Up for a challenge: Q&A with Cynthia Desjardins, regional general manager at Cascades Containerboard Packaging
By Kristina Urquhart
Who: Cynthia Desjardins
Role: Regional general manager
Employer: Cascades Containerboard Packaging
Lives in: Montreal, QC
Years in industry: 27
Cynthia Desjardins began her career in quality control at Cascades, but the desire to move into management led her away from the company for a decade. In 2008, she joined Norampac (now Cascades) as a plant manager in New Brunswick before moving back to Quebec, where she worked her way up to regional general manager of Cascades Containerboard Packaging in June 2019.
Pulp & Paper Canada: You recently got promoted from plant manager to regional general manager, congratulations! What has your new job been like so far?
Cynthia Desjardins: In my new role, I oversee seven plants on the converting side of the business. I have five plants in the Quebec region and two plants in Ontario. I make sure that all the plants are aligned with the corporate objectives.
My role is to support them by giving them all the resources and the tools that they need. I visit them on a regular basis. Also, I work more on long-term strategic planning of the region – where we want to be and what we need to do to be there.
PPC: What are your long-term term goals for the region?
CD: We always have the main goal: the EBITDA. Making sure that we provide the profit that we’re supposed to be providing.
And then on the operations side, improving our OEE, reducing the waste, improving quality to our customers, health and safety – making sure that we don’t injure our employees. We have a good system in place. Depending on the plant, the goals can be more specific. For example, one plant needs to improve their corrugator efficiency and other plants will need to work more on quality.
PPC: Are there big short-term projects that you’re working on right now?
CD: We have two projects in one of our plants. One project is more related to leadership of our management there. We’re working with them since last summer with consultants to do some coaching on their leadership, flow-arounds and making sure they follow up with production. Every two, three hours, [the consultants] do their tour and they ask the right questions. They challenge us and they fix issues to make sure that we’re always meeting our goals but also improving.
We did also invest in a corrugator, not this year but a few years ago, in the one of the plants. And we are still working on improving the performance of that machine, looking at the operations but also making sure that the maintenance people really understand the new equipment and all the preventive maintenance that needs to be done.
PPC: What’s been the biggest change for you coming from plant manager into this role?
CD: The biggest difference is that I’m a person that really likes to be involved. It’s difficult for me now because with seven plants, you cannot be everywhere. So I always feel like I’m everywhere but I’m nowhere at the same time!
It’s a challenge also to really understand how much I have to be involved in things, because before, I was involved in my plant in almost everything, but now I need to understand that I have plant managers working for me. I have to understand where I need to be involved, when I need to just follow up, or when I need to give guidance and let them go.
PPC: What’s a big project that you’re proud of? What were the results?
CD: Very often as plant manager, I had plants that needed a turnaround – plants that were not doing very good and were almost closing. And I have one example where the plant was almost supposed to close and we were not making money and all the results in terms of efficiency and quality and health and safety were not that great.
I changed a few people in the team, and with the final team we were able to really turn around that plant and go from losing money to making $4 million in EBITDA for a year. That’s my biggest achievement or what I’m very proud of. And the plant is still running today.
It’s all about your approach and your competencies and how you can get the trust of the people.
PPC: What excites you the most about the pulp and paper industry?
CD: It’s always changing. We always need to have new projects and look at how we can improve to be more competitive. To me that’s a motivation; it’s a challenge. And especially these days when we need to hire people, it’s more and more difficult to find new employees. We really need to also make sure that we retain the people that we have. So we need to work on the employee engagement – work with people, involve them. To me, it’s a motivation.
Maybe some people think that the pulp and paper industry dying because of [lack of demand for] journals, newspaper and books, but it is still there. We continue to use corrugated boxes; we continue to use toilet paper. The industry is growing and it’s alive.
PPC: What drew you to pulp and paper in the first place? How did you get into the industry?
CD: When I finished university, I sent like, 300 resumes to 300 different companies. I never sent my resume to Cascades and they were the only ones who called me!
I graduated in business administration, but in operations management [from HEC Montreal]. We produced a promotional book with all of the people that were graduating, and that book was sent to several companies. At the time, Cascades was the company in Quebec that everyone wanted to work for, so I was very happy when they called. I said yes right away.
PPC: Now it’s recognized as one of the most sustainable companies in the world so what a great decision that you made back then.
CD: Yes! I started at the time when ISO certification was just [beginning]. So they hired me [on contract] to implement ISO in different plants. I would spend sometimes six months or three months or a year working with people to develop procedures related to quality and implement them.
I already knew at the time that I wanted to supervise people. I don’t know why but I had that inside of me. I remember asking my boss that I would like to replace the production supervisor when they’re on vacation or during the night shift. I asked for anything [I could] do to help develop myself to become a supervisor or production manager.
PPC: What did you find were the greatest barriers for you in the early stage of your career?
CD: Like I was saying, I was ready to do anything, like working on night shift, but the answer was no. At first I was told, you’re good at quality and I need you there, so stay there. Unfortunately I quit at the time, because I didn’t accept that answer. I really wanted to develop myself.
At that time, I didn’t find any open doors for me at Cascades. So I quit and I went working for another company, still in quality, but at the time I was supervising four employees in their lab. In that company, I had the chance to have a boss who believed in me and helped me to develop myself. Two years after that, I was production manager and then plant manager.
I tried. I knocked on doors and when I saw that the doors were not opening, I decided to take another route. And then I came back after!
PPC: How have you seen the pulp and paper industry change since that time?
CD: For Cascades, in the past, we were buying old equipment, buying old plants, and we were able to produce with [that] old equipment, make money and expand. At one point, we realized that the market was changing, and we needed to be more efficient. We needed more recent equipment and we started to invest in new plants and new machinery. It was completely a different culture of what we were used to.
The industry is like that, too. It’s less plants, less mills, but more efficient. Always trying to find new machines that are running faster, changing over faster, requiring less people. And the customers – they want everything faster. So we really need to be flexible, we need to be able to answer. Before, we needed lead times of 10 days and everybody was happy. And now, we need to be at three to five days and they still aren’t 100 per cent happy and they would like to have an answer faster than that.
PPC: What about with regards to gender dynamics? What were your experiences when you were first starting out in the industry being a woman on the floor?
CD: I had some at first, because I was young when I got my first manager role. I was challenged a lot at the beginning. But I’m not even sure it’s because I was a woman or if it was because I was young. I never saw that it was an issue to get promoted or get the respect of the people on the floor. I think it’s all about your approach and your competencies and how you can get the trust of the people.
I knocked on doors and when I saw that the doors were not opening, I decided to take another route.
PPC: What advice would you give to someone who might be facing similar challenges because they’re young?
CD: My advice that I give to the young people that want to be a manager is you need to be yourself. What I found is that at the beginning you don’t know what the people expect from you. I don’t think it’s that different for any industry. You think that you’re supposed to know everything; you think that you have to be very technical. You think that you’re supposed to have all the answers.
But it’s not the case. You just need to be yourself, and make sure that you have the right people around you. And there’s a lot of technical people around that will help you to find the answers.
Cascades is a fantastic company. We have great people. I encourage everybody to come work for us and the good thing also with Cascades is that they develop their people. And even at a young age you can have a great position.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry project celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry as well as #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.