Pulp and paper industry leaders share their learnings from the pandemic and energy crisis

Pulp and paper CEO panel at Fastmarkets Europe Conference 2023 reviewed the lessons learnt and changes going forward

“Change is here to stay,” led off Thomas Ott, the CEO of the flexible packaging division at Mondi, during a panel discussion at Fastmarkets’ annual European conference that looked back at the disruptions of the last three years, and ahead to challenges both abstract and anticipated.

Moderator Joachim Klein, the founder and CEO of StepChange Consulting, quizzed Ott, Mats Nordlander (president containerboard at SCA) and Niels Flierman (head of paper and recycling, DS Smith) about what the covid-19 and energy crises has taught them, and how they can use those lessons going forward.

Nimble decision making is essential

All the panelists agreed that a certain nimbleness in the decision-making process is necessary due to rapidly-shifting conditions, with Ott pointing out that a flat hierarchy had to move quickly to a defined one in crisis situations

Nordlander and Fliermann broadly agreed, with the former pointing out the importance of clear and consistent strategies in a social media landscape that leaves everybody with an opinion on everything, and the latter elaborating that a workforce with increasingly demanding expectations is a current reality.

Keeping a closer eye on energy

For the second straight year, discussions of energy challenges and policy were high on the panelists’ agendas.

While Ott found projections of persistently high energy prices made earlier at the conference somewhat pessimistic, he warned of new challenges, especially from the biomass sector.

Energy and wood costs are going to move in parallel now. Let’s see how that goes.

Nordlander pointed out that the energy problem, which his company experiences less directly than others based in less self-sufficient polities, was not one that could be solved by individual firms, suggesting that Europe’s future industrial competitiveness is in current administrations’ hands.

He also challenged the preponderance of subsidies for energy buyers rather than investments in energy capacity. “Subsidies don’t solve the competitiveness problem,” he explained. “They can make the situation worse. We have to look for the least damaging route.”

Digitization and the changing workforce

All the panelists viewed digitization as a challenge and an opportunity, with Ott reiterating Flierman’s point about the changing nature of the workforce. “No one wants to work nights or weekends,” he explained. “So that will help us.”

Flierman was in accordance, and elaborated that staffing was also key in terms of digitization and cybersecurity. “It’s evident you have to protect yourself,” he said. “And you need the right people for that.”

When the panelists were quizzed about their future workforces, Ott pointed out that the paper industry’s sustainability credentials were an important part of attracting younger, idealistic applicants.

And Nordlander observed the vast majority of current graduates in Sweden are women. “If we care about competence, we need them [in our workforce],” he explained.

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