Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.

EP 6 - Manufacturers Respond to COVID-19, Shifts in Demand for Medical Industry | Ahlstrom-Munksjo | Kaukauna, Wisconsin

April 23, 2021 Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, Ahlstrom-Munksjo Episode 6
Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.
EP 6 - Manufacturers Respond to COVID-19, Shifts in Demand for Medical Industry | Ahlstrom-Munksjo | Kaukauna, Wisconsin
Show Notes Transcript

“Beyond just the manufacturing platform, I think what we’ve learned as we service our customers was an awful lot about creativity and various ways to do things.” – Robyn Buss | Executive Vice President of Food Packaging & Technical Solutions | Ahlstrom-Munksjö

In our latest episode of “Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.” we feature Ahlstrom-Munksjö based in Kaukauna, Wisconsin who is the leading global and North American manufacturer of specialty paper products. From medical tapes that keep IVs in place and base papers for face masks and gowns to fast food carryout bags and nonperishable and frozen food packaging, we learn how Ahlstrom-Munksjö kept up with demand to ensure others could respond as needed to the pandemic.

Our guest joining us this week is Robyn Buss, Executive Vice President of Food Packaging & Technical Solutions of Ahlstrom-Munksjö who is a seasoned sales and marketing professional with over 25 years of experience. Robyn has a track record of leading teams, attracting top talent and developing individuals to their highest potential. Tune in to our latest episode to learn more about how Ahlstrom-Munksjö responded to the shifting demands in the medical industry and how Robyn sees the future of manufacturing in Wisconsin moving forward.

In this episode we answer:

  • Tell us a little bit about Ahlstrom-Munksjö and how you resounded to COVID-19. (2:22)
  • How were you able to respond so quickly to the shifts in demand within the medical industry in response to the pandemic? (4:44)
  • What did it mean to your employees to know that they were really a critical part of the COVID-19 response? (8:45)
  • How is Ahlstrom-Munksjö planning for the rest of 2021 and beyond with all the changes happening? (11:00)
  • Reflecting on the past year plus, do you think that this showed that the manufacturing industry is more resilient than ever and has a bright future? What’s your interpretation of the long-term plan for the manufacturing industry? (13:45)
  • What are some solutions that you and the team at Ahlstrom-Munksjö doing to address the workforce shortage and fill the needed positions for your business? (18:20)

Next week, we are excited to be joined by Jim Kerlin, President & CEO at Beyond Vision out of Milwaukee. We will share another perspective from an innovative company in Wisconsin and how they were able to continue to protect front-line workers, their employees and community.

If you found value in this episode or want to hear the stories from Wisconsin manufacturers, please hit that subscribe button and share it with your peers. We really want to showcase all the good news stories of how manufacturing was critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.” is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC).

Robyn Buss | Executive Vice President of Food Packaging & Technical Solutions | Ahlstrom-Munksjo
Beyond just the manufacturing platform, I think what we've learned as we service our customers was an awful lot about creativity and various ways to do things.

Voiceover
You’re listening to Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Now here's your host, WMC Vice President of Communications and Marketing, Nick Novak.

Nick Novak (Host) | Vice President of Communications & Marketing | WMC
Hello and welcome to this week's episode of Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. The show that takes you inside the strength and resilience of Wisconsin's manufacturing community where we hear from Wisconsin's CEOs and executives to learn about their challenges, opportunities and successes navigating their business through the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m your host Nick Novak and today we're going to talk about Ahlstrom-Munksjo out of Kaukauna and how they got through the COVID-19 pandemic and how they truly responded in a fantastic way, but before we get started I would like to thank our program partners Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Together, we remain committed to our mission of recognizing excellence in manufacturing in our state.

Joining us today is Robyn Buss, the Executive Vice President of Food Packaging and Technical Solutions at Ahlstrom-Munksjo and we're going to talk a little bit about what Ahlstrom-Munksjo was able to do in 2020, how your team really responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how you continue to really respond today, so Robyn, thanks so much for taking the time to join us.

Robyn Buss
Yeah, great Nick, thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Nick Novak (Host)
So let's go back to March of 2020. Obviously the global COVID-19 pandemic kind of took everyone by surprise a little bit and I think it's lasted a bit longer than many people may have anticipated. If we go back to spring of last year, can you walk me through what your team was able to do and kind of how you responded to COVID-19 and also just tell me a little bit about the business?

Robyn Buss
Sure, so first just a little bit about the business, so Ahlstrom-Munksjo is a specialty paper manufacturer, so we have four manufacturing sites in the state of Wisconsin and we're producing a very wide variety of products. We were very quickly identified as being an essential manufacturer which was fantastic for us to ensure that we were able to keep our business running. We're producing products that support the medical industry, food packaging and processing industry, quite a few products that support shipping tapes, shipping materials in building and construction and then in our global business, we're also supplying filtration materials which are super important for PPE, obviously, so yes as you stated the global pandemic hit us as a bit of a surprise. Nothing we were necessarily prepared for, but certainly something that we found ourselves needing to react to very quickly, so the first thing that we did is we implemented what we called our COVID-19 pandemic prevention efforts. Really did this at the first signs of the virus here in the United States so we formed a crisis communications team quite immediately when this first all started that forced us to begin by having daily leadership meetings as we really developed our internal protocols that we're actually still following yet today across our manufacturing facilities, so we felt it was necessary to create specific protocols to ensure the health and safety of our employees as well as the ability for us to continue to support our customers and their downstream customers as well.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now, we've been talking to a number of manufacturers for this podcast through the Manufacturer of the Year awards program as I’ve mentioned on other programs here you know we wish we could be in Milwaukee at The Pfister Hotel really all celebrating together the manufacturing industry and everything that that we were able to do in the past year. Given COVID-19, we obviously can't do that, but some things that we've talked about with some other of the honorees for this year's MOTY awards is the fact that you know they transitioned to producing new products or helping to make PPE to helping them to make face masks and things you were obviously in the middle of all of this already and I’m sure demand for a lot of the products that you already made you know probably increased quite a bit. How were you able to respond to that on such a you know was such a quick turnaround when there was this sudden increase in demand for so many different products that you that your team makes on a daily basis?

Robyn Buss
Yeah so I would say the nature of the specialty paper manufacturing industry is really one of flexibility, so it is not abnormal for us to make quick changeovers when we need to do so, so we did as you suggested see an increase in demand for some of our products. In turn, we also saw a reduction in demand for some of our other products due to customer shutdowns or restaurants closing customers, not being able to staff operations, etc., so we very quickly reacted to the demand that we were thrown and given in this environment and we adjusted our manufacturing platform so we could support the needs of the customer to be able to just ensure that we're meeting the appropriate requirements for COVID related needs.

Nick Novak (Host)
So Robyn, we talked a lot about you know demand changing as COVID-19 kind of started here in Wisconsin and for Ahlstrom-Munksjo specifically, you guys work a lot with shipping materials and food packaging papers and there was a huge demand increase for that because suddenly everybody was buying things online, they were you know kind of stocking up on grocery items, what was your experience dealing with those demand increases here in Wisconsin?

Robyn Buss
Yeah so we did have to react very quickly and those end uses that you just described, so we're making a carton stealing tape for the amazon boxes as well as some materials that go inside those corrugated boxes as well as paper materials for labeling, any of those shipping materials, so did see a real really large increased demand there. In addition, our food packaging papers sold through grocery stores saw an increased demand as I mentioned prior the ability that we have with the flexibility of our manufacturing platform here in Wisconsin, we were really able to quickly react to that demand and meet the marketplace needs as they grew quite significantly. We're still seeing strength there now which is fabulous actually.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now did you know you obviously have facilities in Wisconsin, but you know in a lot of other places too and so globally did you see these same demand increases or or were you seeing different parts of your business really take off globally?

Robyn Buss
Yeah globally I would say the uh largest increases in demand came in our medical business, our advanced liquid technology business, as well as our filtration business, so supporting the needs of medical packaging certainly drapes and gowns, things like IV packaging materials, lots of supplies that are used in hospitals as well as filtration materials that are feeding into face masks, in general.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well I think just more proof that the manufacturing industry was just such a critical industry responding to COVID-19 and you know we wouldn't have been able to do all the things that we did over the past year without companies and workers in this industry, so appreciate all you're doing on that front.

Robyn Buss
Yes, thank you.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now talking a little bit about the team that you have at Ahlstrom-Munksjo and the folks who are the ones coming in every day and you know making sure that these products are ae getting out the door to your customers, what did it mean to your employees to know that they were really a critical part of the COVID-19 response?

Robyn Buss
Yeah, well first I would start by saying that I’m personally extremely proud of all of our employees for those that did have to report in every day. They had made huge sacrifices, obviously through this situation, so I think in general we were very honored to be able to continue to run our operations and felt very good about our ability to be able to support the needs of the broader marketplace, but again it was just a tremendous effort for all of our manufacturing employees who did a phenomenal job ensuring that not only they stayed safe, their families stayed safe and they were able to meet the needs of our customers in the broader marketplace.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well I want to keep talking a little bit on that but we are going to take a short break here to get a quick message from our program sponsors and we will continue this conversation on the other side, we'll talk a little bit about the future of the manufacturing industry, so stick with us.

Voiceover
Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well we're back with Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. and we're joined by Robyn Buss, Executive Vice President of Food Packaging and Technical Solutions at Ahlstrom-Munksjo and we're going to be talking a little bit about the future of Wisconsin manufacturing and the industry overall. We talked a lot about 2020, but now we want to look towards what's going to happen in in the rest of 2021 and maybe beyond that, so you've obviously gone through a lot of changes, Robyn at Ahlstrom-Munksjo, and you really you know are probably taking that all into consideration as you're planning out the rest of 2021, so for your business you know what do all these changes mean? What does the vaccine mean? What does you know getting people you know who maybe worked from home and getting back that, what does this all mean as you plan for the rest of the year?

Robyn Buss
Yeah so at this time, we are basically encouraging all of our team members to really just stay the course in this fight against the pandemic, so it could be a little bit of a period of time here before everybody does indeed get vaccinated. We're certainly encouraging that and looking very much forward to that so it's kind of a given that I think all of us are getting tired and sometimes tiredness can lead to complacency, but again in order to maintain the health and safety of our team members, we're just basically saying remain steadfast and stay the course, so we're figuring out how we may get back to a little bit more normal environment going forward here from an office perspective and bringing our team members back into the office, but we're going to stay the course here until we get just a little bit more comfortable that the virus is actually in our rear view mirror before we make some dramatic changes.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now, we talked in the previous segment a little bit about those big changes in demand for some of the different business units that you work in, do you anticipate all of that kind of getting thrown out the window by the time 2021 is over and we're going to go back to maybe what the business model was previously, or do you think some of this is going to stick around long term for the products that you guys make?

Robyn Buss
Yeah we're quite confident that some of it is going to stick around long term. I think that consumers such as ourselves have learned different alternative ways of doing things that's feeding into the demand, the conveniences associated with just placing an order and having something delivered tomorrow will probably stick around. Families having the opportunity to spend time with each other, eating at home, enjoying each other's company, we're quite confident that some of that is going to stick around as well so it is something we're monitoring closely trying to make sure that we are understanding and ensuring we're prepared for the future.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well I can definitely say that my wife and I really appreciate the grocery store pickup changes that have gone into effect now because not having to go through a grocery store has been has saved a lot of time and also probably a little bit better for my diet, you're not seeing that the candy and everything as you're going through the aisles so you know keeps you on track a little bit so, but you know speaking of that you know technology has changed so much over the past year, obviously you've seen those changes as well as you had you know you mentioned the Microsoft Teams environment or Zoom environment that we're all working in now, talking more broadly about the manufacturing industry, we've seen these technology changes, we've seen you know how the industry has responded, do you think that this showed that that the manufacturing industry is more resilient than ever and has a bright future? What's your interpretation of the long-term plan for the manufacturing industry?

Robyn Buss
Yeah I would say absolutely most certainly feel that our industry has a bright future, so we're looking always at continuing to figure out how we can be a more sustainable company for the future and your paper-based fiber-based materials in particular feed really well into the needs of the marketplace and the environment. In general, having products that are recyclable, compostable, biodegradable really fit quite well with the industry that we're in so we're very optimistic about our ability to continue to meet the changing needs going forward.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well in Wisconsin is a is a huge paper manufacturing state and definitely employ a lot of folks here in the badger state in that industry and while you know maybe we're not using paper in some aspects as you mentioned, it's a lot more sustainable and I think has a bright future as well here in Wisconsin. I do want to talk a little bit about some of the challenges that we saw in 2020 and how we're overcoming those in 2021 and I want to focus on that technology side because you probably have a lot of folks who are working from home, but then you have folks who are on the factory floor who can't work from home you know, how do you see bridging that gap going through the rest of this year?

Robyn Buss
Yeah so I think we've gotten into a good environment of recognizing what needs to be done and our employees like I said of course they're making many sacrifices which we are greatly appreciative of for those that do have to report into the office each and every day. The team members that have been working from home going forward we likely will be back in an environment where we are back in an office setting, we like that we like that culture, it fosters this concept around innovation when we can have you know bright people working closely together and really developing our products for the future, so we do envision at some point in time that from a team member standpoint we'll get back into this collaborative environment, that doesn't mean we won't take what we've learned from a flexibility standpoint on the manufacturing floor and be able to do that in the office environment as well.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well and I want to start to wrap up here a little bit and I want to you know go back you know if we were if we were at The Pfister Hotel, if we're celebrating the you know the Manufacturers of the Year, if you were up on that stage holding one of the trophies and you know having that name Manufacturer of the Year, what is it you would tell your employees who were in attendance and the other folks from industry in that group, what would what would be your message to them?

Robyn Buss
Yeah I think I’d start with just a very large thank you once again, I mean the team again has done extremely well working through this as I think about the future of the industry, we have a very large focus on hiring and retaining talent, ensuring that young people coming into the manufacturing industry have an appreciation of the paper industry so that we can continue for another 140 years in the state of Wisconsin, so we want to have an environment where we have a great culture and people are enjoying what they do and they enjoy coming to work each day so that's an important piece of what we're doing within Ahlstrom-Munksjo and certainly the broader paper industry in general.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well and you mentioned the workforce aspect of everything and so I now have to ask because that's something we hear from manufacturers all across Wisconsin is the struggle to find not only workers who have the skills to do the jobs that are available, but simply just being able to find enough people to fill those jobs and so are you also experiencing that workforce shortage and what are some of the solutions that that you'd be able to throw out that are helping you to fill those needed positions?

Robyn Buss
Yeah I mean I would say we've seen some challenges in some of our geographies in Wisconsin, maybe more than others where there's opportunities for employees to select from an alternative of available jobs, but in our human resources department, we are looking at a number of efforts to try to be more creative again around retaining employees, ensuring that we're attracting the best employees, that we're providing as a company this longevity you know whether that is the benefits package that we offer the employees, the compensation, the flexibility and the work hours. Whatever it may be we know we need to be thinking outside of the box so that we can again retain or hire the right people, retain them, keep them engaged for many years to come, but yeah it has been a challenge and I think we're not alone obviously in that situation so we're just continuing to look for creative ways and make it a good place to work.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well and I think the one word that you said there, flexibility, is something that all manufacturers are going to be really focusing on for the rest of 2021 and well into the future, so Robyn Buss, thank you so much for joining us today and taking some time to talk about Ahlstrom-Munksjo and what you and your team were able to do over the last year, we're so happy to be able to honor you as a Manufacturer of the Year honoree here in 2021 and just wish you the best for the rest of the year, so thanks for joining us now.

Robyn Buss
You're quite welcome, glad to be here, take care.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well that has been our conversation with Robyn Buss, Executive Vice President of Food Packaging and Technical Solutions at Ahlstrom-Munksjo in Kaukauna. Next week, we'll continue to hear from other manufacturers who adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as we highlight Beyond Vision from Milwaukee and talk about their challenges, opportunities and successes. Plus, we'll learn more about the future of the state of manufacturing in Wisconsin post-pandemic. If you found value in this episode, please hit that subscribe button and share it with your peers. For now, this is Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. I’m your host Nick Novak, thank you for listening.

Voiceover
This is Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. The show that takes you inside the strength and resilience of Wisconsin's manufacturing community where we hear from Wisconsin CEOs and executives to learn about their challenges, opportunities and success navigating their business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.