Mary Laschinger has been in the supply chain industry since age 21, with names like Kimberly-Clark and James River Corporation lining her resume. She jumped into opportunities to learn different facets of these businesses. Following that, Laschinger spent over 20 years at working at paper distribution enterprise International Paper Company, climbing through the ranks to eventually become president of their European division.
Now, Laschinger is the only female CEO of an Atlanta-headquartered Fortune 500 company. Veritiv is valued at more than $8 billion, making it one of the largest packaging and distribution companies in the country.
The company’s path was unique, too. In 2014, within a 24-hour period, the International Paper Company spun off its distribution business called xpedx, and then xpedx merged with its largest competitor Unisource Worldwide to create a new company called Veritiv, and went public. “On the first day, we spun out and merged, had an IPO and took it public on the New York Stock Exchange,” says Laschinger.
Now the B2B packaging distributor is growing into the third phase of the initial goals they set — to scale product. Here, Laschinger shares more about Veritiv’s current core products, how she built the company’s work culture from the ground up after the merger, and her essential advice as a leader.
How did your career background lead you to become CEO of Veritiv?
I think one of the biggest learning experiences I had was when I spent some time in Europe, almost five years there, where I ran the entire region for the International Paper Company.
After I came back from Europe with International Paper, they asked me to run their distribution business. It was about a $6 billion business. I became the president of that company for International Paper. In the first couple of years, we made a decision to spin that company out on its own. We then merged it with a private equity company. We did a spin, a merge, an IPO, and took the company public all in one day in 2014. Then I became chairman and CEO of what is now known as Veritiv.
What’s Veritiv’s core product at this time?
Our real growth engine for the company is packaging — it’s the future of the company. We like to think of ourselves as a total packaging solutions company. We design packaging, we source those materials, we deliver those packaging needs to our customers, where they, oftentimes, will put the products in those packages and then, maybe, put it inside another package to ship it. We like to think of ourselves as a solutions-based company more than just products. In fact, that’s where we’re moving the company. Packaging is a great example of where we do that, and do that very well.
One of the current demands is environmentally-sound products — a lot of our fiber-based packaging is renewable. It comes from renewable resources and is recyclable. We’re always looking for ways to become more environmentally-sound and safer, as well as supporting recyclability, as well as renewable resources.
You call Veritiv a $9 billion startup company since you merged two separate companies and started the hierarchy from scratch at Veritiv. How did you approach this?
When we became Veritiv, neither company was a public company, so we had to build up a public-company infrastructure and capabilities. We had to hire a whole new board of directors. We had to launch all new employee systems, for example. We had to make sure we could pay our people on the first day.
We’ve had three phases of our journey for our company. The first one was to stabilize the company in 2014-15. The second phase of our journey, which is where we’re in through ’18, is to integrate the companies and achieve the synergies that you would expect by merging these two big companies. We’re about two-thirds of the way through that. But we’ve also started into the third phase of our company, which is to accelerate our growth. That’s about investing in our growth segment of packaging, services and facilities solutions to enable a greater level of growth.
As you merged two different work cultures, how did you prioritize employee wellness and encourage them to focus on the new company’s goal?
It’s a great question. We’re still building our culture, because it’s a journey, right? It takes time because Veritiv didn’t take the culture of either company. If you imagine you’re bringing together two companies of that size of scale, you got a lot of overlap of people and processes. We actually achieved — I say “we” because I don’t do anything by myself — that every employee in the company knew who they reported to on day one. That sounds simple — but can you imagine bringing two huge organizations together under one organization’s structure on the day you launch the company, and everyone not knowing who their manager was?
In that very first week of operation, we rolled out our values for the company to build our culture on. Over the course of the last three years, we’ve been systematically building capabilities around processes and tools that enable our values to come to life, which ultimately leads to our culture.
What do you (and your senior teams) look for in employees when hiring?
The most important thing was to hire them for their value system. What I mean by that is, what kind of character is this individual? Are they a team player or not? Do they care about their colleague’s success or just their own? Do they care about the enterprise or only their team? Do they exhibit integrity and trust?
Secondly, I ask them to assess people on their willingness to learn and grow, because we knew we’d go through a lot of change. We knew the world around us is changing rapidly.
As the only woman CEO of a Fortune 500 based in Atlanta, what are the challenges you’ve encountered in your career?
The challenges that I faced, obviously, is you’re often the only woman in the room. I think people often judge you differently. That’s just the way it is. My advice is always been to people is, you got to make this not about what you are, meaning you’re a woman. You need to make it about who you are — what are you capable of doing? Having the self-confidence, not the arrogance, but the confidence to walk into a room and know you know what you’re doing and have the courage to speak up. That’s the advice I always give people.
Any last leadership lessons that could help other entrepreneurs lead their companies to success?
I think too often leaders don’t understand what their real role is as a leader. But first and foremost, I think leaders should never stop learning. They should never put themselves in a position that they know it all.
I learn something every day, and I’m learning it from the people that report to me. Success comes from helping your team succeed, because as a senior leader, you don’t really do anything by yourself. You got to surround yourself by great people that you have trust and confidence in. Your role as a leader is to help them succeed. To the extent that you can do that, you will be successful.