Liquibox CEO Coaches Students on Finding Purpose

The ‘Big P’ Has Helped His Company Grow, Ken Swanson Says

Liquibox CEO Coaches Students on Finding Purpose
Digital Exclusive

In 2013, Ken Swanson had just taken the job of CEO at Liquibox when it hit him while working late one night that he might have made a big mistake.

Nothing was like he thought it would be. The workers seemed unmotivated, and the financials were not what he expected. The company didn’t seem to have a mission, strategic direction, or compass. There was no communication and no teamwork, he says.

“I heard a lot of ‘that’s not my job,’” Swanson tells about 35 college interns during a videoconference in early July. “We really had no idea of whether we were winning or losing.”

He called his wife, who offered encouraging words. He then called a mentor, saying he thought he made a mistake taking the top job. The mentor told him in short order that Swanson had known what he was getting into—and Liquibox needed him. The mentor said Swanson was good at his job, and most importantly, he was getting paid for it. And then the mentor hung up the phone, Swanson says. “It was at that moment that I started to understand more about my purpose and how I could make a meaningful contribution,” he says.

Swanson, who has more than 30 years of experience in the flexible packaging industry, hasn’t looked back, he told the students. They were participating in the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA’s) virtual internship program that connected summer interns from FPA member companies, meeting with peers and industry leaders once per week to talk about a future in the flexible packaging industry. The program was organized by the Emerging Leadership Council (ELC), which was formed by FPA to promote recruitment and retention in the industry.

Finding a Purpose

Swanson tells the students that he set out to develop a purpose-driven organization. He since led Liquibox through three acquisitions and its eventual ownership by Olympus Partners, a private-equity firm based in Stamford, Connecticut. During his tenure, Liquibox doubled in size, working globally with market leaders in the food, beverage, medical, personal care, and industrial markets. Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, Liquibox now has about 1,500 people worldwide working across 19 sites on five continents.

During his presentation, Swanson often credits others with developing some of the key concepts he discusses. For example, he points to the Golden Circle, a term created by Simon Sinek, a British-American motivational speaker. In a video talk that can be found on YouTube, Sinek reviews how the circle includes three questions: what, how, and why. In summary, most people at companies know what they do and some know how they do it. But few know why they do it. “It is the very reason your organization exists,” Swanson says, paraphrasing Sinek.

The why at Liquibox, he adds, is “to inspire change so that we create a safer and more sustainable future. That is our Big P—our Big Purpose. And we are fully committed to it above all else.”

Employees then can find purpose in the company values of commitment, innovation, and responsibility, he adds. “We talk a lot about why we are doing what we are doing,” he says, which helps everyone stay focused.

Making a Contribution

Employees want to work for companies that stand for something and take action on something bigger than the products and services, Swanson says. One study of workers showed that 72% of employees said purpose should have more weight than profits, but only 66% of companies have a purpose statement, he says. People will leave an organization if they feel that they are not contributing, Swanson says. “And that was eye-opening to me,” he also says.

He suggests that the students should find their Big P: What are they passionate about and care about? How do they serve their businesses in what they do every day? How does that fit with their deeper sense of purpose? Answering such questions will help them lead a more purpose-driven life, he suggests.

At his company, the Big P has become second nature, with people pulling in the same direction and working together. That cooperation led to tangible results—from innovations that led to awards for creating products that are transforming markets, he says.

Swanson then points the students to the 2014 commencement address by Adm. William H. McRaven at the University of Texas at Austin. Swanson created a list of attributes from that address that include respecting everyone, finding people who will help you, taking risks, knowing you will fail often, knowing that life is not fair, and never giving up.

When looking for a job or when changing jobs, he says, the students should look for companies that have a purpose: Why do the businesses do what they do and why do they exist? The students should know how they can contribute, as well. “I think you will find that if you do those things, it will make life a lot clearer, and you will be able to make a very strong contribution and get to where you want to get to in that company and life in general,” he says.

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor at FlexPack VOICE®.