Plain white paper is the archetypal commodity. But that was just the beginning of the challenge for Finch Paper’s VP of Sales and Marketing, Tony McDowell. He had a commodity product at a smaller, regional player, in a declining market. As those 1960s icons of strategy, Cheech and Chong would say, “Bummer, man.”

Dig Deep to Identify Areas of Potential Competitive Advantage

McDowell knew he couldn’t win by shadowing the big boys. He needed to zig where they were zagging. So he and his team dug deep into the data to find more profitable, growing market segments where their first-in, fast-mover plan would be an advantage.

(This, of course, was what McArthur did in the Pacific – leap-frogging from undefended island to undefended island, bypassing the Japanese army’s areas of strength. Since both McDowell and McArthur used it maybe we should call this the McZigZag strategy.)

What the Finch team found was an opportunity to serve emerging digital printing needs across a small set of occasions across a defined set of customer segments.  Each opportunity was small enough to require too much flexibility to be attractive to the bigger players; but in the aggregate they comprised an attractive business for Finch.

Build the Capabilities to Win

Winning required three things:

  1. The best product for the targeted occasion
  2. Operational excellence to deliver the best total cost for customers
  3. Customer intimacy to deliver the best total solution for each individual customer

It turns out that not all white paper is the same. Finch developed a specific paper with specific properties, for specific applications and then worked closely with individual   printers to optimize quality results with a lower total print cost.

Then Finch focused its total product supply system to be able to deliver new grades of paper to a relatively small set of customers faster than any other mill.

Then Finch re-aligned  its sales and marketing team to allow it to partner with that small set of customers to understand their current and potential needs and co-create solutions that were better than either of them could do on their own.



Finch is not winning everywhere. But that was never the plan. Instead they are winning with some customers, in some segments, for some needs. That was the plan.

This is a good example of step 10 of The New Leader’s PlaybookEvolve People, Plans, and Practices to Capitalize on Changing Circumstances

By the end of your first 100-Days, you should have made significant steps toward aligning your people, plans, and practices around a shared purpose. Remember, this is not a one-time event but, instead, something that will require constant, ongoing management and Darwinian improvement.

In this particular case, McDowell didn’t have to look very far into the future to realize that doing the same thing the same way as everyone else was not going to have a happy ending. Instead, the Finch leadership team made some tough choices.

Choosing to zig when everyone else is zagging is not that difficult if everyone else is going in a bad direction. It’s a harder choice when you know the zaggers are going in a good direction. As my partner Harry Kangis suggests, the hardest strategic choice is choosing not to do something that’s a good idea – for somebody else. This is what’s so powerful about Finch’s strategy. They are avoiding profitable and popular market segments where they would have just another commodity and focusing on the areas where they can win.

Click here to read about each step in the playbook

Click here for YouTube videos highlighting each step


The New Leader’s Playbook includes the 10 steps that executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis uses to help new leaders and their teams get done in 100-days what would normally take six to twelve months. George Bradt is PrimeGenesis’ managing director, and co-author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan (Wiley, third edition to be released fall 2011). Follow him at @georgebradt or on YouTube.