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18.01.2022
Latest News KM News and People / Q&A

Leading from the top, KM is all about the people

Managing Director Charles Smithson has overseen the growth and success of KM Packaging since 2007. Here, he talks candidly about the business, industry matters, and his career, and reveals what gives KM its special edge.   

This is a people business.

It's not only about great products, high stock levels, and meeting deadlines. 

It’s very much about our people, their expertise, attitude, and values. And, of course, our customers.

When MD Charles Smithson speaks about KM Packaging and its culture, there is no doubt about his deep-rooted sincerity and clear view of what makes the business successful.

"I like to enable people in this business to have the responsibility to accept the ownership of their roles," said Charles, who has been at the helm since leading a management buyout in 2007. "Also, I listen to what they need to do their jobs effectively, including support and training.

"We want to have lots of leaders in this business. People who've stepped up to take ownership and make decisions.”

A key element of KM's recruitment policy is finding people who share the belief that looking after customers is of paramount importance.

As Charles said: "No one joins this business if they don't care about giving good service to a customer. 

"We're very proud of our long-term customer retention. We have customers who were with the business when it was founded 38 years ago. Our oldest customer is still one of our biggest."

"We had to reconfigure all our supply chains to avoid huge tariffs."

For Charles, the KM Packaging story began in 1994, when he joined to work in the North American market, the company's biggest at that time.

“It gave me a much wider global picture of both suppliers and customers, that I couldn’t get working with my previous company who were a UK flexible packaging manufacturer with only UK customers,” he said.

Charles became a shareholder in 2001 and carried on running the North American business as well as some markets in Northern Europe.

He said: "The majority of business in those days was selling to candy and confectionery manufacturers in the USA, Canada, and Europe. 

"Then, in 2006, I started travelling to Australia. That was to promote a range of lidding products for the convenience food sector that had already been launched in the UK, as well as products for the confectionery industry."

A year later, Charles led the management buyout along with Graham Holding, the current Commercial Director, and Jamie Close, who was Finance Director until his recent sad death. 

Charles said: "Jamie was here before I joined the business. He had a tremendously positive influence on us all with his calm, gentle, and intelligent approach.  Jamie was a much-admired friend and trusted colleague who will be greatly missed."

Together, the management team have overcome many challenges over the years.

Charles recalls: "One of my memories was when the US and Europe were embroiled in what became known as the 'banana trade war'.”

The US had complained that free trade rules were broken by an EU scheme giving banana producers from former colonies in the Caribbean special access to European markets.

Charles said: "America was our single biggest market in those days, and they decided to put punitive tariffs on a whole range of products, including flexible packaging.

"Overnight, and then for several months, we had to reconfigure all our supply chains to avoid the huge tariffs and ensure that our customers retained their supplies."

However, Charles has revealed the biggest challenges have come in more recent times. He said: "They have been Brexit part one, Brexit part two, Brexit part three, and COVID!"

"We are passionate believers in the benefits of flexible packaging."

With regard to conducting business during the pandemic, Charles said: "We developed and reacted really well to working from home. Our team operated very successfully and maintained the business’s culture and communications.

"We also had to react quickly to changes in customer demand to keep our customers supplied.

 “Today, there is still volatility in the market with regards to raw material availability and global shipping challenges. We work very closely with our customers and partners worldwide to mitigate these trading conditions and ensure continuity of supply.” 

Meanwhile, the whole plastics debate continues to rage. 

And Charles said: "My biggest concern right now is government intervention. It's doing things for the right reasons but getting the wrong results.

"We are passionate believers in the benefits of flexible packaging. It protects food throughout the rigours of the food supply chain and does so with minimal carbon impact. 

"But many organisations and the UK government haven't yet seized on the fact that flexible packaging is a product that we should value and make worth collecting.

"Here in the UK, the government are introducing the Plastic Packaging Tax in April. That is perfectly reasonable, but the money raised should be used to make Britain one of the world's best recyclers and value the plastic products that have seen investment from companies in this country for many years.

“I feel as though there's a very short-term attitude to food packaging and particularly to flexible packaging. Yet, it's a critical product for meeting aspirations for reducing our carbon emissions.”

One of the imminent Plastic Packaging Tax results is the growing demand for post-consumer recycled content (PCR) in packaging materials.

“Everyone's seeking a magic new material that's sustainable."

Charles said: "The increase in demand for PCR will have a significant impact as it will put pressure on recyclers to value the waste streams more highly.”

As well as post-consumer recycled content, many producers are looking at mono materials that are designed for recyclability and alternative materials for their food packaging. This includes the C-range of bio-plastic packaging materials from KM Packaging.

Charles said: "Looking to the future, everyone's seeking a magic new material that's sustainable. Ideally, it would be one type of material that is easily recycled. 

"However, for now, there isn't a magic solution. But we do have highly-versatile plastics. So, let's get high recycling levels and try to avoid new virgin plastics coming onto the market. Also, we should continue to reduce the thickness and weight of the materials we use to help lower the carbon impact."

About the future direction of KM Packaging, Charles anticipates the business will have a much stronger presence in overseas markets.

He said: "I foresee our head office here in Oundle, in the East Midlands, also becoming the base station for satellite operations in our key strategic overseas markets. Members of our team here would support others in the different parts of the world.

"They'll be part of the KM family, but they will also need high levels of service and support, similar to being treated like a customer.”

“It's the power of the collective.”

Thanks to its team of people, KM Packaging is going from strength to strength. On the question of what Charles would regard as reaching a pinnacle of success, he said: “I suppose true success is when I don't need to be here anymore!

“For me, it's the power of the collective. The team has the skills to keep going, thriving, and succeeding.”

With such a strong focus on the business, its people, and imminent global expansion, you might think that Charles has little time or energy left for other interests. However, that’s not the case, and he said: “I like hiking and I'm a big player of squash and tennis. I love spending time on the water in my holidays, boating, paddle-boarding, or swimming. 

“Also, I would love to be able to improve my snowboarding, which gives me a chance to spend time in the mountains.

“All the things that give me pleasure are even better when I can do them with my family.”

Characteristically, Charles returns to the importance of family and people. 

And, on a final note when asked if he could briefly summarise the KM Packaging story, he said: “A fantastic team of people, having a lot of fun together, looking after great customers.”

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