Welcome, AICC Chairman Gene Marino
By AICC Staff
September 21, 2021
To say the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything would be an understatement. It not only transformed people’s lives on a personal level, but also changed how and where they worked and interacted with customers and colleagues alike. It tested organizations in ways they had never before been tested. It even led AICC’s incoming Chair to take on an exciting new opportunity, a bit closer to home, as the executive vice president of Akers Packaging Servicing Group.
Before joining Akers last August, Gene Marino worked at another independent packaging firm. In fact, unlike many previous AICC chairpersons, Marino isn’t a family member in the family business, so commonly found in this industry. He came into his packaging career as many often do: kind of by accident. And within this industry, full of passion, he has always felt welcomed with open arms.
As we do whenever a new Chair takes over, BoxScore spoke with Marino about his path into the industry—and about what he hopes to accomplish while overseeing AICC. But before we get started, a few items of biographical note: He is celebrating his 28th anniversary with his wife, Megan, this year. Together, they have three daughters—Emma, 26; Grace, 23; Claire, 21—and live just outside of Chicago, the city where Marino was born and raised.
In 1991, Marino earned a B.S. in finance at Northern Illinois University, which took him into banking, working at the American National Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago (now known as J.P. Morgan Chase). During that time and shortly after getting married, Marino decided to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He secured an MBA in strategic management in 1998.
BoxScore: A lot of AICC chairmen have historically come from family businesses that have been in the industry for generations. You, however, did not. How did you find yourself in the packaging industry?
Marino: I was a banker working in Chicago. Innerpac was a customer of mine at the time, and they were looking for someone to head up sales and marketing. One partner suggested they speak with me. That partner just happened to be Francis “Fran” Mentone, who is greatly admired and really beloved at AICC. I am forever grateful for his support in putting my name in the hat. The rest is history, so to say. In 1998, I joined Innerpac, then a private organization. But in 1999, they were sold to private equity firm, National City Equity Partners, in Cleveland.
BoxScore: That must have been quite an adjustment.
Marino: It was an intense time, where you had a rapid learning curve at a mid-size packaging business. National City Equity Partners ran our company until 2006, at which time we were sold again to Evolution Capital Partners. The plan was to execute a specific strategy for the next five years and then sell the company again. We were successful in that effort, exiting to RTS Packaging, a joint venture between WestRock and Sonoco. Then, in 2011, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I joined Evolution as an operating partner.
BoxScore: So, you were out of the packaging industry.
Marino: Yes, although I stayed actively involved with AICC doing speaking engagements and facilitation exercises at regional and national meetings. [Former AICC President] Steve Young was instrumental in keeping me involved in the industry, and I am grateful for that. Around 2015, I joined a company in Alabama, Rusken Packaging. My role there was to help grow the business through an acquisition strategy and to work with owner Greg Rusk and Chief Operating Officer Joey Jackson to drive the strategic plan—getting everybody on the same page, rowing in the same direction, with the right focus to drive successful growth.
For the next five years, Marino worked at Rusken Packaging and would fly back to his home and family on the weekends. It was not an ideal situation, but Marino had hoped that at some point, he would move his family to Alabama—and that his widowed mother and father-in-law, also a widower, would follow suit.
But as the years went on, it became clear that his mother and father-in-law had no intention of moving. Meanwhile, Marino liked working at Rusken, and he had no plans to leave. So, he was in kind of a lifestyle limbo; he enjoyed his work but didn’t enjoy being away from his family.
And then the pandemic happened. Flights were grounded, everybody was working out of their homes, and people had a lot more time on their hands (as if you didn’t know all of that already). Marino had a lot more time to think, and one of those thoughts was: Do I really want to spend the balance of my career flying back and forth across the country and seeing my family part time?
He realized the answer was no. Marino began thinking about his options, and he started exploring Akers, a company that was founded in Middletown, Ohio, in 1963. It was a company that started off small but had become quite large, with 12 facilities spread over six states. Marino had known President Mike Akey for nearly 25 years, as well as Jim and Bill Akers for close to 20. He admired the people, their business philosophy, and how the company was run. He approached Akey to explore the possibility of joining Akers, and in August 2020, that’s what he did. Marino didn’t exactly meet Akey in person, of course—or anyone else. It was amid the pandemic; the job interviews were all via Zoom.
BoxScore: You’ve been involved in AICC for a long while—about as long as you’ve been in the packaging industry, right?
Marino: Yes. In fact, when I was at Innerpac, I was on the board for the Association, and I was due to be the Chair of AICC in September 2010. However, that was right around the time that Evolution Capital Partners sold the company to RTS Packaging. At the time, the bylaws said you couldn’t be owned by an integrated company, and I had to resign from the board in August 2010. This is actually my second stint at becoming the Chair of AICC.
BoxScore: Wow. So, how has AICC changed over the last 20 years or so you’ve been involved with the organization?
Marino: Oh, it’s changed a lot, especially when it comes to training and development. It’s really progressed, offering online and in-person training to develop talent. This allows businesses an excellent opportunity to take advantage of personnel development. The online format also affords an on-demand option that is valuable in smaller, fast-moving businesses.
BoxScore: Can you give some examples of how AICC has helped you over the years?
Marino: The CEO advisory group format is one of many examples. Participating in the advisory group gives you the opportunity to learn and grow as a leader, fostering an environment of continuous improvement. I can’t speak highly enough about what I gained from that experience. It’s just very impactful, even more so if you own or work at a company that doesn’t have a board. You’re put into a group of CEOs who don’t compete in the same market but who face—or have faced—similar challenges. The ability to tap into that knowledge network is extremely valuable.
BoxScore: Right now, we’re in this weird zone where the pandemic is definitely not over, but it can feel like it is at times. How was AICC helpful for you during the pandemic?
Marino: We were doing weekly Zoom calls, available to all members. They were in a Q&A format, where we were talking about what people were doing right, best practices, how to manage and maintain clean equipment, and discussing what people were doing for distancing. It was a great resource for all of us. At points during the pandemic, we would have 100 people on these calls.
BoxScore: Can you elaborate on any other ways AICC has been helpful?
Marino: Well, the relationships you build are simply tremendous. One specific recent example was my regular calls with John Kochie with Acme Corrugated. When the pandemic was at its worst, we talked a few times about the actions Acme was taking to maintain a safe work environment. We discussed what Acme was doing with machine cleaning, plant disinfecting, and distancing in their facility to keep people safe and virus-free. Everyone was scrambling, trying to react quickly; it was good to have this network to reach out to for advice and confirmation of our action plans.
So many of my longtime professional relationships can be credited to AICC. I vividly remember after Fran Mentone retired, I was attending my first national meeting solo. He suggested I introduce myself to Jeff Quinn and Jack Fiterman. They welcomed me with open arms and made further introductions without hesitation. This is a great example of the many impactful relationships (both professionally and personally) that began through my active participation in AICC. There are countless other instances like this—far too many to mention—but relationships for which I will forever be grateful.
BoxScore: Obviously, going forward, helping AICC members manage the pandemic will still be a priority, but what other challenges in the industry will you be working on in the next year?
Marino: There are challenges in our industry that we’re going to need to face down, with respect to the availability of paper and labor and the stresses on the supply chain, particularly transportation. It’s going to be a challenging time in the next few years as some of the residual aspects from the pandemic and supply bottlenecks continue to manifest themselves in our industry. My theme for the upcoming year is “Grip It and Rip It.” Are we providing the right foundational vision for our business, putting the right people in the right seats, creating clarity in our message, and focusing on our priorities to achieve sustainable success? While I am a fan of the strategic framework created by Geno Wickman (EOS), regardless of what framework you are using, you must have something in place to align the goals, team, and processes to create a system that goes beyond the energy of the entrepreneur/founder and becomes sustainable.
BoxScore: And do you have any advice for AICC members who may not be utilizing all that AICC has to offer?
Rather than focus on advice, the important message I want to convey is that over my 21 years in the Association, I cannot count how many times I picked up the phone, sent an email, or shared a cocktail with a member or Associate member and learned something new. To be a part of a group of people willing to share their experiences and raise the bar in our business is an amazing gift. I have yet to encounter a member or Associate member unwilling to share, contribute, or participate when asked. That makes me a better operator, leader, partner, and colleague, affording me the opportunity to willingly pay it
forward for those around me.
Geoff Williams is a journalist and writer based in Loveland, Ohio.