Connecting innovation and sustainability

Q&A with Jim Caudill, vice president of packaging innovation

Jim Caudill leads a team of WestRock engineers in developing new ways to support our customers through sustainable innovation in packaging.

As consumer products companies, food and beverage companies, quick-service restaurants and major retailers continue to set big goals for sustainability, packaging innovation is a major resource to develop. Replacing plastic with sustainable packaging is a huge priority for many customers, and Jim and his team are collaborating with the scientists in our packaging lab and the pilot plant on several exciting sustainable packaging innovations on the horizon.

Q: Tell us about your approach to packaging innovation at WestRock.
A: At WestRock, we’re creating a fiber-based future. Led by enthusiastic problem-solvers applying leading science and technology, we’re implementing innovative paper and packaging solutions to address our customers’ greatest challenges.

Packaging innovation at WestRock is realized through incremental progress and transformative opportunities that change the industry landscape. We are guided by our Innovation Excellence framework, which serves as our roadmap to develop a robust pipeline of innovations in three growth areas:
• Horizon 1: Advancements within existing product categories
• Horizon 2: Expansion into new categories
• Horizon 3: Breakthrough innovations that are new to market

Q: How is your team structured to drive the company’s differentiation strategy?

A: Our group is responsible for innovation across the WestRock packaging businesses, including technical development, plastic replacement and innovation project pipeline tracking. Our team of packaging engineers and product developers is organized by innovation platform:
• Barrier technology: working on new ways to make paperboard packaging resistant to water/grease/temperature/etc. while retaining its recyclability (and/or compostability].
• High-performance strength: making paperboard packaging as strong and lightweight as possible so that it is effective in protecting customers’ products and sustainable.
• Emerging technologies: exploring the “further out there” big ideas and technologies that could revolutionize our industry and grow WestRock’s portfolio.

We try to keep a good balance across all three – recognizing that we have to be available for the big picture stuff but also keep the flywheel turning on the incremental innovation that can make a significant difference over time.
Q: We know your team doesn’t spend all your time in the lab. How do you interact with the rest of the company?
A: Collaboration is an incredibly important part of our approach. Our team is a part of the Global Innovation Network, which includes product developers, designers, materials specialists, and machinery specialists from across the businesses. We get together quarterly to share ideas, resources and inspiration; there is also a training element. We serve as a sort of innovation center of excellence for the company, providing training to improve our skills and effectiveness. By holding quarterly innovation reviews with business leaders, we make sure we are working on the right things to deliver value.
Innovation is driven by connections with our colleagues and our customers. We enjoy collaborating closely with colleagues from enterprise sales, sustainability, product stewardship and consumer insights.

As someone who has worked on growth initiatives, I also enjoy the business aspects of our work, understanding the full context of our developmental efforts – why they are needed, how they will be used, and how they will help our customers succeed in the marketplace. I have a lot of respect for the folks in the businesses who make these partnerships possible.

On the innovation team, our philosophy is about solving customer problems and making our products better. It’s about what the customer needs. These days, that’s packaging sustainability and performance.

Q: How do you deliver packaging sustainability and performance for customers through innovation?

A: Our customers are looking for sustainable ways to replace plastic in their packaging. We believe innovative, sustainable paper and packaging is the answer. We have a multidimensional approach to plastics replacement to help our customers maintain or exceed performance while increasing their sustainability profile.

Q: This sounds like a truly holistic approach – what is WestRock’s competitive advantage when it comes to innovation and sustainability?

A: WestRock combines the world’s most comprehensive portfolio of sustainable, fiber-based paper, packaging and promotional retail displays with our industry-leading expertise, insights and automated packaging systems to provide customized solutions that help our customers win in the marketplace. The WestRock team is really an extension of our customers’ teams, with a strong focus on helping them lower their total cost, sell more products, minimize their risks, and achieve their sustainability goals.

Our innovation capabilities provide another layer of competitive advantage. For us, sustainability isn’t only about our own impacts as a manufacturer, but what we create in partnership with our customers to help them achieve their sustainability objectives and delight their customers in the process.

Our broad portfolio is also an advantage – having access to the world’s most comprehensive portfolio of sustainable paper and packaging products is a packaging engineer’s dream, as it’s a great toolbox for solving complex customer problems.

The thing that is truly differentiating is our people, and the way we work together to integrate all of these advantages to deliver for our customers. For example, we are working with a major fast-moving consumer goods company to help them achieve their 2025 sustainability goals through packaging innovation. It’s because of the great relationship the enterprise sales team has with their customer that we are able to connect with them and develop solutions. We can make a much bigger difference when we get involved at this stage of the process, and it is a lot of fun.

Our goal is to deliver innovation that solves customer challenges, and in many cases, it’s about advancing sustainability without sacrificing performance. We see ourselves as a strategic partner with a pragmatic approach to solving our customers’ problems. When you have the right people, one challenge (like innovation) can be the solution to another (like sustainability). When we remember our goal is to connect people to products, we can not only bring innovative ideas to the table but also get them into the market and help our customers win.