Lucie Pathmann’s hiring in October to direct global branding for Westrock Coffee as its senior vice president of communications represented a return to familiar ground, and the Central Arkansas PR veteran is helping guide the company through significant growth.
Westrock’s ascendancy reminds her a little of the growth experienced by the iconic Arkansas company at which she earned her corporate marketing stripes in the 1990s.
The University of Arkansas grad’s career took off in 1995 at Alltel under the tutelage of Scott Ford, whose father, Joe, guided the Little Rock telecommunications giant through robust growth in the 1980s and ‘90s. By 2009 and the $28 billion merger with Verizon, Alltel’s annual revenues were approaching $10 billion and its corporate culture recognized on Forbes’ list of the nation’s 50 most admired companies.
That same year, the Fords started Westrock, seeking to establish equity, sustainability and transparency in the coffee industry. Westrock provides coffee sourcing, financing, supply chain management, product development, roasting, packaging and distribution services to retailers, restaurants, convenience stores, commercial accounts and hospitality customers around the world. The idea was hatched in Rwanda in 2009, and Westrock’s corporate office opened in Little Rock the following year. In 2014, the company acquired England’s Falcon Coffees to expand into more than 20 countries, and in 2019, it bought S&D Coffee of North Carolina.
But the journey started with farmers in the African nation of Rwanda, and the company now partners with more than 1.5 million farmers in 35 countries.
At Alltel, Pathmann served as director of sponsorships and director of marketing publicity. She brought the servant-inspired work ethic practiced by the Fords with her to Verizon, which named her PR manager for the south-central region.
Sandwiched around her 15-year Alltel/Verizon run were stints with two of the state’s largest PR/advertising firms, Stone Ward and CRJW. Pathmann worked as a media buyer at CRJW in Little Rock for two years before joining the Fords at Alltel. She remained with Verizon for another couple of years following the merger before joining Stone Ward as director of brand management and communications.
For 11 years at Stone Ward, Pathmann was mentored by another legend in Arkansas business, Millie Ward, and her husband Larry Stone. Then last fall, Westrock created a new SVP position for communications. It didn’t take Pathmann long to figure out that in many ways, she was returning home to work with old friends and colleagues.
She’s doing so as Westrock continues its Alltel-like growth phase. In December, the company announced major expansion plans. A new $100 million Conway facility will be housed in the old Kimberly-Clark plant, ultimately employing 250 workers — many of them highly skilled positions with salaries exceeding $100,000. It will encompass 524,000 square feet. Phase one of the build out is scheduled for completion during the first quarter of 2023.
It will represent Westrock’s third Arkansas location; its corporate offices are situated in Little Rock’s Riverdale area and a manufacturing facility is located in North Little Rock. Specifically, the Conway facility will develop, produce and distribute coffee, tea and other ready-to-drink products including cold brew coffees, lattes and assorted teas and juice-based beverages, as well as produce single-serve coffee cups. In addition, space will be devoted to creating, testing and producing new products. The company projects it to be the largest facility of its kind in the world.
Westrock also announced that it will add two fully automated production lines to its S&D facility in Concord, N.C., expected to boost production by more than 50 percent, and construction is underway on new operations in Malaysia that will serve the Asia Pacific, Middle East and North Africa markets. Work on the 90,000-SF facility is expected to be complete this quarter.
Daily Coffee News reported in December that the capital outlay for the three expansion projects would exceed $100 million. Westrock already operates offices devoted to sales, training, logistics, exports and more in 10 countries on four continents. Malaysia will make it five.
Pathmann now is responsible for a branding footprint that covers the globe. She recently visited with AMP about how things are very much the same (culture) yet different (logistics) at Westrock, how its mission drives employees and the lessons she’s taken from her experience at such iconic Arkansas firms.
AMP: How did your corporate journey lead you back to Scott Ford and Westrock?
Pathmann: While my first job was at CJRW as a media buyer, I really started my career in marketing at Alltel. I worked in the advertising group, where I negotiated trades with media outlets for wireless service in exchange for advertising. Then, because my background at CJRW was media buying, I’d buy the media based on those trades. This helped Alltel because we didn’t have to pay media commissions on the trades. Eventually trades became extinct due to unlimited minutes, so I moved into the brand group.
One day, we got a call from the corporate communications group saying they had signed a deal with a NASCAR Busch Series team and driver, and we were the sponsor of a Busch race. Since I knew the most about sports in the group, I was automatically elected to help lead the initiative with one of my colleagues. As we grew, I started to negotiate sports sponsorship deals that covered our footprint and made our brand look larger than it was, which was our overall strategy. And then I oversaw activating those deals. That’s where my life changed.
Our CEO, Scott Ford, had a big interest in our racing program. He enjoyed going to the races and was very involved with the contract with our driver that year, Phil Parsons. We eventually left Phil, and I brought to the table another driver who was an up-and-comer; his name was Jimmie Johnson. Alltel sponsored him for two years. Then, Scott was approached by Roger Penske to sponsor a driver named Ryan Newman. Of course, we took the deal, and we sponsored Ryan until we were bought out in 2009.
Because of Scott’s interest in the team, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with him in a non-corporate setting. He became a mentor of mine, and what is great about both him and his father, Joe Ford, is that they teach you so many things without you really feeling like you’re being taught. I learned so much about business and life. So, anytime they were at the track, I soaked it all in. Scott also brought his sons most of the time. So, I met Sam, Joe and Will and got to hang out with them and learn about each of them as well.
In 2009, I was offered a job to move over to Verizon and be a part of the leadership team. I can remember not wanting to take the job, but also knowing it was how I could stay in Little Rock, close to family and friends. But I didn’t want to tell Scott I had accepted. I felt as if I’d betrayed Alltel and him and Mr. Ford in some way. I eventually left Verizon and got a great opportunity to work for Stone Ward. I worked there for 11 years under Millie Ward as the director of brand management and communications. She and Larry were great to me. Again, I learned so much. I grew both personally and professionally.
Then one day, I saw a job posting for Westrock Coffee. I went back and forth on whether I should write Scott and inquire, and then I found out that Sam [Ford] was the person hiring for the job. So, I emailed Sam and reintroduced myself. We chatted, and it was like no time had passed. I came in for an interview, and of course, saw several people I’d worked with before and saw Scott. A month later, I was walking in the doors of Westrock Coffee as the SVP of Corporate Marketing.
I think what made me come to Westrock was the excitement and everyone I met there. The people I knew before are committed to doing good work and are people I’d admired while at Alltel. The work that Westrock does everyday impacts people around the world, and that spoke to me. Everyone at Westrock is very competitive, and that competitive spirit creates a very dynamic atmosphere that makes me excited to get up and come to work each morning. I also felt at home at Westrock, and felt I could make a difference to help the company grow.
AMP: You obviously know how to deliver a message. What things stick out from your past experiences that have been the most useful at Westrock?
Pathmann: Being at an agency and having PR and event-marketing experience, you must know how to pivot. While many may not think it, Westrock Coffee is a very fast-paced place to work. It’s a flat organization for all the work we do. We are a growing company — and growing at a very fast rate. Our industry is very competitive, so you must be committed to taking on anything given to you and changing at a moment’s notice. I help everyone here see the benefits around the Westrock brand and help the organization organize those assets so that we become more efficient and concise in telling our story is what has been more useful so far.
AMP: Have there been challenges adjusting to the logistics involved in Westrock’s global operations, and if so, did any of them surprise you?
Pathmann: Oh, my goodness, yes. It’s true; we provide the world’s most iconic brands with the most transformative coffee, tea and extracts products. I am completely amazed each day how our teams get done what they get done. Everyone is committed to delivering a quality product at any scale the customer needs. Just to learn all the different products in the various packaging forms was a lot, then you have all the traceability and sustainability that happens. I’m still learning every day.
The challenge is always learning all the different processes and parts of the business. How to create new processes in order to help everyone interact with marketing. My position and department are new, so creating processes and the communications our brand needs to communicate concisely across all channels has been a fun challenge. I hate calling it a challenge because it’s really what I did every day at the agency, so I love those types of challenges.
What surprised me was just how big an operation Westrock Coffee is. I think some people only think of Westrock Coffee as the coffee they can buy at certain retailers, but it is so much more than that. That is just a small part of our overall business. When I began learning about all our customers and all the various products that we produce for some of the largest brands in the world, I was amazed.
AMP: Tell us about the “Westrock story” and how its mission motivates you.
Pathmann: It is an amazing story. Having only been here a short time, I am so proud to work for a company where at a time when they could have been doing so many other things, Scott and Mr. Ford wanted to help the small farmers and their families in Rwanda, and give them the ability to advance their quality of life by paying a fair price for their product and educating them on best practices, etc.
Everyone at Westrock understands the impact we make each day, and it’s an important part of why we all do what we do and push ourselves to be the best we can be. Like Scott says, “When we win, they win.” It’s that simple. I think anyone would want to tell that story. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. I just happen to be the lucky one that has been entrusted to do so. I see the passion everyone here has because of our mission, and how could that not affect you as a person? How could you not want to be the best you could be to help? Many companies say they make an impact; Westrock backs it up. That’s an easy story to tell.
Our mission is truly the foundation of our business. It’s what drives us each day. The mission is why the company was founded by Scott and Joe. We want everyone down the supply chain to have a fair shake.
AMP: Just how does that culture contribute to the company’s success?
Pathmann: I think what makes Westrock successful is the passion of everyone who works here. We all have a competitive spirit and are passionate about the role we each play and respect the role the other plays in reaching our goals. It’s a collective effort, and that’s not lost on anyone at Westrock.
Everyone wants to do what’s right for the customer, because we know that impacts our farmer partners. When you do what’s right, and you’re transparent, how can you not be successful?
AMP: What are some lessons you’ve taken from working for two of the biggest agencies in the state in CRJW and Stone Ward?
Pathmann: I think both taught me to work hard. My time at Stone Ward taught me to keep learning. These days, you have to keep up. Marketing is constantly changing; if you don’t keep up, you become irrelevant. I think the best thing I learned at Stone Ward was to embrace the creative process. When I first started, I got very frustrated with the process because it’s not definite. Creative is subjective and can be one idea or 15. I’m very much a process person, and it was hard for me to love the back and forth it took to get to great creative.
AMP: And of course, Verizon. Same question. Directing the PR for an entire region had to have helped prepare you for your current role.
Pathmann: The biggest thing I learned at my time at Verizon was to not take everything so personally. It was hard seeing all my colleagues leaving and having the guilt of staying. I also learned how important it is to have public relations at the table even when they may not have a reason to be there. Verizon always included public relations. They see it as a vital part of all decisions.
I think what impressed me most about Verizon was how well it communicated internally to all employees. For a company that large, it does an excellent job of communicating to each person regardless of their role. Every person hears from leadership and gets to hear the goals of the year for the company, and how they play a part in those goals. They have it down to a science.
AMP: We know about Westrock’s plans for Conway. What’s next for Westrock in terms of further expansion and innovation?
Pathmann: In November, we announced plans for our new facility in Conway as well as the opening of our Malaysia facility. We’re also expanding our Concord, N.C., extract facility. Our focus now is building those out to provide more beverage solutions and packaging formats to our customers, like ready-to-drink cans and bottled beverages. We also have a group of food scientists constantly working on developing innovative beverage solutions to keep our customers on trend.
AMP: How does one go about setting up a new supply chain etc. in a new country?
Pathmann: That’s an interesting question. We work with a team of expert suppliers who have deep connections in countries of origin. We lean on them to introduce us to sources of ethically grown coffee and tea.
AMP: In terms of the actual product, what sets Westrock apart from the competition?
Pathmann: It’s all about the quality. It’s about sourcing quality coffee from origin and being involved in every step on the supply chain. That’s what makes Westrock Coffee better than the rest.
AMP: Now that you’ve made this full circle journey from Alltel to Westrock, are there more goals out there?
Pathmann: Oh, wow. I’m very happy right where I am. I know everyone would say that, but it’s true. I’m having a great time at Westrock, so I don’t think about what could be next. It’s funny, and I’ve never really thought about this, but this is only my fourth job. I’m a loyal person and that loyalty is what brought me to Westrock.
I want to do the best job I can and tell our story around the world. I’m so proud to work for a company that is doing such great work globally and is headquartered in the state that I call home and love. I’m staying put for a while.