LDI Alum Tobi Merschat Sources Sustainable Corporate Culture

ANNA TRAVERSE, Special to the Daily News

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It started with pecan pie. Actually, it started a few steps pre-pie. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, the yard of Tobi Merschat’s family home was thick with pecan trees, and in the fall, the whole family would gather pecans, shell them and then bake their shared labor into pie. From hard work emerged delicious reward – a model of sustainability.

Now executive vice president, human resources for GEC Packaging Technologies, Merschat’s work is still all about working with a team – and still centered around sustainability.

Photos by Ziggy Mack

Most of us think about natural resources when we think of sustainability. And certainly natural resources matter to GEC Packaging, which consists of the integrated businesses of Graham Packaging (plastic packaging), Evergreen Packaging (paper and paperboard products) and Closure Systems International (plastic and aluminum closure design).

But to Merschat, sustainability is about human resources too.

“If you think about it in terms of people,” Merschat says, “sustainability is about growth and development and retention.”

Merschat was recruited to join Evergreen Packaging as the HR director to assist in building the fledgling HR department when the company was a brand-new spinoff from International Paper. Her own career had previously been with IP, her career journey in tandem with a geographical one – from Columbia, South Carolina, to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Georgetown, South Carolina, and then to Savannah, Georgia. Merschat, her sculptor husband, and their daughter, now in college at UT-Chattanooga, relocated once more: to Memphis.

Merschat speaks of those early days with Evergreen Packaging as an exhilarating time. Since the department and platform needed building, she and the HR team were presented with the challenge of “coming in from the ground up to mold and build a foundation. We were able to ask, ‘What would the ideal be? What would we like to achieve?’ And then build a new culture, and a new environment.”

So what was new about the culture and environment that Merschat crafted? Just think of a family harvesting pecans and making them into pie: Everyone shares in the process, and everyone shares in the results.

“We wanted to create systems that allowed for it to be large but feel small – for everyone to have a sense of pride and ownership, and for the impact of their jobs to be very visible.”

GEC Packaging Technologies now comprises some 12,000 team members in 127 facilities across 35 countries. But individual impact is still prized – and Merschat approaches human resources as a way of valuing and nourishing individuals.

She recalls a time, about a year ago, when the company was courting employees in some of its other locations to move to Memphis, the global headquarters of GEC Packaging. Still a relative newcomer to Memphis herself – Merschat has called it home for a little more than eight years – she speaks of a “city of great opportunity.”

She remembers how rewarding it was to present Memphis’ attributes to those unfamiliar with the city, to help them transition into the city, and finally to hear that the new-to-town employees are finding footholds and falling in love with the community.

“You take a human resources process – helping people to transition and relocate with the move of an office – and turn it into a life-changing event for them,” says Merschat.

“Everyone can be a leader, in the right circumstances,” she goes on. “All communities, families, workplaces and organizations need leaders – at every single level. And when we keep people in the forefront, we all win.”

Tobi Merschat is a graduate of the New Memphis Leadership Development Intensive.