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Think Big, Act Small: Nearing 60 years in the business, Roger Stone is still going strong

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Think Big, Act Small: Nearing 60 years in the business, Roger Stone is still going strong

February 20, 2015 - 06:38

During his nearly 60-year career, Roger Stone has built three major companies to be major players the North American containerboard industry. In the past seven years, Stone built his latest company KapStone Paper and Packaging from a $180 million investment in 2005 into the fifth largest North American containerboard producer and largest kraft paper supplier following 2013’s $1 billion acquisition of Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging. That deal followed acquisition of assets from IP, MeadWestvaco, and U.S. Corrugated.

In the 1980s, he led a buyout spree at Stone Container Corp., a Chicago-based paper company founded by his father and uncles. In 1998, he merged the company with rival Jefferson Smurfit Corp. to form Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. (SSCC). He left after the merger to run Box USA, which he sold in 2004.

Stone, currently chairman of KapStone, runs the company along with his son-in-law, President and COO Matt Kaplan. Today, KapStone operates four paper mills that produce a wide range of kraft and recycled products ranging from containerboard to kraft papers and folding carton board. Its mills’ product portfolio contains several branded products as well as a focus on extensible kraft paper grades and on high- performance, lightweight linerboard.

Driven by Its Principles

Stone described KapStone as a company that differentiates itself primarily on the basis of its underlying principles.  According to Stone, there are three:  think big and act small; take care of our partners, both employees and customers; and, do business the right way.  

“Think big and act small” refers to the company’s focus on ensuring that its capabilities meet or exceed those of the largest companies in the paper and packaging industry, while at the same time, maintaining a “small-company feel.” 

According to Stone, “thinking big” has to do with having equivalent or better expertise, equipment, systems, processes, and so on that larger companies have, and applying those in ways that add value to customers beyond what is expected. “Acting small,” on the other hand, means that KapStone treats customers like family, and gives customers special attention that they may not get from other, larger companies. 

“We pay attention to our customers’ needs and spend time with them,” Stone said, “something that a lot of our competitors don’t do very well.”  

Stone added that the company is highly vested in delivering on three specific areas of customer satisfaction: Innovation, quality and service.

Stone said that taking care of partners, both employees and customers, is at the heart of how the company operates. “If you treat customers and employees with the respect and appreciation they deserve, the rest will follow.”

“You can’t believe how many executives believe customers are a necessary evil.”

As for employees, Stone said that the company wants employees to enjoy working there, and to feel that what they do makes a difference.

“It’s very important to respect people and their views, whether they work on a machine, in engineering, in an office — and regardless of their title or pay grade. People make the difference. We rely on employees. Without employees who are committed to doing the work that’s needed, we’ve got nothing.”

Just as important to Stone, if not more important, is the notion of doing business the right way.  Stone explained, “Integrity means everything to us.  We say what we mean and we do what we say.”

The Longview Acquisition

The Longview operation included a paper mill with five paper machines that produce more than one million tons per year of linerboard, corrugating medium and kraft paper. The deal also included six box plants and one sheet plant. The packaging operations are located in California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, which greatly expanded KapStone’s reach into markets throughout the West.

“The integration has gone well,” Stone said. “We bought great facilities with good upside potential and strong management prospects.

The two parties have gained a lot from each other and there is a lot more to go, Stone said. In terms of specific operational improvements, KapStone has learned a great deal from Longview and Longview has made use of a good deal of know-how from the legacy KapStone mills.

“We’re thrilled with it,” Stone continued. “It was a game changer for our company.”

While the Longview acquisition was hugely impactful for KapStone, Stone believes the strongest growth opportunities for the company will come from growing the bottom line.

“New products and higher performance are key,” he said. “We believe strongly that we can increase profitability. We are equipped for investments and we will do them.”

Stone said KapStone will continue to create incremental mill capacity and selling the unused capacity at its box plants.

The Future

Stone’s biggest accomplishment he said is creating a lot of value for his shareholders. “That’s what we’ve always tried to do — that’s the goal. We have done that here, at Box USA and SSCC in the beginning years.”

Stone is still going strong, long past the age where other executives have shifted their focus to golf scores from earnings per share. And that won’t be changing anytime soon. “It would be my pleasure to think about doing this for another 10 years. I love this. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve always loved this business. If I continue to enjoy it and give some value, I’m going to keep doing it,” he concluded.