We talk a lot on our podcast and in this blog about how we at Barry-Wehmiller want to build a better world by sending our people home every day feeling fulfilled and valued.
Our hope is that they are inspired and energized instead of stressed. And when they go home to their loved ones and their communities, they share that joy and fulfillment instead of the stress and bitterness of feeling unappreciated and insignificant.
We also talk about how we measure success by the way we touch the lives of others.
Barry-Wehmiller is a $3+ billion global supplier of manufacturing equipment to a variety of industries. Our companies build machines that help our customers bring their products to the world.
So, how does a company that builds manufacturing equipment and measures success by the way we touch the lives of others and is trying to build a better world approach environmental sustainability?
BW Packaging Systems is a collective of five Barry-Wehmiller companies – Accraply, BW Flexible Systems, BW Integrated Systems, Pneumatic Scale Angelus and Synerlink. They manufacture a wide range of packaging equipment and technologies to globally serve customers in the food, beverage, personal care, household, pharmaceutical and other industries.
On this podcast, we present a conversation with Carol O’Neill, the Group President of Packaging for Barry-Wehmiller and Michelle Bryson, Global Sustainable Packaging Leader for BW Packaging Systems. They talk about how our values shape the way we approach environmental sustainability and the journey we are on to be a better partner to our customers and to the planet.
And we start it off with Carol O'Neill.
Well, it's interesting because I think, as you know, Barry-Wehmiller, we define ourselves as the company that's trying to create a better world through business.
Sometimes people will scratch their head about that and like, "Well, that's pretty ambitious. How are you going to go about doing that? You make packaging equipment. You make corrugating equipment or tissue converting or printing? How does that make the world better?"
But obviously, what we do is super important to the world. Food is wasted. A trillion pounds, I think, of food is wasted a year and all the water and everything else, all the natural resources that went into making that food is basically wasted when that ends up in a landfill somewhere because it spoiled before it could get to the 820 million people that go hungry every year.
So packaging. People like to think about packaging as a big old negative these days, but packaging is part of how food that is grown by one group of people in one part of the world makes it into the mouths of people in other parts of the world.
It's how we get drugs to people. It's how we get beverages to people, like safe water. It's a lot of water bottles. I know people don't like water bottles, but water bottles allow people to have clean drinking water in many places in the world where they can't get it from their tap.
So packaging is a necessary part of how we feed and take care of people. But we have such an opportunity to do it in a better way.
So, when Barry-Wehmiller tries to create a better world through business, we're going to do something that matters, which is to say, make equipment that is needed, but we are going to do it in a way that is differentiated by the how. Right?
We're committed to being a company in which people are challenged and enabled to bring their full talents and their full selves to work every day. We aspire to being this phenomenal environment for people to learn and grow and give their gifts to what we do. That's part of how we do what we do that's great.
But we also ... We want to do the work of designing and building equipment in a way that is environmentally responsible, and that enables environmental and responsible solutions developed by others to be used in the marketplace. We give them a life.
So for those who say, "Why is this so important to you? Why are you so passionate about it?" To me, it really is very aligned with who Barry-Wehmiller is and what we want to do. We're not ... In no element of our world are we perfect at everything we strive to be, but we're constantly striving to be that better company who does those things. I feel so happy to have you join the team to help us accelerate our path towards differentiation in this area.
We thought about and looked for bringing someone into the role, leading sustainability for the packaging platform, for quite some time before we actually prioritized it.
For us, in deciding to bring someone in to lead sustainability of the packaging platform, it's really very centered to our role of trying to create a packaging business that is differentiated in the marketplace by being a strong partner to our customers.
Our customers are trying to solve many problems. They're trying to put their products on the shelf in a way that's differentiated in the eyes of the customer, that will protect the product, et cetera.
But one of the dimensions of a problem that a customer is trying to solve for, when they're buying packaging equipment and packaging materials, is trying to do that in a way that's reflective of the needs of society, right?
Our customers want to be good actors. They want to present their products and package their products, but they want to do that in a way that is responsible to the needs of the community and to the environmental impact of what they do.
So, knowing that Barry-Wehmiller Packaging Systems and our five businesses want to be a great partner to those customers, we just felt it was important. I felt it was important that we bring someone in who could really focus on that sustainability element of what we do, who could really help our teams in doing innovation and in doing manufacturing, do all the things that we do in a way that we would be the best partner that any of our customers could be looking for in that
So probably would be good for people who might be listening to this to understand what your background and how you got into this whole sustainability area.
Yeah. Thank you. It's great to be here too. It's always so nice to sit down with you and have a good chat about sustainability. So thank you.
My background. I've been working in the CPG area for the past 31 years now. I've been working with many of the majors that we actually sell to. Our customers are PepsiCo, I (was) there for 18 years, between two stints. I was at Kraft Heinz for 10, Cadbury Beverages before that for five, and then most recently for Wells Enterprises, which is an ice cream manufacturer, for just about a year.
I had an opportunity, I think mostly working at PepsiCo, to really be a recipient of and a partner to the sustainability team and the work that they were doing, and partnering with them and the strategy that we were looking at to really say, "How are we going to go and do this packaging sustainability initiative globally?"
The team was working on a variety of different opportunities, from rPET, which is recycled PET, and we were starting to look at a variety of other solutions. Sometimes in Europe, there's going to be different mandates. I think one of our colleagues was looking at a tethered cap.
So, I think the great news is, when you work with a company of a sizable nature, they're in it. They're already in the sustainability game, and they've been in it for a while. So in that time, my colleagues were developing tools that we would use for innovation, or we were working on.
We had a sustainability council that we said, "Once we've established what the policies and the practices were going to be as we went forward, how would we present an opportunity that may or may not have been in those guardrails?" So it might be more of a council's conversation.
Like an internal governance.
Like, "How do we evaluate is this new product and this new package, is this aligned with our sustainability goals tools and parameters?" or whatever.
Now, by background, you're actually a packaging engineer. Is that right?
Yeah. That's right. Went to Michigan State. Graduated from the School of Packaging. I stayed vertical in that space for a very long time.
I think what I realized in my career as of late is that if I wanted to embrace sustainability, and jump with full force, to stay where I had been wasn't going to get me there. That gave me time to reflect on my career. Everybody, as we were going through COVID, it was probably one of the best times to really say, "What do I want to do when I grow up?" You know?
Well, I know, for me, one of the ... I loved the fact that you brought that packaging perspective to the table, because our customers don't want to buy packaging equipment. They don't even want to buy packaging. What they really want to do is put their product on the shelf.
They want to sell their great product, whether it's food or beverage, or shampoo, or some health ... or a drug. They need something. What we are is parts of the solution. But I think one of the things that's really important for us to understand, as a packaging equipment provider, is that we are just part of the solution that the customer wants.
The whole value chain.
A lot of the sustainability questions, they come up ... People aren't running around saying, "Is your equipment sustainable?" We're thinking about that. When customers think about packaging, they're thinking about the package.
The package itself.
They're thinking about the thing that we're filling, or the thing that we're sealing or seaming, or putting in a carton, or a case or a pallet. So, I think your background understanding the packaging, and how it is designed, and how it is manufactured, and then ultimately, on our equipment, how it might be filled or seamed or closed or boxed, that's all really ... It's important to have that systemic picture of what we're doing.
So, I think that was just a really ... when you came into the team, I know initially you said, "Well, I don't know much about equipment." I'm like, "That's fine. We had tons of people who know about equipment. We need people who bring that systemic, the rest of that picture to the table, because that's what our customers are buying is an answer. They're buying a solution."
You brought a complementary perspective that I felt was really important.
Well, I think that was what was really fun about my interview with you, Carol, when we were first connecting. I did. I asked her, "How can I help?" A little shortsighted. She was saying, "You're exactly that. I want somebody to be thinking about materials every day, all the time. I do have a whole slew of folks that are really smart that build equipment every day, all the time, but they've also had to become specialists on materials. They've been doing an amazing job."
But at least I can come to that from a former brand owner perspective and say, "Have you thought about it this way?" or maybe they might not be talking about today, the solution that we are seeing in front of us, or that they're looking for, but there's other things that we could talk about, whether it's curtaining, or it might be palletizing, or it might be conveying, or it could be reusable packaging. How's that look like? What does that look like for our teams?
Right, right. We're trying to be that great partner for our customers, moving forward, for decades to come. One of the things we know is that the solution of tomorrow might not even have been invented yet today.
If the world comes to some other answer in terms of different packaging formats, different packaging closed loop cycles, we want to be that great partner to our customers who are thinking ahead about, "Well, what are those needs going to be in the future? What are we going to need to fill or pack or seal or label or whatever? How are those materials going to change?"
So I loved not only your packaging design engineering background, but also your brand owner perspective. You've walked in the shoes of some of those customers, those big customers who are trying to produce for a global market, recognizing that the needs of different product lines are different, and the needs of different retailers are different, and the needs of different supply channels are different, and the needs of different geographies are different.
Having walked in those shoes a bit, I think without even recognizing it, you bring some of that perspective to the table, as we think about what we're doing here. It's a rich perspective. I knew it coming in.
Now you've been here four months. I know part of what we agreed, deliberately, you would do when you first got here was go out and listen and learn, find out what our customers are telling our teams, find out what the sticky challenges or the big opportunities are. So I'm really interested in learning what are some of the things that you've been hearing as you've taken that time to understand what we do, and what our needs are, and then what our customers are looking for.
Yeah. That's a great question. As I was doing the listening tour, we started off, I think it was two weeks in, I asked some of our key customers, "What can we do, as an OEM, to bring value to you in the sustainability space?"
In those conversations, the feedback was, "We want you to bring us sustainable solutions, not only for today, but where is the puck going to go for tomorrow? Where is it going to go in the next three to five years?" So the idea of selection and deselecting partners that will help them, these brand owners, meet their sustainability goals, became very apparent in those conversations. I think we knew that. They affirmed it.
As we're looking at what's going on with the industry and legislation, those things are changing daily. As you look at what's going on in Europe versus what's going on in the US versus what's going on in China, everybody's executing legislation in different ways. So it's really important to make sure that we're also helping our teams with that.
Then it became also very obvious, "What are we doing for our own sustainability journey?" That's going to be part of our next ... part of the story for us, is that we've talked about that. We know that our customers are pretty far along, many of them. Now, it's time for us to move our story forward. How do we want that to look?
So that's what we've been doing next is really talking together and saying, "What do we want that to look like?"
Yeah. I think we have a lot of opportunity to be leaders in terms of how we steward environmental resources within Barry-Wehmiller, how we set ourselves up to provide the most eco-friendly, resource-friendly equipment, so equipment that uses less power, equipment that uses less compressed air, equipment uses less water.
The more we can develop equipment that the equipment is sustainable, and then the more we can partner with packaging companies and material companies to be innovating around that next generation, that's how we become that partner or that trusted advisor to our customers that we want to be.
You mentioned something about legislation. Obviously, that is something that is ... It certainly is motivating interest and change in some of our customers, because they serve markets which have imposed certain legislations which forces them to prioritize the environmental dimension of what they're doing.
How much ... There has been legislation and talk of legislation and impending legislation, and then like plastic bag bans. There's been all kinds of stuff in the world.
What's your sense of that march towards producer responsibility legislation, and taxes on carbon footprint, those kinds of things? Where is that today? Is Europe still way ahead of the US? What's the latest on that?
It's great questions. I think that's what's on a lot of people's minds.
Europe, I definitely believe is further along the United States. The US is now starting to understand that EPR, extended producer responsibility, is already enforced in two states in the United States. We'll see there's probably another 12, 15 states that have it on the docket to be ratified into legislation. So extended producer responsibility will be coming to the States.
What that means for our customers is that the more environmentally friendly or more sustainable their solution is, the less that they will be charged a surcharge or a tax. The more that we have to do hard work to get it to be taken care of at the end of its life, the higher the tax will be.
There are companies that can help. There are third party companies that can help somebody decipher all of that. But I do believe that we'll see, in the near ... SEC just dropped some regulations within the past couple of months.
There was some discussion at the GreenBiz conference that said, "Hey. Manufacturers, brand owner, companies in the United States that are selling into Europe will no longer have the opportunity to disclose or not disclose. It's going to be mandated." Disclosure means it's about reporting. It's saying, "Who are you as a company? What's going on with your finances as it relates to sustainability?" That's coming.
The whole part of governance is a pretty big piece of the ESG strategy platform.
Yep, yep. Absolutely.
Another thing I guess you've had a chance to see, as you've gone around and met with our different operations, obviously we've got five divisions and 28 manufacturing facilities, and we're doing a lot of innovation.
When you came in, we'd been talking about sustainability for a while, and we'd been thinking about it, but I guess how do you feel we're doing in terms of really understanding how sustainability needs to be baked into our innovation process? Are we early days?
What are the biggest challenges to doing that? Obviously, we all logically want to do it, but when you think about it, what are the biggest challenges to baking that sustainability mindset into our product development roadmaps?
I think that's great. I do think we're at early stages. I think there is, to your point, there's a natural tendency that says, "Okay. I get that sustainability is here to stay. It's got to be part of our story. It's got to be part of our innovation," but how we're going to do that is the question that we've been talking about. Formerly, I've seen it used very well where it could be a checklist. It could be baked into the stage gate process.
Had a great conversation with Earl Wohlrab of (BW) Integrated Systems. I said, "Talk to me about stage gate. Where do you think I might play?" The first thought, he was like, "Well, maybe at gate three." Then together, we posed a few questions to him. I said, "Well, what do you think about if I was presenting to you a customer perspective? I might say, 'Hey. What can you do to help me run sustainable cartons? What can you help me do to run a sustainable stretch wrapper?'" He goes, "You know, I think you might be better earlier up on ..."
Earlier up, an earlier stage, earlier in the stage gate. Right, exactly.
Yeah. He was right on. That was my gut. That's where I would've put it is to say, "Early on, in that gate zero, what should we be doing, and how can we get that voice of the customer?"
We talked to the customers to really say, "Before we go through that whole process, and we get to that MRE stage, what do we really want to be baked into that first prototype that we're putting together? How can we think about different sustainable materials? How can we think about what might be that next phase, where that puck is going? If we haven't been building it yet, then let's talk about it. What could it look like?"
I think one of the things is that our divisions that are closest to the design of the primary package are, today, the farthest down the path towards understanding the customer requirements.
Because honestly, a lot of it is in the design of the package that you're either setting yourself up to use a lot of material or a little bit of material, or you're setting yourself up to use a quote unquote green material or a not so green material. So it's really ... Package design has such a huge impact on the sustainability of the end process, of the cycle.
In Synerlink or Pneumatic Scale (Angelus) or (BW) Flexible Systems, when we are really designing and working with a partner who's filling that primary package that we're working on, well, what is the design of that package? I feel like those teams are probably a little bit farther ahead in thinking about and proactively partnering.
I know we've done a lot of work, on the Flexible Systems side, with some customers who are really prioritizing moving to paper for some of their products. So how do I have a flexible package that used to be made in plastic, and now I'm going to move it to paper? Or now I'm going to move it from a polyethylene container or bag to a PLA bag if I want to move to a renewable plastic. So, I do feel like we're probably farthest along in those places.
But as you say, if someone's going to wrap a pallet, are you going to wrap a pallet with a paper? Are you going to wrap a pallet with a plastic? Are you going to not wrap the pallet, but you're going to put corners on it instead, or you're going to put a hood on it. There's so many things that you need to think about, and so many alternatives.
For different products, it's going to be a different requirement. Just understanding it and making sure we're developing equipment that can be flexible enough to meet the needs of all the different people who might ...
Because you don't want to build 18 different types of stretch wrappers. You want to build a couple that can be flexible. So, I think that design thinking and flexibility towards alternate materials and alternate designs is super important. I think that can be baked into innovation.
It's just an extra step. It's an additional new thought process, which is probably more established in some divisions than others, I would think.
Yeah. So I think being out there, and being aware of what's going on, the latest and greatest in that technology, is really helpful for us to see what could be coming. Because we could be getting insights coming to us that are, "This is the leading edge of innovation." So let's make sure we're harnessing that data, and we're putting it in one spot.
That's another thing I'm working on. To make sure, not only do we understand what's going on with legislation, but what's going on in the industry, and what am I hearing and seeing that's leading edge.
That leading edge, the most important thing I could do is make that timely information.
There's no question that your job is so multifaceted, because you have to understand what's going on in the things that impact the customer's world, in terms of legislation and demand from their customers, whatever it is, things that are driving them to look for more sustainable solutions. And then you have to identify what potential sustainable solutions are out there in the packaging world, and who's providing them, and who's doing development among them. And then how do they interface? What's the challenge to embed those new capabilities into our innovation. And then educating our team members to make sure they're aware of them, because we're a large organization.
Then also, obviously, championing and driving to ensure that we are being as environmentally responsible in our facilities as we can. We've definitely done a lot to reduce our greenhouse gas impacts in our facilities, but can we do more? What should we be doing?
To me, it's a great job, because it can't be boring. Every day, you've got something to work on.
And every day, we've got something else that's really important and needed to get better.
Carol, some of the fascinating things that I've been finding, which is really fun, and eventually we'll capture it, and we'll have to start to record that, but when I was talking to one of the ladies that manages the global contracts for furniture, she's already been doing refurbished furniture as opposed to buying new. The amount of greenhouse gas that's avoided there is fantastic.
One of the things she was saying to me is, "I never had sustainability as a metric before." So I'm like, "Great. Can we throw that in, that you have that as an assessment or something to think about, as you're making your decision?" She's like, "That's easy. Yes."
That conversation and those kinds of conversations keep happening. Finding those wonderful nuggets that the team is already doing some really cool stuff ...
Mm-hmm, but they just weren't measuring it. They didn't have a way.
Right. We weren't measuring it. It'll be important for us to really promote that to our teams to say, "Hey. We are doing some great stuff." And documenting it, capturing that, the GHG or the greenhouse gas avoidance, because of those things, and really get people excited that they can have an impact too.