There is no roadmap to becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but Mike Doss, B.B.A.’89, MBA’91, president and CEO of Graphic Packaging International, identifies the traits that effective leaders share: a solutions-oriented mindset, tenacity, integrity, and the ability to build teams who understand a company’s purpose and culture, as well as their role in supporting both.
“I am a firm believer that WMU students have what it takes to become senior leaders at Graphic Packaging and other organizations, if they are willing to work toward that goal, learn from each project, and apply themselves to solving complex business issues,” he says.
Doss recalls his own days as a Bronco, being taught by Drs. Luqmani, Quraeshi and Brogowicz in the Department of Marketing, and feeling well-prepared as he embarked on his first professional job as a sales representative.
Fast forward 30 years, and he is now leading Graphic Packaging International to success as one of the largest manufacturers of paperboard and paper-based packaging for the world’s most recognized brands in food, beverage, foodservice, household, personal care and pet care. Whether it’s the cup of coffee you enjoyed today, the box of cereal you just opened, or the microwave tray for one of your favorite quick meals, Graphic Packaging International is there, contributing to your experiences with your favorite products.
Doss is responsible not only for developing the company’s overall strategy, culture and sustainability initiatives but also for setting the standard for what it means to be an essential business in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Culture and COVID
Culture is key when it comes to success during “normal” times and even more so in times when a crisis like COVID-19 affects the world. “We define culture as ‘the way things get done around here,’ and our rapid expansion throughout the last 10 years has required us to adopt a growth mindset,” says Doss. “We have evolved from a very results-driven culture to emphasize empowerment, rational risk-taking, innovation and collaboration, which are all growth behaviors.”
Focusing on how things get done is now the lynchpin of the company’s culture, with a commitment to core values of integrity, responsibility, accountability, relationships and teamwork.
Those core values were pivotal in keeping this essential business running as smoothly as possible as the COVID-19 pandemic began increasing in intensity. Managing the company through a global pandemic has provided a host of challenges, with goal No. 1 always being to protect the safety of 19,000 employees across the world while ensuring supply chain continuity to the global food and beverage markets.
How has the company addressed the disruption to standard operating procedure? By creating a new standard that protects employees and serves customers, including:
- Establishing a global pandemic team to monitor the effect of COVID on the company and advise protocols and policies.
- Enabling remote work for employees who can do so effectively, thereby minimizing in-person contact.
- Implementing protocols for sanitation, face coverings, distancing, health checks and physical barriers to provide extra protection for employees involved in production—the vast majority of the workforce.
- Frequently checking in with global employees via video messages and written communications on challenges, opportunities and ways to support business and personal needs.
“I’m thrilled with how our employees stepped up—and continue to apply learnings—during the pandemic,” says Doss. “While our frontline workers were adapting to new protective gear, increased cleaning and distancing from each other, our office workers pivoted to remote work with almost no notice. We’ve received feedback that teamwork and productivity have actually increased during this time, and thanks to technology, we can still maintain some sense of contact, albeit virtual. I think that speaks volumes about the culture here of trust, relationships and accountability.”
Global company, local investment
Recently, Graphic Packaging International made a significant investment at its Kalamazoo mill with a $600 million expansion, adding a new coated recycled paperboard (CRB) machine, which is expected to have an annual capacity of 500,000 tons. This state-of-the-art technology allows the business to produce paperboard in a more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly way and will:
- Reduce annual water usage across the CRB platform by 300 million gallons.
- Improve greenhouse gas emissions with a 20% emissions reduction across the recycled paperboard division.
- Curb electricity consumption by 18%.
- Position the company as the cost leader in creative retail packaging.
- Provide jobs in the Kalamazoo area for years to come.
“This project has been five years in the making, and everything suggests that it is indicative of where we see our business going in the future,” notes Doss. “Environmental sustainability is one of the pillars of our long-term strategy, Vision 2025, and it’s an imperative for our customers.”
With a 100-year history in Kalamazoo, further investment in the area made sense. Kalamazoo is not only the site of the mill expansion but has also long been a source of talent for Graphic Packaging International positions all over the world, drawing employees from WMU’s renowned paper engineering program in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as from a variety of programs in the Haworth College of Business.
“We find that WMU students and other graduates we recruit from the Midwest have a great work ethic, humility and the ability to immerse themselves in the business—and that leads to advancement,” says Doss. “WMU is home to many first-generation college students, who are not adverse to jumping into something that is a bit unknown and finding the best way to proceed. That willingness to approach a business issue and solve it with some direction and autonomy fits really well with our culture.”
Doss’s own tenure of more than 30 years speaks to the opportunities and culture at Graphic Packaging International. He recalls his most interesting professional experience as having the chance to work with the company’s business in Europe, which at the time was underperforming, and evaluating whether the company could be successful in that market. He recommended staying versus selling. After 80 or so trips to Europe by Doss, a couple of key acquisitions and improved business processes, the European business now does almost $1 billion in revenue. The effort proved to senior leadership that Doss had the insight, acumen and leadership skills to be the company’s CEO.
“To any WMU business student, I would say that if your goal is to be a CEO, you can do it,” he says. “If I did it, you can too. WMU business graduates are packaged for success—no matter what that package looks like for you.”
Listen to Doss in episode 29 of THE JUNGLE, a podcast from the Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy.