Founded in 1880, Ball Manufacturing now operates in four segments: Metal Beverage Packaging, Americas and Asia; Metal Beverage Packaging, Europe; Metal Food and Household Products Packaging; and Aerospace and Technologies.
IndustryWeek talked to Jay Billings about how the company adapts to changing times.
IW: How do you foster innovation? Do you have a process to direct innovation efforts?
JB: We are incredibly fortunate to have inherited a culture of innovation at Ball. Through our 137-year history, Ball has been in more than 45 different businesses. That only happens if you have a culture that pushes all of its employees to identify problems/opportunities and creatively seek solutions. And innovation can mean a myriad of things, from opportunities to incrementally improve our efficiency to developing entirely new product lines. We know great ideas come from all corners of an innovative organization, and we actively seek them out from the 18,000+ outstanding folks who work here.
We are also fortunate in that our global presence and size leverages so many perspectives and insights around the world. An innovation in Europe may crossover successfully to the U.S., or South America, or vice-versa. We work as a global team to provide our customers with the benefits of those capabilities, and we also operate on a regional level to address specific local needs. We operate in a very competitive space, where Ball competes against other canmakers but, more importantly, the can competes against glass and plastic. Our focus is to make the beverage can, which is already the fastest-growing beverage package in the world, the first choice of our customers. That means we must focus our innovation platforms directly on customer needs, and we partner with our customers to understand how our 100% recyclable aluminum package can help them grow their business.
IW: Three years ago you told the Denver Press that that reason you moved into specialty can capabilities is because your customers wanted you to. You explained that you can “talk to the customers through the can.” Can you talk about how you formulate strategies based on customer preferences?
JB: We believe packaging is a critical part of a consumer’s product experience. Think about some recent experiences you have had with packaging—for most people those experiences are very emotional and can be very positive or very negative. So, intended or not, our customers are speaking to their consumers via their packaging. The question, we believe, is what are they saying?
First and foremost, when our customers choose to use our products for their brands, they communicate a commitment to sustainability. From high recycling rates to low weight, aluminum cans and bottles are easily the most sustainable package on the market. Beyond that, today we live in a world of essentially hyper customization, where end consumers want products they feel reflect who they are and they want them ASAP. Ball’s customers almost across the board are seeking ways to keep up with this faster pace of change driven by consumer preferences.
You’re right, Ball purposely focused on specialty packaging maybe 5-6 years ago, because we felt that this was where we would see the most growth in what had been a largely mature North American market. And it’s been effective for us and has helped our customers grow, and Ball to grow. Specialty packaging can mean different can sizes, better graphics, special inks that consumers can feel, new features like reclosability and new can shapes like bottles or skinnier “slim” cans. As we develop these things for our customers, the can does the talking for us just as it is so effectively taking for our customer brands.
IW: For such a large company it seems interesting that you are willing to partner with small clients. For example the partnership with Wild Goose Canning and the Infinite Monkey Theorem resulted in canning 30,000 cases this past year. Can you talk about why you would choose to participate?
JH: Growth can be challenging, and it can take many different forms – in terms of customers, and in terms of Ball’s cans and aluminum bottles. Sometimes opportunities come to us from multinational customers with teams of innovation experts, while other times it comes from two people and the craft beer they started making in their garage. A big secret of our success over the last decade has been our “hit rate” in selecting markets and customers where we disproportionately invest our resources. We are a lean organization, and very deliberate on where we put our time and our money.
We invest knowing that cans can play a vital role in enabling our customers to grow. If we can help make that happen and win together, then that’s good for our customer and good for Ball. That’s what has happened with Infinite Monkey – some great wine in cans – and Wild Goose, who specifically partners with smaller companies and with Ball to help them grow.
IW: You entered another partnership with Oskar Blues three years ago to produce the Crowler. This also involves a small Colorado-based company. Is this a corporate strategy to partner with home state companies? How does this play into the overall innovation nature of your company?
JH: The Crowler is so much fun! For readers who are not familiar with it, a Crowler is a 32-ounce aluminum can from Ball that a taproom can fill and close to allow their customers to take a special brew home with them. Basically it’s a more sustainable, more portable, highly sanitary can version of the older glass package. We love working with Oskar Blues - they are incredible innovators and really were the pioneers in introducing the market to craft beer in Ball cans, proving that cans are good for great beer. It certainly helped that Ball and OB are both based in Colorado, though it wasn’t a deliberate strategy. We do tend to engage more day-to-day in our work with Colorado companies. Perhaps it is because we are a short distance away from each other and can easily have face-to-face meetings. Or maybe it’s because Colorado is a fantastic state for craft beer and innovation. Either way, we are really happy to be a part of it.
IW: While certain areas of the company are expanding, you also have shut down two plants in the past two years. How do these closures fit into the overall health of the company?
JH:Customer and market demand change constantly. The location of our customers, the products our customers need from us, the places those products must be shipped to and even the location of suppliers who send us raw materials all change over time, and we are continually looking at our overall plant system to determine the most effective and efficient way to supply our customers. While closing a plant is a difficult decision, it sometimes is necessary to align our supply with that evolving demand. We have also invested tremendously in our North American beverage packaging plant network over the past few years, spending over $700 million on increasing production capacity, creating new capabilities and growing our business. We always want growth over ceasing production, and no one likes closing a plant. It’s something that sometimes has to be done to ensure the long-term future of the company.
IW: This year your company received 100% on the 2016 Corporate Equality Index. What steps did the company take to achieve this goal?
JH: We are thrilled to receive 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s CEI. It’s one example of how Ball is trying to be an outstanding employer to all of its employees. It’s pretty simple from a culture standpoint: we want the best people on our team and we want everyone on our team to know they are a valued contributor to our success. By consistently working toward that vision, we will get the best and most collaborative work from the best team.
Specific to CEI, LGBT rights have been important to Ball for many years. Ball offered same sex benefits in 2003, and we began applying for the CEI in 2012. We started with a score of 40, and focused on understanding what we were missing and how we could do better. Our score increased over the next several years until we earned 100 in 2016. Some of our early progress was simply understanding the requirements of the CEI and engaging the right way. For instance, we didn’t have some specific language on our website even though we did meet the requirement, so we incorporated the language changes online. In other instances, we looked at our policies and programs and made deliberate decisions to change them. For instance, we offer transgender insurance coverage, and we modified Ball Foundation guidelines to prohibit philanthropic giving to any organizations with an explicit policy of discrimination against LGBT people. It. We’re very proud of our progress, and we will keep at it.
IW: Do you have a particular motto you go by with regard to your leadership style?
JH:Start with a vision for where the company can be, find the very best people, and then do your best to support them! I might be spoiled by how highly engaged everyone is at Ball, and how much we care. When you have a passion for what you do, and believe in the company you work for and each other, leadership is about setting a direction and helping the team as it gets after it. I work on being a better leader every day, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many dedicated, driven, good people at Ball.