It comes as no surprise that the dynamic paper and plastics manufacturer, Universal Paper and Plastics (UPP), celebrated its 70th anniversary in style with a ‘roaring 20s’-themed party earlier this year. Starting out as a small family business, it has grown into a 455 employee-strong enterprise over the years, guided by the same entrepreneurial spirit. “While 70 may be a lifetime, at heart and at an operational level, the company remains forever young and vibrant, striving towards innovation every single day to satisfy the needs of our customers,” stress UP alumni and brothers, Jonathan and David Sher, joint MDs of the Universal Paper Group who are proud to continue in the footsteps of their father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Read more about their interesting journey - from their student years at EMS to their current position as joint MDs.
Q: What is your current position and what does it entail?
A: David: I am joint Managing Director of the Universal Paper Group. My overall responsibility is movement of stock and management of all stakeholders. My direct employees lead the following departments: Human Resources, Supply Chain, Sales, Safety, Health, Environment and Quality (SHEQ), Procurement, Service Excellence, and Planning. Most of my time is spent working with people, solving problems and developing strategic plans to achieve and exceed our intended targets.
Jonathan: I am currently the joint MD with my brother, David. My overall responsibility lies predominantly on the operational side of the business. I am responsible for all the production factories, the maintenance department, research and development (R&D) department and the Marketing and Design department, as well as all major capital projects. My role entails having my finger on the pulse and being able to manage a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturing environment that brings new challenges each day.
Q: Briefly summarise your career since graduating from UP, with special mention of specific highlights/milestones.
A: David: I am a born and bred Pretorian who is proud of my family heritage. Growing up in a family business, I have found my passion for working with people and quickly developed an interest in manufacturing. After graduating from the University of Pretoria and taking up a working role in the business in 2009, I worked my way through the various departments while developing and improving business operations. I finally assumed my current role as a director of UPP in 2014.
The business has grown at a rapid rate since 2010, and managing this change has been a great achievement. Introducing new strategies, new people and new systems to the business has been key to the success and sustained growth of the company. I am a family man who enjoys the outdoors, and I am an avid golfer. I am committed to making a positive difference in my local community by actively getting involved in development programmes with local schools in the Ga-Rankuwa district. I am also a member of the Tshwane Executive Business Forum, which focuses on improving economic growth in the City.
Jonathan: I started my career at UPP straight after completing my BCom Honours final exams in November 2010. I initially started by establishing an R&D department as I have a passion for researching new products and equipment and bringing innovative products to market. This then led me to get involved in production, and I was given the task of managing our serviette factory. This allowed me to gain valuable knowledge and insight when it came to the whole process flow – from procurement through raw materials and planning to production and finished goods stock holding.
This was a very interesting learning opportunity that gave me a good grounding and understanding of the business. My next role took me to the next level and I became joint general manager with my brother. From here I got further responsibility of managing the other production factories and the maintenance department. This increased my scope and stress along the way. Along this journey, I was always involved in marketing and design as I have a passion for this and have a creative streak.
This then led to the largest milestone of my career: Project Gold Eagle. This has definitely been my highlight at Universal Paper, as I was the Project Manager for the largest capital project in our history with a value of over R300 million. This was extremely interesting as I learnt many new skills and expanded my knowledge tremendously, as I previously knew little about paper making and paper-making equipment.
I did the RFQ (Request for Quote) for many different world-leading paper equipment suppliers and was fortunate to travel the world to see these suppliers and inspect their equipment. I was learning as I went along and each supplier taught me something new that stuck with me along the life cycle of this project. I was also thrown in at the deep end to develop the Site Development Plan for our new site and manage the construction of the factory and ancillary buildings.
After Project Gold Eagle, my brother David and I took further responsibility in managing more departments, and most recently, in March 2020, we became the joint MDs tasked with further accelerating our growth and improving our profitability.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: David: My studies at UP provided me with a continuous learning outlook that proved very useful throughout my career. Leaving UP in my early 20s, full of ideas and energy to succeed, was a critical part of my journey. Since UP, I have never stopped learning as I truly believe that daily personal growth is fundamental to leading a fulfilling life. The relationships and lessons learnt at UP still provide me with many happy memories of a time well spent accomplishing goals that laid the foundation for an impactful start to my career.
Jonathan: I would say the most important things I have taken out of my studies have been structure and curiosity. One learns very quickly when transitioning from studying to real-life business that theory is one aspect of your career but things happen very differently in real-world applications.
You have your theoretical background to give you an understanding and context to your work, but you need to learn how to make decisions and act on what happens in front of you. The structured environment of studying allows you to manage your time and priorities better, and this helps immensely in your working life. Time management is key to being productive and achieving your objectives.
I am a naturally curious person, but what the University taught me through different projects and assignments, was to open your mind and be creative and curious about things to solve problems. I love problem-solving and without an open and curious mind, it is extremely difficult to solve challenging problems.
Q: Given your academic experience at UP, what advice can you pass onto current students?
A: David: Never stop learning. Every day is an opportunity to make mistakes and grow. Have the courage to always ask questions in the pursuit of a better understanding. Trust your gut and live your life with purpose and passion!
Jonathan: Always be curious and ask questions. Never be satisfied with the first answer you receive and always dig deeper to fully understand what's happening.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the foundation of a successful business/company/consultancy/organisation?
A: David: Surround yourself with people who you can learn from and grow with. Be passionate about what you do and never give up, no matter what the challenge. Be humble and lead an impactful and enriching life that has the power to inspire others. Communicate and be transparent with your employees and co-workers in a manner that will help them to understand their role in the organisation. Enabling your workforce to celebrate each other’s success and being a part of it are very powerful factors. The ability to develop talent for the long term that can sustainably achieve daily progress is an essential part of the success of any organisation.
Jonathan: People. Having the right people is key to any organisation’s success, but it is just as important to have the right direction and for the leader to direct those right people in the right way.
Q: Which business/trade-related publications (magazines/newspapers/blogs, etc) do you enjoy reading?
A: David: Entrepreneur Magazine, Tissue World Magazine, Risi, Africa Outlook, Simon Sinek (author), Coursera, Strategy + Business, Empowering SA, NEASA, Jim Collins (author).
Jonathan: I am quite heavily invested in my industry, so I subscribe to almost all the tissue paper publications out there. I do, however, enjoy reading insightful and thought-provoking articles on leadership and purpose, and I have found a new blog called medium.com that has some interesting articles.
Q: What really inspires and motivates you personally?
A: David: Seeing people grow and realise their full potential. Being part of a team that effects positive change in our world.
Jonathan: Being challenged each day with a new problem and being able to inspire others and see how they grow and develop through time.
Q: If you could have a face-to-face meeting with an inspiring person - in any domain - who sets an example in who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
A: David: Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson and Simon Sinek. Nelson Mandela: I would want to talk about what was his source of motivation when confronted with continuously difficult circumstances during his life. What advice could he give our current generation that would break down the barriers of the past and enable young South Africans to stand together as one. Richard Branson: I would love to pick his brain about the small things he does every day that have been key to achieving the high level of employee motivation and passion for the Virgin brand. Simon Sinek: I would like to discuss South African scenarios we face every day that he could apply his principles to in a constructive manner to assist me in finding solutions I could apply in my organisation and community.
Jonathan: This is a difficult one as there are so many interesting and inspiring people out there, and not just the famous ones! It would have to be Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the clothing manufacturer, Patagonia. Quite a few years ago I came across his book Let my people go surfing, and it really inspired me and gave me a lot of direction in life and what’s important in running your own business.
I would ask him how he manages to compete with all the other big brand clothing manufacturers out there who are only in it for the profit, and what are his ideas to changing the consumeristic society we have today.
Q: Going forward, what are your career and personal goals?
A: David: Live a meaningful life, building happy memories with my family, friends, co-workers, and the community I serve. To build a group of companies that have the power to effect positive change in the world by addressing poverty through job creation and supplying practical solutions that improve the state of hygiene.
Jonathan: I am looking to explore some personal growth and find further meaning in life, as life is not just about business and how high you can climb in the corporate structure. The most important thing in life is how we live our lives now, and the memories we create that will last forever.