The 2019 merger of Charter NEX and Next Generation Films was the culmination of one process and the beginning of another: taking two companies and knitting them together as one.
That process ended in October with the birth of a new company name, Charter Next Generation, and a new tagline, “A Better Way.”
The post-merger integration, however, went deeper than adding a new name. It started even before the merger was completed with an assessment of the two companies’ cultures. They seemed very much alike, boosting the chances of a successful transaction.
“Both companies had the drive to win and be the best,” says Kathy Bolhous, chairman and CEO of Charter Next, which is based in Milton, Wisconsin. “And both companies were growing at a rate that was beyond the industry average. Both companies were investing heavily in new equipment and new technology. I would also describe both as entrepreneurial, with a focus on continuous improvement.”
The merger, initially announced in April 2019, also brought together two companies with complementary products but largely separate markets. Together, they employ about 1,600 people, generate $1 billion in annual revenue, and operate 12 plants and more than 100 extrusion lines in Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Massachusetts. No employees were laid off.
While Bolhous heads the new company, executives from Next Generation Films have joined the leadership team. Dan Niss, president of Next Generation, is now president of Charter Next Generation. Brandon Hall, Next Generation’s vice president of operations, is now executive vice president of operations. Dave Frecka, the founder and CEO of Next Generation, has retired but is on the Charter Next board.
Once the merger was complete, executives hired a Milwaukee-based marketing agency called Savage Solutions to help interview employees in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the two cultures. The process was facilitated by the internal human resource and marketing teams.
“We really wanted to understand from the employees’ perspective how they defined the culture and the key words that they used to define the culture,” Bolhous says.
The interviews yielded words that were already familiar to employees of both companies. They included integrity, authentic, approachable, and humble, as well as “a better way,” which became the renamed company’s tagline.
“It’s our version of continuous improvement,” Bolhous says. “No matter how good we are, we want to find a better way.”
The information from the interviews took the form of a culture playbook, which was distributed to employees at the end of 2019. “They could not only see how we collectively define culture, they also could see that it’s familiar,” Bolhous says. “We didn’t come in and impose a new culture on this combined company.”
Nor did they hurry. “It’s important to take your time and get it right. There’s no need to rush into it,” says Bolhous, emphasizing the need for patience, which she learned in previous acquisitions. “You can’t expect everything to happen on the first day, the first week, the first month. It takes time to really get to know people and understand the products and understand the operating model.”
The interviews and the measured pace also offered reassurance to employees understandably nervous about the merger’s impact on their own jobs, Bolhous adds. “You want to get people on board and confident that we need everybody if we’re going to continue to grow.”
Why does culture matter? For Bolhous, it is one of the keys to a successful combination. “At the end of the day, it’s employees who make the company great. They need to feel that they’re coming together as one team and that was something that we really focused on.”
COVID-19, however, threw a wrench into some of the collaborative activities that typically help to build a unified team. Those activities often lean heavily on group events and face-to-face meetings.
“The pandemic forced us to find new ways to develop relationships and get to know each other,” Bolhous says.
Like most companies, Charter Next relied on Zoom calls. But it can be hard for people to get to know each other in big video conferences, so Bolhous also emphasizes one-on-one calls, as well.
The pandemic also created a common challenge that employees could rally to overcome, regardless of whether they were from Charter NEX or Next Generation Films. Many voices contributed to the issues being raised and the decisions being made in the spring and summer of 2020.
“Very early on there were a lot of unknowns,” Bolhous says. “But we came together with a common goal to keep our employees safe and to implement the safety protocols needed to keep our plants running 24/7/365.”
A new name was the final piece to fall into place. As part of the process, the company hired the same marketing agency that helped with the employee interviews.
Bolhous felt it was important for the companies to come together under a new name, and executives considered several options before deciding on Charter Next Generation. In addition to incorporating elements of both companies, it is easily abbreviated as CNG.
“Some companies want to use completely new names,” Bolhous says. She did not. She wanted a name that would resonate with both employees and customers—and draw on the identities of both merger partners.
“Both companies have great reputations and a very strong legacy, and I didn’t want to give that up,” Bolhous says. “Each company has employees who have worked hard to build that name and build that legacy.”
Joel Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.