Erin Ex, CEO
Tissue Works, Inc.
CEO since 1999
Industry: Toilet paper and equipment
# of Employees: 2,500
Location: Middle America, USA
Key Challenges: Market Share, Brand Recognition, Trust in Leadership
Founded in 1934, Tissue Works, Inc. was a leader in the field delivering low-cost toilet paper to factories across America. As more and more Americans welcomed indoor plumbing, Tissue Works, Inc. stayed in-step with the needs of the people and developed a product that maintained the low-cost promise, but delivered a high-standard of quality that customers could rely on for all members of their family. By 1994, the company was losing pace with its competitors. The family-run business refused to rely on “gimmicky” slogans to sell their product, and without a strong marketing strategy, this set them back. Tissue Works, Inc. held on for as long as it could, but by 1999 it was facing it’s second bankruptcy. In a last ditch attempt to save the family business, Erin Ex, the founder’s granddaughter, took over the company. Erin set out to find the problem and eradicate it; instead she found solutions.
The following is the story of how Erin Ex utilized the principles of Conscious Capitalism to increase market share, build brand recognition, increase team morale, and through that process – re-build a brand that is leading the way in providing better health in hygiene in remote areas around the world. Today, Tissue Works, Inc. is the number one toilet paper brand in the US and emerging markets. Thanks to creative partnerships with suppliers, they were able to bring indigenous farmers to the market creating a high-quality, Fair Trade product that is a universal symbol for bringing safe, hygienic restroom facilities to underserved populations around the world, in order to live their Higher Purpose of “Bringing good toilet paper and access to safe, clean bathrooms to populations around the world to support happier, healthier lives.”
When Erin joined the company as CEO in 1999, she believed that she could improve company performance by increasing productivity. She worked with her leadership team to identify the key areas for performance improvement. Overwhelmingly, the “area for improvement” that stood out to her most, was the mood of her staff. Her team – across every level – was scared. They worried that the company was going under and they would be out of work. This was impacting productivity. She also noticed that many of her conversations were with people who had been with the company for more than 10 years.They were scared to lose their jobs, but they were also scared of what would happen to their friends at work, and the company that had become like their family.
Several weeks into this process, she was driving to work when a startling idea surfaced. She pulled over to write down everything she was thinking. This is what the experience was like in her own words, “I felt like I had been struck by lightening. This crazy idea suddenly appeared in my mind and I knew it was the answer. I pulled over to the side of the road, rummaged through my bag to find a pen and some paper (it was my son’s homework that he had left in the car that morning) and I jotted this down next to his indecipherable math homework, ‘It’s the people. Our people are the answer. Talk to them’ I didn’t really even know what that meant, but I acted on it figuring – it can’t hurt. That morning I arrived at HQ and held a meeting with my executive team to ask them – What do you love about this company? Why is it worth fighting for? And no one said salary. They said: my team, the history, the quality of the product – some people even cried. And that’s when I knew we had a chance to save the company.”
Erin realized quickly that she had no idea how to take this information and action it. In Erin’s words, “I was operating blind. I was just making things up based on what I learned in school, but it seemed insufficient. I found myself in unchartered territory. I was suddenly dealing in feelings and I had no business training for that. I was losing my mind, but then my CFO, Jane Doe, saw me floundering and she recommended I learn more about Conscious Capitalism. I looked it up online. I read the credo. I read about the principles, and I knew this was part of the answer.” Erin realized that she wanted to be a conscious leader and to help build a Conscious Culture. Her first step was to talk to her team.
They conducted Person to Person Interviews across all the teams asking the following questions:
What do you love about this company? And Why is it worth fighting for?
They aggregated that data and identified 3 key factors:
1. Colleagues are like my family.
a. Example Quote: “When I go to the store in town I don’t run into strangers, I run into my friends. We make plans together. Our children are best friends.”
2. Our product is superior to the competition.
a. Example Quote: “Tissue Works has the best product hands down. I would not wipe myself with any other toilet paper so if we close down, I guess I’m in trouble.”
3. Toilet paper is important.
a. Example Quote: “I know it’s weird but I like making toilet paper. It’s something that everyone needs. It breaks my heart that there are people in the world who don’t have access to toilet paper.”
They also asked: What can we do to help you be more productive at Tissue Works, Inc.’s ?
They aggregated that data and identified 3 key factors:
1. Affordable Childcare.
a. Many of the factory employees are single parents and sick kids, closed schools, etc. create unintended employee absences that can delay production.
b. Reduces anxiety in workers to know that they have safe reliable childcare while they are at work.
2. More communication/autonomy from Managers.
a. There were a number of responses in this area that indicated frustration with management style. Employees – on average – feel there is a divide between “us and them” and it sometimes makes them feel exploited, under-appreciated, and – in some cases – expendable.
3. Distrust of Senior Leadership
a. The 62% of factory employees said that they “knew nothing” or “knew almost nothing” about the CEO. And data revealed that those same people had “None” or “Little” trust in the CEO.
Erin and her team reviewed the findings together. Here’s what that experience was like in her own words, “I was upset. I know that’s a strange response. I had no right to be upset, but I was. I felt like I had completely failed my team, and I realized I’d been so focused on making a name for myself, I had forgotten about the people who make the company work. I had convinced myself that I was the most important person at Tissue Works – it’s really embarrassing to admit that. When the data were revealed, I felt everyone in the room look away from me. They knew it too. I had become part of the problem. It was humiliating. The good news is I took that information and I used it to be a better leader, a conscious leader. It was hard and I’m still learning, but – you know – it’s a process.” In addition to working on how to be a better leader, Erin worked with her team to action some of the feedback to better support all the employees. Here are 3 areas they felt they had capacity to create positive change as a first step.
Conscious Leadership Development
Erin and her team recognized right away that they did not have the leadership tools necessary to successfully action some of the projects highlighted by the data, so they implemented a company-wide Conscious Leadership Development Program to support each and every member of the Tissue Works team: CEO, Senior Leadership, Managers, Staff, Factory Employees
Community Relations Development
Erin and her team recognized that many of their problems are a matter of insufficient resourcing, and they perceived that their most valuable resource was the community in which the company was established. They decided they needed representatives from the team to help in this process so they built a Community Resources Action Team made up of executive leadership, managers, and factory floor team members. The BACRA focused on the employees’ #1 need – Childcare. Within 6 months, they identified a community-based solution that achieved the need for Affordable Childcare. (The BACRA currently address employees’ issues on an ongoing basis.)
Developed Deeper Relationships with Suppliers
Tissue Works’ toilet paper was of superior quality, but the cost was setting them back. Erin and her team did not want to sacrifice the quality of the product, so they decided to re-visit their relationships with their suppliers to see where they can create more savings that also create benefit for their suppliers. This resulted in surprising advancements including: piloting a new type of paper product sourced from Fairtrade farmers.
(Of note: It was this step that launched Tissue Works to the top of the Fairtrade revolution in paper products and helped them to build a loyal customer network– growing their profit share AND brand recognition 1,000%!)
Practical Application of Conscious Capitalism Principles
In her own words, “We didn’t start out trying to become Conscious Capitalism company. We didn’t even know what that was. We just had this crazy experience of basically ‘paying attention’ to what our team was telling us and from there we unwittingly built a more conscious business.” If you’re looking for some guidance on developing yourself or your team’s leadership potential, Here’s a few steps that Erin took that might help guide you:
- Build up your relationships – it’s not just lonely at the top, it’s dangerous to be alone. You need to know what your team are experiencing so get to know them better. Try doing the following: X, Y, and Z. Listen to your key stakeholders, hear their feedback, and take action.
- By now, most CEOs know that feedback is important, but that doesn’t mean we have any idea about how to actually apply it in a way that benefits our stakeholders. It may help to build a survey about how well you, as the CEO, action stakeholder feedback. Here’s an example of what we used at Tissue Works, Inc. (ATTACH survey)
- Look to the CXO network for additional support. Conscious Capitalism, Inc. is an outstanding resource for business leaders interested in growing their market share WHILE elevating humanity through their business. You can access hundreds of other CXO’s as well as helpful tools and resources that CXO’s have shared with the network. Erin shares, “The CXO Network helped us get ‘unstuck’ quite a few times over the course of the last few months.”