Mary Laschinger is quick to tell you that a person’s success in the business world is all about choices.
And when it comes to choices, it’s safe to say Laschinger has made some pretty good ones.
The 1985 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire business administration graduate is the chairman and CEO of Veritiv Corp., a leading North American distributor of print, publishing, packaging, facility and logistics solutions. Veritiv, which counts half of the current Fortune 500 companies among its customers, had $8.7 billion in annual revenues during its most recent fiscal year — a number that earned the young company its own spot on the 2016 Fortune 500 list.
For Laschinger and her leadership team at Veritiv, established just two years ago with the merger of International Paper Co.’s xpedx division and Unisource Worldwide Inc., the Fortune list wasn’t something they thought about. Since July 2014, the Veritiv team had been engrossed in the work that comes with the merger of two large companies. Then one day, Laschinger’s communications team came into her office with some news: “You know, we’re going to be on the Fortune 500.”
When the Forbes list was announced June 6, Veritiv was ranked No. 323 overall.
“It’s really great for our team and our company, because we’ve got a new company with a new name, and so we don’t have a lot of brand recognition yet,” Laschinger said. “So it’s a great way for us to try and build that brand recognition.”
But, back to making the right choices on the path to business success.
Since venturing out from her family’s dairy farm in tiny Arkansaw, Wisconsin, more than 35 years ago, Laschinger has made choices that helped her rise to the helm of a Fortune 500 company.
Sowing the seeds of confidence
It began with the choice to leave life on the farm and attend technical college. Just out of high school, where she was “a B-average student,” Laschinger lacked confidence and was intimidated by the thought of attending a university. Instead, she enrolled in technical college and, after earning her associate degree, she moved to the Green Bay area and worked in the retail industry for a couple of years.
Bolstered by her successes in earning her associate degree and by her retail work experience, Laschinger’s confidence had grown and she felt empowered to make her next big move: enroll at UW-Eau Claire and pursue a business administration degree.
Laschinger found UW-Eau Claire to be the right size — “big enough to matter but not so big that you got lost” — close to home and family, in a safe and interesting community, with a staff focused on the success of its students.
“Several professors at the time came from the business environment and had real-world experiences, versus just an education background,” Laschinger said. “That balance paid huge dividends for me in terms of not only learning, but in terms of guiding me about what to do.”
In addition to the value she found in UW-Eau Claire’s business curriculum and the real-life experience of its faculty, Laschinger said the general education courses she took to fulfill her graduation requirements also were important in preparing her for success.
“If you had to ask me what’s been the greatest lever in my success, it’s that I’ve been able to surround myself with really great people,” Laschinger said. “But those leaders who don’t have the ability or are intimidated about surrounding themselves with great people are, I think, the ones who are more challenged. So you don’t have to be the smartest in the room to do what I do, you need to be well-rounded, and I think the business degree does that for you.”
Her UW-Eau Claire education also taught her the value of ongoing learning.
“Certainly the university can provide more structured learning, but it also teaches you a bit about how to learn, and the value of that learning,” Laschinger said. “And as you go along in your career, a lot of your learning comes from your own direct, personal experience and how you apply that to your business decisions every day. So I feel strongly that really good leaders will continue to learn and adapt.”
“You can do more”
As Laschinger prepared to graduate with distinction from UW-Eau Claire, her cumulative academic successes led her to think, “You know, Mary, you can do more.” Once again, her choice to attend UW-Eau Claire proved pivotal — and “do more” she did.
“Through the interview process and the recruiters who were on campus, I was able to get my first real, big job with Kimberly-Clark coming out of college,” Laschinger said. “And that was very important and very meaningful to me, and really was the launching stage for my career. To land a job with a Fortune 500 company of that brand is a really big deal, and I interviewed on campus for that opportunity.”
Laschinger moved to the East Coast for that first job as a production planner. She would go on to hold various positions in product management and distribution at Kimberly-Clark Corp. and James River Corp. before joining International Paper Co. in 1992. While working, she also earned an MBA from the University of Connecticut and completed postgraduate studies in executive management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
At International Paper, she served in senior management roles in sales, marketing, manufacturing and supply chain; as vice president and general manager of the company’s wood products and pulp businesses; and as president of its Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia business. From 2007 to June 2014, Laschinger was a senior vice president with International Paper, and from January 2010 to June 2014, she also was president of its xpedx division.
Opportunity knocks again
In late 2012, Laschinger was one of a few candidates in the running to be the next CEO of International Paper when she was given the opportunity to be CEO of what would become Veritiv. She accepted that opportunity — and all that’s involved with running “a nine-billion-dollar startup” (as Veritiv’s leadership team likes to call the company).
Since that decision, there’s been no end to the excitement for Laschinger in her lead role at Veritiv.
“We had two years trying to negotiate a deal, a transaction, and then getting the company ready for operations, and then the last two years we’ve been bringing the companies and teams together,” Laschinger said. “Standing up a public company was a massive amount of work — getting listed on the New York Stock Exchange, getting shareholder interest — the list goes on and on and on, and now we’re in the middle of integration, and we’re starting to map out the future of the company.”
In accepting the CEO position with Veritiv, Laschinger took on opportunities she wouldn’t have had leading an already-established company. From creating a human resources platform and establishing performance management and talent development capabilities, to developing new enterprise operating systems and everything in between, Veritiv has been “building all of these things as we go,” she said.
“How often in your life do you get to create a company and be at the helm of that and have a team of people who are all there for the same reason?” Laschinger said. “Most leaders never get that opportunity, because with that comes the opportunity to create a culture. You know, we can become what we choose to become. And most leaders come into organizations that have a long history, a long culture. They’re either trying to drive or change that culture, or they’re satisfied with it, but it’s pretty rare that you can create anew, because of the nature of how you came together as a new company.”
Laschinger’s excitement is infectious as she talks about Veritiv’s future.
“Mapping out the future of the organization, building a culture based on the values that I think are really important to be successful, and seeing the journey that we will be on — all those things are really incredible, Laschinger said. “Hiring people who want to come along on that journey, and celebrating milestones that we achieve over the course of time, are exciting as we chart the future of the company. But mostly it’s that we get to build it, we can define it, and we can build our culture to go along with it.”
On success in the workplace
Asked for words of wisdom for young professionals starting out in their careers, Laschinger advises that, while confidence is a positive trait, it’s important to stop short of arrogance.
She also encourages those new to the workforce to be willing to take risks and put themselves “in a position of learning.” That might mean changing their focus from one of “going up the ladder” to one of going across an organization.
“You can learn a lot more, and it gives you broader perspective and greater learning, and it expands, long term, your opportunities,” Laschinger said, referring to the idea of thinking more horizontally when it comes to movement in an organization.
On being a woman at the top
As one of only 21 female CEOs of current Fortune 500 companies, Laschinger has a few thoughts about women in leadership positions at large organizations and why there are so few of them. (Hint: Those thoughts include a few words about — you guessed it — choices.)
Laschinger recognizes it’s difficult to have it all. With the exception of situations in which a business leader’s spouse is a stay-at-home parent, for example, she recognizes that “there are tradeoffs one needs to make between having a perfect career and the perfect family.”
“Even in today’s business environment, I think women are challenged with having to make very difficult choices over the course of their careers — generally around family,” Laschinger said. “Women are often put in a position where they have to make choices. And those choices either create opportunities or diminish opportunities over the course of time.”
Laschinger recalled her decision to move to Europe to run International Paper’s operations there. She needed to make the decision within 24 hours, and two weeks later she found herself living overseas.
“You can ask, is it reasonable (for an employer) to expect that? Well maybe, maybe not,” Laschinger said. “But there are people who will do it. And so there’s this natural competition. Unfortunately, it is about difficult choices that you have to make. And I was willing to make those more difficult choices.”
At the same time, business leaders have a responsibility to create an environment in which people feel comfortable and confident to contribute so that they can achieve their full potential, and it’s something she puts into practice in her work, Laschinger said.
Like many other Blugolds, Laschinger used education as a launching pad to leadership and success, and she appreciates that every individual’s career path is unique.
“I always advise people, no matter who they are, figure out what your passion is, because if you can find your passion you’ll be great at it. Recognize the choices that you want to make and why, and realize that those are all going to be different answers for different people.”