Leann Gueths takes pride in starting as "the low person on the totem pole" and working her way to the top.
She started at Novolex 32 years ago as an administrative assistant. Gueths moved from the director of customer service across four Novolex plants in the Midwest to plant manager for Shields, a Novolex brand, in Shawano, Wis. She felt comfortable in making the change because "I knew I helped foster a world-class, self-sufficient customer service team whose passion for our customers and helping them find solutions to their packaging needs would continue."
She oversees all aspects of the facility, from production and quality to safety and sales.
"I see my job as a facilitator," she said, "and I am responsible for creating a space and an opportunity for my employees to become the best versions of themselves."
Gueths also spent three years as an outside sales representative so she "could truly understand the needs of our customers and sales team."
"Early in my tenure, I implemented the company's first software system and most recently as plant manager implemented the SAP software system. These upgrades have allowed us to better serve customers by answering questions about anything from pricing to delivery with more speed and efficiency," she said.
Gueths recently reflected on how the "darkest days of the pandemic" have shaped her time as plant manager. Novolex was tasked with creating isolation gowns for medical workers. The engineers reconfigured equipment to create personal protective equipment, and by the end of April 2020, they were producing upwards of 125,000 pieces of PPE per week.
"What brings the biggest smile to my face about our efforts during that time is how we managed through the challenges, kept production going for existing customers, added the manufacturing of PPE products for our front-line workers and bonded together as a family to keep everyone safe," she said.
Gueths graduated from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College with an associate degree in marketing. She is on the board of directors for Safe Haven Domestic Abuse Shelter and the Shawano Area Chamber of Commerce.
"I was never seeking a career in plastics; I just wanted to get back into the 9-to-5 world and help a company work toward something great," she said. "What I found was a company that allowed me to do just that — and I excelled from there."
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Gueths: Achieving and succeeding as the plant manager is perhaps my greatest achievement. I started from the ground up and worked my way to become a plant manager. I did not have a college education, but I did have the desire and drive to learn the business and succeed in all of my roles. During my early years at Wisconsin Film & Bag, later acquired by Novolex, I took on more responsibility until I became the vice president of customer and sales support. From there, I moved on to director of customer service, managing four Novolex plants, and was later approached by Grant Gamble, Novolex's president of performance solutions, in 2019 to take on the role of plant manager.
Q: What is the most unexpected thing you learned from the pandemic?
Gueths: I learned how flexible our team and our facility can be in times of crisis. When I first got on the phone with corporate to talk about isolation gowns, I had my doubts if our facility had the means to switch production. However, after a few conversations, I realized not only was this possible, but it would only take a few days for us to transition the machines to begin creating the gowns. While I wouldn't say I doubted our facility's ability to make transitions, I was certainly surprised to learn how quickly they transitioned. Seeing how the team took on this challenge, met it and exceeded it beyond anyone's wildest expectations makes me extremely proud. Throughout my career I have been blessed to be able to work with amazing teams.
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Gueths: There are two things about the plastics industry that have surprised me throughout my career. The first is how much our work helps and improves the daily lives of people around the country. Like many people who are not familiar with the plastic and packaging industry, I took a lot of what the industry produced for granted. Now I see just how impactful this industry is and can be as we move into the future.
The second thing that has surprised me is how much my attitude of hard work and passion has paid off throughout my career. I came into this industry without a college degree and instead of casting me aside, as some industries do today, the plastics industry welcomed me with open arms.