Ashortage of skilled workers has many packaging companies turning to workforce development programs to train and certify the next generation of operators, technicians, and maintenance staff. These same companies are also depending on local universities to attract and recruit more mechanical and electrical engineers. But sometimes what a company really needs is a psychology and business major, like Lisa Hunt.
Hunt, the Chief Operating Officer of Toronto-based Plexpack Corp., a maker of flexible packaging machinery for food, medical, personal care, pet, and other CPG industries, never intended on pursuing a career in this industry. But after 21 years at Plexpack, she’s hooked.
As a small company of about 45 people, Hunt has had the opportunity to work in all of the different areas of the organization, including marketing, sales & distribution, trade shows, HR, purchasing, scheduling, IT & ERP, inventory management, and has even built machines on the factory floor. For a while, she managed the entire Plexpack production floor and machine shop.
“I’m not an engineer,” Hunt readily acknowledges. What she is, however, is an intelligent, industrious, curious, detail-oriented, and creative problem-solver. And, a leader.
Paul Irvine, the CEO of Plexpack, recognized her unique skillset early on and, as her mentor, moved her into roles throughout the company to provide the experience she would need to ascend to her current position of COO.
Plexpack, like many manufacturers and OEMs, considers project and operations management an important position that requires a comprehension of all of the moving parts in an organization. While engineers have an intricate knowledge of how things work, and are very analytical, many companies would rather not have an engineer overseeing production project management. Instead, they are turning to individuals with a well-rounded understanding of the overall business.
“The company wanted someone heading the operations who wasn’t an engineer,” Hunt says, “because it’s a different mindset. The idea is to draw on a 360-degree view to understand what’s going on throughout the organization to support more strategic decisions. I have had hands-on experience in marketing, sales, trade shows, and I also understand what’s really happening on the plant floor and across the operation. The external and internal insight to each function provides the opportunity to make us stronger as a whole.”
Of course, as someone who is not an engineer and is a woman, Hunt faced some challenges on the job, noting she did not get a great reception early on from many of the men she was managing on the shop floor. “The men working in the machine shop are proud. They consider their skills specific, and rightly so,” Hunt says. “They didn’t always respond well to me, so I tried to give them back their autonomy. I was not there to tell them how to do their job, because they knew how to do it the best. I was there to create processes to support them in their work and allow for higher quality output and efficiency. That’s where we were able to establish a middle ground, and with that came respect and success.”
Hunt also worked through the operations chain from start to finish, often getting her hands dirty and, at one point, even building machines herself, because, she says, it was important to understand what the staff was going through and what the hands-on issues are. With that knowledge, Hunt was able to effectively communicate and empower the workforce, which motivated the collective group.
Hunt is taking the experiences she’s had at Plexpack to the broader world of packaging, specifically through her contributions to PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. As part of the PMMI Business Intelligence Committee, she’s worked on many of the Quickie Surveys, which provide PMMI members with a benchmark on a variety of topics, including tracking travel expenses and compensation, aftermarket part sales, e-commerce, payment terms, shipping and receiving, and more.
“It feels good to know that I have contributed to something that can benefit other companies,” she says. “And I highly encourage PMMI members to take part in a committee, as I have taken away real actions that have helped to position my company better.”
The other area in which Hunt is making a difference is in her involvement to advance women’s careers in packaging. Serving on the executive council of the Packaging and Processing Women’s Leadership Network (PPWLN) sponsored by PMMI, Hunt has been instrumental in the group’s efforts to expand the presence and influence of women in this field.
“I certainly respect the successful women I have had the privilege of working with in my career and life,” Hunt says, which is why she’s involved in PPWLN. Currently in its third year, the group provides ongoing leadership development opportunities based on a focused group of core competencies that will help women succeed in the industry. There are also multiple networking opportunities, such as the upcoming PPWLN regional meeting taking place during PACK EXPO East on Tuesday, April 17th, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. This meeting includes breakfast, a keynote speaker, and a workshop to provide attendees with insight and information that will help steer their career.
Hunt, too, has done her part to pay it forward and guide the next-generation of packaging leaders. During the PPWLN breakfast at PACK EXPO Las Vegas last September, where Hunt took the stage to introduce keynote speaker Tana Utley of Caterpillar Inc., a young woman just starting out in the industry approached Hunt and asked her for some advice. Hunt’s answer: Persevere. Make difficult choices. Take the job no one else wants. Continue to self-develop and educate yourself. And, use your voice.
But most important perhaps, focus on your own unique qualities. Men and women may have very different opinions or approaches to problem solving. One is not better than the other, just different. Therefore, Hunt is determined to keep the conversation on an equal playing field at all times.
“I feel like when we get together and we have speakers for the women’s network, we talk a lot about balance of family and work,” Hunt says. “But if we want to be viewed as equal we have to drop the conversation of what to do with our kids while we are at work. We have to talk about the profession.”
Today, despite the fact that she had no intention of fashioning a career in packaging, Hunt says she loves her job. Even with the accelerated pace of change due to technology and customers’ new requirements, she’s found her many different roles at Plexpack extremely rewarding. That is due to the variety of challenges, but also largely to the people she’s worked with.
“We have people with drive, integrity, and an eagerness to learn,” Hunt says. “We’ve brought women into the machine shop who had no experience with a CNC machine, but they are doing it and running 3D printers, too.” The men also recognize that the shop floor is changing and there are teachable new skills that anyone can learn. “It’s not just about them knowing everything anymore. The complexion of the machine shop has changed, and it has brought them out of their bubble a bit.”
Meanwhile, as the entire packaging community continues to scramble to find ways to solve the skills gap, Hunt falls back on her psychology roots, remaining steadfast in her belief that having an open mind will create more opportunities in packaging. “There are a lot of opportunities in packaging, in different disciplines and at various levels. You don’t have to be an engineer to have an impact.”
Advice to women (or anyone) starting out in packaging
After 21 years in packaging, having worked in just about every role in her company, Lisa Hunt, COO of Plexpack, outlines some strategies for success.
Persevere. I’ve been through some tough transitions in business and life. Managing the floor, leading the operational changes for a group of employees in an acquisition, to terminations, moving facilities, implementing ERP, mediating issues with customers, vendors or internal staff, motivating and leading in both up and down periods. Be an example. A leader. Sometimes I am intimidated by my situations, sometimes people are not accepting, but what is the alternative? Failure? Keep going, do your best. Just do what needs to be done.
You can’t have everything all at one time. Sometimes you need to make choices. I am the main earner, and I have a very busy life: two active kids, a husband, an aging parent at home, I volunteer in the community, have a C-level job, but sometimes I can’t be there for everyone and everything all of the time, including me. Decide what need has most priority now. Then commit to it.
With that said, take on the jobs no one else wants to. I have done this in spades. It has given me the direct experience of working in or with every department and discipline in my company.
Listen to the issues. It has expanded my view and my understanding. A jack of all trades, maybe. But I am relied on for input and direction because I can see the whole picture, how one action impacts another. There is a specialty in that—and perhaps that is in part why I have the job I do. There are possibilities in manufacturing outside of STEM, as well.
Continue to self-develop and educate. This is so important. I earned an MBA from Athabasca University while working full-time and while on maternity leave (for some portion of that time). I attained an Executive Leadership Certificate from the University of Toronto Rotman Business School. A green belt lean certification is in the works. I attend PMMI sessions, legal conferences, IT webinars, really anything that is of importance to me or the company that I can fit in. I leverage all the learning I can from consultants and business partners. Do things outside of work that keep you well-rounded, developed, and learning different perspectives. Most of the time this is a positive that can be applied to your work. For the past five years I have been serving on the board of directors at Lakeridge Health Foundation, whose mandate is to raise funds to support the regional hospital in Durham Region, Ontario, which includes, among many hospital services over multiple sites, a top-ranked cancer center and an education and research program. I have also served on the board of the Playcare Centers my children attended. The level of networking, professionalism and learning I have gleaned through these experiences is invaluable. I also do various volunteer works with other extracurriculars in which our family has involvement. Finally, exercise and be strong—it keeps your mind sharp and your energy up—you’ll need it.
Be yourself and use your voice. Use your voice to express what you want early on. It may not be a problem for the millennial generation, but certainly for me it was, and still can be. But I have rarely felt nervous about expressing opinions or suggestions or making a contribution within the business environment. I love to talk strategy and process and continuous improvement. Speaking up is a must. Even an introvert like me in a sea of extroverts can be heard—believe it.