Meet Coralie Bertrand, Site Director at Smurfit Kappa Rethel paper mill

Unstoppable highlights the inspiring stories of women who have broken down barriers. Through this series, ABB aims to raise awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion; and encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields.

1. Could you tell us about your career path? What studies did you pursue and why did you choose this path?

I pursued a broad academic path: first a scientific baccalaureate, then enrolling in a preparatory program (first year advanced mathematics) to prepare for the entrance examinations of the esteemed scientific grandes écoles. But I soon got bored of the theoretical part, so I looked for a "hands-on" school. I opted for the International School of Paper in Grenoble (Grenoble INP - Pagora) because I wanted to focus on the field and because former students from my high school had already told me about it, describing it as a more down-to-earth course.

This was much to the chagrin of some people around me, who would have preferred me to go on and become a fighter pilot. I'd actually passed the entrance examination for the air force academy, and the idea of becoming a pilot really appealed to me. I was very athletic, I'd proved myself, but the military side made me give it a lot of thought. In the end, I decided to go into papermaking. It's a choice I have absolutely no regrets about, because from the very first weeks of the course, I really enjoyed it and felt I was in my element. My 3 years of study went well. I've found my balance and gained confidence in my abilities.

2. What drew you to the papermaking industry? And to this job in particular?

During my engineering studies, I had the opportunity to complete my second and third years as an apprentice at the Arjowiggins paper mill, south of Brussels (Belgium). So I was out in the field and I loved it - especially being in contact with people. After graduating, I was hired as a process engineer at a sister plant in the Vosges.

As I was interested in the process and the machines, I was offered the job of production manager to cover for the prolonged absence of a colleague. I initially accepted for a fixed term, but when this colleague returned, he preferred to change direction and so I kept the job for 3 years.

After an internal reorganization, I decided to move to another company and joined the International Paper mill at Saillat-Sur-Vienne in the Limousin region. It was time for a change, and what I liked about it was being able to follow the entire pulp and paper-making process from start to finish at a single site. I became a production engineer again, and after 3 months I was promoted to production manager of one of the paper machines. A major project came up, so this was my chance to prove myself and gain some recognition. Although it took a lot of hard work on my part, we were able to complete the project and develop a whole new range of products in a very short time. I say "we" because at that time I was lucky enough to be surrounded by an extremely good team (project team and production team). I also formed a very good team with my assistant. We were, however, two totally different personalities; his technical knowledge, for example, was a real asset. We had to find the right way of working together, and it worked. Three years later, I changed jobs to become laboratory manager. What I liked then was being more in touch with customers.

After this experience, I moved to Reims for personal reasons. I then started again from scratch and after six months I was back in the papermaking business, at Papeterie de Rethel as a production manager at Smurfit Kappa.

In January 2018, on my return from maternity leave, I was offered the position of Site Manager. I had to manage everything at once, as I didn't yet have a back-up at my previous production job. Today, the team has changed a lot, both internally and in my hierarchical structure. I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to find an exciting job close to home in the papermaking industry.

3. What strengths have you brought to your company and your role? What are your professional strengths?

I'm an organized person. It can take me a long time because I need to analyze things, and sometimes there's not enough time! When I have a goal, I try as hard as I can to stick to it. Besides, just because the path is clear, it doesn't mean I won't try other options. Our brains are designed to learn, and I like to understand what's going on around me. It's true that I've always had this need to understand and to have a certain amount of control. But I'm also a very resilient person in many respects. As my career progressed, I learned to let go and delegate, thus giving some leeway to the teams. Today, that's really what drives me: trying to help others grow. And I have to say that I find it almost more fulfilling to see others evolve. My strong point is that I like human contact, which is important, especially when you're a manager. It's rewarding to see your teams gain autonomy and take initiatives. This means that, intrinsically, we've done our job well.

4. What are the most important principles or ideals you follow and uphold in your work and life (e.g. equality, sustainability, fairness, curiosity)?

First of all, I would say listening. Most people have preconceived ideas - and I'm the first. At work, I take the time to go round the departments and listen to the teams, because I don't want to miss out on any hidden gems or great ideas.
Listening and sharing are two values I highly appreciate. And I draw as much inspiration as possible from exchanges with others in my day-to-day work.

Finally, I defend the value of respect: respect for others and respect for the rules. For me, respect is as much about women as it is about men. Equality must exist at every level. And there are still many barriers to overcome.

What I remember is that we always had to fight to get into this business.

Finding an internship, for example, was already complicated. The site manager didn't want to take on women because it was shift work (working three shifts). But my professor vouched for me and it worked. Then I managed to prove my worth and I was accepted. The following year, the site repeated the experience and took on three women as interns. So don't hesitate to show that you can do it. There's always a time when you have to take a step back; not out of malice, but undoubtedly for protection.

Even today, if I had to cite another concrete example: it's difficult to have women's changing rooms in certain sites like mine, but this project will eventually become a reality; I'm convinced of it and I'm working hard on it. What's more, and I'm very sad about this, we receive few or no female applicants.

5. How do you share these convictions with others so that they understand why they are important?

I share a lot with my teams during our meetings. It's true that I express myself a lot and I regularly ask them for their opinion. That's my nature.

For me, you have to be daring and not hesitate to talk and share with others. It's essential for our daily progress. I often tell them that "If I take up space in meetings, it's because you've left me too much. ”

Besides, my office door is always open. And even though I'm part of the management team, I do my best to remain accessible and available to my colleagues. Expressing ourselves without judging is another conviction I share: as long as we remain respectful, we can say things to each other.

6. What would you say is your greatest achievement to date?

My greatest source of pride is having succeeded in building a team that works together. It also sometimes malfunctions, but TOGETHER. And then we all try to find solutions. I'm really proud of my team. Even before I took over the management position, I had managed to lead an entire team to succeed with a great technical project.

I like my job and I identify with the values shared by my superiors and the way my group operates.

7. Women are generally less likely to work in industrial/technological companies; what has been your experience?

I've been lucky in my career, because the men around me have always trusted me. I've had the opportunity to meet some great people and be well looked after. I was never made to feel that I couldn't do things and I was always accepted as I was. Throughout my career, I've received a lot of support from my husband, of course, who also works in the papermaking industry, but also from my male and female colleagues.

But I have to admit, it's a man's world.

I have a few anecdotes from work, for example. At events where spouses are invited, my husband is usually approached first, even though he's actually the one who accompanies me. It's so ingrained in our way of being that I think it could happen to me too and I could myself into that kind of confusion.

I remember that in my class at the papermaking school, there was a very clear selection process at the end of the first year, when it was time to choose a specialization. At the time, the gender mix was quite good, with a ratio of 50%, but by the second year there were only a few women in my option. It was as if there was a way "for girls" and a way "for boys". It's a pity, but it's never held me back. I've been used to evolving in male-dominated environments, whether in high school where I followed a technical curriculum with a lot of sport, or during my higher education.

8. What would you advise other young women to do to pursue a career in an industrial/technological company?

Don't put up barriers. We often put up the first barrier ourselves, thinking we're not capable. On top of that, we unfortunately have this annoying tendency to want everything to be perfect. Even before you try something, you start to have doubts. Our main enemy is undoubtedly ourselves. So I'd advise them to just go for it, don't hesitate and jump right in!

It's important to remember that we're not alone in a company: there are other people we can count on. The most important thing is to be as self-confident as possible, and to know how to surround yourself with the right people. I'd like to say to those young women who are hesitating to pursue this type of career that it's entirely possible. It won't always be perfect, mistakes may be made, but you can't be afraid of failure. You have to dare, you have to try, you have to work for it and, above all, you have to know when you've finally achieved your goal.

Industry as a whole is struggling to recruit, or at any rate is less attractive to young talent. This sector suffers from a degraded image (dirty, polluting, contrary to environmentalist rhetoric, long working hours, etc.). We need to dispel these ideas and prejudices. The industry is a modern environment that's perfectly compatible with being a woman. It's up to us to talk about it and promote the industry through examples and career paths, so that young women can not only think about it, but also make it part of their career choice.

 9. What makes you Unstoppable?

I'd say my children. Because I want them to be proud of their mom.

I realize that even as young children, with their receptive minds, they are still surprised by certain facts (mom working in a factory, a woman driving a truck...). I hope that one day this will no longer raise questions. Mom is just as capable as anyone else, despite her sensitivity and shortcomings. I'm no wonder woman. And for me, Mom and Dad are the same: it's not easy for either of them.

The group I work for today also seeks to promote diversity. It's an opportunity! However, we have to be careful; what I don't like is positive discrimination. For me, it's the worst. The main risk is that, by imposing quotas, some people will be put off - if they're not yet ready, for example - and this would give critics the upper hand. We mustn't get the idea that women are in certain positions because a certain number was needed, not because they deserved it.

So I hope my story will help break these stereotypes and inspire other Unstoppable journeys.

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