RISI’s 2018 European CEO of the Year

An interview with Miles Roberts, DS Smith


“Being able to navigate the volatile OCC and containerboard situation without missing a beat in terms of growing earnings and cash flows” and “Under Roberts’ leadership, DS Smith continues to capture margin by providing creative service and product enhancement to its myriad customers.” These were just two comments cited from investment analysts, industry consultants and commentators on why Roberts should pick up the prestigious RISI European CEO of the Year Award for 2018.

DS Smith is a leading provider of corrugated packaging and a specialist in plastic packaging worldwide. For the fiscal year 2016/17, the company had revenue of £4,781 million (US$6,798 million).

P360: You last were awarded the RISI European CEO of the Year Award in 2012. Can you tell us, in a nutshell, how DS Smith has developed since that time, and how you feel about the business now and going forward?

Roberts: The business is very different now. We are in 37 countries, employing more than 27,000 colleagues. The growth since has been both organic and via a number of acquisitions, including SCA Packaging, Duropack, Lantero, and most recently Interstate, in the US. I am very excited about the opportunities for the business. Packaging has never been more relevant.

Under your leadership, DS Smith has had a prolific acquisition strategy. Do any of these acquisitions over the last few years stand out in particular as ones you are delighted with?

Genuinely I can say we have been pleased with all our acquisitions. We learn something from all of them and we have inherited some fantastic new colleagues. In terms of size, SCA Packaging was transformational for the group, as we became a pan-European player. Most recently, the acquisition of Interstate in the US gives us a fantastic opportunity to serve our customers on another continent.

And the strategy for more acquisitions in the future in Europe—will it be ‘business as usual’ for DS Smith on the acquisition front?

Business as usual is a good way of describing it. Of course we will remain financially disciplined, but we expect the business to grow both organically and via acquisition. Europe remains a highly fragmented market.

Tell us more about why DS Smith has made the move into the US with the acquisition of Interstate Resources. Why was it an attractive region for you, and is this a signal of more acquisitions to come?

Like all our acquisitions, this was customer-led. Almost all our top European customers operate in the US and we feel our expertise from the European packaging market—retail-ready packaging, for example—will be an asset to US customers. As within Europe, we expect a mix of organic and inorganic growth.

Are there any other world regions that are appealing for an acquisition move—for instance, Latin America or Asia?

We never rule out any opportunities where they will help our customers, but as you would expect, any opportunity also must make sense for our shareholders. Overall, we feel the developed markets provide the best opportunity to create customer and shareholder value.

How about organic growth? What are we likely to see in terms of expansions or perhaps greenfield sites to grow existing operations in Europe and beyond?

We see significant opportunity to grow organically, and that can be by better using existing capacity or through developing greenfield sites. We have announced a few recently on both sides of the Atlantic, driven by our customers’ demand for our products, and I’d expect to see that continue.

DS Smith is a UK company, headquartered in London, with a massive presence in Europe. What is your opinion on the looming Brexit?

We are a multinational company, listed in the UK. The UK public voted on a course of action and as always we will work to maximize the performance of the business, whatever the detail of the outcome brings. While we are listed in the UK, we have commercial operations all over the world so we can best serve our customers.

Has or will the recent RCP policy shift on imports into China affect your business in any way, positive or negative?

We work with all the major suppliers and customers for RCP on a global basis. Changing regulations and demand are simply part of operating a business of the scale of our recycling operations.

Can you comment on any developments or innovations you are making in the area of e-retail and online shopping and the effects it is having on DS Smith business?

E-commerce is a very exciting and fast-growing market segment. We are working with many customers to help solve their problems, including reducing void space, reducing returns, and the personalization of packaging.

Can you tell us about the DS Smith PackRight Centres and the success they are having with your customers and potential customers?

They showcase both our insight and innovation and how in practice it can help our customers. In a rapidly changing market environment, being close to your customers and providing solutions to their challenges is both very important and well received.

Can you comment on any other notable innovation work DS Smith is engaging in? Recycling coffee cups is one area of note publicized recently—can you comment on the work being carried out in this area?

DS Smith has already been actively involved with industry participants such as Costa on lab and pilot plant-scale recycling tests. I am pleased this work has developed sufficiently well to be able to undertake research on an industrial scale that will provide the whole supply cycle with data on the recyclability of paper cups in mainstream packaging mills.

We look forward to sharing the results of the trial with the wider industry and working to improve re-use and the efficiency of the infrastructure in this important area.

Also, you’ve invested in digital printing equipment. Can you comment on that area?

With the increasing relevance of point of sale in the decision-making process for consumers, together with the ability to personalize packaging, we see digital printing as a very important differentiator for our customer offering. We have been and will continue to invest in this area.

In your previous interview with RISI, you declared that—as a relative newcomer to the paper industry—you were “astonished at how much damage there is in this industry, there are far too many returns, far too much out-of-spec product and we will be working on getting it right the first time, every time.” How has that work gone?

We have made good progress, but we need to make more. Our customers and their customers demand more and we constantly strive to improve the quality and service.

There is a feeling generally that the paper and board industry is on the cusp of a new era of growth as plastic packaging gets bad press due to pollution issues. Is DS Smith ready for the probable mass increase in demand as supermarkets and retailers ditch plastic in favor of fiber-based packaging?

Our vision is to be the leading supplier of sustainable packaging solutions, working with our customers to minimize any impact on the environment we live in. It is an exciting time to be in the packaging market!

We are all very lucky to be operating in such a dynamic and exciting industry and I only see the relevance of fiber-based packaging increasing.

Meet Miles Roberts

Miles Roberts was appointed group chief executive of DS Smith in May 2010. At DS Smith, he has implemented a clear strategy to become a leading provider of corrugated packaging in Europe.

Under his leadership, the company has grown organically and via a number of acquisitions, including SCA Packaging, Duropack, Grupo Lantero, and Interstate Resources. It is now present in 37 countries, employing around 27,000 people, and was elevated into the FTSE 100 in December 2017.

Roberts was previously chief executive of McBride plc from July 2005 until April 2010, having originally joined as its group finance director in January 2002. Prior to that, he was finance director of Costain. He is a non-executive director of Aggreko plc.

Born in Tynemouth on the 14th of February, 1964, Roberts attended Stanley Technical High in South Norwood before graduating from Bristol with a degree in civil engineering. He began his career as an engineer for Ove Arup. Roberts is married with four children. He enjoys tennis, sailing, skiing, and golf.
DS Smith is a leading provider of corrugated packaging with facilities in 37 countries. “Packaging has never been more relevant,” says CEO Miles Roberts.