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LEADER OF THE YEAR – Paul Cohen: Film Buff

As CEO of film extruder W. Ralston (Canada) Inc., Paul Cohen has helped guide the groundbreaking company to new heights. Along the way, he's pitched in on more industry councils and committees than Don Cherry has sport coats. No wonder he's been selected as this year's CPIA Leader of the Year.


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June 1, 2012 by Mark Stephen, editor

For someone who prefers to fly under the radar, Paul Cohen has a habit of making the kinds of contributions that get noticed. 

The CEO of polyethylene film extruder W. Ralston (Canada) Inc., Cohen has been at the front and centre of Canada’s plastics industry for over 20 years, and his fingerprints are just about everywhere: in addition to heading Brampton, Ont.-based Ralston, Cohen is currently the chair of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) Board of Directors, a past chair of the Plastic Film Manufacturers Association of Canada, a past member of the management committee of the CPIA’s Environment and Plastics Industry Council, and the recipient of a CPIA CanPlast award for outstanding leadership. 

And now he gets to hoist one more banner to the rafters: he’s been selected as this year’s CPIA Leader of the Year.

FILM FIRSTS

Ralston is a privately held family business started in Montreal by Cohen’s father, Leonard, in the early 1960s. The company was actually the senior Cohen’s second manufacturing venture: ten years earlier, he’d founded Canadian Technical Tape Ltd., maker of the Cantech brand of pressure sensitive tapes.

Born and raised in Montreal, the younger Cohen obtained an Arts degree from McGill University and struck out on his own for awhile as a journalist before returning to the family business. “When I was 24, I got into the business through my father, who’s 92 and still involved with both Ralston and Cantech,” Cohen said. “I also have two brothers in the business, Howard and Aron. While I may be known more for Ralston, half my time is spent on the tape side of the business.”

Ralston’s history of producing polyethylene film in Canada is similar to other established manufacturers — starting small and local and then expanding onto a national landscape. The company first supplied jumbos of film to bag converters in Eastern Canada until it eventually began converting its own finished products. It was one of the first Canadian companies to produce garbage bags, offering a new, cleaner method of waste disposal for both household and commercial marketplaces; the first to manufacture linear bags in Canada; the first to get “Ecologo”-certified for using post-consumer resins; the first to offer bags with anti-bacterial components; and the first with composting bags that used bioplastics. “As demand grew so did the company, and we expanded into our production facility in Brampton in 1968,” Cohen said. “In 1983, we opened a second manufacturing site in Drumheller, Alta., in order to be closer to the fast growing economy in Western Canada; one of our first production lines enabled us to produce wide rolls of construction film that’s used as a vapor barrier in new homes across the West. Besides the two main plants, Ralston also runs a small converting operation in Montreal.”

HANDLING THE HURDLES

This isn’t to say that Ralston is immune to the slings and arrows of an outrageous economy. “The recession was a tough time for us, as it was for so many others, but we weathered it fairly well,” Cohen said. “We currently have 225 people working in the Ralston division and another 200 employees at Cantech.” 

The Great Recession aside, other barbs have been stinging lately, too. “Bag bans are definitely an issue for us, although most of the bans have been fought successfully in both Canada and the U.S.” Cohen said. “Although it’s only an issue for a narrow sliver of the industry, it tarnishes the plastics brand as a whole; the adversaries of the industry are good on public relations and have been able to generate a particular kind of image. The CPIA and its predecessor SPI Canada have been fighting this forever — and given the resources they have, they’ve done a good job. Having said that, the image is still somewhat tarnished. We’re spending a lot of time and energy on sustainability issues that are wide and diverse, and these efforts will hopefully improve the way in which people perceive the material itself.”

NON-TRIVIAL PURSUITS

If you think that holding leadership positions in two manufacturing companies would leave Cohen with precious little time for anything else — well, think again. In addition to the laundry list of industry association activities noted above, Cohen played a big role in a celebrated plastics project that’s known to any commuter on Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway: the “Elevated Wetlands” sculptures. Landmarks of eco-art situated alongside the Parkway, the Wetlands are giant recycled plastic planters, resembling huge teeth, which purify water from the Don River; Cohen was a key organizer and fundraiser for the project, and also worked on the design concept with the artist, Noel Harding.

Stepping outside the industry altogether, Cohen is currently on the board of The Walrus magazine, has served as treasurer on the Forest Hill Collegiate High School council, manages a community hockey team, and has recently started up a local whisky club. His wife Shelley Adler is a painter, while children Zoe and Ezra are both in university and Ruben is in high school.

Despite his serious credentials, selection as the latest Leader of the Year made Cohen slightly uncomfortable at first. “I generally try and avoid the limelight, and accepting an award like this doesn’t come naturally to me,” he said. “But I think the award is as much in recognition of Ralston’s leadership position in our subset of the industry and the many people in the company who’ve worked very hard to make that happen. I’m proud to accept it on that basis.”