A closer look at Mark Badger, CPIA’s Leader of the Year
During then-senator Barack Obama's run for the American presidency a few years back, TV news pundit Chris Matthews notoriously described himself as having tingles of excitement running up his leg.
During then-senator Barack Obama’s run for the American presidency a few years back, TV news pundit Chris Matthews notoriously described himself as having tingles of excitement running up his leg.
Anyone in the plastics industry who knew Mark Badger probably felt a tingle or two in mid-March 2011, albeit not nearly as pleasant. Badger, the creative, hard-working president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, had just decided to step down from the organization. The CPIA’s dry phrasing of the move – that Badger was taking on a “new business leadership opportunity to be announced in the near future” – didn’t exactly inspire confidence. We were left to wonder: Was Badger leaving the industry? Was this the last we’d see of him?
The short answer, fortunately, is no. As of April 1, Badger became the new CEO of Switchable Solutions Inc., a startup company formed to commercialize solvent-based technology developed at Queen’s University of Kingston, Ont. – a process suitable for recovering plastics, as well as recovering oil from oil sands. Just a few weeks later, more good news arrived: Badger had been named as this year’s CPIA Leader of the Year.
Surprising? Maybe – but only if you’ve never given Badger’s resume more than a surface glance. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find an individual who, for years, has been driven by a commitment to innovation. “Innovation”; sounds a little like the philosophy currently powering Canada’s plastics industry in general, doesn’t it?
FINDING A MENTOR
Like a lot of people who rise to the top of their profession, Badger was schooled for something else. As a student at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, Badger studied marketing and finance, with not a resin pellet in sight. After graduation, he beefed up his resume with some additional financial courses, worked for a year in the finance industry, and then took a position with BF Goodrich Corporation. If you’re looking for his first step into the world of polymers, here it is. “I was working in the plastics division of BF Goodrich Canada, and then took a position with a management spin-off division,” Badger said. “In this capacity, I had dealings with pipe and profile extruder Royal Plastics Group, and met company founder and president Vic De Zen.”
Even if you thought charisma was a brand of French perfume, De Zen’s magnetism was hard to miss. “Vic asked me to join Royal Plastics, and I started with the company in February, 1995,” Badger said. “It was the beginning of a new direction in my life, one that I’m still pursuing today.” Royal Plastics was renamed Royal Group Technologies in 1997, and during the late-90s and the aughts Badger rose quickly up the ladder, serving as manager of investor relations, VP of corporate communications, and VP of marketing and corporate communications.
Equally important were the lessons he learned along the way – chiefly from De Zen himself. “Vic’s business philosophy was, in a word, innovation,” Badger said. “Product innovation, process innovation, innovative approaches to market – Vic focused on all of it, and that passion really rubbed off on me. I came to appreciate the importance of continuous innovation, of constantly finding ways to be one step ahead of the competition. Vic always used the analogy of running a race: you don’t take a break in the middle of a race, and you don’t take time off in business, either.”
Not that De Zen was the only one at the company with something to teach. “Over the span of five or six years at Royal Group, I had five bosses, and each was very talented in a different way,” Badger said. “Right up to the present, I’m still applying the various lessons I learned from all of them.”
REPOSITIONING AN ICON
When, after almost 15 years with Royal Group, the CPIA came knocking on Badger’s door in 2009 to ask him to replace its outgoing president and CEO, he felt ready for the challenge. Problem was, the venerable, iconic CPIA was then seen, at least by some, as an association in decline. “When I joined the CPIA, it was in a bit of a tough financial position, and fixing that problem became the first of my three main objectives,” Badger said. “Getting the CPIA on a stable economic footing involved a classic turnaround strategy: We reduced costs, in part by moving to a smaller office; increased revenues by expanding the membership roster; and shored up the balance sheet.”
The second of Badger’s three goals was more difficult: changing the public image of plastics, which sometimes seemed about as popular as a deer hunter at a Bambi matinee. “For years, plastics products had been accused by the media and various consumer advocacy groups as being environmentally damaging and sometimes unsafe,” Badger said. “It had always frustrated me that the plastics industry’s reaction to the negative press was just that: a reaction. There’s a wonderful story to tell about plastics, and it wasn’t getting told, and my colleagues and I at the CPIA wanted to change that.”
Sure, but how? Step one: The Intelligent Plastics campaign, a brainchild of Badger’s CPIA, designed to highlight the many positives wrought by plastics. “We drew attention to how plastics surround us, make our lives easier, keep us from harm, and – just as important – conserve our resources,” Badger said. Step two: the Innovation Forums, a series of CPIA-sponsored events held in Toronto and Vancouver. “The forums are designed plastics processors wishing to grow their businesses through innovation with researchers in academia who have the technologies and capabilities to assist them,” Badger said. “Attendees hear from university professors with emerging technologies in the fields of process optimization, materials and recycling, polymer compatibilizaton technologies for recycling, process aids/processes to improve efficiency and quality, and structural composites for industrial applications, just to name a few.” Step three: highlighting the importance of recycling. “We wanted to increase the diversion of plastics from landfill in a sustainable, environmental and economic manner, and tried to keep various levels of government and NGO’s informed and up-to-date on plastics waste management technologies and processes,” Badger said. “For the processors, meanwhile, we provided best practice techniques and tools to make plastics recycling cost efficient.”
Badger’s third goal was perhaps the most ambitious of all. “I wanted to see the industry coalesce as a single unit around two ideas: We all have a stake in enhancing the industry’s reputation, and we all have a stake in promoting post-use recovery,” Badger said. “In the end, no matter what you do in the industry and who you’re in competition against, you probably share those two concerns with everyone else; to that extent, at least, we’re all in this together.”
As at Royal Group, Badger didn’t go it alone during his time at the CPIA. “The board of directors gave almost selflessly of themselves to preside over an organization that works for the betterment of the whole industry, and they don’t always get the credit they deserve,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have accomplishing as much as we did in a relatively short period of time.”
SWITCHABLE BUT UNCHANGING
So how does Badger’s new gig as head of Switchable Solutions fit into the arc his career? If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s a continuation of his passion for innovation. “The company offers a breakthrough green chemical solvent technology that very efficiently dissolves and recovers such plastics as scrap polystyrene without distillation or the need for elevated temperatures and pressure,” he said. “The new technology could divert 110 million pounds per year of polystyrene from landfill in Ontario alone. It’s an opportunity with enormous potential, and I’m savoring every minute of it.”
Having spent most of his professional life in plasti
cs, how does Badger assess the current state of the industry in Canada? Well, it’s not always pretty. “The trend is clear, unfortunately: Canada and the U.S., to name just two countries, are losing huge amounts of production of commodity-oriented products to lower cost countries, and this will continue,” he said. But – no surprise here – he still believes in the near-redemptive power of innovation. “As head of the CPIA, I had the chance to see firms across Canada responding to the innovation challenge – auto parts makers transitioning into molding medical components, for example,” he said. “Canada has been the birthplace for a lot of inventions in plastics, in large part because we have such an accomplished mold, tool and die-making community; let’s seize on that and keep the momentum going. I want to believe the industry will grow closer together, and that there’s a renaissance in the making.”