PPI talks to pioneering industry leader Suzanne Blanchet, the president and CEO of Cascades Tissue Group about her career path, innovative tissue development and future strategy.
Suzanne Blanchet was the first woman to chair a paper company in North America and is renowned for her energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the industry.
Since joining the company in 1978 as an accounting clerk, she has climbed the corporate ladder and recently been responsible for engineering significant product innovations at the company, such as the launch of Cascades Antibacterial paper towel and Cascades Moka product line, which won the innovative product of the year PPI Awards 2013.
PPI: You have had a very impressive career path throughout your time at Cascades Tissue Group, What benefit has it been for you to work your way up through the business rather than join at a high level?
The fact that I worked my way up the "corporate ladder" allowed me to familiarize myself with the whole business and really understand what all teams are going through on a daily basis. This experience is a valuable asset that I still find very useful today. Being a good manager starts with knowing what your people are really experiencing, their challenges, their setbacks, etc.
Cascades Tissue won the PPI award for Innovative Product of the Year for the Cascades Moka product line, and your work in the development of the Cascades antibacterial paper towel was also truly innovative. Can you talk about the ideas behind these important product developments, the background of the launches and why they are so important?
The idea behind the Cascades Antibacterial paper towels came from the worldwide H1N1 crisis experienced in 2009. Despite the awareness raised around hand hygiene at the time, studies showed that people didn't change the way they were washing their hands. If a major epidemic like this wasn't going to change things, what would? That's when we came up with a solution that would significantly improve hand hygiene, without changing people's habits at all. The Cascades Antibacterial towel is used just like a regular paper towel, but when it comes in contact with water on your hands after washing, it releases an active ingredient that almost instantly kills over 99.99% of harmful bacteria. This innovation is truly important to us, at Cascades, because of its substantial potential to improve human health.
The Cascades Moka product line was induced by a totally different observation. Through their studies, Cascades' Life-cycle Analysis (LCA) experts realized that the bleaching part of our paper manufacturing processes had a significant environmental impact, while being done for aesthetic reasons only. What if we skipped the bleaching step, then? This thinking led us to develop and successfully launch the Cascades Moka unbleached product line. With this groundbreaking innovation, we've achieved an amazing feat: considerably reducing the environmental impact of our raw material without compromising the softness of our tissue.
You have been responsible for the expansion strategy of manufacturing activities on the West Coast. How is that going? What are the details regarding this expansion? Do you plan to further expand into other regions?
Our expansion project on the West Coast was realized through the acquisition of an existing paper machine at our plant in St. Helens, OR. We had targeted the West Coast as an area of growth for us, and this project will allow us to bring additional capacity to this market and to fulfill our Away-from-Home customers' needs. At the moment, this expansion project is going well and is on schedule. Start-up is still planned for the fourth quarter of 2014.
You won the Gold Stevie Award for Female Executive of the Year in Canada because of your outstanding contribution to the industry, and you were the first woman to chair a paper company in North America. In your experience has the tissue industry been a difficult industry to be able to achieve this? Was it difficult to overcome any prejudice at the beginning?
The tissue industry was an excellent industry for me because it is a sector where consumers' trends and expectations are key for the finished goods. Since close to 70% of the purchasing is done by women, my contribution was appreciated. Also, my training as an accountant was helpful to understand and contribute to various projects, expansions, new products, etc.
Although being a woman was a little bit more challenging when it was time to discuss and get credibility about paper making and converting, it was possible to overcome these issues through hard work and team work.
Environmental issues across Cascades Tissue have always been your top concern. Cascades Tissue won the PPI award for the Environmental Strategy of the Year last year. What does this mean to you? Could you explain the developments and improvements you have made regarding sustainability, which led to Cascades winning the award. How do you see your environmental strategy evolving in the future?
Long before environmental issues became a feature of mainstream politics, they were at the heart of Cascades' way of thinking and approach to management and life. Ever since then, Cascades has remained a leading producer of tissue products made overwhelmingly from recycled fibers.
Since our products are mainly single use, we work hard to reduce their ecological footprint. As a result, they are made using 50% less energy and 80% less water than the North American paper industry average. Our products also hold various renowned green certifications, such as FSC, Green Seal and EcoLogo, a third party attestation of the seriousness of our commitment to sustainability.
We recently launched a new Sustainable Development Plan for 2013-2015, to keep on improving our facilities' and products' general environmental performance. Since sustainable development is so closely intertwined with our core values, we intend on pursuing in this way and remaining the leader that we currently are.
Cascades is the first company to invest in Voith's ATMOS system. How important is your relationship with machinery suppliers?
It is important to have an excellent relationship with suppliers, especially when it comes to machinery and equipment. Reaching a maximum understanding of what they can achieve is key when purchasing their equipment. It is also essential to keep a good contact for future understanding; something very useful when they have to improve the equipment.
What do you see as the main challenge in the tissue industry today? What trends do you foresee in the next five years and how will that affect Cascades?
At the moment, we are experiencing an increase in prices for raw materials and production costs, which is a challenging dynamic to evolve in. We are also seeing a shift from economy value products to premium and ultra products. This new trend changes the marketplace as well as paper manufacturing.
A major challenge in the tissue industry concerns the buying habits of our consumers - which are continuously evolving - and how to anticipate them. This market volatility is happening at the same time as a continuous commoditization of tissue products. As a result, tissue manufacturers need to remain attentive to their consumers' demands and innovate, in order to provide them with the products they want.
A major trend we've been measuring in the last years is an increased interest for sustainable products. At Cascades, we have been committed to sustainability for decades already, but the other tissue companies are now trying to catch up on us. We work hard to stay ahead of the pack and push our green products' offering even further.
Finally, another trend we've been seeing lately is hygiene compliance. A study from the University of Westminster showed that when away from home, paper towels are the only drying tools that reduce the amount of bacteria on hands, while air dryers increase them; a conclusion supported by the popular TV show Mythbusters. Knowing this, we see it as our responsibility to educate the general public and increase its awareness around hand washing and drying issues.
Regarding tissue innovation - how will the company evolve with the needs of the consumer?
With our 50-year legacy of pioneering methods in papermaking, we are determined to push our limits and focus on sustainable innovations. Even though reinventing paper products isn't an easy task, we successfully launched many truly innovative products on the market in the last years, and intend to pursue this mission in the future. At Cascades, fulfilling our consumers' and partners' needs with innovative and sustainable solutions is key; this drives our activities every day. This is why we remain attentive to their needs and work hard to satisfy them, and we welcome their ideas as well as our people.
What keeps your commitment and drive in this industry? What is the secret to your success? What's next for you?
My commitment and drive in this industry are nourished by the hard work and dedication of the 2,200 Cascades Tissue Group's employees, who are helping us to be where we are today; the fourth largest tissue producer in North America.
The secret of my success lies in the Cascades tissue team and employees, and in the customers and partners that have given us the opportunity to be their tissue supplier.
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