Breaking Barriers, Forming Bonds
The first time Lisa Hirsh attended a meeting of packaging professionals in the 1980s, she found herself in a room with 200 men. “There wasn’t another woman in sight,” says Hirsh, president and CEO of Paterson, N.J.-based Accurate Box. Founded in 1944, Accurate Box was owned by her grandfather, then her father, before she took over in 1997. Hirsh joined the business in 1982.
It was also in 1982, on the opposite coast, in Corona, Calif., that Jan Steiner stepped into the lead role of her family’s box-making business, Thoro Packaging, founded by her father in 1968.
Years later, these women became friends, but back then, they often stood alone in a sea of men.
“I was excited to see another woman across the room at one conference, but when I ran into her, she assumed I had tagged along with my husband, like she had,” says Steiner.
Though they acknowledge they’re still in the minority today, these women no longer feel alone in the industry. As members of the Independent Carton Group (ICG), an association of 18 independently owned and operated carton manufacturers, Hirsh and Steiner are often in the company of other successful women who have more in common than just packaging.
Most ICG members are family-owned companies passed down through the generations.
Two other women join Hirsh in the third generation. In 2015, Amy Finn took over her family’s 80-year-old carton business, Finn Industries in Ontario, Calif., from her father, who had taken the reins from his father. Though Finn Industries is no longer an ICG member due to it being acquired in February, Finn says the friendships she formed in the association will last a lifetime.
In Spokane, Wash., Keva Sonderen and her brother Matt co-manage the company that bears their family name, Sonderen Packaging, founded by their grandfather in 1963.
One of the ICG’s newest members, Jones Packaging in London, Ontario, boasts fourth-generation ownership, with Christine Jones Harris and her husband Ron at the helm of the company, founded in 1882 by Christine’s great-grandfather.
Joey and Jessy Elphick, both in their mid-20s, are relatively new to their family’s business, though are certainly no strangers to the industry. Their father Joe founded Clayton, N.C.-based 3C Packaging in 1979.
Likewise, Samara Schlossman, 26, is Hirsh’s daughter and represents the fourth generation of her family at Accurate Box.
While many of the female executives in the folding carton industry grew up around packaging, others have come from outside the industry.
For example, Margaret Krumholz, president of Disc Graphics, has an extensive background in the world of finance. A CPA and successful finance executive, she joined the Hauppauge, N.Y.-based company in 1994 as controller. She became CFO a year later and was appointed president in 2006.
Similarly, Amy Plier, co-founder of Wausau Container in Wausau, Wis., came to the folding carton world from outside the industry, starting the company alongside her husband Jeff and father-in-law Chuck in 1993.
All Roads Lead Back to Packaging
Charlie Hirsh had faith in his daughter’s ability to run Accurate Box long before she had faith in herself. “I liked being his number two,” says Lisa Hirsh, of her position as VP of operations. “Not once had I ever said, ‘I’m going to run this business someday.’” She admits she dragged her feet a bit in taking the lead role, but fully embraced it once it was hers.
When Macy Dabek, Steiner’s father, stepped down from Thoro Packaging in 1982 due to his failing health, it was his board of directors who appointed Steiner president and CEO.
“Thoro was my dad’s dream. I did what I could to support him,” Steiner says. It was a dream she inherited years ago, but in time, it became hers, too.
Joe Elphick of 3C Packaging knew his daughters wanted to join the company out of college, but insisted they spend two years elsewhere first. “He wanted us to have our own experiences,” says Joey Elphick, who studied public health administration, worked in dementia care, and now heads up marketing and business development at 3C. Meanwhile, Jessy Elphick majored in leadership studies and has now joined 3C in sales.
Keva Sonderen, who played college volleyball while earning a business degree, says her dad never pressured her to join Sonderen Packaging. “I did an internship shadowing one of our customer service reps; when she left, I took her spot. My brother had joined the company five years earlier.”
Besides often being the only woman in the room at industry events in those early years, Steiner also recalls working hard to boost her credibility among employees, customers and suppliers. “Customers would challenge me with questions, try to stump me. It was a game to them,” she says. “And when suppliers held dinners for customers, women usually weren’t invited.”
Hirsh says she had to overcome being called “sweetheart” and “dear” by men in the plant. “An employee in shipping once said to me, ‘Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that,’” she says.
While there are more women in the industry today, including an increasing number in leadership roles, many would likely admit they still find themselves being held to higher standards – and critiqued in ways that don’t apply to men. Even the
millennials in the group experience it.
“Not long ago, a female executive at a huge health care company told me if I want people to take me seriously, I need to wear high heels and makeup,” Schlossman says.
In addition to the camaraderie they share at industry events, this group has also had each other’s backs in times of need.
“Mutual respect, trust and friendship tie ICG members together, but there’s a very special bond among the women,” Krumholz says, recalling one wintery Friday afternoon when part of Disc’s roof collapsed under the pressure of a snowstorm, taking with it the platemaking operation. “Lisa [Hirsh] was on the phone with me in a nanosecond offering to make the plates we needed.”
Relationships Run Deep
“Joining the ICG in 2003 was a great move for our business, but it has also been a great thing for me personally,” Sonderen says. “This group of women helped me build my confidence.”
The youngest generation is embracing the mentoring opportunities. “At every meeting, I gain valuable insight into this industry, into multi-generational, family-run businesses like ours – and I’m always learning something new just by being around this group of women,” Joey Elphick says.
Schlossman agrees. “Everyone is supportive, and there’s never a shortage of answers,” she says.
“I’m just tickled with the new generations,” Krumholz says. “The middle generation is established and doing well, and the younger ones are so bright and just starting to flap their wings.”
The Vision Continues
At the heart of the ICG is a woman who has been helping to bring the group together for the past decade. Kim Pearce, the ICG’s executive assistant, also has packaging in her blood. Her father, Andrew Willie, worked his way up the ranks at Curtis Packaging and is credited with both co-founding the ICG and running it as the group’s executive director for its first 30 years.
Pearce was raised around packaging, but she blazed her own trail in the male-dominated aviation industry – where she enjoyed a successful career as a flight instructor and corporate/charter pilot – before getting involved in the packaging industry with her father and brother.
“I came from an industry that was 98% male and heavily ex-military. Because I know what it took for me to succeed in that environment, I have deep respect and admiration for my sisters in the ICG who have flourished in this industry. These women are leaders and pioneers in a field that continues to play a game of survival of the fittest,” Pearce says.
In 1982, as Andrew Willie and Charlie Hirsh were helping to form a group of packaging companies that would support each other in times of need, they were also cheering on daughters who were proving capable of great things. It was perhaps through an abundance of open-mindedness, together with personal experiences of a couple of proud fathers, that enabled a small group of men to cautiously lower barriers between competitors and lay a foundation rooted in fellowship.
And in doing so, they not only encouraged carton companies to band together for the greater good, but also ensured that Hirsh, Steiner and all who followed would never feel alone again.
Deborah Hamilton is a freelance writer and communications consultant with more than two decades of marketing and public relations experience. Though her client roster spans diverse industries today, she grew up in the folding carton space and has devoted much of her career to helping her packaging clients share their stories. The Independent Carton Group is one such client. Deborah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.