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Positioned to Win

By AICC Staff

November 30, 2017

The question at hand is: How can a company be positioned for success? Having taken on the task, I see that it is a matter better suited to a book, with chapters on strategic planning, market analysis, best practices for attracting talent, and staying focused on key objectives as the business scales. Word-to-picture ratios being what they are, I will answer the question with a sketch of 34 years in the life of Pacific Southwest Container LLC (PSC) in central California.

August 9, PSC lost its founder, Don Mayol. His oldest son, John Mayol, has been leading the team for nearly 25 years. The chief reason I am sketching this company as a picture of success is that they have maintained the founder’s paradigm while continuously adapting to thrive in a changing market. However, I must first offer an objectivity disclaimer. I have known the Mayol family since I was a young boy, and I am grateful for the mentoring, friendship, and years I spent as a PSC team member. I hope that what I lack in detachment can be balanced with knowledge gained as a student of, and a contributor to, PSC’s culture.

Reactivity is an occupational hazard of entrepreneurs; when they get bored, they want to change something.

Like many independent packaging companies, a rising star in sales and management of an integrated firm founded this one. In 1973, Don Mayol was the youngest general manager in the Weyerhaeuser system when his entrepreneurial nature prompted him to found an independent company. He named it after his favorite airline, and with their example of customer service in mind, he began to use and adapt the systems he had learned in the larger corporate world. As a condensed history of the founder’s years, I offer that he learned from his corporate jobs, from the galvanizing management of cash flow, and from many people of all stations whom he observed and invited to coffee. This knowledge was used to build a company structure that they would grow into. He risked financially and by investing in people, with no cap on sales commissions, best-in-class pay, and challenging work. This gamble was shared and supported by his wife, Lois, and his three children, John, Jim, and Jennifer.

Don worked to grow the business by focusing on a niche and controlling as much of the process as he could afford. PSC also grew because Don shared decision-making power earlier than most by splitting responsibility for sales and operations and assigning them to son John and nephew Tom Andersen. PSC culture was also shaped by the founder’s generous nature. Uncommon drive to serve the customer marked the early years; and service to the community has been a quiet and consistent practice. As John Mayol puts it, “Dad did not coin our mantra, Learn, Risk, Grow, Serve, but he exemplified it.”

By the ’90s, the generational transition was well underway, but it was accelerated by Don’s heart attack at age 57. John stepped in and immediately doubled down on his father’s penchant for hiring the best and brightest, and for sharing power. Because John had been involved from day one and had watched Don build the structure of a larger company, he had a field of operation—a way of seeing things. Jim Mayol stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother to bring perspective and advice as general counsel. John had already led the effort to grow sales significantly. He credits his cousin Tom Andersen with the development of a quality improvement culture that would enable PSC to attract high-graphics customers, such as Apple, HP, and Gallo. John recalls, “We raised the bar and hired a group of people that we could not afford, and then found creative ways to compensate them and keep them engaged.”

“Our intent has always been to control the process front to back, so that we are responsible for every quality outcome.”

— John Mayol, CEO, Pacific Southwest Container LLC

Today, PSC is one of the largest packaging suppliers on the West Coast, with three manufacturing locations focused on high-quality single-face lamination, corrugated boxes, and folding cartons. The company has grown on John’s watch from 75 to 800 team members required to serve customers. PSC’s CEO was generous with his time and candor as we recently discussed the company’s positioning for success. I asked John to describe the key factors contributing to the company’s growth and resilience and came away with these conclusions:

Forceful Leadership

PSC’s senior management team is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which was the subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. It is a smart and competitive group of individuals with a common goal. I admire John’s conflict-friendly process of achieving results, and I asked him what the pros and cons have been. He agreed that it would be easier to work with fewer alphas, but that the company would be decidedly less successful without the drive, challenge, and focus of this type of team.

Strategic Planning

The company began with more structure than most, but it was reactive by nature to customer needs and more. Reactivity is an occupational hazard of entrepreneurs; when they get bored, they want to change something. Thirty of PSC’s team members hold off-site planning sessions three times a year. They know their target market and plan toward being the best equipped with machines, processes, and talent to exceed customer expectations in each of the categories in which they choose to compete. John adds, “At the same time, we are opportunistic, and we make adjustments every day based on constant research and awareness of what is going on in the marketplace.”

Looking Both Ways

This is the ability to pay attention to both the business at hand and improvement of the process of doing the business at hand. Albert Rothenberg called this Janusian thinking, in reference to the Roman god Janus, who is represented with two faces looking in opposite directions. This idea is referenced in Chris Zook and James Allen’s book The Founder’s Mentality. Organizing the business around a quality system in the ’80s provided a base for the incorporation of lean thinking in the ’90s. “I hate solving the same problem twice,” John says. Root cause analysis is ingrained in the culture. “We want systems in place that make it the logical outcome to get it right the first time, and when we don’t, we focus our efforts on improving the system.”

Hire the Best and Brightest

“We hire above our station,” says John, “and then we need to keep it interesting for people at all levels.” The company has relationships with packaging and business schools, local colleges, and even high school programs that prepare students for various careers. Ongoing education is encouraged for all by a tuition reimbursement program and is of particular importance for management. Even when a team member cannot move up the ladder, there is opportunity to move around the business.

Control the Process

“Our intent has always been to control the process front to back, so that we are responsible for every quality outcome.” John adds that they brought in people with experience to help them expand control as they invested in new products and services. When protective packaging was needed to serve key customers, they went all in and formed a division. They added lithographic and single-face lamination capability and a folding carton skill set. Sharing ownership of a sheet feeder led to investment in their corrugator. They aim to be a one-stop shop that does not job anything out.

Culture Improvement

My depiction of the present organization may seem clean and shiny, but is the result of leadership that has been in a long-term down and dirty fight to control its own destiny. So, my final question for John regarded the challenges PSC is working on now. As you can imagine, the answers pertaining to position in the market, capability expansion, or capital improvement are not for the public eye. Regarding the next level of company culture, he is very willing to share. On general principle and as part of the strategy to be an employer of choice, he says, “I want the team members to have more fun, I want to foster more collaboration, and I want us to be nice to one another; yes, I used that word, nice.” By setting a tone and a standard, along with assessments and training, John believes they are making progress. “We move very fast, we are impatient, and we are competitive in the market, but also with each other.” John believes that recent efforts are paying dividends. With increased patience, as shown in listening and seeking to collaborate, John sees increases in problem-solving and innovation.

There are many lessons that may be learned by studying companies such as PSC, or even your own. I believe asking your own team similar questions will bring perspective that can lead to adaptation. If you took on such a company as a lifestyle business, you quickly learned that the lifestyle included much work and responsibility. It doesn’t seem fair, but as Don Mayol shouted when I was an idealistic teenager, “Fair is for games, kid.”


width=150Scott Ellis, Ed.D., provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. He can be reached at 425-985-8508 or scott@workingwell.bz.