Each issue, FlexPack VOICE™ hosts a question-and-answer segment with an industry leader. In this issue, we interview Kathy Bolhous, CEO of Charter Next Generation and the 2021–2022 chair of the Flexible Packaging Association. Bolhous was born in Mishawaka, Indiana—the ninth of 10 children in a blue-collar family. She has more than three decades of experience in plastics manufacturing, including senior leadership roles at Appleton Paper, Cascade Engineering, and Magna-Donnelly. In 2010, she was named CEO of NEX Films—a specialty film supplier to the food, consumer, industrial, and health care industries. The company later became Charter NEX. Over 10 years, she led Charter NEX through significant organic growth, as well as several transformational acquisitions, including the merger with Next Generation Films in 2019. The combined company, now known as Charter Next Generation, currently operates 12 manufacturing facilities across the U.S. She has been a board member at FPA since 2011.
FlexPack Voice™: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Bolhous: The “Midwest work ethic” was ingrained in me at a young age. I always believed hard work and perseverance could take me anywhere. After high school, I put myself through Hope College—a liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan—where I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration/Communication.
FPV: What do you see as your main responsibilities and duties as a leader?
KB: I have several responsibilities as a leader: defining the strategic course (or vision) for the company and steering us in that direction; setting the tone for our culture, or how we do things; and empowering our people to do their jobs, including removing any obstacles to success. My ultimate goal is to inspire—bring out the best in our employees so that we can deliver the best possible products and services to the market.
FPV: Is there a particular experience that stands out in your career?
KB: I definitely had some challenging experiences when I was starting out. Often, I was the only woman in the room, and I didn’t always feel welcome or taken seriously. I had to dig deep at times to keep a positive attitude. I knew that if I persevered—worked twice as hard and kept my focus on delivering the type of performance my company was looking for—my results would speak for themselves. And they did. Being named CEO of Charter NEX in 2010 was absolutely a high point in my career. And I’m extremely proud to have successfully led Charter NEX through three different private-equity ownership transitions during the last decade, as well as a recent merger in which we doubled the size of our company to over $1 billion in revenue.
FPV: What are the biggest challenges ahead for Charter Next Generation?
KB: 2020 will no doubt go down in the history books as a pretty unusual year. Not only did our business face a pandemic, we also integrated two companies (Charter NEX and Next Generation Films) into a single organization with a new brand identity. Some of the challenges ahead for us include finding ways to maintain our unique culture even as we grow. We’ll also be challenged to meet the growing demand for sustainable films through ongoing innovation.
At CNG, we view challenges as opportunities in disguise. Five years ago, for example, there was a lot of skepticism in the industry about whether a plastic pouch could be recyclable. At CNG, we took that as a challenge. We started working on solutions, which we later commercialized as part of our GreenArrow™ portfolio.
FPV: Tell us a little bit about Charter Next Generation’s efforts with sustainability and your general thoughts on these issues.
KB: Charter Next Generation is absolutely committed to sustainability—in our manufacturing operations, in our products, and as a partner to customers looking to develop more sustainable packaging. Through our award-winning GreenArrow™ portfolio of sustainable films, we develop flexible packaging that is recyclable, uses higher volumes of recycled content (PCR), is compostable, and/or incorporates materials made from renewable resources. In 2019, EcoVadis ranked us among the top 9% of global companies in our industry in terms of sustainability. We also achieved major milestones of diverting more than a million pounds of waste from landfills and achieving zero waste to landfill at a third Charter Next Generation facility.
In May 2019, I took part in the first-ever Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit. What I witnessed first-hand on that trip—the effects of plastic waste on our oceanic ecosystem—left no doubt in my mind that Charter Next Generation had to do its part to help address the issue. We joined the Alliance to End Plastic Waste as a company shortly thereafter. Our membership in the alliance takes our sustainability commitment to the next level—collaborating with others in the value chain to create new end-of-life solutions for plastic waste.
We have also partnered with Materials Recovery for the Future to produce a film containing a PCR resin made from curbside-collected flexible packaging and we are committed to being a PCR/Recycling Demand Champion as part of the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
FPV: How do you relax and recharge (especially in a year like 2020)?
KB: I think it’s easy to get caught up in our careers, but I’ve always valued personal growth as much as professional advancement. I take time for reflection. And because I’m not traveling as much due to COVID-19, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to explore other interests, like cooking. I’m honing my culinary skills like crazy, and we’re eating healthier as a family. I even started an herb garden this summer, so I have ready access to fresh herbs for whatever dish I’m whipping up. This year has been a master class in change. You have to embrace what comes and use it to your advantage.