ESI Interviews

Ep 9: How Innovative Technologies are Optimizing Workflows at Graphic Packaging International with CIO & SVP Vish Narendra

Guest Michael Keithley
Vish Narendra
September 7, 2022
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Ep 9: How Innovative Technologies are Optimizing Workflows at Graphic Packaging International with CIO & SVP Vish Narendra
ESI Interviews
September 7, 2022

Ep 9: How Innovative Technologies are Optimizing Workflows at Graphic Packaging International with CIO & SVP Vish Narendra

On the ninth episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Vish Narendra, CIO & SVP, Global Business Services of Graphic Packaging International, joins the show for a conversation about exciting technologies being deployed at GPI and how CIOs can embrace innovation to drive sustainable digital transformation in the enterprise.

On the ninth episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, hosts Evan Reiser (Abnormal Security) and Saam Motamedi (Greylock Partners) talk with Vish Narendra, CIO & SVP, Global Business Services of Graphic Packaging International. GPI is an integrated paper packaging company that services hundreds of the world’s most recognized brands. Vish shares insights on how he’s leading digital transformation at GPI, how to measure the success of digital transformation, how to find the right startup partners, and the state of AR/VR for enterprise.

Quick hits from Vish:

On Graphic Packaging International’s digital transformation: “At a 50,000 foot level, we're putting in processes and systems that will be used by this company ten to fifteen years from now. Not in a static way but an agile and flexible way that can evolve and adapt to the changing needs of the economy, the business, and the industry.”

On maintaining dynamism in a highly-volatile world: “Technology itself is not the biggest challenge. It is prioritization and adaptation for evolving needs. That is actually truly the biggest challenge...So, you have to adjust.”

On how CIOs can become more innovative: “Find progressive CIOs that are active in the space. See if there are ways that you can get connected to them. See if there are ways that they will share their knowledge and their time.”

On how to balance pre-existing best practices and innovation: “As humans, no matter who you are, you are a creature of habit. If you have developed a certain set of habits over a while, it takes a lot of effort to break those habits. And understanding how we can drive that change within that organization and understanding the appetite for change is critical to the success of all the work.”

Recent book recommendation: Good Company by Arthur M. Blank

Episode Transcript

Saam: Hi there, and welcome to season two of Enterprise Software Innovators, a show where top tech executives share how they innovate at scale. In each episode, enterprise CIOs share how they've applied exciting new technologies, and what they've learned along the way. I'm Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners.

Evan: I'm Evan Reiser, the CEO, and founder of Abnormal Security.

Saam: Today on the show, we're bringing you a conversation with Vish Narendra, CIO, and SVP of Global Business Services at Graphic Packaging International. GPI is a fully integrated paper packaging company that services hundreds of the world's most recognized brands.

As CIO, Vish is leading the company's digital transformation through factory automation and supply chain optimization and doing so by deploying next-generation technology at scale.

Evan: In this conversation, Vish shares his insights on GPS digital transformation, and what he looks for in partnerships with startups and emerging technologies that he's most excited about. Well, Vish thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Appreciate you taking the time.

Vish: Excited to be here.

Evan: Just to kick it off, what does Graphic Packaging do, and what is your role as CIO helping the business operate and transform?

Vish: We're an integrated paper packaging company that services the food, beverage, and consumer products, industries. On top of that, the things that you put in your refrigerator, your pantry, your freezer, the food, the beverage, even the pet food that you might have in a box in your closet, are the types of things that we package,

We also have some industrial solutions. The air filters that are used in residential HVAC units, the paper packaging that goes around that. Those are the types of things that we do. We're an integrated paper packaging producer. That means we run our own mills 24/7.

As CIO, I'm responsible for a lot of the day-to-day reporting systems, et cetera, but this is a company that's primarily grown through acquisitions, although we're starting to see some significant organic growth these days. We all know what acquisitions mean. It means a lot of complexity, a lot of different systems that we inherit. A big part of my job is simplifying, standardizing our processes, and our tools, and systems so we can operate as one company. Eventually, we're analyzing and predicting the future as opposed to questioning the data, because it's coming from different silos of the enterprise.

Evan: Vish, there was a bunch of reasons I was excited to have you join us. You guys run a very complex business. Not just in terms of scale, and the number of people, the number of technologies, but also the diversity, and different roles and functions. Everything from very specific operational technology all the way to dashboarding, and reporting, so quite a wide spectrum there.

The other reason was that you've been there for a while, I think like about seven years. It's not just a random seven years. This is probably one of the most interesting seven years in most companies as they go through this kind of digital transformation. Can you give us the quick rundown on just what that technology shift has looked like over the last seven years? What has it meant for the company to go on this digital transformation?

Vish: I joined in 2015. Prior to that, the company had really just come out of a heavy debt leverage position. First order of business, really, was to pay down some of that, literally, the hardware technology, the software technology that we had, but also focus on building some foundation that will allow us to scale.

That meant simplifying our infrastructure environment, putting in global platforms and solutions. The way IT drones needed to scale up first, and then we had to build a security program from scratch. We did that in the first two to three years, and then we started to shift our focus around the whole business transformation piece.

The word digital kind of gets thrown about a lot. I just simply think of it as the way we did business in the past is not the way we need to do business in the future. We're really just simplifying that and standardizing it and allowing people to operate in ways that drive efficiency. It's been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.

Saam: Vish, I want to zoom up first and just talk about this concept of digital transformation. It's something you referenced, and it's something we talked to a number of folks like you about. I want to start very high level and just ask you how you define it, and how you measure success for the overall digital transformation effort.

Vish: Really, at a 50,000-foot level, I'd say we're putting in processes and systems that will be used and run by this company 10, 15 years from now, but not in a static way, that live on and an agile, flexible way that can evolve and adapt to the changing needs of the economy, the business, the industry, et cetera. We're really laying down certain digital tracks that the business can run on. It's very different from the physical tracks that you would think of for trains.

These are digital tracks that can move and evolve, adapt, and change. That's really what I think of as visual transformation for this company. Those digital tracks that we're laying down are going to create a data fabric, and we want to really harness that data fabric to drive decision-making. That's decision making, not just based on rear view data, but really more forward-focused, predictive analytics-based. That's how I define it. I'll be honest, we're in the early stages of that journey. We're very rich with data. We now need to get rich with insights. That's the journey that we're on.

Evan: Most companies have an ERP and CRM and HRIS system. My question for you is, what are some of the unique ways that your GPI uses technology that might be surprising for someone that didn't work in your business?

Vish: I'll take a couple of examples. We're leveraging wearable devices. In the future we'll do private 5G networks, and really allow people to do their jobs digitally, train digitally AR, VR tools. You can get that training and that simulation before you even hit the plant floor, and then when you hit the plant floor, you have a digital twin, you have videos, a YouTube fashion that you can pull up and go execute your job.

You're wearing wearable technology, and you can call a friend and do an instant collaboration with the monocle. It gives you a seven-inch screen. Somebody pulls up a whiteboard, they can draw on, and you can see what it is. They can see what you're seeing on the field sitting far away. Those are the kinds of things that we're putting into play that are really, really exciting.

The other one I would think about is the traditional view has been, hey, let's put all the systems in and let people operate in these systems. That's great. I think that's pretty 19th century or 20th century. The real value-add to the employee is, not only are the systems available to you, but we're also going to make recommendations on some of the things that you might want to focus on.

We're doing that, for example, in our logistics space. We pull together data from our logistics platform, and we make some recommendations about the carriers that are either meeting or not meeting their load commitments. If they're not meeting the load commitments, we then give the load planner a dollar-based view of who's the most valuable to go after.

Rather than just scattershot not knowing who to touch, they now have the most high-value carrier that I can go after that'll actually save us the most amount of money. That's the kind of way that we're starting to think about it.

Evan: Vish, if you joined seven years ago, what is something you're doing today that if you went back, you told old Vish on day one or original Vish on day one, that you probably wouldn't have believed. You're like, "Wow, I had no idea that it was possible for us to do these types of things or rethink how to solve this business problem using new technology." Any other kinds of physical examples that come to mind?

Vish: We trialled some of this during COVID. I think COVID forced a lot of us to do some things that we wouldn't have otherwise done. In the middle of COVID, we were building one of the first new paper machines in the United States in about 45 years.

We had engineers that were stuck in Europe, could not come in, and so we were using-- these are not commercial and large-scale usable, but we were still using see what I see remote technologies to solve some of the immediate critical problems.

Just to give you scale, we spent roughly $650 million as an investment to build this new paper machine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The scale of that investment, we needed to keep the timetable and the schedule.

You can't have a capital asset be idle or capital investments be idle because people cannot travel. We use some of these technologies. If you'd have told me that seven years ago, I would have probably said, "You're crazy. That's never going to happen. This is an industry that everything needs to be touched, and felt, and seen, and heard and in the same physical space." I think I think every company has stories like. Ours, that's one of many that I would think of.

Saam: I want to connect that to just the overall volatility in the world right now. We just came out of the COVID-19 pandemic. There's instability in the macro on a number of dimensions. How do you think about that? You're making these business investment decisions over long periods of times. How do you think about how to sequence and also maintain that dynamism, given how volatile the world is at the current moment?

Vish: Actually, the technology in itself is not the bigger challenge. It is that prioritization and adaptation for the evolving means. That is actually truly the biggest challenge. Just to give you perspective, we run a monthly steering committee on our process and digital transformation that we're driving with the CEO and the rest of the CEO staff, my peers. Three years ago, four years ago, used to be a very IT focused conversation. Today, it is a very process-focused and change-focused conversation. The tone and the tenor has completely changed.

We use that as a mechanism to adjust and adapt and pivot. Just yesterday, we finished one and we talked about the fact that we did a transaction as an example in Europe that was a fairly large transaction for us that closed November 1st and added about a billion and one top-line revenue to the company. That involves a good amount of work from an integration perspective.

All the things that we had in the hopper and in the pipeline, and the prioritization, in June of last year, we needed to adjust to everything because of that acquisition. When you do an acquisition, you've got to get the data together. you've got to do the financial close of it. You've got to integrate it into the management reporting.

We're a SOX-controlled US entity. They are in Europe. You have to adjust. We use a very regular rhythm around our prioritization, and have that debate and that discussion, and we decide which ones are the ones that we need to either shift left or move forward and make those calls.

Evan: Vish, I still have these digital tracks because stuck in my head. There's probably more for us to talk about that, but that is a new concept. If you went back to graphic packaging, this business has been around for a while, and there's people that have been doing things a certain way for a long time. In that time period, that's developed the best practices. A lot of those are really good, but on the other hand, we need to go innovate. How do you know where to be on that spectrum? How do you know where you want to innovate and when you want to continue with the existing best practice?

Vish: Change is hard. As humans, no matter who you are, you're, for the most part, a creature of habit. If you've developed a certain set of habits over a period of time, it takes a lot of effort to break those habits. Understanding how we can drive that change within that organization, and understanding the appetite for change, is critical to the success of all the work that is being done.

In terms of where do we apply innovation, where we don't, that's one of those things where 5, 10, 15 years ago, you always looked to these big large companies that had all the answers, the Oracles, the SAPs, and the companies of that like. It's a completely different world. Much like startups are disrupting everything in day-to-day life, they're also disrupting business processes and problem sets in the enterprise world.

We really keep a very close pulse on the startup ecosystem just to understand who's doing what in that space. When we see opportunities, we really jump on them. One of the things that we saw maybe five years ago was a startup that was doing, for lack of a better term, I'd call Uber for trucking. There was no real technology play in it for us. We just called up the VP of Logistics and said, "You really might want to take a look at this," and he did. When he did, he did a pilot on the west coast, and it worked really well. We ended up expanding them. We ended up using them across the American freight landscape for us.

Those are the types of things that we just keep an eye on and say where are the value-adds that we can drive within the business, and if we can, that's when we strive for that innovation.

Saam: Vish, you earlier talked about AR and VR as an area of investment. One of the things Evan and I have been trying to answer on the show is, on the spectrum of hype to substance, where should we think about where AR-VR is today and where it's going?

Vish: The AR-VR part of it, we have a clear idea of what the use cases are. You've got a new engineer that just joined us, and comes in, how do you tell them what their job is? Or they're working on a particular segment of a piece of a machine. You think of an Oculus Rift or Oculus Quest that you put on, and you're at the edge of the diving board looking down 200 feet, it's the red bull diving board, and your knees buckle because it's so far above. We really want to put them in that immersive experience to be able to see the machine and the piece of equipment that they're operating in, and give them a sense of what their job is going to be like before they even hit the floor.

The VR and the mixed reality piece of it is going to be a combination of, when you're on the job and you need to pull up a digital twin, but at the same time you need somebody remote that can connect in with you and collaborate with you, and pull up a whiteboard, that mixed reality, and you are actually seeing the physical logic in front of you. That is a real-world repair technician use case.

You could have a scenario where you don't have repair engineers in every site. You only have them in regional locations. You have a tech that has the right kind of wearable and the right kind of collaboration technologies that they can leverage. They're on the floor, and they call a friend in the regional center, and they can then collaborate.

That's a real use case of that mixed reality piece. Hey, Ethan, let's pull up that digital twin of the pump that we're working on.

While you see that green wire, well, here are the three wires you're going to see. You can draw them out in a color on a whiteboard, and then you need to do a turning action to pull that out. You can actually demonstrate that, and the person sees it, and then they actually do the work. Now, you've taken away travel 80% of the time.

There are going to be times when people actually do have to travel and get there physically, but you've taken away some of that. You've done it in a more time-efficient manner. You don't have to wait 24 hours before the engineer shows up to troubleshoot or diagnose what the issue is. Those are the types of real-world scenarios in which we apply AR-VR -MR Type of stuff.

Evan: That's an awesome opportunity, where you've seen this technology, identified a very clear business case, and business reason, and business problem, and then found a good intersection. That really is a great example of digital transformation.

Speaker 1: Yes. Our CEO is super excited by a concept we call a control room. Every high-speed press, high-speed cutter, high-speed lure that we have, we're sensor enabling them. We want to be able to see the production performance on each of the pieces of equipment. Then layer in some of these AR-VR remote assist type of technologies into the mix.

We can have groups of people in Chicago, or Atlanta, or regional centers that-- we have plants in Mitchell, South Dakota and places that it will take you a day to get there. If we can solve that in an hour, or even better, now that we've sensor enabled all of them, we're getting data from these assets and we can do predictions on the probability of machine or part failure, then I can immediately call up and do a remote assist and tell them, "This part is most likely going to fail in the next 12 hours. Let's take an outage on that machine and let's go change that part out so it's not catastrophic." It allows me to do it in a planned manner, that I can actually move some of the work to another work center. Those are the types of things that we are contemplating in our future.

Saam: I think it's such a good example because when people commonly think about digital transformation or automation, they're often thinking in the world of bits. I think it's important to share examples. It's not just the world of bits, but it's really bits and atoms. I think that the example you just shared is such a powerful one around the impact technology can have. How do you evaluate startup companies? What do you view as the key dimensions to consider when you're deciding whether or not to partner with a company?

Vish: I think it goes back to, what problem are we trying to solve, and is there a good fit to that problem? Number one. Number two is, can this company scale to take on the effort? In the traditional old world, it was size of company mattered and the number of employees mattered et cetera, but these days, the cloud and the way that companies can scale and drive solutions have just completely changed. Those things are not as critical as who are the people providing the solution? Do they have the thought about this? Can they support us and what we're looking to do?

We typically start off with a POC and test the waters. When we do, we set certain success criteria. If they meet it, then it gives us comfort that we can green light it for a larger scale roll-out. I'm very connected into the CIO network here locally, and then other parts of the country. If other people have used it and they've had good experiences, then it just is sort of icing on the cake. That's how I think about it.

Saam: Vish, one of the things Evan I and both really admire about you is you've been at the forefront of partnering with new technology companies very early. You also are really well networked in the CIO community, and as you alluded to, there's a lot of shared learning that happens there. For IT and technology leaders who are listening to this podcast who may be less plugged in, and earlier in their journey around working with startups, what recommendations would you have for them?

Vish: Find progressive CIOs that are active in the space. See if there are ways that you can get connected to them. See if there's ways that they will share their knowledge and their time. I make it a point to pay it forward. I didn't get here all by myself. There were a lot of people that helped me get here, and so I try to pay it forward. That doesn't mean 200 LinkedIn requests all at once that I can respond to, but certainly, you've got to stay connected.

The other way that you can do is you can do some piloting on your own in the spaces you are working in and see how those things play out. At the end of the day, you've got to be super-focused on being an everyday learner.

If you don't do that, if you're not curious, you're not asking questions, or looking to understand-- even as we were getting ready to do this podcast, I was trying to figure out how does that work? We're recording this. It's three different streams. How does it come together? You've got to really just always be asking those questions, trying to figure out how things work, how things happen. Just don't skim the surface.

Evan: One of the reasons people might reach out to you is because, similar to what Saam said, you've been at the forefront of innovating with startups. A lot of the CIOs that I know are really struggling. I think everyone embraces the mindset that they need to digitally transform. They know they need to move in that direction, but there's challenges and risks. What are some of the things that, with the wisdom of hindsight, are disproportionately more important than you maybe originally thought 10 years ago?

Vish: One thing that stands out for me is, be very clear about the business problem you're trying to solve. We don't introduce technology for the sake of technology. There's no shiny objects that we chase, because that really adds no value. At the end of the day, we're all here to add value to our stakeholders, our employees, our investors, our shareholders and our customers. We really look for real business problems that we are trying to solve.

Once we have that identified, we only look at the companies that are solving those business problems. That really quickly narrows it down to a manageable number of companies. Some of the things I talked about, depending on the stage that they're in, we'll do a POC. Lessons learned, we now have very strong gating criteria. We actually took a pretty bad hit with one of the startups that we did some work with, and we ended up in arbitration, and it turned pretty ugly, and didn't quite go as well as we planned.

Now we have very strong great gating criteria on, what are measures of success, who's responsible for what, and making sure that the lines of responsibility are very, very clear. Those are some of the lessons learned.

Saam: Vish, maybe we'll sequence into the lightning round. We just have a few quick questions and your quick answers. The first is, how do you think companies should measure the success of a CIO?

Vish: There are three things that I think about. One is, can this person drive change effectively to create value? Can they do it in a manner that doesn't cost me a fortune? Can they build a team that will be here for the long haul?

Evan: What's the common mistake you see new CIOs making?

Vish: Putting in technology for the sake of technology. If you're a technologist and that's what you focus on, then you're missing the point. You really have to solve business problems. Trying to do too much in one shot. That's another mistake. Really thinking about building for the long haul. These things don't happen overnight. Some things you can solve for immediately, no doubt, but really, you should have a vision and match towards that, and not do some haphazard things along the way just because you're trying to gain some points from the corner office.

Saam: Vish, is there a recent book you've read that you really enjoyed? If so, what book was it, and why?

Vish: The last book that I read was by Arthur Blank called Good Company. Really enjoyed it. This is one of the co-founders of Home Depot. Just an enjoyable book, incredible lessons as a human, as a business leader, as a culture agent and a community builder in the things that he's done, so a really great read.

Evan: This may be just as a final question, what's a newer emerging technology you're most excited about?

Vish: There's not one, but let me give you a couple. I think 5G gets a lot of press. I think everybody thinks of 5G in the context of the providers. I'm starting to learn a little bit more about capabilities we can build within our four walls with private 5G networks. That's really exciting that in industrial heavy machinery environments where you cannot saturate the environment with Wi-Fi, can I build private 5G networks? When I do, it'll enable some of the transformation that I talked about with wearables and digital twins and things like that.

The other thing is camera technology coupled with AI. I think that piece is just going to be incredible. The use cases are through the roof, health and safety. I can train models on what is safe and what is unsafe, and I can alert people when the cameras can see things that the humans don't notice.

If there's things that you stack up vertically, and usually they're all stacked up exactly right, but there's one piece that's jutting out. Humans don't always notice that, but somebody walking by could hit it, or driving a forklift could hit it but a camera can detect that and alert you. That type of use cases. You couple that with 5G, you've got some pretty significant quality issues that you can detect, product feature capabilities that you can detect et cetera.

Those are two areas that I'm excited about. I just ran across a couple of startups that are doing some work in that space. We're going to initiate some conversations with them. What else? There's always the fun part of cyber security. There's always something going on there, so we're always looking at that. Those are some of the things that I look at.

Evan: Vish, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Great to see you again, and hopefully, we get a chance to talk again soon.

Saam: Thank you, Vish.

Vish: Likewise, I enjoyed it. That was just fun.

Evan: That was Vish Narendra, CIO and SVP of Global Business Services at Graphic Packaging International. Thanks for listening to the Enterprise Software Innovators podcast. I'm Evan Reiser, the founder and CEO of Abnormal Security.

Saam: I'm Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners. Please be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. You can find more great stories and lessons from technology leaders and other enterprise software experts at

Evan: This show is produced by Luke Reiser and Josh Meer. See you next time.