Derek Dafoe, Executive Vice President, Sales, Marketing & Customer service, tells Future how a fast, focused, flexible, and friendly strategy forms the foundations of Sofidel America’s sustainable development ambitions
He may have joined the business during a worldwide pandemic but his experience in businesses as diverse as Proctor & Gamble, Nielsen, Sysco, and Southeastern Grocers ensured Derek Dafoe had the tools he needed to help steer Sofidel America through the challenge.
Since he was brought in by CEO Luigi Lazzareschi in 2019 to lead sales and marketing at Sofidel America, it has become the largest operating division of the Group. The business has opened a plant in Oklahoma and doubled output, while the corporate US HQ in Pennsylvania has doubled in size.
Dafoe’s own family business background means he understands the values of this family-business. He feels just as comfortable building team culture as he does collaborating with colleagues across Europe to grow a sustainable development strategy.
He describes his role leading around 80 people working across consumer brand, private label, and away-from-home as a tremendous opportunity to join a green-focused company that’s truly changing the industry in North America.
“It’s exciting. I was hired to help build a vision and replicate the Sofidel values here. We believe there are things that we’ve brought to market and industry in Europe that will benefit North America and the world.”
The transition to a low-carbon economy
Dafoe says the values of the business in North America are built on Lazzareschi’s deeply held belief that we are all responsible for combating climate change and achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The long-term strategy of the business is to create economic, social, and environmental value for all. It’s bringing tangible results: “We’ve brought over $1bn investment to the US, our CO2 output is lower, our environmental footprint is strong. We’re proud of our paper, it’s what drives the benefits for all our employees, the communities we’re in, and the planet.”
Science and transparency
Many organizations like to say they’re green or sustainable – Sofidel America will not make claims or statements it can’t back up with science or third-party validation. This is a key differentiator.
Its systems and processes are transparent, says Dafoe. “We’ve made clear statements on reducing CO2 emissions; of 100% certified paper products and forest preservation.
“We don’t clear cut forests; we don’t pulp our own trees; we don’t own forest land. It’s important our suppliers have environmental practices and follow the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC®) guidance.”
The business has also invested in state-of-the art facilities intrinsic to reducing energy and water consumption and therefore ecological footprint. Where the average paper machine in North America is 35 years old, Sofidel maintains control of its ecological strategy by investing in new plant and innovative technology.
A great example of that in North America is the launch of Nicky, the first brand in the US to eliminate all plastic and switch to paper packaging.
Another example is how they developed an alternative to virgin ABS plastic for dispensers by repurposing discarded fishing nets – the largest source of plastic pollution in the ocean.
“We found a supplier for the resin, a supplier for the dispensers. We invested time and energy working on different formulations and models so you would never know it’s a different product. We’ve taken something out of the waste stream that will sit on the wall for between five and 10 years that you don’t pay a premium for. It’s about protecting the planet.”
Using innovation to help protect the environment and future generations is in Sofidel’s DNA. Dafoe has enjoyed many conversations with Sofidel leadership about how to boost performance without compromising on core principles and standards.
Whether it’s through education for children and local communities, studies on clean living, or working as an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), Lazzareschi’s values run deep.
Where action backed by data is taken in one part of the Group, says Dafoe, it’s put into practice across the organization. Learning from colleagues in 13 countries around the world keeps everyone focused on the global opportunities and challenges for the business.
The strategy is consistent and fit for the long-term, adds Dafoe. “We’ve had strong and level performance – we don’t have huge peaks and valleys from short-term decisions. We invest significantly in green equipment, technologies, and strategies that we believe will deliver a long-term benefit to the planet and will reward us as good stewards of the economy.”
Small things make a big difference
Although the business has the benefit of a visionary leader with a global outlook, there are still challenges. How does everyone in the business come to understand that a sustainable strategy will benefit them and their communities as well as be good business?
It starts with hiring and retaining the right people, says Dafoe. Their head of sustainability, for example, ensures everyone has a voice by asking questions and establishing needs. He leads by example. This attracts people with a similar mindset, whether it’s in the sales team or accounts.
“You start to attract people that really feel they can join an organization and have a voice on a bigger scale. They hold each other accountable, have conversations and submit their ideas on ways to do things. We try and live it every day.”
The net effect
Although Sofidel America is still building its presence as a brand, its message is beginning to generate a buzz and drive significant growth. It’s not only consumers responding but retailers, too. Dafoe believes that’s because its ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) credentials are transparent and robust.
“We’re going in with a clean, green message and high-quality products. We bring companies to our plants, walk them through our facilities. There’s no business in this industry in North America, and very few in the world, that can compare to what we do at our newest, state-of-the-art Inola, Oklahoma, and Circleville, Ohio greenfield facilities.”
“We’re the largest, greenest tissue manufacturer no one’s ever heard of,” he adds with a smile.
Sofidel America also measures the sustainability of its supply chain, constantly monitoring its performance. “They must show us they’ve got systems in place to hit key environmental positions,” says Dafoe. “It’s not just about what Sofidel does as a manufacturer of tissue. For instance, it’s about what our plastic supplier does to make the packaging for the retail shelf. We’re trying to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
A business fit for the future
Because Sofidel is a family-owned business, it means it doesn’t have to serve short-term shareholder needs. Instead, it can focus on creating jobs and ensuring the wellbeing of its team members, their families, and communities.
“We’re trying to build something sustainable for the long-term. Our CEO Luigi Lazzareschi really does see Sofidel as his family, that’s why it’s not about the next month or two years from now, it’s the future.”
This long-term vision and respect for the planet has a real impact on Dafoe and his close-knit team. “If you can feel good at the end of the day about the company you work for and the people you work with, and see that you’re making a difference, it makes you proud. Why long-term, not short-term? There’s more to life than money.”