Restructuring the Domtar Orchestra

As the company reinvents its place in the market, Zygmunt Jablonski works to build a team whose members complement one another like an orchestra—not a group of soloists

It’s not revelatory that an in-house legal officer handles a diverse array of issues. What is revelatory is how they do it successfully. For Zygmunt Jablonski, senior vice president and chief legal and administrative officer at Domtar, it was part of a major restructuring initiative throughout the company.

Jablonski’s management portfolio includes all corporate functions except for finance and IT. That’s unusual for a $5.3 billion, publicly traded company. The decision to allocate those functions to Jablonski wasn’t an accident; it was part of a transformation that took several years.

Domtar, formerly a paper manufacturer, has been reinventing itself since CEO John Williams joined the company in 2009. As the white-paper market undergoes secular decline, Domtar is shifting its focus to become a global producer of fiber-based products in growth markets, including specialty paper, fluff pulp, baby diapers, and adult incontinence products, as well as engaging in ventures to produce new products.

“Approximately 20 percent of our revenue is now coming from categories we weren’t even in just a few years ago,” Jablonski says.

This reinvention called for a restructuring of corporate functions, and Jablonski says leaders in Domtar didn’t want to be “constrained by conventional corporate staffing structures.” Instead, leadership wanted to create a structure that could respond quickly and effectively to changes in assets, strategies, or initiatives. To that end, company leaders analyzed the service needs of Domtar’s two operational divisions in 2014. They were able to determine that moving some corporate functions, such as aspects of human resources, into its two operating divisions was more efficient than running them all “from the top.”

Today, the remaining corporate component, which includes legal services, is much smaller and focuses on corporate-wide decisions, while standing ready to assist both divisions on an “as needed” basis. This allows Domtar to minimize the bureaucracy that plagues other corporations.

“One of our core values is ‘agility,’ and our flexible model is a good expression of this value,” Jablonski says. “We have successfully resisted the temptation to grow corporate staff as quickly as the company has expanded into new markets and geographies. We have also reinforced our belief that the divisions are best qualified to determine their level of general and administrative services, and they know best what to ask the center for.”

Thanks to this mind-set, he says, the corporate function becomes one of collaboration rather than oversight. The change in corporate’s role and mind-set affects the company on a macro level, and it changes how people work on a micro level. For example, on divisional matters, human resources managers have a greater measure of control over their departments than they had in the past, giving them the ability to react in real time rather than waiting for decisions from corporate to make necessary changes. This results in more innovation and development—two priorities for Domtar as it expands into a company that looks a lot different than it did a decade ago.

There are other upsides from this focus on organizational efficiency. Jablonski says employees are now more likely to talk to each other about problems and solutions across their functional boundaries before going to their supervisor, as they now all share the same supervisor.

“I am told that this departure from silos has increased workplace socialization, and such teamwork has helped make Domtar a happier place to work,” Jablonski says.

The culture of collaboration is especially relevant for the legal team, which is relatively small and must show a lot of flexibility in handling a breadth of issues under Jablonski’s direction. Most in-house attorneys are expected to tackle a wide variety of functions, and Jablonski encourages Domtar’s lawyers to stretch outside of their areas of expertise. The company’s legal department employs both specialists and generalists, and it works well for the company’s management model. Nevertheless, Jablonski says no one expects to remain in his or her comfort zone.

“For example, one of our Canadian attorneys, who is also an Italian citizen, took a leap of faith by relocating to Europe and taking on legal work there,” Jablonski recalls. “In a relatively short period of time, she became the legal and human resources leader for our European personal care operations, living and working in Madrid. We encourage this type of thinking outside the box, as it opens up the internal talent potential for the entire corporation.”

In other words, the company is able to better work in harmony across the entire spectrum.

“The comparison may be cliché, but accomplishing this is akin to building an orchestra,” Jablonski explains. “You want to assemble world-class musicians for every chair, provided they want to be part of an orchestra and not soloists. I just happen to have the privilege of serving as a conductor, working to bring out the best from each of them in different and changing combinations, depending on the score.”