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An interview with Christoph Wachter

“In the near future, we’ll be seeing products show CO2 reduction info right next to the price tag”

Name: Christoph Wachter
Title: Director Flexible Packaging Paper
Hobbies: Ski touring, running, riding bicycles, swimming
Age: 60
With Koehler: since 2021
Christoph Wachter

Christoph Wachter is 60 years old, lives with his wife in Zams, Austria, and has two adult sons who are already on their own career paths. The Tyrol native majored in business administration with a focus on marketing and taxation at the University of Innsbruck before going through a short stint in the metal industry, only to finally land squarely in the paper industry in 1992 by joining Austria-based Papierfabrik Wattens, which is part of the delfort group. In the ten years he spent there, he built up the company’s activities in CIS markets, and in 2000 took over a temporary executive management position for the delfort site in Hamburg. This was followed by a brief detour as a managing director in the kitchen industry, after which he returned to the delfort group in 2005, where he was the managing director in charge of the Traun site in Austria, which employed 300 people and featured three paper machines. Then, starting in 2018, he worked as an independent consultant for a variety of companies, including the Papeteries du Léman paper mill in France, before joining Koehler Paper in 2021 as director of flexible packaging. In our interview, Christoph Wachter talks about how exciting he finds his work at Koehler Paper, about a movement that is being driven by consumers, and about how CO₂ reductions will be a strong selling point for packaging solutions in the near future.

How did you come to join Koehler Paper? And what’s so exciting about the family company?

Well, the entire paper industry has been looking with enormous interest at what’s been happening at Koehler Paper in Baden-Württemberg since 2017, me included. It was just really something to see a company that previously had zero presence in the packaging industry suddenly decide to invest 300 million euros in a new production line. Now, needless to say, this kind of vision takes quite a bit of entrepreneurship, but the rigorous approach with which Koehler Paper implemented its decision was extremely impressive as well. So when I got a call in 2021 from the CEO of the Koehler Group, Kai Furler, it took me about a split second to say yes and join the company.

What’s interesting is that after I joined, I noticed that the image I’d had of the company as an outsider was completely accurate. Over my entire professional life, I’d gotten the chance to look at tons of paper mills all over the world, from the US to China, and let me tell you: In my opinion, the technical setup at Koehler Paper was simply extraordinary, and paired with the know-how of our team members, it really made for a one-of-a-kind company in the market.

On top of that, there was the extremely exciting challenge of making a product with the potential of revolutionizing an entire industry. With its flexible packaging solutions, Koehler Paper has taken a leap in the effort to replace plastics with paper – an extremely sustainable material – in a large number of applications in the packaging sector.

So what does your job specifically entail in the middle of this industry-wide change?

Talk about replacing plastic with paper in packaging was already around in 2017, but it’s important to point out that this change happened in very small steps after that. Now, as you know, I’m in charge of the Flexible Packaging Paper division at Koehler Paper, and my focus in that role is to take this new momentum that emerged in 2021 and make our answer to it a reality. The market for flexible paper packaging is definitely there, but only in small amounts to date, so we really need to expand that. It also goes without saying that there are a lot of things that go into that. For starters, the corresponding products need to be ready for the market. And they definitely are on our end – in fact, our portfolio includes extremely low grammages with premium barrier properties. On top of this, regulatory changes will speed things up. But the most important driver behind this movement right now is the consumer. It’s clear that they want more sustainable packaging, and that has generated enormous momentum among branded companies and gotten them moving in this area. As I mentioned previously, my job is to turn this momentum into something tangible. It’s a tremendously exciting task that requires not just a lot of strategic thinking, but also structural work on our organization and team.

Who are your customers? What do their needs look like?

On one hand, our customers are branded companies who need their products to be more sustainable in order to provide what consumers want. They are then followed by converters, who’ve worked with plastic in packaging for over 30 years and have maximized the efficiency of the corresponding processes, making plastic film a very profitable material to work with. It should come as no surprise then that converters are not as excited about the move from plastic to paper as branded companies are. That’s why one of our tasks is to really work together with all stakeholders and convince them that there’s nothing to be afraid of and to keep an open mind. For instance, it’s already been proven that the same packaging speeds that are achievable with plastic can be achieved with paper as well. And on top of that, packing machine manufacturers are part of a group with which we work together very closely, so we’ve already built a very large network there.

The key to being successful is in how these stakeholders work together, really.

Where is product development headed?

We want to make sustainable, recyclable products that can replace plastic in many areas. Within that context, our barrier coatings are primarily suitable for dry products, and we’re currently making inroads into various industries with our barrier products. One of the first was Koehler NexPlus® Seal Pure, which Ritter Sport started using as secondary packaging for its Ritter mini colorful variety pouches back in 2021. And since then, this product has also found its way into industrial applications, where it is now consistently being used to pack screws and bolts, for example. There’s also Koehler NexPlus® Advanced, which we launched at the start of this year and is being used as primary packaging by chocolate company nucao, for instance. Finally, we’re expecting Koehler NexPlus® Performance to open entirely new possibilities and let us tap into a wide range of additional applications towards the end of this year thanks to a vapor barrier that will make it possible to use the paper with cookies and powder detergent, for example.

What does the demand for flexible packaging paper look like in different regions of the world?

We started marketing our flexible packaging paper in Europe because that’s where we see the greatest demand right now. In our opinion, this is where consumer preferences are being shaped by the issue of sustainability the most. As you probably already know, however, we’re already started to roll out those products to the American and South American markets, with Asia soon to follow.

What are some of the things that can limit the use of paper?

Well, one thing that’s important to keep in mind is that plastic will continue to be essential to various applications. One thing that limits the switch from plastic to paper, for example, is wet products, which we simply can’t pack with 100% recyclable paper. On top of that, the actual weight being packed is also a limiting factor. That’s why we’re focusing on a specific niche that is nevertheless pretty widespread.

Both types of packaging will have their place, and that’s also because the plastic industry will continue to improve in terms of recyclability. However, we also expect the market share percentages in the packaging industry to change significantly so that plastic will give considerable way to paper. In fact, I’m absolutely confident that this will happen, and the corresponding signals in the market are already unmistakable.

So what you’re saying is that paper is competitive in comparison to plastic as a packaging material?

Well, it’s important to remember that plastic has had 30 years to go through countless improvements in efficiency and optimizations, whereas we’re an entirely new market player that has only been around for three years in the area of flexible packaging. Nevertheless, the efficiency improvements that we’ve brought about in that short time have been nothing short of extraordinary, and the ability to use our products with existing packing machines was achieved surprisingly quickly, which was really great. Basically, people who want to switch to paper packaging don’t need to invest in new machinery. 

The bottom line consists of three questions: Do our paper products work on existing packing machinery? Yes. Are the packed products protected? Yes, and the proof is in how successful our barrier solutions have been in the market. Does flexible packaging paper cost more than existing plastic solutions? Right now yes, but I’m confident that the current price difference of 15 to 20 percent will disappear relatively soon.

How are we setting ourselves apart from other competitors?

As you know, Koehler Paper has tapped into a new market with the biggest single investment in its history of over 215 years. Before that, our competitors already had a jump start of around five to seven years, and that time gave them the chance to work on various barrier coatings.
So given all that, I’m very proud to say that we’ve caught up in the mere three years that we’ve been active in this market. It might have looked improbable at the beginning, but the consummate professionalism behind our development processes played a huge role in that. To put it simply, developing the range of required barrier coatings in such a short time was an extraordinary accomplishment for the Koehler Innovation & Technology development team, and it enabled us to catch up in a very short time so that we’re now able to go against our competitors on equal footing.
On top of that, there’s the fact that the entire Koehler Group decided to invest massively in renewable energy production by founding Koehler Renewable Energy ten years ago already, so that the group now has numerous sustainable energy production facilities in Germany and Scotland. By 2030, the Koehler Group wants to generate more renewable energy using our own plants than we require for the production of our paper. That’s really a unique thing in our market, and it’s something that branded companies recognize, as they’re already looking for suppliers who can help them reduce their carbon footprint. 

Does that mean that carbon footprints will be a selling point in the future?

Even now, suppliers are given preference when they’re actively working on sustainability and are able to reduce consumers’ carbon footprints with their products. In the near future, products will sell not just on the basis of price, but also on the basis of CO₂ reduction.

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