Welcome, AICC 2022–2023 Chairwoman Jana Harris
By AICC Staff
November 9, 2022
The past few years have been an adventure for anyone working in the paper-based packaging industry—and for most people on the planet. After all, 2020 may have been the year that vaulted the world into the COVID-19 pandemic, but 2021 and 2022 have respectively brought their own challenges. Supply chainthe labor shortage, and inflation have been at the forefront of everybody’s minds. And it isn’t as if these have simply gone away.
Great challenges require great leaders, and once again, AICC is fortunate to have one at the helm: Jana Harris, who with her education, charm, and life and career experience, is—as they say—the whole package.
Harris, who as many of you know speaks with a slight Texas twang, is a second-generation business owner. She is CEO of Harris Packaging Corp. and American Carton Co.
Her parents, Joe and Joyce, started Harris Packaging in 1976. Joe had been working in the industry for almost a decade when he and his wife opened their own sheet plant in Haltom City, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. Joyce died far too young—in 1991—and the following year, Joe expanded the company and started American Carton in nearby Mansfield. He figured his customers who were buying folding cartons from him would likely also purchase corrugated boxes.
Harris grew up impressed with what she was seeing, and she wanted to be a part of it all. As a teenager, she told her father she wanted to work for the family business, but he wasn’t too keen on the idea.
“I remember as a teenager telling my father that I wanted to be a salesperson for Harris Packaging,” Harris told the Dallas Business Journal in 2014. “I will never forget him saying that no daughter of his would be selling in this male-dominated industry.”
Harris majored in exercise science at the University of Texas at Arlington, graduating summa cum laude, and soon became a diagnostic lab technician. Somewhere in there, she also started and sold a business.
But by 2006, Joe had softened and invited his daughter and her sister Jenise Cox to join the companies. Neither needed any convincing. Before long, by day, Harris was wearing numerous hats in customer service, purchasing, scheduling, and, yes, sales. And by night, she was raising two daughters.
Three years later, the two sisters were majority owners in the company, and profits continued to rise. Their staff eventually doubled.
BoxScore caught up with Harris before she headed out to Corrugated Week in San Antonio to discuss what she hopes to accomplish while overseeing AICC—and how she got into the Association in the first place.
BoxScore: So, you’ve been a member of AICC for a long time. When did that begin?
Harris: Joe asked us to work for him in 2006. I started working in customer service, and my sister has always been on the financial end. We didn’t know much about the industry, and he highly recommended that we attend the meetings. We went to regional and national meetings as well, and I really enjoyed everything about it. I always felt that we walked away learning a lot, and we always walked out of those meetings smarter than we were. And we’re really happy that our children are now active in AICC as well.
BoxScore: And so, you’ve just climbed up the ranks at AICC as the years went on?
Harris: Well, I was asked to speak at one of the national meetings, and then-President Steve Young (currently ambassador-at-large for AICC) said I should be on the board. So, I joined the board in 2011 as a regional director. I stayed in that position for a while, and then I became the education committee chair for a handful of years, until I took over the budget committee, which is the thing you do before you become the chair. So, yes, I’ve been very involved.
BoxScore: How has AICC changed since you’ve been involved with the organization? Granted, that was 2006 and not all that long ago.
Harris: I would say when Jenise and I went to the meetings, we often felt like we were some of the only ladies there. And so that’s been a nice change over the years, especially with the Emerging Leader (EL) program. The meetings seem to be more half-and-half these days, and I’ve been very encouraged by that. And there are more ladies on the board as well. I’ve definitely noticed that change.
BoxScore: Can you give some examples of how AICC has helped you over the years?
Harris: The friendships that we’ve made have been priceless. Not only do I have some very close friends, where I can pick up the phone and talk to them at any time, they also have such great advice. And I know Jenise—she is in a CEO group—is often reaching out to them. We’ve gotten a lot of advice about running a family business with multiple generations, and that’s an issue that’s very important to us. I always think that our friends at AICC, they often challenge you to be the best you can be and to think bigger than what you even might be considering.
Forging Forward Through Ups and Downs
Indeed, Harris and Cox’s companies have been extremely successful since they took over—with accolades continually coming. In 2012, Harris Packaging and American Carton were selected the 2012 Small Business of the Year by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
In 2019, Harris had become such a pillar of the community that she was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game, before the Texas Rangers played the Tampa Bay Rays. (She reportedly acquitted herself well, but she said later that her pitch was high and a little to the right.)
This past year, the University of Texas at Arlington honored its 100 fastest-growing maverick-owned businesses at a business event, ranking Harris Packaging at No. 17 and American Carton
at No. 19.
From a business perspective, Harris and Cox have been a marvel. The two even became silent partners in an Italian restaurant in Fort Worth called Tre Mogli.
“My goal is to eventually make enough money for the food I eat there,” Harris says. The food presumably goes well with wine. Her husband, Zachary Campbell, recently became a silent partner in a winery—Sanglier Cellars—in Sonoma County, California.
In other words, Harris’ life has been very successful and quite an adventure with her being involved in a lot of businesses and industries. And she has been excited about her daughter, Jordan Dawson, who works in customer service and purchasing at Harris Packaging and recently became an AICC EL freshman delegate.
But as good as things have been, 2022 has been a brutal year for the Harris family. On July 29, 2022, Harris’ youngest daughter, Taylor Dawson, who had health for several years, passed away. “I almost decided to step down,” Harris admits, saying she wasn’t sure she was up to the task of being the Chair for AICC.
It would have been understandable had Harris done just that. But ultimately, she decided that traveling the country, meeting with members, being active, staying involved, and being in a leadership role with the Association might be just what she needed.
Let’s get back to our discussion.
BoxScore: What advice would you give someone who may be a member of AICC but isn’t really very involved?
Harris: You get out of the experience what you put into it. If you open yourself up to getting involved, whether joining a board or getting on a committee, and you don’t have to be on the board to do the committee, I think you’re going to find that it’s a fantastic experience. Once you make those relationships, the value is so great. In addition to the education and the meetings themselves, we’ve met a lot of our vendors through AICC, which has been wonderful. But it starts with going to the meetings—and talking to people. Hopefully, some people will reach out to you and make you comfortable from the start. I always try to find the new person at the meetings who doesn’t seem to be connecting and to plug them in, but I know we miss a handful, for sure.
BoxScore: What are you hoping to do with AICC this year? What are some of your goals?
Harris: Well, my passion is education. Better Minds, Better Boxes is what I always say. Basically, I’m very active with our local university with their visual communication design program. I’m on the advisory board, and I volunteer to judge for competitions. We’ve got a scholarship for its packaging program. But that little bit of time investment on the campus and getting to know the dean has meant that I’ve been able to bring on about 10 students as employees. They’re all excellent employees, and my passion is to get more people excited about working in packaging. We all have a problem finding people to get excited about our industry. When I talk to students, I usually start out saying, “Who grew up wanting to make cardboard boxes for a living?” And, of course, nobody raises their hand. But that’s why I’m out there, saying, “Hey, you can make a great career out of this.”
So, I’m starting a partnership with a local high school STEM program, and we’re trying to get the knowledge out there that we have good careers in this industry. And I’m hoping that I’ll come up with something that I can hand to AICC members, a template, where you can go knock on the door of your local high school, and then you can do what we did. That’s what my hope is.
BoxScore: How receptive are students to that message, that there are interesting careers in the corrugated industry?
Harris: They’re often very interested. You know, everything comes in a box. Everything in every room has been in a box at some point. This career isn’t going anywhere, and there are a lot of different career options in our industry, but kids just aren’t aware of that. I find that they’re also often interested when you talk about how sustainable this industry is. They’re very interested in working for companies that are sustainable and good stewards of the environment.
BoxScore: We’ve had the pandemic the past few years to deal with, as well as supply chain —and now it’s inflation. Thoughts?
Harris: Inflation has been crazy. Everything has gone up considerably and so have our prices, which doesn’t make our customers happy. And yet, I think, like a lot of companies in the industry, it hasn’t slowed us down. We’ve been busier than we’ve ever been. It is starting to soften a little, but the last few years, we’ve grown considerably. We got to figure out what our mass capacity is. Let’s put it that way. Last year, we had to turn away some business.
BoxScore: And labor shortages. Will that continue to be an issue?
Harris: It will. And finding people to work for us, since it’s my theme, is a pretty big deal to me. It has been crazy at times, trying to keep the plant floors filled. We’ve had people start work, and they’ll work for half a day and then walk off.
BoxScore: Of course, that’s the case nationwide in a lot of industries.
Harris: Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of people about that, and there are a lot of theories as to why there are labor shortages and, sometimes, a disinclination to work. But that’s why getting the next generation excited about our industry is even more imperative.
Geoff Williams is a journalist and writer based in Loveland, Ohio.