and allow him to transfer his skills and knowledge so that he could make a lateral move to a new sector. In July, he started researching his options. “It took me three months to narrow down the sectors,” he said. Finally, he hit upon specialty chemicals produced for technical applications. (Inks, coatings and photographic chemicals are examples of specialty chemicals.)

By October, he was much more focused, and his job search on Ladders became more targeted as well. “I had spent a lot of time looking at job descriptions by then,” he said. “So I was able to tailor my resume to the jobs I wanted to apply to.” Dan learned that it was useful to concentrate his search on the recruiters. “The recruiters have information about the positions that are posted, including insight into when the job became available and what potential employers are expecting from applicants,” he said. “It’s good to hear employers’ expectations prior to the interview, to make sure there is not a misalignment of expectations.”

Customization and flexibility became key
Looking back, Dan admitted that he probably sent too many resumes at first, and most of the jobs were not a good fit. But as he narrowed his search to specialty chemicals, he spent more time tailoring his resume and cover letters and slowed down the pace. “When I started sending one or two a week, I started getting calls. A lot of them said, ‘We want to hold onto your resume,’ ” he said. “But at least I knew I was getting their attention.”

Something else Dan did to make himself more attractive to potential employers: He told them he would be willing to relocate. “I was trying to stay in Michigan,” he said. “But I was looking for a job in an industry in which I did not have experience. I had experience and skills they were looking for but not directly related to that industry. I felt I needed to be as flexible as I possibly could. And I think by telling employers I would move, it really opened up some doors.”

Eventually, he did get two offers; one was in Michigan, but it depended on the automotive sector, and Dan decided he really needed to move on.

So, he did — to another Midwestern city, where he took a position as a regional sales manager for a specialty chemicals company, selling to pharmaceutical companies.

He knew he had found the right position when he met his boss, whom he described as someone he knew he’d like working for. “I knew it was a good fit in the first two hours of the six-hour interview,” he said. “You have to go with your own judgment, on the people you are working with and the products they have to offer. I felt they were very good products.” In addition, he said, the company has room to grow in a market that is not saturated.

He said he does miss a few things about his previous job, including the relationships he had with clients, as well as “the three- to five-year contracts, which you just don’t get anywhere except in the auto sector,” he said. The trade-off: He has been getting to know his new customers, at smaller companies that he had been dealing with in Michigan.

He said that moving from the auto sector to specialty chemicals did indeed allow him to transfer his expertise from one industry to another. “Technical sales is very transferrable,” he said. “Understanding what customers need to hear before a purchase is key in both.”

And he said he feels the move will put him ahead once the economy starts to pick up again. “The most important thing is that I be proactive with my career,” he said. “I think I am now in a better position for when things turn around with the economy. I will be more successful in this job than in my previous job.”