Be bold and take risks

The result of a $3 billion merger between Schweitzer-Mauduit International (SWM) and Neenah, Inc. in July this year, Mativ should be considered a young company. However, given the fact these two players were both powerhouses in their segments, it’s clear to see why their fusion has already created a formidable business.

The Mativ of today is a manufacturer of premium specialty materials that are made from fibers and films. With approximately 7500 employees around the world, and 48 plants across North America, South America, Europe and Asia, the business has two segments – Advanced Technical Materials, which includes the business units of filtration, protective films, release liners, health care solutions and industrial products, and Fiber-Based Solutions – which includes packaging, specialty papers and engineered papers.

Steering this new entity through the merger process and beyond requires the vision of a strong and experienced leader and this role has been taken by Julie Schertell, the former CEO of Neenah, now CEO of Mativ. She sees the merger as a ‘unique opportunity to boldly reimagine our future as a stronger and faster-growing global enterprise.’

It’s important to recognize that both SWM and Neenah were very successful as standalone companies,” she begins. “They had solid positions in common categories so the industrial logic behind the merger was strong and combining the business has created $65 million of synergies that we will accomplish in the next three years. It has also given us scale – as a larger company we can make different decisions, move at a different pace, and develop different capital structures.”

Finally, the two companies had a great cultural fit, which is important to Julie. Keen to ensure that the transition was successful, Mativ embraced the workforce at all levels, with Julie and her team creating a transformation office to lead the integration efforts. “We were clear from the very beginning that this is probably the most value-creating opportunity we will have in our careers and we cannot treat it as a hobby. The transformation office features our top talents, and they are ensuring we are making progress and holding us accountable for results.”

A communication team is also helping to ensure a smooth assimilation and Julie is delighted with the level of messaging that has been put in place, in a short time frame. “We do a podcast with our leadership team and ‘get to know’ videos, townhalls, and global team calls. But on top of that, I am a big believer in the value of face-to-face interaction,” she added. “One of my favorite parts of my job is being out in the plants, spending time with employees, learning from those that are closest to our manufacturing process, looking for opportunities, and getting to know the team better.” Demonstrating her dedication to this approach, when we spoke to Julie, she was about to embark on a tour of nine of Mativ’s plants on the East Coast of the US, before visiting several of its European facilities as well in the coming months.

Clearly on the cusp of an exciting growth journey, Mativ is benefiting from Julie’s experience across multiple sectors and her confidence to take bold steps when required. Her own career path, which she describes as ‘non-linear’, offers the ideal foundation from which to direct this newly combined enterprise. Her first role as a cost analyst at a Georgia-Pacific paper mill sparked a passion for manufacturing that still burns as bright today. She then got involved in process improvement programs, moved from finance into operations and then supply chain, and eventually became leader of a large customer service group and a sales and marketing team. “I wanted to get closer to customers and better understand the marketplace and how we could meet their needs. The role included logistics, sales technical support and packaging engineering, so it was a great experience from the standpoint of learning to lead. There was an amazing infrastructure around me, which ensured I couldn’t fall down – to some degree!”

Speed with purpose
Having learned so many valuable skills at Georgia-Pacific, Julie was recruited by Neenah to lead the supply chain for fine paper and packaging – its largest segment. “From there, I moved into sales and marketing and then held a general manager role with full P&L responsibility and decisions rights.” Leading that group for several years, Julie brought all her experience to bear and was able to find ways to grow the division for seven consecutive years.

Remaining hungry for challenges and new experiences, she moved over to lead Neenah’s Technical Products division, before becoming COO and ultimately CEO, at around the same time as the pandemic struck. “It was a trial by fire so to speak; but it really helped us gel as a team and work together on how we were going to offset some of the headwinds we were facing,” she says of this time. Finally, following the merger, Julie became Mativ’s President and CEO.

“Taking on all these different roles and challenges has given me every opportunity to grow and learn,” she emphasizes. Believing that ‘the rewards are in the risks,’ this approach does require energy and determination (a quality that Julie celebrates is ‘grit’) and she admits that she is known for her ‘bias for action’ or simply, getting things done. “Internally, we call this ‘speed with purpose,’ and I am a firm believer that speed matters, particularly in the current business environment, which is very fluid, with strong competition. What’s important is understanding that, when you are moving quickly, you are going to make mistakes. That is OK if you learn from them, move on and continue your forward momentum.”

Julie went on to highlight some further values that are prized at Mativ. “We value safety above all, and that isn’t just in our sites, but covers everything, from sales staff driving to an appointment to our operators on the floor. It’s important to us that everyone understands that safety is THE priority at Mativ,” she stated. “We also talk about ‘confident humility’, which requires the confidence to move forward and take a little bit of risk, while remaining humble enough to know we all still have a lot to learn.

“This ties into ‘actively experimenting’ – encouraging everyone to try something different across the organization, so that we are always creatively deconstructing what we do to make it better, faster, safer and more effective.

“We also believe in ‘assuming positive intent’. If you think a fellow employee is not moving in the same direction as you, the chances are they are just coming at it from a different perspective. It’s better to assume that everyone has a ‘positive intent’ behind their actions and if you discuss it with them, you will find ultimately you are trying to achieve the same goals. Of course, our values evolve all the time, but these ones are key.”

These principles tie into the overall ambition of Mativ, which is, of course, to delight the customer and act as a trustworthy and reliable partner. Thanks to her sales and customer service experience, Julie prioritizes creating ‘customer intimacy’. “We win when our customers win, so we must stay in tune with that vision throughout our entire organization and keep customers at the center of our strategy.

“This results in some of our products being co-developed with our clients, including working very closely across different touch points, not just research and development, but also marketing, communication, operations, customer service and sales.”

This holistic approach helps to drive Mativ’s purpose of finding the ‘potential in the impossible’ – Julie and her team always strive to create products that solve problems in the future. “We identify opportunities by understanding the markets in which we compete and how our customers win in those markets. Often, we address those unmet needs before the customer has even articulated a requirement for a product. Those are important parts of our strategy, unlocking growth with our with our customers enabling them to win in the marketplace is the only way we will continue to grow.”

Sharing information, customer feedback, staff insights and the different approaches taken across global sites can yield valuable results; and to that end, Julie and her team are keen to embrace digital solutions that connect not just its own operations but also extend out to customers. “It’s important to have real time visibility to performance, so having processes digitalized and the data instantly available increases our learning speed and improves how we communicate. Furthermore, our customers expect an efficient digital solution for how we engage and interact, and as a B2B company we mustn’t lose sight of that. The customer experience continues to evolve, and technology is a key part of maintaining and improving the relationship with our customers.

Exciting possibilities
“From a manufacturing standpoint, customers are looking for a global supply chain with local supply because of the fluidity of today’s supply chain challenges. That is a trend that has reversed from what we have seen historically. Mativ has global supply chain strength, as well as availability locally, and that latter factor also addresses the increasing importance of sustainable operations.”

When Julie took the helm as Mativ CEO, her message to the combined workforce was that this was a fresh start. With plans now announced for a new, combined HQ in Alpharetta, Georgia, which will bring teams together in a space designed especially for them, the next few years look full of exciting possibilities. “I couldn’t be prouder and more honored to be part of this merger,” Julie ended. “I am thrilled with the opportunities we have in front of us, the strength of the team we have put together and the progress we are making. Everyone is extremely focused and aligned and I am excited to see what we will do in the marketplace in the next 12 months.”