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ICPF Features #WomenInCorrugated with Kristen Erwin

Kristen Erwin, the General Manager of the Lake Ontario Region at Jamestown Container Companies, has amassed over 30 years of experience in the corrugated packaging industry. Before beginning her first role in sales in 1992 at Buckeye Corrugated, Inc., she earned a degree in Management Science with an emphasis in Marketing from the business school at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Geneseo. In the years since, her career has spanned several positions in the industry, including both sales and general management. ICPF sat down with Kristen to discuss her journey within the industry, the importance of knowing your product, the value of mentorship, and her takeaways as a woman forging her path in a male-dominated industry.

ICPF: We often hear from packaging professionals that they were not aware of opportunities in the corrugated packaging industry while pursuing their degree. What led you to pursue a career in corrugated?
Kristen Erwin (KE): It actually is in my blood. My father is in the industry, so I grew up with it my whole life. When I got out of college I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into sales, so I worked for a company that [my father] was working for at the time. I went through a sales training program – I worked in customer service, design, out in the floor, in scheduling–you name it. In sales, it’s all about knowing your product, so it was a very good, fundamental program that I went through. And then, of course, learning through sales how to connect with people.

ICPF: What did your first sales role in the industry look like?
KE: I worked internally for a solid year after the sales training program. I would go out on sales calls with some of the sales reps that we had, and then eventually, the gentleman that was in sales at the time took a sales management position, so I took his job and reported to him. I started with a small book of business from him, just something to cut my teeth on. But that wasn’t comfortable to me, I wanted to build my own book of business and I did just that.

ICPF: Can you walk us through what the day to day responsibilities look like in your role as Regional General Manager? When you start your day in the morning, what do you tackle?
KE: Every day in this business is a different day, always with new challenges. I’m responsible for the overall safety of this [Rochester] facility and our Lyons facility including quality, profitability, supporting the sales team, and growing the business.

ICPF: Have there been any mentors, specifically women, that have helped you professionally or personally over the course of your career?
KE: Before I went into a general management role, I did an extensive leadership training program with Dr. Jim Kestenbaum, who is a local gentleman in the area, and focused on fundamentals of leadership. In that journey, I did have a couple of women who expanded my support network. One who is outside of the industry, Diane DeSanto, who works for GNC Foods. She is somebody who I could reach out to and lean on, and she runs a very big operation herself. And then someone in the industry, Kim Nelson from Royal Container. Those two ladies are wonderful. Kim has a lot on her plate, but we do lunches and dinners, we get together and golf. I think our shared experiences are really important.

ICPF: Can you speak a little bit about the importance of young women considering a career in the manufacturing field, including corrugated packaging?
KE: There’s definitely an opportunity for you to grow as a person. You need to be devoted and dedicated to your discipline, but you can really find a fulfilling career here. I’ll be honest with you, when I got out of college everyone was going into pharmaceutical sales or the more glamorous sales, and people would say, ‘Who buys a box?’. And I would say, ‘Stop and look at everything on your body right now–everything on your body was probably in a box at some point.’

I love that part about the industry and learning all of the other types of manufacturing that’s out there. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without being in sales and being on other people’s manufacturing floors. It’s pretty cool to see the businesses that have flourished here in my region.

ICPF: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
KE: The people. I try to have a presence on the floor every day, to stop and talk to people. A big focus for me is knowing everyone’s name on the floor and we have over 160 employees here. I always want to have an open door; I want people to come and talk to me, to feel comfortable with me and be happy. I want them to want to come to work.

ICPF: Have you been able to serve as a mentor in your current role or throughout your career?
KE: Yes, there’s actually a young woman, Lauren, who works in the design department [at Jamestown Container]. I got her set up in the Emerging Leaders Program with AICC and she’s part of that group now. She has a packaging degree from RIT but she really wanted more, and I’ve been able to take her under my wing.

ICPF: What piece of advice would you give to current job seekers?
KE: Be a sponge and learn from the ground up. Be a master in your field. You’ve got to put the time in and there is a lot of grinding. When I got into this industry and started calling in sales, I was a young 20-something year old calling on predominantly males in the purchasing community and a lot of them were probably the age of my father. I needed to know my field and I needed to know my product. I had a lot of great customers that I still talk to today that became like mentors to me and really took me under their wing and taught me a lot [about the industry]. So, really, just be a sponge.