Veritiv CEO Mary Laschinger’s biggest fear is boredom.
That may seem like a surprising quality for someone who runs a company that bills itself as a “business to business distributor of packaging, facility, and printing supplies.” But consider the way her company was born: On an extraordinarily eventful day a little over two years ago, a $4 billion segment of International Paper Company (IPC) spun off, merged with its next largest competitor, and the resulting entity went public.
Yes, that all happened within a 24 hour period. Yes, that company is still around. And yes, it was all overseen by a woman most members of the business community had likely never heard of before.
Veritiv, the embodiment of Laschinger’s need to go, go, go, is a brand-new member of the Fortune 500. With nearly $9 billion in revenue and a market cap approaching $600 million, it is the largest packaging and distributions company in the U.S. by a long shot.
Laschinger is one of just 21 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but it’s not just her gender that makes her stand out.
Having grown up on a dairy farm in Arkansaw, Wisconsin (no that’s not a typo), she has no Ivy League pedigree, no stories about being the only girl in her physics class. “When I graduated high school, I didn’t have enough self-confidence to go to college,” she says. Instead, she spent a few years in a tech school, after which she worked odd jobs.
Laschinger didn’t start college until she was 21. She says her primary goal was to avoid the boredom of her Midwestern town, which she describes as a place with more cows than people and more bars than restaurants.
Upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin at age 26, Laschinger went to work at Kimberly-Clark Corp. (kmb) as a production planner. She immediately found paper manufacturing “totally fascinating,” she says.
“They took me to this hundred-year-old paper mill, where they were turning trees into pulp and pulp into paper,” she says of her early days with Kimberly-Clark. “It smelled awful, but I thought, ‘Wow!'”
After Kimberly-Clark she moved on to James River Corp. and ultimately to International Paper, where she held a series of jobs across the organization. “I took lateral moves, a lot of them. At one point I went five years without a salary increase because I wanted to get the experience instead of focusing on going up in the organization,” she recalls, something she believes other executives should consider.
“I actually think that’s one of the detriments of people when they focus too much on getting to the next step instead of focusing on learning and developing skills,” she says.
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Laschinger says the didn’t see herself in a CEO role initially because there was no one at the male-dominated company she felt she could be. It wasn’t until she became president of IPC’s European operations that she—and her superiors—understood that she could hold her own on a much larger stage.
“The Russian [partners] didn’t know what do with me,” she jokes of her early days on the continent. A Russian client of hers once told her that he never anticipated a world in which he would do business with either Americans or women. And yet here he was, making deals with a woman from Arkansaw, Wisconsin.
“I never backed down,” Laschinger says of the way she was able to gain his respect.
That’s also an accurate way of characterizing Laschinger’s leadership style, which she herself calls “tough but fair.” She prides herself on having high expectations and being a straight shooter (figuratively and literally: she has a nine-millimeter revolver and says she is a “pretty good shot”).
The single most important thing about being a female leader in the male-dominated world of distribution? “You need to have self-confidence,” she says, hearkening back to the days when she wasn’t sure enough of herself to go to college.
Laschinger seems to have plenty of it now—in herself and in Veritiv. “We’re building a new company and we can make it what we want to make it,” she says. “I just get excited thinking about it.”