Mr. Voorhees kicked off the GSU CIBER's International Business Leadership series.

When the pandemic hit, Atlanta-based packaging giant WestRock’s executives thought their stellar record on safety would take a bit of a hit as workers arrived to plants tired or distracted. 

In fact, the opposite came true. Faced with temperature checks at the door, mask wearing and other safety requirements, along with company-provided flu shots, employees became even more conscientious than usual.  

“You immediately think about exposure to COVID, but you also think about the other physical exposures that you’re taking,” said CEO Steve Voorhees. 

It’s just one example of how COVID-19 quickly changed the landscape for a company with more than 50,000 employees spread around the globe, Mr. Voorhees said during a leadership talk with Georgia State University’s Center for International  Business Education and Research

Beyond new health protocols to keep production afloat, the company has had to adapt to a radically altered sales landscape. Cardboard boxes — which see sales normally tied pretty directly to GDP growth — are operating under “new paradigm” where demand is up even as the economy slows. 

That’s possibly thanks to breakneck growth in e-commerce as more people stay home. Meanwhile, packaging for duty-free shops has obviously plummeted, as have WestRock’s materials used in signage for retail stores. 

But grocery stores have seen sales skyrocket, boosting sales of fiber-based food packaging and cardboard used for displays.

“Up until COVID, that was not a great place to be,” Mr. Voorhees said during the conversation with Robinson College of Business Dean Richard Phillips.   

At the same time, the pandemic has brought forward some of the company’s existing plans on areas like environmental sustainability and diversity and inclusion, once again challenging conventional wisdom. 

“I thought COVID would be a distraction for the sustainability goals; it’s actually been accelerator,” Mr. Voorhees said.

Paper-based packaging is having even more of a moment as consumers grow more conscious about plastic use. Inquiries about how to incorporate more recyclable and biodegradable materials have jumped, aligning with “circular economy” initiatives the company had already instituted. 

WestRock recycles 8.5 million tons of material per year, with 5 million of that going back into its own processes. But it also helps customers cut down on waste, saving them money in the process. For a toothpaste manufacturer, for example, WestRock created a box to be used for e-commerce fulfillment that comes off the line ready to ship to the end consumer. The company has installed machinery in other factories to help customers “right-size” their boxes and use less material. 

“Our biggest impact on the planet will be our innovation with our customers to help them get the packaging they need,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Voorhees said he completely subscribes to the view recently espoused by the Business Roundtable that corporations should be dedicated to creating benefit not only for shareholders but also all stakeholders. That view is reflected in the company’s logo — which includes five layers representing customers, investors, suppliers, communities and employees, he said. 

WestRock has had to live up to that inward focus recently, hosting intimate discussions around race relations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd that have challenged assumptions and created bonds within a company where about 10,000 employees are Black. 

What has risen to the top in discussions with employee resource groups surprised Mr. Voorhees. 

“They’re less concerned with diversity, inclusion and belonging than they are equity. Equity is ‘I want a shot. I just want to grow my career.’ That has come shining through,” he said. 

Ultimately, it has been a time of optimism, though, as the pandemic has accelerated positive aspects of the company’s business. Taking advice from his pastor, Andy Stanley of Buckhead Church, Mr. Voorhees has focused on keeping faith in “the end of the story” — looking beyond the current circumstances to more enduring truths. 

As a leader, that has made Mr. Voorhees realize “how much I really bought into our story” as a company,  he said. 

“I look at that, and I double down on what we’re doing because what we’re doing is important and so powerful.”

That’s true globally — China is the largest single country by employees, Mr. Voorhees said, noting that the company has been able to translate its core values of integrity, respect, accountability and excellence to its teams everywhere in the world. 

We communicate very strongly that we are a values-based organization, and that resonates with people we have working at the company,” he said. 

Working across multiple jurisdictions can also spur innovation, showcasing the value of geographic as well as racial diversity. Travel can cure executives of their biases in favor of their home locale, he said, noting that his last trip before the pandemic was to India. 

In Brazil, for instance, where the company has operated and sourced trees for virgin fiber since the 1950s, diversity is a very different challenge than in the United States, he said. 

“Everywhere I go, there are ideas — just the way people operate and speak about their business is very educational and it’s additive to each other around our company, so we encourage that communication.” 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...