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The Next Generation of O'Connor Looks to Appeal to the Next Generation of Workers

Thursday, March 8, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rachel Moore
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NPTA performs quarterly interviews with thought leaders; articles such as the one below are included in Paper Merchant Insider, NPTA's members-only newsletter designed to keep members connected with industry events, each other and all things NPTA. Learn more about NPTA member benefits and join our community today.

"The Next Generation of O'Connor Looks to Appeal to the Next Generation of Workers"

By Teddy Durgin

Tom O'Connor Jr. is Chairman and CEO of Mohawk Fine Papers, North America's biggest privately-owned manufacturer of fine papers, envelopes and specialty substrates for commercial and digital printing. He is the third generation of O'Connor to lead the New York-based company, which was founded in 1931 where the Mohawk and Hudson rivers come together. 

O'Connor started in 1986, learned the business from his father and was eventually elevated to chairman and chief executive officer in 2004. During his tenure, he has not only grown Mohawk's core business, but also moved the company into new areas of growth. Over the years, Mohawk has expanded its distribution base via a number of strategic initiatives, including the acquisition of International Papers' fine papers division in 2005, the opening of a warehouse in Europe in 2009 and acquiring a company to get into the specialty digital business in 2011. O'Connor and his staff have also expanded global sales, added manufacturing capability in envelopes and upgraded IT and operational infrastructure where needed.

For his efforts, the National Paper Trade Association presented him with the 2018 Stanley O. Styles Industry Excellence Award. O'Connor is appreciative of the honor, but not for personal or selfish reasons. "I look at it as an honor for everybody who works at Mohawk," he said, during a recent interview. "It's not me. Everybody who works here has made us who we are.  Of course, it's extra special for me personally because my father earned the same award a number of years ago. In fact, we have three other people associated with the company, including two board members, who have won it.  I like to think that means we're doing some things right."

Mohawk and O'Connor are doing a lot of things right. "We're in the premium paper market," he stated. "Right now, we think there is a real resurgence happening in that market. Our sales have been up for the last three years in a row. We see a really bright future with some of the products that we've developed and are presently developing. It's our ability to change and adapt to the trends in what's happening in print technology and communications that has made us an enduring success. We look at ourselves as far more than a paper company."

He continued, "We’ve been more proactive than reactive over the years. Proactive is good. We work closely with equipment manufacturers and customers in developing products. Our R&D and product people work with theirs in terms of what kind of technology changes and trends are coming, as well as what changes in products are going to run in the new equipment and be received positively in the market." 

He is also proud of the outreach Mohawk has practiced in terms of attracting young people and recent college graduates to the business. "To young people entering the business today, I say, 'Give us a chance!'" he exclaimed. "Part of the problem is, they drive by and they see a smokestack. We're across the river from [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], one of the top engineering schools in the U.S., and it is almost impossible to attract electrical engineers from there. But once they get inside and they see what we do and the innovation and patents that are here, and the customers that regularly visit here, I think they are really amazed. But you have to give us a chance. Because the key to the long-term success of our industry is attracting younger people who will develop a passion for this business. It's a concern we have, and we have put forth a special effort the last several years to try and attract good, young people. I don't even really care about their backgrounds. In fact, Liberal Arts majors are really terrific. They come in here with no baggage, and we kind of let them loose and they like that. Once you get them in the door, you're OK. But you have to get them in the door."

That said, he insists that Mohawk has not become like one of those hip, Silicon Valley startups with indoor slides, nap rooms and fancy coffee bars. "We don't have ping-pong tables," he joked. "But, at the same time, we're not as concerned about how people manage their time. It's very interesting to watch my generation intermingle with that generation. We strive for a happy medium, because you can't attract good, young people who are sitting outside thinking everyone they work for is an old curmudgeon. The key is the older generation has to understand they can learn from the kids."

For O'Connor, it's all about how you treat people of all ages and backgrounds. He describes his employees as Mohawk's "greatest assets" and raves about what a joy it is to come to work each day and see all of the men and women who are so vested in making Mohawk a successful company. 

"Everybody is a peer," he said. "It's also important as a leader to really promote the successes of the people around you. Make sure people feel good about what they are doing every day. You can buy any type of machine or equipment. You can get into any type of business. But if you don't have the right people with the right passion, it's not going to work."

He added, "There is no question that this is a hard business. The products do not sell themselves. They're expensive. There is such a wide array of SKUs, and all of your distributors can't inventory everything. But if you work at it and have a passion for it, I think you can be very successful."

Looking ahead to the rest of 2018, O'Connor expressed optimism on a number of fronts. For one, he sees strength in the U.S. economy despite inflation concerns and such lingering issues as freight and trucking. "In general, we're feeling positive about our business," he concluded.  "Being an independent, family-owned company, it's your obligation to test and try new markets and use technology to your advantage in order to survive. Our entrepreneurial spirit is driven to keep the business alive for generations to come."

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