Welcome, AICC 2023–2024 Chairman, Matt Davis
By Robert Bittner
November 13, 2023
Carrying an impressive packaging pedigree, the Association’s new board leader emphasizes the ‘Independent Advantage’
Incoming AICC Chairman Matt Davis’ family has been succeeding in the boxmaking business for three generations. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the grandfather, uncle, brothers, and father who built their careers in the industry never actually worked for the same company. Instead, each was encouraged to find their own path and make the most of whatever opportunities caught their imaginations. That approach has served Davis particularly well—professionally and personally.
Davis believes that same independent, entrepreneurial mindset is what sets AICC members apart, equipping them well for whatever they will face in 2024 and the years beyond. He is honored and excited to lead the membership on behalf of the industry and the future of AICC. BoxScore sat down with Davis to learn more about his background, his journey through the industry, and his perspective on AICC and its future.
BoxScore: Tell us a little bit about your family background and where you grew up.
Matt Davis: My parents met in first grade, but we always joke that they didn’t start dating till second grade. My parents, Jim and Jane, actually started dating after college. My mom came out to Denver, (Colorado,) from Iowa for school, and my dad eventually followed her out after college, and they got married. They were both schoolteachers in Denver, and then they started a family. I have an older brother, Pete, who is the general manager at DeLine Box, and a younger brother, Tom, who is a partner at Brown Brothers Harriman. Even though my brothers and I grew up in Denver, we have always identified as having Midwestern, Iowa roots.
BoxScore: What did you plan on doing for a career after high school?
Davis: Back then, I’d probably have said that I wanted to be a ski instructor! But I actually ended up getting a business marketing degree at Creighton University in Omaha, (Nebraska).
After graduation, I went to Quito, Ecuador, where I volunteered teaching school for a year in a program sponsored by the Center for Working Families. We were teaching general subjects to inner-city street kids—kids who worked on the streets, shining shoes. The thought was that education is the best weapon against poverty; we didn’t want to see these shoeshine kids grow up to be shoeshine men, if you will. The school provided a basic elementary education. Then, when the children were of high school age, Ecuadorian professionals taught things like how to be an auto mechanic, a carpenter, a baker, a plumber, and so on. As an American volunteer, in addition to teaching, our main role was giving these kids love and attention that they may not have been getting at home. The model works; many of these families have broken the cycle of poverty, and the Center for Working Families is still flourishing today.
BoxScore: What was your first exposure to the industry?
Davis: I’m third generation in the box business, so I grew up in the industry.
My mother’s father, T.J. McLaughlin, was in the box business in the late 1930s through the 1960s and ended up being a part of three corrugated box plants. He and John Ewers started Waterloo Corrugated Box Co. in 1938. In 1940, they purchased a corrugator and established a separate company, Waterloo Container Corp. In 1941, they partnered with John Worley and started Fort Dodge Container Corp., 100 miles west of Waterloo. Later, they partnered with Harold White to start White Container, in Monticello, Iowa.
My grandfather was truly innovative. Although the birth of the sheet feeder in the corrugated industry is not generally recognized until the mid-1960s, the fact is that Waterloo Container Corp. was serving three sheet-plant operations in the early 1940s. That demonstrates how forward-thinking he was. The legacy that he created is part of what
still motivates me today.
BoxScore: How did your father get involved in the business?
Davis: Even though my parents were teachers, my dad wasn’t sure that was the best fit for him. He talked to his father-in-law, T.J. McLaughlin, about the box business, and my grandfather encouraged him to get in.
It’s interesting, though, that my
dad really never worked for his father-in-law, apart from sweeping the shop floor one summer when he was in high school. The story goes that there was a well-known paper company called Hoerner Waldorf that had a plant in Denver, and my grandfather got my dad a “warm introduction” there. My dad started there and worked his way up to become the sales manager. Eventually, he took over running the Denver plant.
After Hoerner Waldorf got sold, my dad had the opportunity to buy into another family-owned company in Denver, the DeLine Box Co. The Davis family and DeLine family have always been close, and DeLine Box is still thriving today under the leadership of Dave DeLine, a fourth-generation owner. I cannot say enough good things about the DeLine family and the relationship we have with their business.
BoxScore: It sounds like you could have been a ski instructor or a teacher. What led you to join your father in the box business?
Davis: My brothers and I were always encouraged to do whatever we wanted to from a work standpoint. In college, I realized how much I admired my dad and what he did. My grandfather had success in the industry, and my mom’s brother, Jack McLaughlin, was in the box business in Cincinnati. My uncle, Ray Ryden, was high up in Boise Cascade and also had a lot of success. So, I knew it was a good industry. And once I realized that ski instructors didn’t make a lot of money, I said, “You know, that box business looks pretty good!”
Before I went to Ecuador, we all sat around the breakfast table as a family, and my dad announced that he wanted to start a sheet plant in Colorado Springs to help service the southern Colorado market. He asked me and my brothers who was interested. It ended up being the best fit for me at that time. I told him that after my year of teaching, I was all in. In 1998, my father and I started Packaging Express.
After I’d been in the business maybe seven or eight years, my dad saw that I was serious and committed for the long term. So with the help of an accountant and a lawyer, they drew up papers for me to buy into the business. I bought 10% a year for five years, which ended up making us equal partners. When my mother passed away unexpectedly in 2009, my dad became less interested in the business. Shortly thereafter, I bought the rest of the business, and my dad has been able to focus on other things. He’s heavily involved in the Catholic Church, where he volunteers and serves on a number of different boards. He’s no longer involved in the company—other than moral support, which means a lot.
Twenty-five years later, I’m still here. Other than my year teaching, it’s the only job I’ve ever had.
BoxScore: What is the business focus at Packaging Express?
Davis: Our focus is corrugated—boxes, displays, retail packaging, and so on. Early on, we were established as a complementary company to the DeLine Box Co. That’s still largely true today. We are separate companies but complementary in that we do a lot of business back and forth and try not to duplicate anything between the two companies.
BoxScore: Tell us a bit about your own family.
Davis: I met my wife, Maggie, during my year in Ecuador. Maggie is from Chicago, and she was teaching in the same program. In Ecuador, we were just friends. After the program ended, we went back to our hometowns. I came back to Colorado and started Packaging Express with my father; she was teaching school, first in Chicago and then on the Upper West Side in New York City. We reconnected at a fundraiser for the school we had taught at in Quito and then dated long-distance between Colorado Springs and New York City. Eventually, I convinced her to come out here, and we got married. Today, we have two young girls, Catherine
(10 years old) and Mary Elizabeth (7 years old).
BoxScore: What led to your involvement in AICC?
Davis: Growing up, we’d been traveling as a family to the AICC meetings for as long as I can remember. Some of our best vacations as children were tied to an AICC event.
Even beyond that, though, our family has always had close connections with the Association. My father’s partner at DeLine Box, Jim DeLine, was AICC president, which is what they used to call the chairman, in 1988–1989. And then my father, Jim, was president in 1999–2000.
I’ve personally been active in the organization for a good portion of my career. I was a regional director, then I was in charge of convention content for six years. I’ve been on the board for 14 years.
We continue to see the value of AICC at Packaging Express. All of us are somewhat limited by our four walls. If we didn’t get out and see what else is happening, connect with our colleagues in the industry, we wouldn’t be the company we are today. That’s possible because of AICC.
BoxScore: What are some of the key challenges facing the industry at this point that AICC may be able to speak to?
Davis: The biggest challenges that a lot of businesses are facing right now involve people—hiring, training, retention, and motivation. As an industry, we make great products, and we should be proud of the work we do. But we can also be proud of the fact that we provide good jobs that people need. Our big challenge as an industry is getting the right people in the right positions and then inspiring them to deliver their best.
Workforce education naturally follows. It’s hard to invest in education if you don’t think your new hires are going to stick around. That’s why it’s important to create an atmosphere that encourages them to stay and trains them for growth. The more they know about how you and your business are successful, the better off you’re going to be. In other words, we need to gain, train, retain, and reward.
We also need to keep an eye on the economy. A lot of box plants had a lot of success during COVID-19. Although business is not as robust at this point, it is still very good. Of course, we can’t control the economy. But we can work to create our own luck during those times when business may be slowing down. We need to be willing to think creatively and go after the business we want, every day.
BoxScore: What are you most excited about when it comes to AICC’s future?
Davis: There are real advantages to being independent in this industry, and I’m excited about the ways we can accentuate those advantages. The theme for my year is what I call the “Independent Advantage.”
Our independence gives us the freedom to serve customers in ways others can’t, finding ways to say yes rather than no, empowering our employees and coworkers with the tools they need, and building on our natural sense of urgency and flexibility.
One of the biggest benefits of being involved with AICC is that you get to learn from so many talented and successful people in your own industry. People are willing to share their ideas, open their plants and show you how they do things, and help you be successful. I’m excited about participating in that to a greater degree and promoting that within the organization.
BoxScore: What would be your biggest hope regarding the future of the industry?
Davis: My biggest hope regarding the future of the industry is that as we reshape, rethink, and reinvent what we are doing in our efforts to continually improve and grow, we never lose the entrepreneurial spirit that brought us to where we are now. I hope we never forget the importance of the human relationships that are so much a part of the AICC family and the businesses we run.
BoxScore: Looking back, do you ever have days when you wish you’d become a ski instructor?
Davis: [Laughter] I love what I do. I just feel incredibly blessed that I’ve been able to work in this industry and build this business with my father. Not everyone gets that opportunity. I’m glad to be right where I am.
Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.