Each issue, FlexPack VOICE™ hosts a question-and-answer segment with an industry leader. In this issue, we interview Stan Bikulege, chairman and CEO of Novolex and a board member of FPA. Bikulege was born and raised in Pittsburgh with two older sisters. He attended Youngstown State University for college, where he studied chemical engineering, and then went on to Georgia State for his MBA. “I married my high school sweetheart and have three grown children,” Bikulege says. “I’ve lived all over the world and been responsible over the course of many positions for building businesses and providing jobs. But my family has always been the most important force in my life.”
FlexPack VOICE™: Tell us about your background in the industry.
Stan Bikulege: I’ve been in packaging for basically my whole professional career. Initially, it was a first job. I started at Wingfoot Films as a shift foreman and then held a variety of other jobs such as maintenance supervisor, quality control manager, customer service manager, and in an emergency, I would help the operators when they had an issue on the production lines. The men and women on the production floor taught me a lot, and I will be forever grateful.
Eventually, I became operations manager and plant manager with Wingfoot. I moved to Europe as director of manufacturing and eventually became the managing director of the European business. During this time, the company was owned by the Huntsman family, and that was essentially my introduction into the world of private ownership and private equity. I was in my early thirties then, and all my subsequent moves have been within the private equity space.
FPV: What do you see as your main responsibilities and duties as a leader?
SB: Big picture, my job is to lead a company so that it can support its employees and their families, serve customers, meet investor requirements, and respect the interests of the communities where we live, work, and sell our products. How you get there is a much longer story, but knowing what and where the goal line is has to come first.
FPV: What do see as the biggest challenges ahead for your company and/or the industry?
SB: For both Novolex and our entire industry, the biggest challenge is to continue—even accelerate—our journey to communicate that our products are sustainable and to continue to develop even more sustainable products. We have the know-how and the resources, but we also have to accept the challenge. Some of that will depend on our customers and working with them is part of that journey. A second challenge is an ongoing need to operate our facilities safely. At Novolex, maintaining a safe workplace has always been a key commitment. We’re constantly evaluating our health and safety programs. The pandemic has added new obligations, but we have a strong health and safety culture, which is so helpful in introducing additional measures. Finally, and also related to the workplace, is creating interesting and challenging roles that will attract people to enter the packaging industry, whether that’s filling manufacturing positions in a tough labor market like today’s or bringing college grads to the manufacturing sector. We need a broad spectrum of talent if we’re going to develop those sustainable products and keep our production lines running.
FPV: Tell us a little bit more about your efforts with sustainability.
SB: As I mentioned, sustainability is one of the biggest challenges Novolex and our industry need to take on even more assertively than we’ve been doing. I’m truly proud of what Novolex has been doing with the introduction of products made with Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) content and renewable materials and designing products for recycling and composting. The three pillars of our business are choice, innovation, and sustainability. But this challenge is bigger than Novolex. As a board member of FPA, I’m proud to see FPA step up in support of product stewardship initiatives around the country. We can manage—with the understanding of our customers—our use of materials and end-of-life options. But we’ve got to push to fund and build the infrastructure that’s essential to support recycling and composting.
FPV: Is there a particular experience that stands out in your career, good or bad, or both?
SB: My time in Europe showed me there are different ways to do things and taught me to challenge my assumptions later. My way might not always be right or, at minimum, there could be more than one right way to do something. I was the first expat for the company, which also created some difficult situations. That taught me to believe in myself and the importance of transparency. This again ties to diversity—people from different walks of life working together. I got better by working with others with different beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences.
FPV: What didn’t we ask that we should have asked?
SB: It’s absolutely critical that the members of the packaging industry—members of FPA and others, too—come together to solve problems we face as a whole. First among these is supporting efforts to create a “circular economy” for many of our products. We should not push this call to action down the road or rest on our laurels if a particular packaging bill doesn’t pass. Of course, some bills may indeed be badly crafted. But just saying “no” without calling for responsible alternatives that have the ability to provide a predictable marketplace is a missed opportunity. Again, I’m proud that FPA and other organizations have taken up this challenge and are working toward solutions such as endorsing well-drafted product stewardship legislation. We have a tremendous industry, and I am truly proud to be a part of it. We have to work as one—with our communities—bringing our deep experience and expertise to find solutions.
FPV: Anything you would like to say about your family or what you like to do when you are not working?
SB: My wife and family—I’m nothing without them. As I said, they are the most important force in my life. My kids motivate me to be better and keep trying to improve me—an uphill challenge—but they never give up. When I’m not working on Novolex projects, I truly enjoy watching my sons play football. I enjoy working on my farm. But to be honest—if I have a chance to be with my family, including my sisters, I will sacrifice all to be with them.