TLMI Spring Meeting Highlights Industry Leadership
Navigating through challenging times is inevitable for any business leader. But with a pandemic that upended personal and professional lives seemingly in an instant, corporate leadership skills were put to the test like never before.
On April 14, the virtual TLMI Spring Summit featured two panels on the topic of leadership — one featuring five representatives from label printing and converting companies, and the other with five supplier representatives spanning different aspects of the label industry. While label converters and industry suppliers have distinctly different businesses, several similar themes emerged as to how these various professionals have successfully navigated their companies through the turmoil of COVID-19.
One of the words that was repeatedly heard across both panels was "resiliency," as the panelists marveled at how their teams and the industry at large met the challenges of the pandemic. Not only was there the initial shock that a potentially deadly virus was bearing down on the country, but the label and packaging industry was faced with a spike in demand that had to be met amidst unprecedented constraints.
Mark Pollard, CEO of Brook & Whittle, a label converter with eight locations throughout the United States, said that the company has many employees still working from home, but expects to open up more in May or June. However, with COVID-19 still a threat, and fear among some employees about catching and spreading the disease, he said Brook & Whittle will likely remain a hybrid environment, with some employees coming in, and others remaining remote. While this setup has presented challenges in a manufacturing environment, Pollard said he has been very impressed with how the company’s employees have rallied together to push through a difficult year.
"We're lucky to be in a business that has been so resilient," Pollard said. "For us, that was down to our workers and our employees. It's incredible what they have put up with over the last 12 months."
Despite the challenges the pandemic presented at work and at home, from a business perspective, the demand for labels and packaging led to a successful year for much of the industry. For example, Michelle Zeller, president and CFO of AWT Labels & Packaging, said that overall demand for labels and packaging had increased. However, while some market segments soared, others dipped. The beverage segment saw a significant spike she said, as consumers spent more time at home. But on the flip side of that spike, Zeller explained that the medical device market saw a decrease as elective surgeries and other non-urgent procedures were put on hold.
Thomas Barrett, president of MacArthur Corporation, a Grand Blanc, Mich.-based converter, explained that while 2020 was a successful year for the business, ensuring that it was successful required an immense amount of effort from the team to meet the challenges at hand.
“The end of the year ended up being pretty good, but it took a toll in terms of the amount of effort,” he said. “You didn’t know what was coming at you on a particular day when you walked in the door.”
He added that staffing and scheduling could also be a challenge in situations where an employee tested positive or had a close contact, and had to be away from the facility.
For both converters and suppliers, one of the pandemic’s many impacts was the reduction in travel to visit customers, whether for sales or service. However, as businesses around the world have become accustomed to tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to connect virtually, those meetings that would have taken place in person have been successfully held through the use of technology.
For example, on the supplier panel, Patrick Potter, president of Flexo Wash, a provider of a variety of cleaning solutions for the various components of the flexographic process, explained that the pandemic has demonstrated that virtual trouble shooting — something that was far less common before the pandemic — can be highly successful.
“From a service standpoint, a year or year and a half ago, if I would have asked a maintenance guy to get on Facetime to address an issue with a machine, he would have thought I was crazy and wouldn’t have done it,” Potter said. “Now it’s almost second nature. So I think our ability to provide good service to our customers has increased. In the past that may have resulted in me flying a technician somewhere, and now we can solve a problem pretty quickly and can get someone up and running very easily at less expense to us and to them.”
While the pandemic led to some changes in how business is getting done, it also led to some acceleration of trends that were already in place. For example, Catherine Heckman, business unit director, laminating adhesives and coatings, for Ashland North America, said that even when the pandemic subsides, the demand for e-commerce is likely to continue, along with an increased desire for packaging safety and sustainability.
Consumers that may not have been using e-commerce prior to the pandemic have now become accustomed to it, she said, and as far as safety and sustainability, Heckman added that she has seen an increase in demand for anti-microbial coatings in packaging. And as consumers spend more time at home, the increase in the trash being generated has led to a need for improved infrastructure to handle it.
Internally, as the vaccine rollout continues to ramp up and with all adults now eligible for shots, a full return to in-person work has become more feasible throughout the industry. And while the panelists described how remote work has largely been a success, the positive impact on company culture that working in-person results in is hard to brush aside.
"A year ago we were confronted with our first employee positive [coronavirus] case," Potter said. "It proved to me a lot about our culture and what I've seen over the past year when faced with this. We pulled our employees in and I said, 'One option is that we all go home and we just wait this out.' Immediately the response was, 'No, that's not an option.' That really said a lot to me about the culture we had built here and the dedication our folks had. That has continued over the course of the last year. Culture like that is not built remotely.”