Having been with Neenah for more than 13 years, Julie Schertell took on the role of President and CEO in 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. Despite the challenges created by COVID, she focused on her employees and communities, and now sees it as something of a blessing.
“As horrible as COVID-19 has been for everyone, I do think it cemented a very strong foundation of values and culture at Neenah for what matters most and how we work together,” she says.
Julie was also very prepared for the role, having worn many different hats in the past. Starting in finance, which helped her understand the analytics and business drivers, she was also based at a manufacturing facility, which helped her figure out the manufacturing environment and levers to pull for profitability. She spent time at mills learning to speak the language of the operators, and had increasing levels of responsibility in supply chain, customer service, sales, marketing and management roles throughout her career.
Almost like a 13-year CEO induction course, perhaps? “That wasn’t my goal at the beginning. When I was younger, I was just taking any opportunity that was provided to me, and I had great sponsors and mentors that provided me with different opportunities,” Julie recalls.
We spent the first year under my leadership refining our vision, our mission, our strategy and our values in the middle of the pandemic, and really got honest about who we are and what we need to do to accelerate growth.
“As I became more tenured in my career, I realized that I really wanted to lead a business. I moved across different parts of the organization to become as well-rounded as possible, to position myself for the opportunity to lead the business in the future.”
Even in her 13 years, Neenah had already evolved from a paper company to more of a specialty materials company – revenue from technical products has risen from 40 per cent to 70 per cent in that time. Julie is now the third CEO to grow the business through investment in innovation and astute acquisitions.
Exploring new markets
With Julie at the helm, the company is now focusing on evolving and expanding its technologies and capabilities into new markets with stronger underlying growth dynamics. “We spent the first year under my leadership refining our vision, our mission, our strategy and our values in the middle of the pandemic, and really got honest about who we are and what we need to do to accelerate growth,” she explains.
“We also worked to ensure our values were very specific to Neenah and that we used language that was ours because I believe words matter. So you’ll see statements like ‘speed with purpose’ and ‘make it happen’, which means we have to roll up our sleeves and get things done.
“We’re a billion-dollar company, which means we need to be flexible and nimble to ensure that we move with purpose and speed to meet the market needs. And the thing I love most about a company our size is that you can still see your fingerprints on our results.”
Julie and her management team have identified four growth platforms: filtration media, specialty coatings, engineered materials, and imaging and packaging. These are the areas they will target with investment and innovation. “It means we’re placing our bets on those platforms, including our top talent,” she points out. “We see our future being heavily driven by those growth platforms.”
Julie believes the critical challenge is having the right people in the right roles to execute Neenah’s strategy. It’s one of the valuable lessons she has picked up over the years, with the most important one being that “values drive decisions, so the better we know our values, the easier it is to make decisions”.
Her other advice is to trust your instincts, surround yourself with a team of people that are willing to challenge you and think about things differently, and stay true to your values and strategy even when crisis hits.
Our goal is five per cent annual growth every year, and we want the majority of that to come from organic growth.
“I think Winston Churchill said, ‘Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.’ I really believe that’s true,” she says. “We saw that with COVID-19 – it definitely impacted us negatively, but we also realized we can innovate much more quickly than we realized previously.”
That manifested as specific opportunities such as demand for face masks, as well as macro trends such as ecommerce and environmental sustainability.
“We focus on active experimentation, recognizing that there will be times when we fail and actually we should fail or we aren’t stretching ourselves enough,” Julie shares. “We want to reward that failure so that we pivot and do something different. And if our experiment works, we scale and grow it.”
Future challenges for the CEO center on an even greater understanding of customer needs, further streamlining the business’s processes, and a strong focus on quality and safety issues. Having a supply chain that is nimble and flexible will also be increasingly important, as will strategic acquisitions.
“As we look to expand and extend into new technologies and new markets, our biggest challenge is how to reposition Neenah to accelerate our growth into the future,” she says. “Our goal is five per cent annual growth every year, and we want the majority of that to come from organic growth. We have to get really good at acquiring into markets that are growing, so that over time our growth is fueled organically through those markets.”
In many ways, Neenah is a unique organization, providing premium solutions that are hard for others to replicate. Julie believes this comes from the historical knowledge that has been accumulated, along with the fresh insights that new employees have added. Ideas also come from its partners.
Our suppliers bring a valuable wealth of knowledge for how we develop formulations for new products.
“We work really closely with our suppliers and they’re often a really important part of the solution,” Julie confirms. “Our suppliers bring a valuable wealth of knowledge for how we develop formulations for new products. It’s because of these relationships that we’ve been able to win new business to create solutions that others can’t. Where we have the greatest collaboration is where we see the greatest success.”
Yupo, with locations in Japan and America, is a perfect example of such collaboration. Together, Neenah and Yupo supply innovative labels that must meet safety and government standards for harsh environment use and have done for more than 25 years in the North American market. Still working together closely to meet the demands of a dynamic marketplace, they hope to keep developing new products that not only benefit both companies but also the whole community.
Another vital partner is Lubrizol, which has collaborated with Neenah for more than 50 years to develop high-performance packaging materials and labels using chemicals that are less harmful to workers and the environment. Sustainability is key to the strategic growth initiatives of both companies, with trust, collaboration and strategic alignment forming the basis of their longstanding relationship.
Going forward, Julie believes that Neenah’s filtration business, another high area for collaboration, will be an important part of what benefits the company, its suppliers and the community – in some ways, another legacy of the pandemic.
“We make all sorts of purification products that filter out harmful effects; for example, for transportation,” she explains. “In your car, filtration provides the clean air inside the cabin as well as your fuel filter and oil filter. We also make filtration for industrial and life science application such as building HVAC air purification, reverse osmosis and evaporative cooling.
COVID-19 has also introduced a new area of focus for this segment of the business. “There’s a tremendously strong macro trend coming out of what we just faced with the pandemic around clean air and clean water from all of the office buildings, schools, hospitals and healthcare facilities,” Julie reveals. “With the increase in health awareness, filtration media has really grown in demand.”
Neenah has come a long way since its origins as a Wisconsin paper mill, but it proudly retains those solid foundations of hard work and “getting things done” as part of its modern values. By adding new technologies, smart acquisitions and investment in people and innovation, its goal of five per cent annual growth seems very achievable.
“We’ve got a very clear strategy with four growth platforms, and we become more and more of a specialty materials company,” Julie asserts. “Paper is still a significant part of our business and, at about 30 per cent of revenue, it generates great cash flow to invest into our technical products business.”
The future for Neenah looks incredibly strong – and not just on paper…
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