A shortage of skilled workers has many 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 and distribution, trade shows, HR, purchasing, scheduling, IT and inventory management; and she has even built machines on the factory floor. For a while, she managed the entire Plexpack production floor and machine shop.
“And, 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 analytical mindset and intricate knowledge of how things work, many companies would rather not have an engineer oversee 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 said, “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 also 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 said. “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 said, 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 The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI). (PMMI Media Group, publisher of Automation World, is owned by PMMI.)
As part of the PMMI Business Intelligence Committee, Hunt has worked on many of the 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 said.
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 said, 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 importantly 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 said. “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 entering the packaging industry, 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 who want to learn,” Hunt said. “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 industry 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 and manufacturing. “There are a lot of opportunities in this industry, in different disciplines and at various levels. You don’t have to be an engineer to have an impact in this industry.”