A vision of the future

Sustainability and innovation are key areas of focus for canmaker Ball. Kavitha Sivasubramaniam spoke to Ron Lewis, its president of beverage packaging in Europe, Middle East and Africa, (EMEA) to find out more

Ron Lewis describes himself as a'recovering introvert'

Why would an executive at the world’s leading drinks brand want to take on a key role at a canmaker?

Ron Lewis, who took the helm at Beverage Packaging Europe, Middle East and Africa for Ball Corporation last year after 20 years with The Coca-Cola Co and its bottlers, said he was attracted to the canmaker because of its focus on sustainability and “the opportunity to make a difference”.

Speaking at his office in Luton, in the UK, he explains: “I’ve been involved in writing sustainability reports and reading and creating the news for those sustainability reports, and it’s important to me personally. 

“I think it’s important to anybody who’s involved in the operations of a business and I see a huge opportunity for metal packaging in general to provide a solution to and an alternative for consumers. That shift is happening, it really is. I fundamentally believe it so that’s one of the reasons why I came to work in the industry.”

The 53-year-old succeeds Colin Gillis, who had led Ball’s beverage packaging operations in Europe since 2012 and has now moved to the US to run the canmaker’s North America business.

After qualifying with a chemical engineering degree in the US, and gaining an MBA, Lewis worked up to be chief procurement officer at The Coca-Cola Company in 2011, and then moved back to Europe in 2015 to become Coca-Cola European Partners’ (CCEP’s) chief supply chain officer.

“I was part of the executive management team that brought Coca-Cola European Partners to life when it was created out of the merger of three large Coke bottlers in western Europe. I was the chief supply chain officer which meant I was responsible primarily for the service element of what a Coke bottler is, which is a beverage sales and service company. It meant I was managing the middle of the profits and losses or the cost side of the business, trying to find the right balance of providing excellent service to customers while managing the cost to serve,” he explains.

Lewis says his responsibilities were to lead CCEP’s €8 billion supply chain, including planning, engineering, commercialisation, procurement, manufacturing, warehousing and customer logistics. The role encompassed 47 manufacturing sites, 100 warehouses, €600m annual capital spending and managing  12,000 people all working to sell Coca-Cola products to 300m consumers across 13 countries in Western Europe.

Describing himself as “a recovering introvert”, Lewis chooses to sit in with Ball’s employees rather than in his office, which he says gives him the opportunity to listen and learn about an industry and a business that he has indirectly worked with for many years.

“It has been a long learning process, but what I’ve found comforting is that a lot of the industry is not new to me. For example, what a sleek can is, what a slim can is or why the coatings are important and the work around next generation or lightweighting the can,” Lewis tells The Canmaker. 

“Those are the sorts of things that I’ve been working on in a different way in a different job at a different company for quite some time.”

During his time at Ball so far, Lewis has visited 20 of the canmaker’s 23 sites in EMEA, which together employ around 4,500 people.

At the end of last year, Ball decided to apply for the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative’s (ASI’s) sustainability certification. In March this year, it achieved the certification at all of its EMEA beverage can plants – the first canmaker to do so. This addresses both Ball’s aluminium supply chain and the environmental, ethical and governance performance of its operations.

The canmaker also made a commitment to invest in green energy to reassure customers that, at least in the EU, UK and Serbia, where it’s possible for it to purchase power that enables a lower carbon footprint of the can, it has done so.

“It’s not free, but it creates a demand that will hopefully continue to bring green energy to the fore and that’s a first step for us,” Lewis says. “We’ve talked as a company about being much more innovative and driving change by not just buying green energy but adding green energy to the grid with a partner. So those are the things that we’ve announced in North America and we will be doing similar things here. Our customers are doing the same. I think it’s a great innovation.”

Making cans lighter, saving on metal, also feeds into the sustainability agenda. Ball is a leader with its sub-10 gram 330ml standard cans, but Lewis thinks there’s also much to be gained with can sizes that are newer to the market, such as the speciality 330ml sleek can.

“There’s a lightweighting opportunity there that probably hasn’t been taken advantage of yet because it hasn’t been around as long, and it’s the same thing for all these newer sizes. I think there’s a bigger opportunity to lightweight all your packages,” Lewis says.

Lewis believes that consumers in Europe are concerned about their carbon footprint and don’t want to see something of value being wasted, so they are keen to see packaging collected and recycled.

“The great news for us is that metal packaging in the long run is going to continue to be in consumers’ good graces because it is so easily collected and recycled. It’s easily put back into the products that we use and it’s infinitely recyclable, that’s the beauty of it,” Lewis says.

Growth and innovation
A challenge facing the canmaking industry is that, after years of low or no growth in beverage cans depending on the region, demand is increasing as new product launches are increasingly using cans as the preferred option. This was shown in last year’s 3.5 per cent year-on-year rise in the US, and 5.0 per cent in the final quarter.

The trend was also reflected in Europe, Lewis says. “Maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot, but going from low single to mid-single-digit growth in regions such as in EMEA, everybody’s experiencing great growth. That’s a nice challenge to have but that’s a challenge we all face,” he says.

That growth is attracting investment in beverage can capacity from players new to Europe, which is welcomed by Lewis.

“While we’re the world’s largest beverage canmaker, we’re not the only one and we’re not going to capture all of the growth, but it is our intention to capture our fair share of the growth. That means traditional, as well as new competitors for sure, so we expect it and I think we welcome competition. Competition is healthy,” he says.

Carrying its sustainability banner, Ball last year moved into new sectors for aluminium containers, such as drinking cups for sports and music events. The cups, the manufacture of which will be commercialised later this year, are more easily recycled than the plastic cups they replace. They are yet to appear in Europe, but Lewis is confident that it is only a matter of time.

He believes that in canmaking, the name of the game is differentiation, and providing the right-sized package for any consumer occasion. He also cites Ball’s printing capabilities and two-stage thermochromic technology, which are already in commercial use, as key innovations giving the can an edge.

He also regards digital printing as a real opportunity. “Digital printing is coming and that’s going to be a real shift-change in the industry,” he says. “It’s not quite commercially ready at speed to go yet but it can be and it will be; the technology will get there. That’s really going to help the canmaking industry quite a bit. We’re focused on innovation around printing, and how to make [the can] a more eye catching product for the consumer.”

Future developments
As one of the regional presidents reporting to Ball’s global headquarters in Colorado, Lewis is committed to a vision of where the canmaker will be in the next five or ten years, and creating a road map to get there.

“We’re certainly investing more capital, everybody is. We’re adding capacity and capability across all of the world where we operate and certainly here in EMEA,” explains Lewis.

Ball’s greenfield beverage can plant at Guadalajara, north east of Madrid in Spain, is just one example of recent investment. The plant opened in September 2018, taking just 11 months to start making cans after construction started in 2017. The plant was built to provide capacity to supply Ball’s existing customers with aluminium cans following its acquisition of rival canmaker Rexam in 2016, and Lewis says it is operating well for the business.

“I’ve seen a significant number of projects that have just been completed or are wrapping up; we’re in the midst of a number of projects. It feels like almost every site has a major project going on; it’s a construction zone almost. We’re building, which is great. And we foresee growth for the next several years,” Lewis says.

Ball intends to respond to the need for differentiation, whether it’s by offering different shapes and sizes of cans or with novel label designs, providing brand owners with the opportunity to really differentiate what they’re selling, says Lewis. 

He concludes: “That will continue to really change the market and the industry, and I certainly foresee this continued growth trend. We have a very long run ahead of us in terms of the growth in this industry. Our best days are definitely in front of us, they are not behind us.”

  • This interview was before the lockdown in the UK following the coronavirus pandemic.