As Cedric Ballay contemplates the two-and-half years since he was appointed to the role of CEO of PFNonwovens (PFN), he sees two clear trajectories – that of the company, a major player in the personal care world, and that of himself as a leader.
“There has been so much volatility, uncertainty, and unexpected headwinds,” he tells The CEO Magazine. Indeed, his first full year as CEO was in 2021, when the world was still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, he describes it as a “hard, but retrospectively, good year”.
“Our industry and the materials we manufacture had a key role to play in the fight against the pandemic, in personal care and health care,” he explains.
A vital player
PFN products are used in the manufacture of face masks and protective apparel for healthcare personnel and the company also produces diapers, menstrual and incontinence products.
“In that period, the environment was very chaotic and demanding, especially in the supply chain. There were a lot of disruptions and capacity limitations in our industry due to all that increase in demand for face masks and protective apparel,” Ballay explains.
Supply issues further exacerbated the situation. “It required a lot of very hard work from our team as well as great execution and service, which is a pillar of PFN’s brand promise,” he says.
“During that time we worked really hard to supply our customers, but also to improve supply chain resiliency, working hand-in-hand, again, with our customers and suppliers.”
But despite all these challenges, the teams were inspired by the chance to play an important part in supporting the community and healthcare professionals.
Thanks to our investments, thanks to the hard work of our teams and partnerships, we came up with what we consider some of the softest, most comfortable products ever in our industry.
“For them it felt really good to help, which helped us to better define the true purpose of our company – helping improve people’s lives every day with the material we supply,” he explains.
With many ambitious plans in place for 2022, Ballay soon discovered that more curveballs were on the horizon in the form of economic uncertainty, high inflation, energy costs and continuing supply chain issues.
“The headwinds ended up being much stronger than we had foreseen at the beginning of the year,” he admits.
Nonetheless, the business managed to turn the situation into a positive. The company increased its capacity by more than 10 percent over the course of the year, with two state-of-the-art production lines – one in the United States and the other in South Africa.
“One was finished in the first half of last year, and one is getting commercialized as we speak,” Ballay says. “These are very significant investments for us financially and also in terms of work to get them implemented, but it’s great news for our customers.”
The company’s innovative approach to ensuring product softness was also a strong emphasis over the course of the year, with comfort of material an important consideration within the industry.
“Most of our products go into leading personal care brands and touch the skin of our final customers, whether they’re children or adults,” he explains.
“And thanks to our investments, thanks to the hard work of our teams and partnerships, we came up with what we consider some of the softest, most comfortable products ever in our industry.”
The company also expanded its range with new components for its customers as innovation continued to drive it forward, and will continue to do so into the future.
“We continue to push this very hard, but rebalancing with putting more affordability in the products, given the environment.”
Greener products are also becoming more prominent in PFN’s product range, with the company using more recycled content where possible, but also investing increasingly in biomaterials so that their products yield reduced emissions. “We take climate change very seriously,” he insists. “We believe industrial companies have a big role to play in this matter.”
It has partnered with Eco Vadis, a global leader in sustainability ratings, in order to measure the performance of its sites. “We got very good ratings in our first year, especially in Europe where we achieved gold ratings,” Ballay notes.
“There is still some work to be done, but we were happy about this.”
As an “energy intensive” company, PFN has placed a great deal of focus on reducing its carbon footprint, both from an environmental and economic perspective.
It is investing directly in renewable energy, although he stresses that their efforts are heavily dependent on what energy suppliers can bring to the table.
Some of our innovations are really making great progress in bringing up products made of biomaterials to the same level of of quality and performance as our traditional materials.
“In Europe, we have been using 100 percent renewable energy for the past two years, at least through certificates,” he says. “We’re also working on many initiatives on energy consumption reduction.”
These include a number of initiatives to upgrade PFN’s production lines, enhancing energy efficiency while optimizing products and how they’re manufactured. Reduction of waste is also a crucial part of its strategy.
Upping its use of recycled materials has already seen some of its products hit the 100 percent recycled materials mark, although this is not possible in some areas of the personal care industry.
“The market doesn’t always allow it yet, as product safety is non-negotiable, but where we can, we do it,” he says.
“Some of our innovations are really making great progress in bringing up products made of biomaterials to the same level of of quality and performance as our traditional materials,” he enthuses.
“They’re still more expensive, so that’s still a limitation we have in this. We need to work, especially with our suppliers, and to continue to make progress there.”
With growing demand from the market in terms of innovation in the space, staying at the forefront of the these trends is critical for PFN, according to Ballay.
“The market is demanding it more and more, so we need to be there,” he says. “It’s important to us, as leaders and employees of the company, to do something good for the planet. That’s our higher purpose. And engaging our employees and feeling that we’re doing the right thing is another one.”
A Smart Solution
Last year, PFN inked a deal with Smart Plastic Technologies forming an exclusive joint development agreement for the use of the latter’s patent-pending SPTek ECLIPSE technology in PFN’s hygiene and medical nonwoven products.
The aim is to “ensure performance and meet end-of-life goals”, according to PFN Chief Product, Technology and Sustainability Officer Tonny de Beer.
“The pandemic has reinforced once again how nonwoven gowns and face masks save and protect lives,” he said.
“At the same time, it is imperative to find better solutions to deal with post-use nonwoven waste and associated environmental problems. We envision that SPTek ECLIPSE enabled nonwovens will be a high-impact solution.”
A personal perspective
While so many major strides were made during this time of upheaval, Ballay also found it to be a great opportunity to develop leadership skills. “One of the key learnings has been how the role of CEO is one of managing conflicting tensions,” he reveals.
Communication has played a critical part in this, with Ballay underlining the importance of transparency and frequency. The key, he says, is not only to inspire, but to “not shy away from difficult messages” and create a dialogue with your team.
“Communication needs to go both ways,” he explains. “You really must create an environment of open communication to receive accurate, real-time information about the state of the business and issues that have arisen.
“Make sure you manage to draw from the team, because then you get strategies and the diversity of thinking that comes from all the team members, and you usually uncover deeper insights. And then the team is more committed to the initiatives you’re driving.”
Now, looking forward, continuing to build more agility into the business is high on Ballay’s agenda as the operating environment remains both volatile and uncertain.
“As I always say, difficult times are a great opportunity to question yourself, identify your strengths and weaknesses with more clarity, and then work on them and be stronger when the time comes,” he says.
Also on the cards is driving productivity and lower costs in the face of inflation and overhauling its innovation processes to “better balance product superiority, sustainability and affordability”. PFN will also look at greater leveraging of data, data analytics and digitization.
They say culture eats strategy for breakfast and I see it so often. So we’re spending a lot of time on this.
People and culture will retain their place high on the agenda. “Strong culture and values truly differentiate a company. We strongly believe they should drive decisions, executions and then results,” he explains
“They say culture eats strategy for breakfast and I see it so often. So we’re spending a lot of time on this.”
Meanwhile, PFN will ensure it is fully leveraging its two new lines as it eyes growth in key regions including the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Yes, I think 2023 is going to be another interesting year,” he muses. “We’ll continue on our path of ambitious investments, and on the path of using innovation as a key differentiator for our company.”