Ceramic Industry

PROFILES OF LEADERSHIP: Bruce Cowgill

October 1, 2004
President and CEO, Saint-Gobain Containers, Muncie, Ind.



Background

Bruce Cowgill received a bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering from Alfred University. He also successfully completed the Government and Industry Course at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., as well as the Manufacturing Management Program at General Electric Corp. He served in various positions at General Electric Corp., Gates Energy Corp. and Frigidaire Corp. before joining the Insulation Group of CertainTeed Corp. (a Saint-Gobain Group company) in 1990, where he held several management titles over the next decade. In July 2000, Cowgill was selected to head Ball-Foster Glass, also owned by Saint-Gobain. The company was renamed Saint-Gobain Containers several months later to better represent its parent company.

This Ciclόn bottle, designed by Saint-Gobain Containers, was the recipient of the 2003 Clear Choice Award for Overall Package Design.

Notable Achievements

Saint-Gobain Containers is the second largest producer of glass containers in North America (behind Owens-Illinois). It has annual sales of $1.4 billion, more than 5000 employees in 17 manufacturing locations, two field offices, a state-of-the-art machine shop and two distribution centers.

Over the last several years, glass volumes in the industry have been reduced by about 1.5% per year due to the increasing popularity of plastic packaging. However, under Cowgill's leadership, Saint-Gobain Containers has bucked this trend, posting gains of 1.5-2% per year. The company aggressively pursues business in beer, wine and custom foods-"high-end products that won't necessarily look toward plastic packaging as an alternative to glass," Cowgill says.

The company has spent close to $650 million over the past four years investing in new process controls and technologies that enhance its productivity, output consistency and design capabilities. It has significantly expanded its product line in terms of brands, geometries and colors, and has been recognized for its design innovations with numerous Clear Choice Awards from the Glass Packaging Institute.

The company has also implemented a proactive program to recruit new talent and ideas. Through a partnership with Alfred University, Purdue University and the University of Missouri-Rolla, Saint-Gobain Containers annually hires eight to 10 students with undergraduate and graduate degrees in technical disciplines and enrolls them in an 18- to 24-month management leadership development program. Individuals who complete the program are usually placed in supervisory roles within the business.

"This is a mature industry, and we're going to lose several hundred of our salaried employees over the next five to 10 years through retirement. This program helps us replace those employees, and it also brings fresh ideas and leading-edge technologies into the company. It helps our business become far more technically sophisticated than it's been in the past," Cowgill says.

Keys to Success

According to Cowgill, Saint-Gobain Containers' capital investments, design innovations and recruiting program have contributed significantly to the company's continued growth. However, perhaps even more important has been the buy-in on the part of each employee to the company's success. Headquarters employees meet twice a year to review the business in detail, and the senior management team meets four times a year to assess the company's progress and define the activities that are necessary to ensure the company's success going forward. But the communication doesn't stop there. All employees receive a monthly operations newsletter, as well as a quarterly video that highlights the current "state of the business" and the outlook for the next quarter. Additionally, senior managers regularly walk around the plants, talking to employees and answering questions.

"We want to make sure our people clearly understand how the business is doing, and in particular, their part in shaping our business going forward. This makes everyone feel like they are a part of the company's success," Cowgill says.

Future Goals for Saint-Gobain Containers

With its strong foundation in technology and know-how, Cowgill anticipates that Saint-Gobain Containers will continue to grow as a leader in quality, productivity and glass packaging solutions. "We've been very fortunate that our parent company has provided us with the resources we need to further our productivity improvements and cost reduction program over the next several years. I see us becoming increasingly competitive-most likely staying in the number-two position in North America, but meeting our shareholders' objectives in terms of return on investment and cash flow," he says.

Saint-Gobain Containers can be reached at 1509 South Macedonia Ave., Muncie, IN 47302-3664; (765) 741-7000; fax (765) 741-7012; or http://www.sgcontainers.com .

Perspectives

On Leadership: "Leadership is the ability to effectively use the resources that are around you. At times you need to be a cheerleader, energizing and thanking your employees. Other times you have to make some tough decisions, and you can't be afraid to make those decisions. I surround myself with some outstanding people, and I have a tremendous respect for their opinions. The bottom line is people-you can't be a good leader without excellent people."

On Industry Trends: "Over the past 10 years, we've gone through a major transition as many food products have gone from glass to plastic packaging. However, we've seen a significant slowdown in that transition, and we don't anticipate seeing many additional changes in the beer, wine and the perishable food sectors that we service. In terms of product design, 'lightweighting'-making glass containers that are both thinner and stronger-is a continuing trend. Additionally, customers are increasingly demanding unique geometries, colors and decorations. The 'standard bottle' is no longer standard."

On Operating in a Global Economy: "As part of the Saint-Gobain Group, we have the benefit of being able to leverage more than 370 years of glass making experience, as well as the best technologies available to produce glass containers. However, we still have to compete from a cost and productivity standpoint with other glass producers. When your costs (many of which are uncontrollable) are increasing 2, 3 and 4% per year, you have to offset those increases with the same level or higher of productivity improvements and/or cost reductions to remain competitive, and that's not always possible. What we've tried to do instead is focus on 'connectivity'-helping our customers become more competitive in their markets rather than focusing exclusively on price."