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Spotlight: Cathie Ellis, president of Ellis Packaging


April 29, 2021
By Nithya Caleb

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Cathie Ellis is the president of Ellis Packaging, Pickering, Ont. As one of the earliest female leaders of a printing and packaging company, Ellis understands the challenges women face in the industry. In an email interview, Ellis discusses her hopes for the industry.

What is the state of the print industry today, in your opinion?
CE: A myriad of different models exist in the print industry today due to the pandemic. The commercial print market has once again been hit hard, but the labels and packaging sectors have seen a surge in demand due to consumer buying trends. Technology has improved greatly, thus allowing printers to print better quality work at record speeds. It is truly a marvel.

What attracted you to the print industry?
CE: I was fortunate to grow up in the print industry because I started working for the family business as a teenager. At that time, I had no idea I would run the company one day. However, I have always said print and packaging is addictive, and it somehow draws you in over time. I love that the print industry is fast-paced, and has many different facets to learn and manage.

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As a woman, how challenging has it been to work in a male-dominated industry?
CE: When I started out in the industry 30 years ago, it was very male dominated. As a female, it almost felt like things were kept behind closed doors for just men to discuss and figure out. At first, when I was accepted into meetings, I stayed very quiet and sat on the sidelines so as to not draw attention to myself; what if they decided that I, the only female in the meeting, shouldn’t be there! As time passed and I felt more confident, I would ask questions or offer suggestions. As my career progressed, I  didn’t place emphasis on gender, and instead focused on surrounding myself with people who were on the same page as I and relate to.

What sort of biases did you experience? How did you deal with them?
CE: I had a double whammy as far as biases go, as firstly, I was the owner’s daughter and secondly, I was a female. I took over from a father who was very involved in the packaging industry, and really, just evolved in his shadow for many years. I recall being invited to the now defunct Canadian Paper Box Makers Association (CPBMA) meeting as its first female member—It was an honour because I knew the association was a boys’ club! I was really nervous at the first meeting because I wanted to be accepted as one of the ‘boys’, and to have a voice that would bring value regardless of gender.

Looking back, what kind of support systems would have helped you deal with some of the gender-related challenges you may have encountered in the industry?
CE: It would have been great to have more female role models in the industry to look up to for mentorship. Currently, I am a member of the Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) that runs female leadership meetings. These meetings are a great avenue for women to discuss current topics. It is truly empowering and helpful to have the opportunity for a community of women leaders to discuss some of the challenges we face in the industry.

What steps should the industry take to increase the number of women leaders?
CE: I feel the industry has really changed over the past 20 years. Today, we see that more print companies are led by women. It is exciting to witness the ‘changing of the guard’.

How can the industry attract more young people?
CE: Today’s youth are drawn in by social media. Perhaps, we need to demonstrate further using that venue. Unfortunately, the trade schools that once taught print programs no longer exist. The education system should be placing more emphasis on the trades profession.

In such a competitive landscape, how can printers win more sales?
CE: In today’s market, it’s all about quality, service and flexibility. We must be responsive and almost intuitive to our customers’ demands. As mentioned earlier, while the consumer packaged goods market is very busy, the commercial sector has suffered due to the pandemic. I believe new technologies give printers the necessary tools to meet current market challenges.

What are some of the biggest opportunities you see in the print industry?
CE: As the plastic ban becomes more widespread, we will see a greater demand for paperboard packaging alternatives. I believe many products will transition from plastic to paper over the coming years. We need to ensure our design teams are ready to take on these challenges. Digital print will make further gains within the commercial market with its speed-to-market abilities.

What do you think is the most exciting thing about print today?
CE: Gosh! The print industry has really morphed so much over the past 30 years. I think the truly exciting thing is the technology. Years ago, we were limited by what our technology could do. Today, our presses are so intuitive and programmable. More information is available with the new technology that enables us to analyse and improve our waste and throughput whereas in the past we had to rely on manual collection of data that wasn’t always accurate.