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How Robert Korzenski helped Solo Cup Co. discover its identity Featured

8:01pm EDT October 31, 2011
How Robert Korzenski helped Solo Cup Co. discover its identity

When Robert M. Korzenski took over as president and CEO of Solo Cup Co., the $1.6 billion food service product maker had a bit of a problem.

It had been two years since Solo had acquired SF Holdings and its well-known Sweetheart brand of cups, plates and other single-use food service products.

“The outlook for that combination was a great opportunity and one that could change the way the market was being serviced by taking two brands and putting them together to ultimately serve a much broader and larger customer base,” Korzenski says.

Unfortunately, the integration was not going as well as everyone had hoped.

“Part of what I had to try to understand and look at was what caused two companies of similar size and nature in the same industry with similar product lines and so forth, what caused them to be at the point that they were two years into the integration,” Korzenski says.

What Korzenski discovered was that these two companies that seemed to be so similar were actually pretty different.

While Solo had always been a family-owned business, Sweetheart had gone through multiple transitions over the years. The two companies took very different views on the external world and the task of financing their operations.

“Those were two cultures that were clashing as they came together in 2004 through the period that I came in in 2006,” Korzenski says. “It was like we took a blanket off what was happening in the company to say these are all the problems. I certainly single-handedly am not smart enough to figure these all out by myself. And even the executive management team and all the talent and energy that is brought to the party isn’t capable of figuring these out themselves. We need all 7,000 employees in the organization helping us figure out how to do it better.”

Speak with clarity

One of the first things that became clear to Korzenski was that Solo Cup Co. had a lack of leadership. This shortcoming, combined with the lack of a clear identity that had come about through the joining of two conflicting cultures had created a lot of confusion for employees and customers alike.

“Whatever communication or whatever strategic plan existed, it was usually owned by outside consultants, outsiders to the company,” Korzenski says. “It wasn’t developed and owned by that leadership team at the time. It’s my belief that if you don’t own it and you don’t help develop it, you can’t execute it the same way as if you did own it and you did develop it.

“As I looked at the landscape at the time, you could clearly see they were internally focused and that there were confusing signals to the employee base about what was important and what we were trying to accomplish. More importantly, there were confusing signals to the marketplace about who we were and what we were trying to do.”

Korzenski needed to move quickly, because the company was bleeding cash and had a lot of debt, which put Solo Cup in a very precarious financial situation. There wasn’t a lot of time to get things turned around.

“One of my objectives was to bring in place strong people, a strong leadership team that could help right the ship and put it back on track,” Korzenski says.

Korzenski revamped the management team, bringing in people who he felt could make an immediate difference and deliver a clear message about what Solo Cup Co. was doing. It was both simple and desperately needed.

“Truthful and honest and open communication,” Korzenski says. “That’s what people want. People can’t solve problems if you don’t give them all the facts. People won’t want to solve problems or won’t jump on board if they believe you are misleading them and people will quickly begin to not follow you if they suspect that the company is really doing something else and communicating another story.”

Korzenski needed his new management team to step up and help him deliver this message. It would be a lot more meaningful if he wasn’t the only one talking. It also wouldn’t hurt if they did a little listening too. The key was for both Korzenski and his team to be approachable.

“It absolutely can’t only be me,” Korzenski says. “The executive team, which is seven other members that report directly to me, the team understands that my expectation is you listen carefully to what you’re hearing and what people are telling you so you can then translate that into what do we do in response to those situations that are unfolding.

“It really is about your own approachability and about how often you are out visiting not only with your customers, but with your employees and about how well you listen. Sometimes you come in and because of the position, people may be a bit intimidated and might not be as open and honest with their dialogue. But if you listen carefully, everyone is usually telling you what they are really feeling. You just have to listen to it.”

If you personally don’t feel comfortable being part of that communication effort to your people, lean more heavily on your team to fill in those gaps or find a way that falls more into your comfort zone.

“You may never be a speaker that can stand in front of 7,000 employees and address the group,” Korzenski says. “But if you can do that with smaller groups and more intimate settings where you feel more comfortable, use that. … It may not all look the same. It will be different. But everyone has that skill. If you have to do it five employees at a time, then that’s what you have to do.”

Korzenski and his team didn’t just hold meetings, they got out and visited factories and tried to canvas the company communicating with employees.

“It’s really making a strong effort to not only get everybody to hear what you’re saying, but making sure what you’re telling them, they can clearly understand, they can clearly believe in and that everyone is listening to the same message,” Korzenski says. “So it really is about getting to the factories, getting to the facilities and getting out with our sales people.

“Every action, every leadership move and every form of communication through the executive management team through every level of this company must be done in an honest and accurate way. Then people will believe and follow. Short of that, it won’t happen.”

Keep it going

Korzenski began to see the fruits of his and his management team’s labor through 2007 and into 2008.

“Our employees really signed on to what was happening and really started to get engaged in getting the company to new levels and new areas we expected to get to many years before that,” Korzenski says. “Our customers started to believe in us again. Our outside constituents, our suppliers and our board all started to believe that the company was moving in the right direction.”

Debt was reduced. Sales improved and so did cash flow. Then the economy tanked and demand, which was typically very reliable in the industry of plastic cups, plates and the like, took a big hit.

The loyalty that Korzenski and his team had earned in the first couple years was being put to the test.

“They were saying, ‘Look, you’ve been entrusted with a company that has a 75-year heritage,” Korzenski says. “It has one of the strongest brands in the industry. Don’t screw it up.”

The need to keep people informed and involved was even more important now than it had been before.

“I believe in the absolute expectation that all people will participate in a discussion and that we’ll reach consensus,” Korzenski says. “I don’t believe that an autocratic style is the way to win an organization’s heart and soul to move it forward.”

When you experience an obstacle in your path to achieving a goal, you can’t throw in the towel and give up. You also can’t be so loyal to your plan that you don’t recognize the need to adjust.

“You can set the target and you can set the end state, but if you don’t adjust along the way and you blindly follow that end game without halftime adjustments,” Korzenski says. “That will lead to failure as well. So it’s important to put that stake out there, put an end opportunity in front of the work force and in front of our customers as well so they understand where we’re going. But then it’s having the ability to change that, whether it be subtly or pretty significantly.”

But whether you’re adjusting or staying the course, remain accessible.

“My assistant knows that any customer that calls, whether it’s a hot dog stand down the street or Starbucks, she finds me wherever I am and I speak directly to that customer about any issue they may be facing with the company,” Korzenski says. “I expect that of every member of the leadership team as well. I think those are the critical pieces to being successful and then taking that information and turning it into results for the company.”

Continue to evolve

When the economy began to turn in 2009 and 2010, it was time to unleash the next phase of Solo Cup’s evolution. A new campaign slogan for employees, “Think Like a Customer,” was unveiled to indicate that the company had solved many of its internal issues and that it was now time to really focus on being a great brand again for customers.

“What it was intended to do was take this new company and say, ‘If every single employee in this company started to think like they were the customer, what would you do differently?” Korzenski says. “How would you act differently? What would you do in your daily lives so that the customer could visibly see a different Solo Cup?’”

The idea was to reinforce the notion that things would continue to change and employees needed to stay tuned in to so they could always be providing the best product and service possible.

“You want them to be able to depend on Solo to be the company that they can come to for their changing needs and for what they need to solve their solutions,” Korzenski says. “If you have an employee base that thinks that way, that thinks like a customer, then they bring that expertise. We know that listening to what the customers’ needs are in this changing environment is going to be critically important to our success going forward.”

How to reach: Solo Cup Co., (877) 765-6669 or www.solocup.com

The Korzenski File

History of Solo Cup Co.: The company was founded in Chicago 1936 by Leo J. Hulseman as Paper Container Manufacturing Co. It changed to its present name in 1946. The company has 10 North American manufacturing facilities and six state-of-the-art distribution centers, with additional manufacturing and distribution in Central America and Europe. The company is an exporter to more than 70 countries and has a broad product line encompassing many materials: paper, plastic, foam, post-consumer recycled content, annually renewable materials and compostable materials.

Innovations in single-use tableware that reflect the common culture:

1936                Paper cone cup

1946                Solo Cup

1950s              2-piece wax-lined cold cups

1960s              Cozy Cup and reusable plastic holder

1970s              2-color, red Party Cup

1980s              Traveler hot cup lid

1990s              Clear, plastic PET cup

2004                Solo Grips product line

2004                FDA-approved post-consumer fiber hot cup

2008                Bare by Solo line of eco-forward single-use tableware

2009                Solo Squared

Korzenski on delivering a message: It really goes back to something that I did as an intern through one of my summer jobs. I was given an assignment and I was asked to give that assignment to the executive team. I launched into the solution within the first 30 seconds. One of the members of the team took me aside and said, ‘Part of what you have to do is you have to polish this up a little bit. You have to make sure everybody understands the work and the effort that you put into it.’ So take your time to talk about what it is you’re doing.