Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of an interview that appears in the May/June 2022 issue of FlexPack VOICE®. The printed article can be found online, too, in the digital format of the full magazine.
Each issue, as well as occasionally in a digital exclusive, FlexPack VOICE® hosts a question-and-answer segment that discusses issues with an industry leader. In this segment, we interview Andrew Wheeler, president of Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corporation (W&H) and a Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) board member. FPA has been promoting recruitment and retention, developing the Emerging Leadership Council in 2020, and other initiatives, so we like to ask industry leaders about their career paths while getting some of their career advice.
After graduation from high school, Wheeler decided to do some traveling before college and that journey took him to Germany. “They didn’t call it a gap year back then,” he says. “They called it a bum year.”
Through a connection from a friend, he got a job as a welder in a steel factory. “I didn’t know how to weld, and I didn’t know how to speak German, so what could possibly go wrong,” he says.
He learned to speak German, which he studied along with international relations when he returned to the United States to attend the University of Vermont. After he graduated in 1986, he returned to Germany and took a job selling injection molded parts for the automobile industry.
“I was certainly a much better student a year later than if I had gone directly to college from high school,” Wheeler says.
His connections eventually led to the job offer at W&H, which is a global supplier of machinery for the flexible packaging industry.
FlexPack VOICE®: Talk a little bit about what got you into the industry and why you chose it as a career path.
Andrew Wheeler: I got into the industry by accident. I had just moved back to the United States from Germany where I worked in sales for an injection molding company. It just so happens that Walter Steinbeck, the then CEO of W&H in Germany, was on the board of directors of my company. He contacted me and recommended I speak with Jim Feeney, the president of W&H in the U.S. After several meetings, Jim offered me a job as sales manager for W&H’s fledgling extrusion business. I needed a job. And this one was not only in sales, but I could speak German every day, so it was perfect. I figured that I would try it out for a few years and see how it went. That was 34 years ago.
FPV: Along those lines, tell us a little bit about yourself and background.
AW: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, but both of my parents were native New Englanders. I think that my heart remains a mix of Midwest and New England.
My parents were interesting, good-hearted people. My mom was a social worker and my dad was a high school teacher, coach, and administrator. They raised my older brother, younger twin sisters, and me in a socially liberal home underscored with a lot of love and support.
At 11, I got my first job, a Cleveland Plain Dealer paper route. Seven days a week. 5:30 am. I earned $20 a week and felt rich. That job instilled a “nose to the grindstone” attitude in me, and it is an experience I owe so much of my career to.
Before “going corporate,” I worked in construction for a few years and as a welder at a steel factory in Germany. It was through the latter experience that I learned German and made the contacts that landed me at W&H.
Sports were, are, and always will be a huge part of my life. I played college soccer and lacrosse and really enjoy taking customers to a football game or golf tournament. I coached soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and tennis for over 10 years and loved the camaraderie and interaction with the kids. To this day, I see huge parallels between business and sports.
FPV: What would you tell someone who is thinking about a career in the industry if they were to ask for your advice?
AW: This industry is extremely friendly, creative, and filled with wonderful, smart, driven people with a great work ethic. It’s dynamic and innovative but challenging and demanding. People partner up to find solutions to everyday problems. Most of the creativity and solutions are coming from within the industry rather than from outside of it. It’s an interesting industry to be a part of. It’s moving—it has to move. Plastic is a remarkable material. There need to be improvements, but what could it be replaced with?
FPV: Who was your mentor (or mentors) and why was she or he important?
AW: Jim Feeney, who was the first president of W&H in the United States. He hired me, and he was without a doubt my strongest influence. Feeney retired in 2001 and also was a former board member of FPA. He got me interested in being on the FPA board. He was hugely respected in the industry, and he died in the past year. The outpouring of respect for him was amazing—even from his competitors who thought he was an incredibly classy guy. He was the guy who really developed my business sense and how one should lead, how one should handle customers, and how one should handle problems. Anybody can handle a situation when things are going well. It is how they handle a situation when things are not going well that really sets you up for success—or failure in my opinion—and he was very influential in that way. He also was the one who taught me that you should make the right choice—whether or not it is a more expensive choice or slower choice or whatever it might be—the right choice is the right choice.
FPV: What advice would you give to a hiring manager who is seeking people to fill various positions?
AW: Right now, it’s difficult to find people. If you find someone you want to hire, you have to go after them. People want to be a part of something that inspires them and challenges them to be their best. Look for the most talented people, as there is always something that they will bring to the table. When I was in college, my father taught me a very important lesson: “don’t look for the best classes, look for the best teachers. You will always learn something valuable.” When I hire people, I look for a person’s potential to grow into the job and put in the effort to help them develop. Find a way to use their excellence to benefit the company. I want to hire people who are better than I am.