Engineer, DAK Americas
DAK Americas engineer Kate Leonik may be the only woman in the plastics industry who was led there by a doughnut.
Leonik, 25, first became aware of plastics through recycling programs run by her mother, Diane, in New Jersey's Cape May County. Many of those programs involved plastic bottles, but some involved other items such as tires.
“My mom put together a program called Donuts for Donuts, where people would bring in old tires and in return they'd get a doughnut,” Leonik recalled. “I was maybe 10 years old, handing out doughnuts at the door.”
That exposure to recycling and plastics led to her earning a degree in chemical engineering at North Carolina State University and then to being hired by DAK in Charlotte. DAK ranks as one of North America's largest makers of PET bottle resin.
Q: What was your first plastics job and why were you interested in the industry?
Kate Leonik: My first job was working in the mergers and acquisitions department of DAK Americas. I was initially interested in plastics because of my mother. She was the Executive Project Planner for the Cape May County Utilities Authorities in New Jersey. Her co-workers affectionately dubbed her “the plastics queen.” One of her strongest passions in her long career at the CMCMUA was the recycling program. She spent a large part of her career improving the program as well as finding really creative ways to reuse/repurpose plastic bottles.
Q: What's been your greatest achievement in plastics so far?
Leonik: The sales and operations planning model that I designed, created, and maintained to run our resins sector. Recently, we had a third party consultant describe the S&OP model as the most amazing thing like that which she's seen including “off the shelf” software for S&OP and production planning.
Q: What's been your biggest failure and what did it teach you?
Leonik: I once asked to leave my group of a year and half, with hopes of moving to a different department. I personally consider it a failure, because I felt like I abandoned my group, but it taught me how important it is to treat everyone with respect, whether they are above you, below you, or by your side within the organization.
Q: What's your current work challenge?
Leonik: Finding my niche! Being that my career is still very new (three years), I'm slowly getting exposure to different groups throughout the company with the intention of finding what interests me most, as well as gaining experience.
Q: What emerging technology or market most interests you?
Leonik: Bio-based plastics. I took a bioenergy and bioengineering class at N.C. State, which sparked a serious personal interest in renewable resources, especially algae-based products. When I read the Plastics News article on the biotechnology group from UCSD that made the surfboard from algae based polyols, I thought it was the coolest idea! The perfect culmination of my two favorite things: surfing and plastics!
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Leonik: The technology. It seems like the industry is constantly developing, rolling out new and improved technology and ideas. I'm looking forward to seeing how the industry evolves over the next few decades.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Leonik: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” I know this may seem like pretty generic advice, but it has really helped me in my very short career thus far. It's all in the delivery!
Q: What associations do you belong to or actively participate in?
Leonik: I volunteer with Urban Ministry Center here in Charlotte.
Q: If you were CEO of a company what would you do first?
Leonik: I would assess the needs of the employees. It seems as if the turnover rate in companies is only getting higher and higher, especially among young professionals. I think a small rate of turnover is necessary in order to help facilitate new and fresh ideas and perspectives, however it's my personal belief that a high rate of turnover can be very detrimental to a company and that company's culture. There is an intrinsic value in retaining employees that have years of experience within the company, that have spent years building trust and respect with their peers, customers, vendors, and otherwise. To lose that is to lose an asset.
Q: Who is your mentor or someone you look up to?
Leonik: John Cullen, the sales and marketing Director here at DAK Americas. He has a very accomplished career and an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience, yet he remains very humble. Although he is within the highest ranks of the company, he is not disconnected from understanding everything down to the day to day demands of the entry level positions.
Q: What job do you really want to have in the future?
Leonik: President and CEO.
Q: What do you do to relax?
Leonik: Go surfing! I used to do it competitively growing up, so it's my natural go-to for relaxation.