By William Ehart, CEO Update
When the board of the Plastics Industry Association promoted Matt Seaholm from vice president of government affairs to CEO in April, members knew they needed to get the struggling association—known as PLASTICS—righted quickly.
“They wanted a strong leader and they wanted a clear direction for the organization,” Seaholm told CEO Update.
“One of the concerns they had about doing a lengthy national search would have been that there would be an additional time without strong leadership at the top of the organization,” he said. “And they put their faith in me, and I think so far they’re happy, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The board also showed their appreciation for former VP of member engagement Glenn Anderson, whom they promoted to COO concurrent with Seaholm’s promotion.
Seaholm calls the time between the death, from leukemia, of 13-year CEO Bill Carteaux in 2018 and his own ascension last year a frustrating one, and a period of diminishing strength despite mounting challenges over plastic waste.
An interim CEO immediately replaced Carteaux, followed in 2019 by CEO Tony Radoszewski, who departed last March after an exodus of staff. Radoszewski subsequently sued the association for termination without cause, but PLASTICS countersued, seeking reimbursement for relocation expenses. The association said its former CEO never relocated to Washington, D.C., from his home in Texas, as he had agreed to. The two sides differ on whether that violated his contract.
The pandemic also had forced the cancellation of PLASTICS’ once-every-three-years trade show in 2021, which is a major source of revenue for the group.
“For a variety of reasons, we had a lot of what I describe as atrophy in the association,” Seaholm said. “COVID was one of the biggest contributors to that, and we had folks leave. We didn’t have a quick response to replacing them and found ourselves in a holding pattern.
“Because of that, when I took over, much what we had to do was rebuild a team,” he said.
Carteaux, who died at 59, had brought Seaholm to the association in 2016 as executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. Carteaux also led the association through major changes, including a rebranding from its previous name, the Society of the Plastics Industry. He also led the move of PLASTICS’ trade show from Chicago to Orlando, Fla.
“There was frustration because we felt we could do more,” he said. “So much of it came down to a vision for what the association could be, and Bill Carteaux had that vision, but he didn’t get a chance to execute on it.
“If we’re going to be the Plastics Industry Association, we have to represent the plastics industry. The industry needs us to be a strong voice. And Bill knew that when he spearheaded the effort to change the name,” Seaholm said.
Rehiring key staff
The board greenlit generous funds for more hiring, and Seaholm promptly brought back two of the departed staff, who had already gotten new jobs: Perc Pineda, the chief economist, and Ashley Hood-Morley, to the new role of vice president of industry engagement.
“Our chief economist is absolutely beloved by our members,” Seaholm said.
“That’s why he was one of the first calls I made after getting the job, to say ‘What’s it going to take to get you back here?’ He’s worked incredibly hard to become, I would argue, the foremost expert on the plastics industry, on the economic side of things.
“Ashley’s was a slightly new position. But it couldn’t have fit just anybody. Ashley’s experience in the industry, both as a member and on the association side, really put her in a perfect position to lead our industry engagement team, and to help grow our association by getting more members and getting our current members more engaged,” he said.
In fact, Seaholm is on a hiring spree, and he credits his board for being willing to pay for top talent. The association until recently was down to just 37 employees and is currently at about 47. Next year’s budget calls for hiring nine more.
“It’s a competitive labor situation out there that requires us to not be pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to talent,” he said.
Seaholm’s background in advocacy and communications—he was vice president of public affairs at the Washington, D.C., office of Edelman before joining PLASTICS—was key to the board choosing him.
“The chair of our board said, ‘Make no mistake about it: This is an indication of how important your board feels advocacy, communications and sustainability are, not just for the future of the association, but the future of the industry.
“And I certainly took that as a mandate to grow those capabilities at the association,” Seaholm said.
The board also has charged Seaholm with the task of identifying a major revenue-producing initiative to help diversify the association’s sources of income.
Seaholm said he has secured “significant funding” for a program that will bolster the group’s value proposition, but declined to describe it ahead of its expected January launch.