Q&A with Mark Szendro, CEO of BASF Toda America, on the Future of eMobility
With an ever-increasing push towards electric vehicles, high-quality, sustainable battery materials are required to make eMobility a reality. As the world’s largest chemical supplier to the automotive industry, BASF is playing a key role to enable eMobility for a sustainable future.
Mark Szendro is the Director of BASF Battery Materials North America and the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of BASF Toda America LLC. In a recent interview, Mark discussed his own personal evolution at BASF, a career spanning nearly three decades, and how BASF’s contributions to the electric vehicle market are reshaping the future of eMobility.
Q: How did you get started at BASF and what drew you to the automotive industry?
A: I went to school for chemical engineering, so I’ve always been fascinated by solving challenges and understanding how things work. I began working with BASF in Mexico City as a technical sales rep for our plastics portfolio, and automotive was a key market. I could see how plastics could solve some challenges in automotive applications and my interest in that industry grew from there. Over the course of my 27-year career, I’ve been lucky enough to work and travel all over the world and gain experience in all aspects of the industry, including sales, marketing, planning, pricing management, and business management. I’m naturally drawn to it – I find the automotive industry fascinating.
Q: How has your experience in the industry prepared you for this new role as CEO of BASF Toda America?
A: Being able to travel to BASF facilities around the globe helped me realize that the solutions we provide play a huge role in driving the automotive industry forward. At BASF, our number one priority is meeting the needs of our customers, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of my 27 years with BASF working closely together with customers across all tiers, which prepared me for this role well. I understand how important customer relationships are, and the only way to build these relationships is by ensuring that every solution we provide is tailor-made to each customer’s needs.
BASF’s emphasis on electric vehicles, which began long before they became much more popular over the past few years, has also prepared me for this role. Earlier in my career, I was tasked with finding out how to incorporate battery materials and battery packs into traditional ICE vehicles. Now, we’re providing solutions that enable fully electric vehicles, shifting away from those traditional ICE vehicles.
Q: While you may have always had your sights set on an electrified future of transportation, the past few years have seen the popularity of electric vehicles grow exponentially. Was this sudden boom in EV popularity expected, or has all this change happened much more quickly than you expected?
A: This is a very important question, and one that must be addressed regionally. Of course, automotive is a worldwide industry, but within each region, the industry is incredibly dynamic. Each region has a specific set of automotive needs. Because of this, it’s important to contextualize how the shift to EVs has varied by region.
Looking back three to four years ago, North America was not as up-to-speed in terms of electrification as other regions of the world. Whether due to legislation, resources, or consumer perception, I’d say North America was a few steps behind regions like Europe and Asia in electric vehicle adoption. In recent years, EV-friendly legislature has been passed, including billions of dollars spent on charging infrastructure, and the developing technology marketplace of North America has accelerated EV adoption in the region. So, in some regions, it may have taken longer than expected for this watershed shift-to-EVs moment.
Looking at the cathode materials landscape, BASF has an opportunity as a leading player in the materials market to grow, partner, and become the preferred supplier of companies in North America and enable greater electrification adoption.
Q: Why choose North America as a focal point of your future battery material efforts?
A: As I previously mentioned, automotive is a global industry that has region-specific factors. One of these region-specific factors to North America was the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act. This legislation brought on strong interest across all players in the North American automotive industry to localize.
Over the past few years, BASF has made investments in production facilities in Asia, Europe, and other places across the globe. When working with North American customers, being as close as possible to them and understanding the region-specific solutions that they need enables us to drive electrified transportation. With a R&D team and supply chain located in North America, BASF can offer regional customers a full suite of automotive solutions and work closely with them to ensure that these solutions are tailor-made throughout the entire process.
The best way to ensure that we’re providing North American customers with the best solutions possible is by being located in North America ourselves, thus allowing us to better understand the specific needs of the region.
Q: What specific breakthroughs in battery material development has BASF achieved in recent years, and how do these breakthroughs combat common challenges with EVs?
A: The two challenges we are looking to combat regarding EVs are concerns about safety and efficiency. An electric vehicle’s battery brings inherent flame risk. Because of this, BASF has developed coolants, flame-retardant battery materials, high-temperature plastics, and foams that comply with the most challenging burning tests performed on battery packs.
When it comes to efficiency, one of our latest breakthroughs comes from lightweighting – batteries are heavy (they can add 800 or more pounds compared to a similar sized ICE vehicle) and this influences the efficiency in electric vehicles due to the simple fact that more mass requires more energy to mobilize the vehicle. With BASF’s lightweight performance materials your EV can extend its range while conserving resources.
We also know that range anxiety, charging time and cost are barriers to EV adoption. BASF is a leading supplier of advanced cathode active materials (CAM), which are central to the efficiency, reliability, cost, sustainability, durability and size of electric vehicle batteries. The cathode active materials portfolio we offer is well suited to meet evolving battery requirements and can be customized to achieve the performance and cost objectives of EVs to appeal to more consumers.
Q: What does BASF do to incorporate sustainability into their practices beyond the electric vehicle?
A: Sustainability is at the forefront of our mind in everything that we do. We are committed to sustainably sourcing all metals, plastics, cathodes, and other raw materials and ensuring that their life cycle continues to get longer. At BASF, we believe in a Circular Economy – that growth should not be coupled with resource consumption. There are a limited number of materials available on our planet; it is our job to use those materials for as long as possible, minimize waste, and create value with renewable, sustainably sourced materials. We have our own recycling guidelines at every BASF facility and are looking to close the loop between suppliers and waste management and responsibly recycle our materials ourselves.
Q: While electrification has certainly taken off recently, many believe that this is only the beginning for electrified transportation. What do you think the electrified transportation landscape will look like in the future?
A: Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Early on in my career, I had soft spot for traditional ICE vehicles. They were all that we knew, and if you had told someone a few decades ago that ICE vehicles would eventually be replaced, they would never believe you. It’s an ever-changing world and an ever-changing industry. I truly believe we are only at the start of electrified transportation, and its popularity and importance to our planet will continue to grow exponentially. When you look at the cathode materials market in North America and the quality of electric vehicles that major OEMs are producing, it’s hard not to be excited. These new electric vehicles are sleek, top-of-the-line in performance quality, and most importantly, better for our planet. I believe that once you test drive one of these new electric vehicles, it’ll be hard to ever go back to something else. We are living through a tectonic shift in one of the world’s most crucial industries, and when you’re able to play any type of role in something so monumental, it’s both humbling and inspiring.
Learn more about BASF battery materials and how we’re driving forward sustainable transportation here.