Megan Roach wasn’t envisioning manual work in a hot box factory as she was earning her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and supervision at Purdue University.
The Fishers native has college friends who are in big metro areas starting glamorous-sounding careers.
But for about two and a half months after graduation, Roach was sweating it out on the factory floor at Elkhart-based Welch Packaging. From there she moved to special projects, where she worked on installing a new software system, and then did a stint in customer service.
Roach had been in top physical shape from competing on the swim team at Purdue, so she figured factory work would be easy.
"But it was really hard work and I have a whole new respect for it,” she said.
Roach, 23, is now enjoying her permanent sales job at Welch and said she benefited greatly from the company’s 18-month Leadership Opportunity Program. Each year, the program recruits up to 10 college graduates and requires them to begin in various parts of the corrugated product maker’s operations, said company founder and CEO Scott Welch.
“They get exposure to the business from procedures and strategies, mission and vision, and they just actually work in the plant,” Welch said. “Some work on machines, some work on projects.”
About 60 percent of the people who complete the program end up staying with the company long term. Those who’ve stayed about five to seven years are often placed in an executive leadership training group, where they are groomed for management jobs throughout the company, opportunities that are increasing as the company grows. For example, in March Welch Packaging bought Marion-based Indiana Corrugated, and in late May, it acquired Go Packaging LLC in Lombard, Ill.
Those acquisitions brought the company’s plant total to eight, joining Elkhart, Indianapolis and Chicago in addition to Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton in Ohio.
Welch founded the company as Elkhart Container with four employees in 1985. He now employs 600, about 200 of them in Elkhart. Of the 725 companies nationwide that convert paper into corrugated products, Welch is among the five largest.
“We’ve been very aggressive in growing the business, so as we buy businesses, we hopefully give a person, relatively early in their career, an opportunity to run a business with some accelerated training before they would normally get that kind of opportunity,” Welch said.
One of the things Welch loves most about his job is finding talent. He once hired a waitress away from an Elkhart restaurant after learning she’d just earned a bachelor’s degree but couldn’t find the job she wanted.
And he hits lots of college campuses.
"I always look for kids with some kind of connection to Welch Packaging," he said. "Is it that they went to school with our kids? Are they from Elkhart? Are they from DePauw (where he and two of his children earned degrees)? Things that I could have a little more probability of success, versus just being another company they’re going to go to work for."
This year’s LOP class drew graduates from Manchester College, DePauw University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Purdue University and Indiana University. Four of the seven recruits, Brittany Martin, Zac Gipson, Adam Cantwell and Michael Kibiloski, are from Elkhart.
While giving a reporter a tour of the Elkhart plant, Welch came across Cantwell. It was hot and humid on the plant floor, and Cantwell’s face and T-shirt were dark with dirt and sweat as he stood up high on a scissor lift, disassembling and cutting down some assembly equipment.
“You look like a chimney sweep!" Welch yelled to Cantwell. ”When we told you were you going to be doing a lot of stuff, you didn’t know you were going to be running a construction project, did you?“
Later, Cantwell, a 22-year-old Concord High School graduate, said he signed with the company in January and started working there in May after earning a bachelor’s degree from Manchester College. He first learned about the company during a marketing research class project.
"I wanted to do it because I’m interested in sales and management,” Cantwell said. “To me, you can’t sell a product if you don’t know the product. Being on the factory floor and knowing the machines and the business will help you sell the product. I think it’s an excellent program.”
Cantwell played football at Manchester. Roach swam at Purdue. Employee Jim Hahn coached Concord boy’s basketball during the late 1980s and early ’90s. Bill Pipp, an executive at the Elkhart plant, once played football at Indiana University. Kibiloski just finished a basketball career at IPFW. Recent hire Nick Corpe was a state champion wrestler at Elkhart Memorial and went on to wrestle at Purdue.
Welch said their sports backgrounds aren’t a coincidence.
"I started this business really young," Welch said. "I didn’t have a lot of management skills, but I’d been on a team since fourth grade. This business is run like a team as much as it is a business. You get a bunch of people with a common goal, and you have coaches in different areas."
Although some of his employees excelled in sports, he doesn’t look for the stars.
"When you’re born with natural abilities, you don’t ever really have to work," he said. "You don’t have that many hurdles in life. I’d rank myself that way. I was a football player. I was a golfer. I was a captain on most teams I was on but I had to work for everything. I wasn’t gifted and six-ten. A swimmer, you have to get up at five o’clock every morning. The discipline it takes to do that?
"It teaches you a little something extra and I think it correlates back into business directly. The easiest thing in the world is to quit, to back away from the fight, to turn your head and act like you don’t see something. Sports teaches you to keep going and you can get through this.That’s been a huge contributor to this business."