Supply and Command

Work trajectory proves operations exec Brent Denniston is no “paper lion”

Jeanne Nagle | Profiles | September 16, 2021

The challenges, says Pacific Market International Chief Supply Chain Officer Brent Denniston ’91, were “unprecedented.” Denniston had been in his position with the durable drinkware and food container manufacturing company less than a year when COVID-19 first hit, leaving PMI’s production and distribution channels severely disrupted in its wake. 

“The initial outbreak in Wuhan resulted in extended shutdowns for many of our factories and offices in China,” he says.

Closures and lockdowns became the norm as the pandemic spread throughout the Americas and Europe. Consumer demand was at first suppressed, followed by a rapid surge, “resulting in ocean container shortages, shipping delays and freight cost escalation,” says Denniston.

Thankfully, a professional attribute listed on Denniston’s LinkedIn account—“Highly adaptable when faced with ambiguity and pressure”—proved prophetic. Through collective hard work and ingenuity, the division rallied under his leadership, finding ways to manage the many disruptions brought about by the pandemic.

Today, the company’s supply-side outlook is bright. “We are on track to deliver yet another year of unprecedented revenue and profit growth,” he reports. “I am blessed to have such a talented and committed team.”

It’s a pretty sure bet that the PMI team feels lucky to have Denniston at the helm as well. His bona fides as an engineer and operations leader are impressive—enough so to warrant the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point naming him a 2021 Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient.

A native of Wisconsin Rapids, Denniston was steeped in the paper industry from an early age. “A majority of the families I knew derived their income either directly or indirectly from one of the mills,” he says. Within his own family are three generations of paper mill workers.

With his background, it might be tempting to think that earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in paper science and engineering was in the cards all along. Turns out, not so much.

Denniston, who took responsibility for paying his own way through college, admits he chose UWSP because the tuition was affordable; he could commute from his parents’ home to save money on room and board as well. It just so happens that his choice of major also had more to do with fiscal considerations than career foresight.

“During my first year of primarily general requirements classes, I learned that the paper science program offered scholarships to its students,” he says. “Eligibility for scholarships was appealing to me.”

And so it was that Denniston declared a major that was both sensible and familiar. Yet such practical matters soon gave way to an abiding interest in and a passion for engineering within the paper industry, courtesy of an eight-month internship with Weyerhaeuser Co.’s pulp mill in North Carolina during his sophomore year at UWSP. Particularly influential in this transformation was Jim Freiberg, Denniston’s direct line manager at Weyerhaeuser.

“Jim helped me hone my technical writing and communications skills, and inspired me to pursue my graduate degree,” he says.

Upon graduation from UWSP, Denniston packed his bags and headed to Atlanta to continue his education. He earned his master’s in paper science and engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology’s Institute of Paper Science and Technology. Now known as the Renewable Bioproducts Institute, the research institution began life as the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin, moving to Georgia Tech’s campus in 1989.

Once again a job-placement experience played a pivotal role in Denniston’s career when, halfway through his master’s program, he was recruited for an engineering internship at multinational consumer goods producer Procter & Gamble. After graduation from Georgia Tech, the section head at P&G who had recruited him for the internship persuaded him not to pursue his engineering doctorate, as Denniston had been contemplating. Instead, the recruiter offered him a job as a technical engineer in the company’s Oxnard, California plant, assigned to the division that produced paper tissue and towel products.

“I spent seven years of engineering school to go make toilet paper,” he told a Business Theatre Live audience in 2015. About a year and a half into that gig, a senior P&G plant leader approached him and, essentially on a hunch, urged him to consider moving from the technical realm to operations. The move turned out to be an excellent fit.

“As a technical engineer, I was responsible for designing primarily equipment-based solutions. As a process engineer, I was responsible for designing solutions that involved people and processes as well as equipment and raw materials,” Denniston notes. “I loved—and still love —the ‘people element’ of operations.”

By switching his focus to operations, Denniston had found his place in the business world. At the time, however, finding his personal locale was decidedly less settled. After eight years at P&G, he found himself newly engaged and looking for a way to reside in the same city as his long-distance fiancée (now wife), Heather. The couple ended up relocating to Seattle together in 2001 after Starbucks recruited Denniston as an engineering program manager.

Over the course of 14 years he rose through the ranks at Starbucks, serving first as a director, then vice president, of various global manufacturing and operations divisions within the multinational food and beverage powerhouse. As an executive, he was responsible for leading supply chain and commercialization channels with operating budgets in the millions, even billions, of dollars.

“I had the fortune while there to lead, at senior leadership levels, virtually every aspect of what we call the supply chain,” he says.

For his next career move, Denniston harkened back to his hometown and educational roots when he transitioned to the senior leadership team at LBP Manufacturing, a producer of paper-based packaging products headquartered outside of Chicago. For three years he oversaw every aspect of the company’s European and Asian operations, leading up to him assuming his current position at PMI.

Denniston reveals that while he was still in school, he hadn’t necessarily set his sights on any particular career path. Nonetheless, he did have a broader goal in mind. “At the time, I envisioned advancing toward very senior level roles in academics or private industry, with global exposure and impact,” he says.

His younger self was spot-on when predicting the business success that awaited Denniston in the future. What he may not have foreseen, though, was just how satisfying it would be to bring others along for the ride on his way to achieving that goal.

“Challenging and coming alongside my teammates to help them leverage their potential to achieve the greater cause and personal betterment have been my most consistent motivations across all positions I have held,” he says. 


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