Prepare the ground for a smooth handover

Hannah Jordan
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In June this year global packaging business, VPK Packaging Group announced the appointment of a new group managing director for its UK-based corrugated division, Rigid Containers.

Its outgoing managing director, Richard Coward, who’d held the reins for 11 years, steering the business through choppy economic waters to growth and even expansion into Ireland, had earlier in the year decided it was time to step away from business and fulfil some long-awaited personal challenges. But filling a post of such seniority even in a small company, let alone one that turns over £136m and employs more than 700 staff, is no insignificant task and both Coward and the bosses at Belgian-headquarted parent firm VPK were keenly aware of that.


Business locations HQ Desborough; Selby; Wellington; Limerick, Ireland 

Inspection host David Richardson, group managing director

Size Turnover: £136m; Staff: 700 

Established 1907

Products and services Sustainable corrugated cases (from basic corrugated ‘brown’ boxes to high-quality six-colour graphics) printed on post print systems. Corrugated packaging for the food and drinks, e-commerce, and pharmaceuticals sectors

Kit A wide range of modern corrugating and converting kit across the four sites, including Agnati and BHS corrugators, Bobst flatbed and rotary die-cutters, Gopfert Evolution presses, Bahmueller TurBox folder-gluer and Mitsubishi EVOL flexo folder-gluers 

Inspection focus Successful succession planning

The challenge

Developing the right strategy to ensure a smooth succession with little or no disruption to staff, customers and production, says Coward’s successor David Richardson, is a delicate operation and one that needs diplomacy, honesty and full involvement from all parties

Richardson joined the firm in June this year after nearly two and a half decades at packaging giant DS Smith, latterly holding the position of sector director Retail South where he was responsible for five sites and more than 1,000 employees. 

He thinks that added to the human element of the succession planning process, timing is critical for a successful outcome and something that in VPK’s case was spot on. 

“One of the key reasons this process has worked so well is that Richard and VPK’s owners were adamant that timing was everything,” he explains. 

“Richard did a great job with the business: Rigid grew hugely under his leadership, and when they began planning for the next 10 years was the point where he said it was the right time for someone new to come in and put the next multi-year plan together. Of course it also needed to be someone that could deliver it,” he adds. 

The method

Happily for Coward, the board were in agreement that the time was right, a careful strategy was developed and the wheels set in motion to find the right successor. 

Internal and external recruitment drives were launched using both internal functions and separate recruitment consultants with respondents and candidates being channelled from both sources, explains Richardson. 

How long the recruitment process took and how many people were involved isn’t something that Richardson is at liberty to divulge, but once he was in the final running, he says, discussions took place over a number of weeks until the deal was struck.

Key to the recruitment process, according to Richardson, was Coward’s involvement at every level, and that both he and the bosses at VPK had “a very clear outline of the type of person they were looking for and the values and experience they wanted in that person”. 

He continues: “The Rigid and VPK business model is an agile family business, it’s about autonomous and quick decision-making and that’s something they needed this person to demonstrate. 

“I had the industry and technical experience to come in and have credibility as a leader within our industry, but also maybe the aspiration to challenge the norm and the status quo in a different but hopefully engaging way.” 

Richardson says that one of VPK’s key values is to be a business that is “great to work for” and that is something that particularly chimes with him too as a key value, which in turn was something that VPK were looking for. 

“I’m a firm believer in that you succeed in business when you create the right environment where people enjoy working and then people give their best and that is then reflected in customer loyalty and further.” 

Part of the VPK strategy to try to ensure a smooth transition, before Coward embarked on his new journey of travel adventures and a course in the history of art and architecture at Birkbeck College in London, was for him to spend a number of weeks working closely with Richardson. So in June they set about acquainting Richardson with every aspect of the business, talking to employees and customers and visiting the company’s three sites outside of its Desborough HQ, namely Selby in North Yorkshire, Wellington in Somerset and Limerick in Ireland. 

Richardson took the reins in July and while Coward left his office days behind him at that time, he doesn’t officially retire until Christmas and until then “is always at the end of the phone and happy to answer questions”. 

Since taking over, and while getting to know the ins and outs of the day-to-day running of the business, Richardson has focused very much on developing strong relationships with employees and customers with trust being central to his approach and while he is keen to build on the solid foundations he has taken on, he is equally not afraid to call into question things that he feels need to evolve. 

“My style is open and honest, so if something isn’t right I will say so,” he asserts, adding: “I’d rather have everyone’s opinion on the table for discussion, and I will listen to them. I have a huge amount of respect for everything Richard did in the past, but I will have some different ideas and I will challenge some things that have been happening but I will do that in a respectful way.” 

The result

Richardson is bullish about the future of Rigid and its position within the VPK Group and maintains that the thorough planning and execution of his placement is in part responsible for this positivity.

“The business was on a positive trajectory before I took over and we have carried on in that way, which is a good start,” he says. 

“We have achieved the smooth transition we set out for. In terms of the company itself, there’s been no disruption with employees and the leadership team remains unchanged; we’ve created a great team dynamic and we spent time and effort to make sure that is there.”

A vital aspect of the continued smooth internal running of the business is keeping the lines of communication open at all levels, with Richardson committed to giving full face-to-face site briefings to all staff along with other senior management, ensuring that there is no ‘us and them’ disconnect between the leadership team and employees.

“And on the customer side,” he explains, “we spent time engaging with them and making sure all the great service and quality that they have been used to and are comfortable with is unchanged and that they are confident with that.” 

Richardson goes as far as to say the succession process has been “plain sailing” and puts it partly down to he and Coward being consistent with their message. 

“This is evolution rather than revolution. Yes, the business will evolve as do others, but the fundamental reasons people buy from Rigid are going to continue to be the key reasons we want them to buy in the future and that is about service, quality, agility, technical expertise and our relationships. Those are the cornerstones of our strategy.” 


“Someone once gave me three bits of advice when I was starting a new job,” says Richardson, “And they were: listen, listen and thirdly listen. It’s so easy when you come into a new business to have loads of opinions but really the key thing you have to do is take the time to listen and understand and that has been the key thing that I’ve tried to do

Before you make new plans you have to understand where your starting point is, the people around you and what makes them tick, whether they are employees, customers or suppliers. Take time to understand where the business is and how it got there

Developing trust is key, according to Richardson. “Trust is a fundamental foundation to any relationship. From there you can build respect, you can build anything,” he says


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