On February 24, during a quarterly town hall meeting, BW Packaging President Carol O’Neill informed our organization that Richard Howlett had passed away while attending a Manchester United game the night before. Richard was Accraply’s Global Product Line Leader for shrink sleeve applications, but to those who knew him, he was so much more. A teacher, student, advocate, leader and friend; these are just a few of the many roles Richard played throughout 20+ years with Graham Engineering and Accraply.
While I only had a handful of interactions with him myself, Richard made a positive impression on me, and as I’ve recently learned, on many others. In the days since he passed, I’ve had an opportunity to interview several of Richard’s closest work friends and team members. Today, we’ll step away from our regularly scheduled content to recognize a man who meant so much to so many and who exemplified what we mean by, “we measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.”
Without exception, every person I interviewed mentioned Richard’s uplifting energy. Mike Burns, Richard’s leader and VP of Strategic Marketing & Innovation for Accraply, described Richard as a flash of color in what some might expect to be a dull manufacturing environment.
“He was somebody that I really bonded with on a personal level because of his enthusiasm, his zest for life, his never-ending optimism,” Mike said. “There were times when talking to Richard was the best part of my workday. He would energize me and would always be good for a smile.”
Richard was known across Accraply for his personality and approach. Although he worked remotely from his home in Essex, he’d often make the 6-hour drive to Accraply’s Manchester facility. Whether it was his cheery spirit or his jazzy shirts, you couldn’t help but smile when Richard was in the building. Andrew Metcalfe, People Leader for Accraply UK, recalls his first impressions of Richard who welcomed Andrew to the Barry-Wehmiller company four years ago.
“When he walked in, people responded,” Andrew said. "It’s one thing to enjoy your job, but it's another thing to come in – and even when people are having a bad day – to noticeably have an impact on people. It gave me comfort and confidence that the people who work here are what they say they are. He was living what we say we live day-to-day.”
Over the course of two decades, Richard held many different titles and positions in the Graham and Accraply businesses. According to Simon Lunn, Managing Director for Accraply Europe, Richard’s energy reached an all-time high when he accepted a new role as Accraply’s shrink sleeve product line leader.
“It was almost like he’d been freed,” Simon said. “I think in previous roles, he’d been a person in a process. As product line leader, he embraced taking it outside of just the machines. He started bringing in material suppliers and suppliers of third-party machinery and visiting them to see if they could work with us to develop the next best thing. In his later years, he was very proud of what he was pushing through the business.”
In the beginning, however, Richard was resistant to the idea of becoming a product line leader.
The Reluctant Leader
In Accraply folklore, a story exists about an impassioned sales executive who went toe-to-toe with the president of the company, Seamus Lafferty. As Seamus tells the story, he and Richard had a conversation in a pub somewhere in the South of England.
“It was a screaming session,” Seamus said. “I was asking him to become a product line leader and step away from being a salesperson. His perspective was that I was asking him to step away from a job that he could really do well and step into this unknown world of product line leadership, which at the time was not very well understood or even defined in Barry-Wehmiller, let alone in Accraply. As we were beginning to understand it and as it was becoming a requirement to appoint somebody to be a product line leader for each product line, he was the obvious choice.”
Despite his initial objections, Richard accepted the responsibility of this new and uncertain role. In Richard Howlett fashion, once he was in, he was all in. During his time as a product line leader, Richard was instrumental in refreshing Accraply’s shrink sleeve machinery product line offering.
“He knew he was volunteering to be the guinea pig for this new process,” Simon said. “It was lumpy and it took forever, but we’ve actually got two world-class machines from it. He was very proud of the machines that came out at the end.”
Simon recently met Richard’s family at the Manchester factory.
“When his family came up, they didn’t really know what he did,” Simon said. “All they knew was it had something to do with sleeves. I asked Richard’s family, ‘do you want to come and see the two machines that he’s just helped develop?’ And they said, ‘wow!’ Because I don’t think he took it home. When he worked, he worked and when he was at home it was his family. Richard had that knack of balancing both. He lived two different lives, Rich at work, and unbeknown to all of us, Dickie at home”
Although shrink sleeve technology might not have been the hottest topic of conversation at the Howlett family dinner table, it certainly was a topic of passionate debate for Richard and his colleagues. One night, at a bar in Minneapolis, Richard and Shrink Sleeve & Converting Specialist Ben Ritter had a debate.
“Rich pulled some sleeve material from thin air and said he could probably shrink it in the washer,” Simon recalls. “With the help of the bar staff, they set up the experiment. All the people in the bar were supporting Ben or Rich with a huge cheer of anticipation as the washer door opened. Needless to say, it did NOT shrink. Richard was constantly reminded about that experiment at every opportunity.”
The People Person
During my conversation with Seamus, I asked, why was Richard so passionate about shrink sleeves?
“For starters, he believed in the technology,” Seamus said. “He got deep enough in it that he had it figured out. And then it all became about the people and helping people and solving problems. I think his passion was less the sleeves and more the opportunity that it gave him to help people, and excite people, and solve problems for people. He truly was a servant of others. Nothing was ever too much trouble for him. He seemed to have an endless willingness to help no matter what.”
The week before he passed, Richard expressed to friends and colleagues just how excited he was about the future. He had recently embraced another new challenge. Although it wasn’t yet announced, Richard had accepted a role as Accraply’s sustainability champion. This meant, on top of his product line leader responsibilities, Richard had also committed to drive sustainable initiatives throughout Accraply.
“He was so excited about that – on fire really,” said Michelle Bryson, Global Sustainable Packaging Leader for all of BW Packaging. “Each time we met, he would say, let’s set up another meeting for next week! He had so much to offer, so much insight.”
In addition to his passion for sustainability, Michelle said that she would remember Richard for his kind heart and patience.
“When we were at Pack Expo, I parked my car in a spot I couldn’t easily find again, but he was so kind. When I drove the team to dinner, he stayed with me while I went to park my car, and even noted that his wife had recently had a little bang up with her car. His love for her was apparent.”
Many of Richard’s work friends mentioned his dedication as a husband, father, and grandfather.
“I don’t think in all that time on the road that there was ever a day that went by that I didn’t hear about Sharon,” Seamus said. “Because as committed as Richard was to anything that was happening in his work world, he was as committed and more to his family. He was proud as could be of how his two kids – Reece and Alicia – were doing and they were doing really well.”
The time that Richard shared with his family, colleagues and customers has had a profound impact in the lives of many. It’s impossible to know precisely how many lives he touched, but in speaking with a small sampling of his colleagues, it’s clear that the number isn’t small. For those of us who knew Richard, we’ll cherish these memories forever.
Memories of Richard
- “Richard was energy. He had such a passion for his work, and it was infectious for all who had the opportunity to work with him.
Richard was a sponge. Richard came into the role of product line leader with such enthusiasm. He just wanted to learn. We introduced him to tools and processes, and he just soaked them up. He embraced learning and was genuinely excited about he could use them to create a better future for shrink at Accraply. His enthusiasm to learn and embrace change energized me… made me want to do better to be better!
Richard was a pioneer. We had an idea one day… could we partner our team in India with a product line leader and do a better job understanding how our products were positioned in the market relative to our competitors? It was something we had never tried before and really didn’t know if it would add value. Richard took the challenge on. He and his colleague, Raghunath Kasinathan in Chennai, took it to levels none of us fathomed we could take it too. His work paved the way for others and will stand as the reference of what good looks like for years to come.
Richard was a friend. He was so unpretentious and easy to talk to. You couldn’t help but like him. He was quite literally a pleasure to work with! He was one of those appointments that would come up in your calendar and your stress just dropped… “Oh nice, I have a meeting with Richard today!” Richard was more than a colleague to so many of us. To his family and loved ones… I would want you to know, you do not grieve alone… He is dearly missed here!” - John Koke, Vice President, Technical and Strategic Innovation for Barry-Wehmiller
- “When I think of Richard, I remember our trip to Italy to finalize an OEM agreement in Parma, so after a great meeting we decided to celebrate, we picked a small and simple local restaurant on the street, we shared a wine bottle with some local cheese and ham and we spent the night talking about life, shrink sleeve and dreaming big. I think today with his great contribution we are closer than ever to make this shrink sleeve dream a reality!” – Majid Akiki, Director of Sales at Accraply
- “Every interaction with Richard made me feel more knowledgeable and genuinely cared for. Being new to the packaging industry, I didn't have a strong knowledge base in shrink sleeving. There were numerous times where Richard would be sharing a specific process or concept. He would always pull out a product and a sleeve to demonstrate what he was talking about. Making it easier for me to understand, giving me the confidence to be able to explain it to others. He was always teaching. Before we’d start each of our meetings, he would always ask about the family and see how I was doing, and he would listen. He always made me feel cared for and heard. Sitting on a bus together, we had this conversation about how important it was to care about the team and to see how people were doing.” – Casey Jeremiason, Senior Marketing Communications Leader at Accraply
- What I appreciate most about Richard is his positive attitude, his willingness and ability to learn new things, and his enthusiasm for life, the business and the team. In the time that I knew him, Accraply and BW Packaging more broadly went through a lot of changes. In the UK, we consolidated most of the operations and the team members into Manchester…hardly around the corner from Richard’s home in Essex. We also introduced the concept of product line leadership and asked Richard to step into a role that all of us were still trying to figure out…yet whether it was a new role for himself, being part of a platform innovation journey or realignment and relocation, you could count on Richard to go after it with a “can-do” spirit….to learn…. get feedback and grow! People talk a lot these days about having a “growth mindset”. To me, Richard was a poster child for such a mindset. In addition to being an awesome guy to be around, he set a great example for all of us!” – Carol O’Neill, President of BW Packaging
- “Richard will always be remembered as a highly enthusiastic person with a great sense of humour. He would encourage me by stating ‘Welcome to the world of shrink sleeve’ whenever I shared my findings from the benchmarking project with him. He is always the first to provide answers if I become stuck or anxious about project circumstances. ‘Meet again, Raghu,’ he would always remark with a smile when our call came to a close.” – Raghunath Kasinathan, Project Manager, EDS
- “I will remember Richard for the positive energy that he brought to the business. His passion for his product line was clear to see and I really enjoyed working with him on all things shrink sleeve. He had a vast amount of knowledge that he was only too happy to share with anyone who had a question.” – James Alexander, Project & Applications Engineer
- “I will remember Richard as someone who was always upbeat, caring, knowledgeable and very personable. I worked with Richard during the early days of the Graham acquisition and enjoyed many ‘cuppa’s’ to keep ourselves warm in the barn-like offices of Graham.” – Mike Columbus, Managing Director, Accraply Canada