Skip to main content

Meeting Joanna Calixto, MD of MSO Cleland Ltd.

Being responsible for a business that’s close to 150 years old comes with a legacy of responsibility – we spoke with Joanna Calixto, Managing Director of MSO Cleland Ltd. about how she manages expectations and why sustainability is so important to her…

Tell me about your role and your business

I’m the Managing Director of MSO Cleland Ltd in Belfast, where we design and manufacture printed cartonboard packaging and labels for the food, spirits, and pharmaceutical industries. It’s a family-owned and run business, so I am lucky enough to work with my father, my husband, and my brother. Over time, the rest of the MSO team have begun to feel like family too.

We are part of the CartonCare group, which consists of three complementary packaging businesses. Pendragon Presentation Packaging, based in Malvern, produces high-end rigid boxes and CartonCare, which is also based in Northern Ireland, produces folding cartons for the same markets as MSO, giving us a proper disaster recovery strategy.

My role is varied, as you can imagine! Having set our strategy a few years ago, I lead its implementation and the day-to-day running of the company, adapting as necessary to changing conditions while ensuring we meet our goals.

I’m probably more involved across the business than a typical Managing Director because of our size and structure. One of the parts I’ve missed over the last couple of years has been seeing customers in person and visiting their business to better understand their needs, and I look forward to getting back to that.

MSO Cleland has been around for a long time – what is your history?

The business was founded in 1876 as McCaw Stevenson and Orr, and in the early 1900s was very successful at design and print but it has evolved over the years.  Following the acquisition of John Cleland Ltd in 2000, the company changed its name to MSO Cleland Ltd.

In 2013, the business was in severe difficulty after many years of losses and no investment. We (the current ownership) became involved in December 2013, and it was at this point that we engaged with Close Brothers Asset Finance who were one of the Creditors to MSO. We implemented a lot of change to bring the company back to profitability.

Since then, the story has been one of incredible positivity.   

We like to combine our history, heritage and the skills that have been built up in the workforce over so many years with a spirit of innovation and the latest equipment so  we have the best possible offering for  our customers.

Although the company has changed and evolved much over the years, some things stay the same – an early motto of the company was ’we take care of the littlest or smallest things’. In today’s fast-moving world, detail is every bit as important as it was back in 1876!

What would a ‘typical’ day look like for you?

I can honestly say I don’t have a ‘typical’ workday, and that is one of the things I enjoy about my job. MSO Cleland employs around 170 people, so we are a big, small company, or a small, big company, whichever way you’d like to look at it.

What this means is that all the Directors all multitask!  One moment I’ll be dealing with a customer, the next with suppliers or employees or machines, finance, insurance, and so on.

It is busy for sure, but as my dad has always said ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person!’ and I think this is so true! Some things remain constant each day – for example, we have an 11.30 meeting of the Senior Management Team each day to review daily business and deal with any urgent matters.

Outside of work my life is also very busy, I have four wonderful daughters ages 8 – 14, so there is never a dull moment in our house!

What was the impact of the pandemic on your business, the print and packaging sector, and what did it do for innovation?

As an essential business supplying products for the food and pharmaceutical industries, our doors did not close at all during the pandemic. Although maintaining production throughout the pandemic was not without its challenges, we were fortunate our business stayed stable and even got busier.

One of the challenges was that we were embarking on a major round of capital expenditure just as the pandemic hit – our new printing press (27m long and 79 tonnes in weight) arrived from Germany in five articulated lorries at the end of March, just as the first lockdown hit!

Bringing in the new equipment, dealing with Covid absences, maintaining full production throughout, meeting increased demand from customers….it has been a very busy time! We are grateful for this, as are our employees.

I believe the majority of the packaging sector was extremely busy for most of the pandemic, but I do know some other types of printing businesses were less fortunate.

I think, in general, in our sector the pandemic paused or halted innovation as businesses became more concerned about supplying core products than creating new ones. We have seen a big shift in this recently and there is once again a lot of focus on NPD and innovation.

As a firm based in NI, has Brexit had any meaningful impact on you? (If yes, what?)

It caused some small annoyances, especially at the beginning when many businesses were not well-informed about paperwork that needed to accompany deliveries. This caused some delays for us at the outset; however, I believe that overall, it created opportunity for businesses like ourselves in Northern Ireland. You could say we have easy access to both markets.

Perhaps we’ve been fortunate – I know in other sectors it’s causing significant problems. As a consumer, I have seen empty supermarket shelves as retailers struggled to get supplies of meat products back into Northern Ireland, and there has been a large increase in companies excluding Northern Ireland from their deliveries.

Sustainability features prominently on your website – what are you doing to reduce your environmental impact?

We’re constantly looking at what we can do to reduce our environmental impact.

We are:

  • Replacing the lights in our factory with LED lights
  • Replacing our company cars with electric vehicles when they are up for replacement
  • A zero-to-landfill site
  • A renewable energy-only user
  • Currently considering putting up solar panels and a raft of other practical ideas

There is no ‘one’ perfect solution but a series of smaller steps we are taking.

A few years ago, we also embarked on a knowledge transfer partnership with the University of Ulster to design alternatives to single-use plastic packaging. It was vital we understood the science to avoid knee-jerk reactions to media headlines. We wanted to combine objective scientific knowledge from the University with our expertise and innovation in packaging to help guide our customers to a better environmental position. Understanding the carbon footprint of each unit delivered and what we can do to improve it has undeniably changed the way we act.

As a female MD in a prominent print and packaging role, do you see yourself as a role model?

I strive to do the best I can in everything I do. I wanted to show my own daughters you can have an exciting career and still be a loving mother, that there are no limitations on us. My husband has always encouraged me to do this.

Out of three Executive Directors in our Company, two are women, so hopefully that is good inspiration for others seeking to advance.

Is enough being done to encourage more women into the sector? What more could be done?

It’s true that manufacturing is a traditionally male-dominated sphere, but so what? I’ve never really seen it as an issue or impediment. It’s wonderful we are getting the message across to young women and girls that there are no limits on them or what they could become. In addition, I do think we need to be careful we continue to value and applaud those women (and men!) who make the choice to be full-time parents. My mum was one, and I could not have had a better role-model - wise, kind, funny, and totally dedicated to her family.

In terms of what could be done to encourage more women into the sector, I think this begins with early career choices and I do believe more information is being shared about the range of possibilities than ever before. I feel that in my day, if you were academically strong and female you were encouraged to study either law or medicine, whether it was right for you or not! Hopefully we’ve come a long way since then.

It’s broader than being a question of how to encourage young women into the sector, I think it’s a general question of how to encourage bright young people into the sector and get them to consider manufacturing as a career choice.

So much emphasis is placed on service industries and ‘high tech’ businesses, but we also need to promote manufacturing - the world would grind to a halt without it! I believe there has been acquiescence on our part that manufacturing should just move to countries with a lower cost base, but in reality, it takes a mix of sectors to keep a healthy economy going.

It’s real, it’s tangible. You can touch it and see it and you produce something. Many of us enjoy this aspect and I think it can make manufacturing an interesting career choice.

Yours is a fast-moving sector that is very innovative – how do you know what to back – and what to ignore?

Keeping abreast of developments is important and relating it back to your business, your market requirements and demands. You can’t have every interesting new piece of kit – you need to back the ones that are going to add the most value to your business. Sometimes, however, it comes down to gut instinct!

Looking ahead, what are some of the exciting things we can look forward to?

We are continuing our steady growth, utilising the additional capacity we gained through our investment in both people and of over £6 million in new equipment during the last couple of years. We will continue to innovate, create, and deliver to our customers and always seek to improve what we do.

What’s it like working with Close Brothers Asset Finance – why do you continue to deal with us?

In our interactions with Close Brothers Asset Finance, there has developed a mutual respect, confidence, and trust; in part brought about by the fact that when the new Heidelberg printing press arrived, lockdown occurred and both Close Brothers Asset Finance and MSO had to bring some good faith and common sense to the table to facilitate the installation and ownership!

Even in this increasingly digital world in which we live, people are still important in business. For this reason, Close Brothers Asset Finance will be our first port of call for our next capital expenditure.