Seven Steps to Workforce Retention

Sharron Gilbert, President and CEO of Septimatech Group, reflects on how soft skills contribute to company success.

Certain numbers are thought to be symbolic, like “lucky number seven.” But for Sharron Gilbert, the number seven has a profound significance, as it represents her father’s legacy.

It was back in 1993 that Gilbert’s father, Peter Fenton, gathered six others—including Sharron—to start a packaging business that delivers machine changeover and line adjustment systems.  The company, called Septimatech, is rooted in the Latin word “septima” which means “seven,” as in the seven founding members of the organization. It is pronounced “Sep-TEAM-a-tech,” with emphasis on “team,” and was formed with the primary goal of being customer-focused.

The founders of Septimatech Group, based in Waterloo, Ontario, worked alongside small to mid-size CPG manufacturing companies to help them to be more productive and efficient in their packaging changeover processes. The team formed partnerships with their customers by actively listening to their issues, then collaborating to solve their problems and serving a need in a growing aftermarket business.

“My father was a wonderful mentor,” Gilbert recalls. “He taught me that it is all about people. Treat people with dignity and respect and have integrity with customers, employees and everyone you interact with whether personal or professional. We built a successful company around that model.”

What started with seven people under Fenton’s leadership has grown to a current staff of 60 employees reporting to Gilbert, who has held the role of president and CEO since 2001 when, sadly, her father passed away. Gilbert has a degree in materials and operations management, and worked in a sales and customer order scheduling role at a packaging company prior to launching Septimatech. It was a natural succession for Gilbert to follow in her father’s footsteps. “He was always grooming me for this role, but he passed away sooner than I felt I was ready.”

But she was ready. And she embraced her new role while leaning in and leaning on the core values that her father had instilled deep within the fabric of the organization. To that end, one of Gilbert’s first orders of business was to capture the essence of Septimatech in a tangible way. Together with employees, shareholders, board of directors and customers, she created a handbook that is a leadership legacy of the company’s guiding principles, values and beliefs, which are built upon seven key themes:

1.   Be committed to the customer

2.   Deliver superior quality

3.   Act with trust and honesty

4.   Do business with class and dignity

5.   Cooperate and share responsibility

6.   Communicate openly with others

7.   Take leadership and share the excitement of being part of Septimatech

Each point has a list of “action items” that support the idea, with a page in the handbook that gives individuals a chance to explore their own personal, professional, development and leadership goals.

Living the legacy
The handbook is shared with customers and anyone wanting a glimpse of the company culture, but it is mainly used as part of the performance evaluation for the company’s employees, serving as a guide for personal development.

Septimatech invests in its employees by paying for them to take relevant courses or bringing in coaches to work one-on-one or in team-building sessions. They also have a recognition program called the “Power of Our People Reward Program,” in which individuals can nominate one another as a way to shine a spotlight on employees who demonstrate above and beyond performance toward customers and are “living the legacy” around the company’s guiding principles of leadership.

“It’s not just what you do, but how you do it. Everyone has a responsibility of leadership,” Gilbert says. It is a very successful recognition program, she adds, and as a result, worker retention and engagement is strong.

In addition, giving back to community is an important part of Septimatech’s passion for people, whether supporting local charities or those important to their customers.  All employees are  encouraged to serve on boards, help with start-up companies, participate in charity events and get involved with educational institutions and community fundraising campaigns. It’s all about building a stronger community for future generations.

The bigger picture
Having an engaged workforce is critical to success. But ensuring there is a pipeline of new talent is critical to the industry as a whole, which is why Gilbert is actively taking on roles that will help attract more people—especially women—to packaging. Gilbert serves as a board member of PMMI. She is also on PMMI’s industry relations committee, and recently, she was appointed co-chair of PMMI’s Packaging & Processing Women’s Leadership Network (PPWLN).

Gilbert was first introduced to PMMI in 1987 at the first Chicago tradeshow she attended with her father. It was in 1997 that her father became a founding member of the committee for the formation of a Canadian Membership Group in the PMMI Association. After her father passed, Gilbert became proactive with PMMI activities from the very first meeting she attended. “I realized in that first meeting that the more you put in of yourself, the more you get out of PMMI,” she says. “It’s an amazing organization with so much going on. What PMMI is doing for the industry as a whole is putting us on a global stage in terms of competitiveness.”

Read about Sharron’s PPWLN co-chair Jan Tharp, executive vice president and COO of Bumble Bee Seafoods:

She is passionate about getting more women involved in the industry, especially given the experiences early in her career that got her thinking about the opportunities in this field. “I was fascinated with the industry as a whole,” she recalls. “As a consumer, you buy a product but you don’t know what goes into making that package, so I was very interested in the process from a technical perspective. And, I found it fascinating that there weren’t many females [represented]. As a result, I saw an opportunity to be a part of it.”

Today, Gilbert is a leader in the packaging industry. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry did not impact her career, she says. In fact, it was not gender, but being a second generation CEO that was the biggest challenge. “From my perspective, whether you are female or male, the difference in leadership isn’t about gender, it is style and values, and if you are the second generation you have to work harder to prove yourself.”