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Leader Insights: John Kula of Forest Packaging

*reprinted with permission from author

John Kula is focused. One of the things I admire most about John is his ability to keep things simple, even when running a growing organization. I enjoyed learning more about what makes him tick, and the principles that guide him. For a young man, he holds a lot of wisdom.

When did you first start working at Forest Packaging and what are your first memories?

John: I was 14 years old. I started by sweeping the floors, hand stripping and other odd jobs around the plant. I got exposed to accounting, design, you name it. That was my introduction to the world of corrugated.

Did you go to college after high school?

Forest Packaging
John Kula of Forest Packaging

John: Once I graduated high school and turned 18 I got my CDL. I went to College of DuPage, Harper College and once I got my associates degree I went on to Northeastern in the city. I was a commuter because I worked full time, too. I would stay at my grandparent’s house between classes if I couldn’t get back to work. They lived nearby in Edison Park. I would help them with things around the house like cutting grass and anything else my grandfather needed. Have to say, those were two and a half years I really got to now my grandparents and not sure most kids get that experience. 

Once you finished up your bachelor’s degree at Northeastern did you continue your work at Forest Packaging?

John: No. I drove over the road for a company by the name of Saturn Freight System. I wanted to get out of the family business and prove to myself I could do my own thing. The folks at Saturn are still great friends of mine. Ultimately, my dad made some significant changes at Forest, called me and asked me to come back to help him reboot the company. 

What did you learn driving over-the-road?

John: I learned a lot. The importance of being on time, I was meticulous about my logbook, keeping the vehicle clean and in shape, leaving time in your day for unexpected issues, and a whole lot more. Basically, I learned the importance of planning and organization.

Was there a time when you discovered you were in the right place, or when you discovered you were getting good at the game of business?

John: I was in my 20’s by this time. I did a little bit of everything, so I learned the operations side of the business well and the production side was where I was comfortable. I was always hesitant and nervous about getting into sales. My dad was good at throwing me from the frying pan into the fire. We had some issues with the person running our production, so one day my dad came to me and said, “you’re going to run production.” That was a big deal, but I knew who I was and what I wanted to do. The first thing I set out to do was get all our suppliers and vendors more involved. I asked a lot of questions. I knew that in order to be successful I needed the help and expertise of others. Once I started to bring in our suppliers and vendors things really started to change, and I gained a lot of confidence. I made a ton of mistakes. I would rather make mistakes than wait for people to spoon feed me information.

What happened next?

John: I was getting ready to get married and went to Finland to introduce my soon-to-be wife to our family there. During my vacation one of our sales reps quit and it became a little ugly. My dad came to me and said, “we need you in sales.” I grabbed the bull by the horns and got busy. I think I dropped about 2000 cards in my first year. I got a lot of no’s, but I just kept going. I believe in making your own luck.

Right around this time we were coming into the recession, right?

John: Yes. I guess it was probably the worst time to get into sales, but honestly, I just kept my head down. We did have to go to a 32-hour week and had to really watch things. The best thing about that time was we never laid anyone off. Looking back, I really learned how to keep going. No one ever complained. Like most companies, we just kept working.

The past few years you have invested a lot into the business in terms of equipment. Tell me about that process.

John: It was a lot of trial and error. I knew we had to broaden our capabilities in order to grow. Everyone in the company realized this, not just me. It’s always been a team effort at Forest. Looking back the turning point was October 2010 when we purchased our 80-inch specialty gluer. We took a conservative approach, bought a used one and rebuilt it. It allowed us to design things we hadn’t before and slowly but surely, we started getting more business for that piece. We paid that off, then we put in the 7780 Automaton. We had a labeler, but it was too slow. We bought that one used and rebuilt it as well. That was another growth opportunity for us.

From there, we've continued to make purchases and expand our capabilities. Our sales team have done a bang-up job to fill those machines. I take a lot of pride in the fact a lot of customers now come to us with ideas, we help with the design process, and ultimately deliver what they need. Our sweet spot has become adding value and taking on a variety of projects.

What’s your sales philosophy?

John: I’m old school, I guess. I am happiest when we get in the door, and really knock someone out with our service and design. I like to earn business project by project. A lot of folks want the big contracts and the like. I’m not a fan of someone handing me a list and saying give me the best price. I want to mix it up and get dirty. If we can’t be a benefit to the idea and design process, I don’t get excited. All I ask for is a shot at one project, and from there I’m confident we will earn more over time, and the pricing will be a win-win or we don’t get the business.

Tell me about the culture at Forest Packaging?

John: Leadership starts at the top and therefore, culture starts with me (and other leaders in the company). We do our best to keep a loose atmosphere and laugh. We work hard to keep our business feel small. We’re not big on meetings unless we have things to hash out. People are always watching. When I’m not selling, I am on the floor and in the shop. I am willing to sweep the floors, clean up the shop and get dirty. It’s not beneath me.

Who are your business mentors?

John: I’m not a big hero kind of guy. I look up to my dad. He has always inspired me. He has simple rules that guide him. Spend less than you make, keep learning and pushing the envelope on your capabilities. I’m pretty simple. I love the outdoors and enjoy traveling. I don’t need a big house and all that kind of stuff. I enjoy watching our employees take care of their family and things like that. We just need to stay safe, stay healthy, and go out and see the world when we can.

What local business would you really enjoy working with?

John: That’s an easy one, WeatherTech. They are a really cool company with great products, made right here in the USA. Their facility is not far from ours, so I have watched them grow. They have had an amazing run so far. We had the opportunity to run a couple orders but didn’t have the right equipment at the time to effectively handle the request. As we’ve discussed, we now have newer equipment and capabilities and I’d love another chance to earn a piece of their business.

That’s a great way to wrap this up. Thanks John. What's the best way to reach you?

John: Thank you, Jim, this has been fun looking back. It’s not often we make the time to do that and I appreciate the opportunity. Anyone can reach me here on LinkedIn or message us through our website.

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