It’s a significant moment for any professional when they are given the title of CEO for the first time in their career. Well, not given—earned. Rising through the corporate ranks is an achievement that is the culmination of years of preparation, from education to the experiences that ultimately land the individual in the corner office.
But truly nothing can prepare any newly appointed CEO for how to handle “business as usual” during a pandemic. Yet, that’s exactly what Lisa Hunt had to do.
In January of 2021, as the world was still reeling from the chaos created by COVID-19, Hunt took the CEO seat at Plexpack Corp., a Toronto-based maker of flexible bag sealing, vacuum and gas flush sealing equipment, and shrink and bundling systems. Hunt has been at the company for 24 years, working in a variety of areas of the organization including marketing, sales, trade shows, human resources, purchasing, scheduling, IT, inventory management, and even on the production floor managing the fabrication and assembly shops. Her ability to be flexible in situations and understand the dynamics of the room (something that stems from her degrees in psychology and business), eventually elevated her, in 2003, to the executive team with the titles of VP of Operations and COO.
Paul Irvine, who was the CEO of Plexpack since 2000, recognized Hunt’s unique skillset early on, which is why he moved her into different roles throughout the years. And, as a result, Hunt’s cross-functional knowledge directly influenced company growth, Irvine says. So, when Irvine made the decision to step away from his day-to-day duties as CEO while remaining on as owner and chair, he and the shareholders officially passed the company reins to Hunt on January 5, 2021.
“Lisa has demonstrated a deep understanding of the business, as well as an analytic and strategic ability that are foundations for this role,” Irvine said in a statement. “She has also been loyal and dedicated and someone I can rely on at all times. I’m confident her sense of dedication and accountability will continue to drive her to perform in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders.”
Her main mandate moving forward: Growth. And she’s off to a good start.
In her first year as CEO, Hunt has overseen a number of initiatives aimed toward strategic expansion, including launching several product development projects, upgrading the company’s ERP system, expanding Plexpack’s presence in the U.S., and building out two new websites, one for sales and the other for aftermarket customer support.
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“I’m looking at different avenues to grow the organization,” Hunt says, noting that technology investments, a focus on the aftermarket side of the business, expanding the global footprint, and people—be it employees, partners, or customers—are at the top of her priority list.
And growth is already happening. While Plexpack is still dealing with pandemic issues as it relates to work policies, the company has seen a 60% increase in output this past year as it worked with end users producing personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 test kits. The company also spent more time with food processors and food related manufacturers helping them implement new solutions to deal with increasing consumer demands.
“Everyone in the organization is aware of what we are building and where our equipment is installed, so there is a connection to the work being done to the benefit of the end users,” Hunt says. “We are very proud to have been an essential part of the supply chain needs during COVID, knowing that our equipment was used for direct medical purposes to package PPE, COVID-19 kits and to also meet higher demands generated in other segments such as food and supplies.”
Plexpack is able to deliver equipment quickly, because they stock equipment and sub-assemblies in-house in addition to catering to more customized needs via a consultative engineer-to-order service. If a customer needs equipment that Plexpack has in stock, they will get it right away. If it’s not in stock but is a standard piece of equipment, it will take two-to-four weeks to deliver. And a high-end custom order usually takes 20-to-24 weeks.
More and more, manufacturers are demanding shorter lead times for equipment delivery. Plexpack responds to that pressure by working with local suppliers around the world in order to create faster turnaround times. “One thing I’ve learned from the pandemic is that in this market, if you’ve got it, you win the order,” Hunt says.
As a result of the growth over the past year, and in an anticipation of future growth, Plexpack is currently planning an expansion of its existing plant space at the Toronto facility to provide more physical manufacturing and warehousing capacity. Plexpack is also adding to current fabrication capabilities with the installation of a new laser cutter and laser welder to the production department. Further investment in capital equipment is planned for the next fiscal period.
The Plexpack story
Before getting into where Plexpack is going as a company, it’s good to understand where it’s been. Here’s a brief history:
It is rooted in 1951 as Toronto Plastics (TPL). In 1988, two friends from the University of Toronto School of Engineering, Peter Irvine and Wilf Lewitt, purchased TPL along with a company that makes bag and pouch sealing systems, called Emplex. Together they lead the expansion of both companies, by leveraging their synergies. Where TPL was an injection molding company to local markets, Emplex as an OEM of bag sealing equipment focused on distribution growth across North America and further branched into Latin America and the UK. In 2002, two years after Paul Irvine succeeded his father, the late Peter Irvine, as CEO, the acquisition of Damark Packaging happened, adding shrink wrap and bundling systems to the company portfolio. Emplex Systems Inc., was then renamed Plexpack Corp. to encapsulate both Emplex and Damark brands. From that point, further Plexpack innovations ensued, including (but not limited to) the implementation of lean workflows, automated bagging system, an IP66 washdown machine, and development of the first gas flush and vacuum system for pouch and bag-in-box applications. In 2017, Plexpack introduced a third brand, VacPack, as its line of modified atmosphere vacuum and gas flush packaging systems.
In 2019, Plexpack incorporated in the U.S., and in 2020 it opened a small regional sales office in Southern California.
In January of 2021, under Hunt’s leadership, Plexpack relocated and opened a new, larger capacity office and warehouse in Carson, Calif. to serve customers and partners in the U.S. and western Canada. Jackie Irvine was named Manager of Sales, West and heads this facility which is used as a sales demonstration center for customers and distributors. It also holds some inventory and services as a service hub and provisioning center.
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“As a company with a broad customer base across North America, it was an essential step for Plexpack to have exposure and accessibility on both the west and east coasts. Hunt says. “With a Canadian HQ in Toronto and a U.S. based corporation in California, we have set the framework for both locally made equipment while offering more accessible provision of sales consultations, demonstrations, technical service, and simplified transport of equipment to our customers.”
According to Hunt, cross border complexities came to light during COVID-19, specifically as it related to the movement of personnel across borders. Barriers to entry during the pandemic had the potential to disrupt service delivery. However, having the companies in Canada and the U.S. mitigated the problem while providing a foundation for more organic development in the states including hiring employees in sales and service, preparing for further developments in warehousing and new manufacturing capabilities, and supporting distributor and reseller relationships.
The Plexpack people
Hunt says that it is important to be part of their communities, whether locally, within the industry, or across key markets, and she emphasizes that investment in people is key.
“We have employees who have been with Plexpack for over 35 years. We are proudly a diverse, friendly, and supportive group, and we thrive in an environment of accountability and flexibility. We support education, training, and development, and engage our people as part of the entire team.”
In the past six months, Hunt has doubled the engineering team. And she recently hired a field service technician based in California who she found on a job site for former military personnel.
To that end, beyond reaching out to local universities and colleges to find people in mechatronics programs, Plexpack actively recruits past military personnel. This is mostly due to shortages in engineering and technical talent, but it is also a way to bring a range of personalities onto the team.
According to Hunt, “We try to look beyond direct experience and focus on transferrable and teachable skill sets in people that demonstrate aptitude, motivation, dedication, and interest. This approach has allowed us to bring in great people with diverse perspectives that serve to broaden our own internal culture and business insights.”
To that end, employee diversity is an important part of Plexpack’s principles, especially since the aim of this medium-sized company with an entrepreneurial spirit is to be highly competitive in the global market. Many of the Plexpack employees are multilingual. “All told we have over 25 languages spoken in the plant and office, with a great staff of people who are more than willing to provide aid in translation with customers or other stakeholders,” Hunt says.
Adrian Hermosillo, Plexpack’s sales manager who recently relocated from Mexico to Toronto, agrees that the cultural diversity is a big part of the company’s competitive advantage. “We hire people from different backgrounds and cultures which makes it easy to sell machines all over the world,” Hermosillo says.
In addition, Hunt is dedicated to being a role model for women in manufacturing to help them understand the opportunities in this industry. Bringing awareness, developing and supporting women in STEM is vital, but there are also many opportunities that exist at various levels and in various functions within manufacturing. As an executive council member of PMMI’s Packaging & Processing Women’s Leadership Network (PPWLN), a member of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) Women in Manufacturing group, as well as a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), Hunt is networking out to local technical schools and provincial programs like Skills Ontario, to support the next generation of workers into manufacturing. Hunt is actively participating in a movement that could change what the future workforce looks like. Still, she’s pragmatic about the obstacles that exist for women in manufacturing.
“I’ve spent the majority of my professional life in this traditionally male-dominated industry. The barriers are real, the work is demanding, and the dedication required to succeed is immense. You must have perseverance,” she says. “I spent too many years with a sense of inferiority compared to other leaders of companies in our space. Now, I know I have earned the right to be here and to lead. In industries like ours, women need to own their confidence.”
Under her leadership, gender parity—at least at Plexpack—is becoming a reality. “I am proud to say that Plexpack is on par with gender diversity in the management team, with women in key roles such as VP of Manufacturing Operations, Production Supervisor, Marketing Manager, and West Coast Sales Manager,” Hunt says.
Where to grow next?
Moving forward there are a few things that Hunt is pursuing. First, adding automation, which is key to modernizing equipment across the company brands.
Second, sustainability, which ranges from using biodegradable films with its systems or reducing the company’s own carbon footprint in production processes. Programs are being built out around corporate social responsibility and how to interact with local, global, and industrial communities.
Third, aftermarket services. The “great resignation” brought on by the pandemic impacts customers’ ability to retain maintenance staffs, so they are looking for more technical support from OEMs. The company’s new support website, branded as Plexpack Certain Assist, includes FAQs, an interactive chat, troubleshooting articles, how-to videos for common questions, answers for preventative and general operational maintenance, as well as many ways to reach the Plexpack team. Aftermarket service could also mean delivering machine-as-a-service (MaaS) models, remote management, or other proactive ways to optimize the Plexpack equipment or the entire line, Hunt says.
Expansion is also happening in industry segments.
“An advantage we have is that our machines are modular,” Hermosillo says. “You can buy something now and scale it to something else in the future. We are focusing the next year or so on specializing in industries we want to grow, such as cannabis or coffee. So there will be sales people dedicated to different niches.”
Just a year into her CEO role, Hunt plans to continue her own education and personal development. “I have always believed that, continued involvement in networking across industry segments is essential in leadership development as it brings a richness to one’s perspectives. I have also learned in this short timeframe the importance of self-care, allowing time for reflection, and not biting off more than you can chew. The real challenge is selecting and focusing on those key outcomes to avoid being overwhelmed and gain real traction.”
From a leadership perspective, Hunt admits that she has a very different style than Irvine. “Paul is a very demonstrative, charismatic leader with strong sales-focus. It has been to my great benefit to have had Paul as my mentor all these years.” Hunt says. “I am highly customer and service focused but tend to approach things from an introspective and analytical angle, where I see my role largely to facilitate and guide our talent group toward attainment of goals, values, and strategy. Personally, I am a driven, tenacious, roll up your sleeves executive who sets high bars for myself and my team.”
To that end, transparency and communication are crucial to her efforts going forward. “I strive to be a thoughtful, collaborative, and an emotionally intelligent listener. And I know that our people are the key to our success,” she says. “I am honored for the opportunity to lead and look forward to an exciting future.”