Earning His Papers

By Bill Leonard Apr 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, April 2008 HR executive Jerome Carter has seen changes in his industry—and the HR profession— that have shaped his career.

When Jerome Carter began his human resource career nearly 27 years ago, “globalization” wasn’t part of his vocabulary. Now, as senior vice president of human resources for International Paper Co., Carter says without hesitation that globalization represents a top challenge he and his employer face every day.

“With globalization, everybody in the organization, and especially in the HR department, has had to change our focus, change our attitude and change our approach in the way we operate,” says Carter. “As the company is moving and changing rapidly, and not everyone is actually sure what is happening, we have had to lift our horizons quite a bit in HR.”

Since he first launched his HR career with large paper manufacturer Union Camp Corp., Carter has seen radical transformation of the industry—and the role of the HR department. As North American paper companies merged and consolidated, their HR professionals took on new roles and responsibilities having to do with reorganization and restructuring.

International Paper had 120,000 employees five years ago; now it has around 75,000. It’s a “challenge for HR people to remind the organization that these are not just numbers; these are people we are dealing with in this restructuring, and we have to treat them with dignity and respect.”

Carter, based at headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., also says the HR profession has moved from a transactional and administrative role toward a strategic focus. The speed of this shift varies by industry, but Carter says the restructuring of the paper industry accelerates change within International Paper’s HR operation.

“Sometimes, in a situation like this you can tend to focus on what has to be done and forget the people aspect,” Carter says. “We in HR have had a very important role to play in this reorganization and remind the organization we are dealing with people’s lives. How we deal with the bad times sometimes says much more about the organization and its culture than how we deal with the good times.”

Such positive attitude and dedication earn him the respect of executives, managers, supervisors and line workers. To be effective, “You have to earn and then maintain your credibility,” Carter says. “You earn that credibility by working hard, understanding the business, and being prepared to take on tough challenges and offer solutions to hard problems.”

Carter consistently shows a willingness to face challenges head-on, while striving to keep true to his word. One daunting challenge was the recent reorganization of International Paper’s HR department, with the primary goal of outsourcing most administrative functions. It took nearly two years to complete, but Carter voices pleasure with the results.

“We had to examine our processes and procedures closely and clean up things like redundancies. It was important to get our house in order before handing it over to someone else,” Carter reflects.

He admits that the project was one of the toughest of his career. But “We now are prepared to respond and take indepth and strategic looks at how we deploy and develop talent,” he says. “Now, [managers in] other departments come to us and ask, ‘How do we organize our teams to achieve these goals?’ ”

Early on, Carter’s willingness to take on such challenges and achieve results earned him a reputation as a leader. He became the head of HR for International Paper following a 1999 merger with Union Camp. Even though he had received steady promotions, Carter was surprised when he was picked to lead the HR department.

“The CEO of Union Camp saw something in me and decided to take a chance, even though I had only a year of experience working in HR at the corporate level,” he says. “I have been very lucky in the bosses that I have had. All of them have been excellent mentors.” He says each boss offered him just what he needed to further develop his career. His string of top-notch supervisors and mentors goes back to his days as a U.S. Army officer.

After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1971, Carter learned from his first commanding officer, “You won’t be successful as a leader unless you take care of your troops first,” he recalls. Carter served nine years as an Army artillery officer and helicopter pilot. Although he learned about being an effective leader, Carter says a lifelong military career wasn’t for him.

He enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. With an engineering degree from West Point, he suspected that the MBA program would be an excellent fit for his career goals. Those goals took an unexpected turn when he enrolled in a labor relations course. The professor, Sherman Dallas, began encouraging him. Dallas was a fairly wellknown labor arbiter in the southeastern United States and allowed Carter to work on arbitration cases with him.

He enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. With an engineering degree from West Point, he suspected that the MBA program would be an excellent fit for his career goals. Those goals took an unexpected turn when he enrolled in a labor relations course. The professor, Sherman Dallas, began encouraging him. Dallas was a fairly wellknown labor arbiter in the southeastern United States and allowed Carter to work on arbitration cases with him.

“The experience did give me a lot of confidence, and I realized that I just might have some talent in labor relations,” Carter says with a slight chuckle.

That talent has led him straight to the top of his profession and earned him accolades from colleagues in the paper industry and the HR profession. Just last November, Carter was named a member of the 2007 Class of Fellows for the National Academy of Human Resources. Carter remains humble about his success and still answers his own phone when he’s in the office—a rarity for a top-level executive at a Fortune 500 company.

“This is really not about me. It is about all the people in this organization and trying to do your best to make sure that they are treated right,” he says. “If you can do that, then you will probably do pretty well in this profession.”

The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.


Jerome 'Jerry' Carter

Education: 1980, Master of Industrial Management, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; 1971, Bachelor of Science, general engineering, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.

Current Job: 1999-present, senior vice president of human resources, International Paper Co., Memphis, Tenn.

Career: 1996-99, senior vice president of human resources, Union Camp Corp. (UCC), Wayne, N.J.; 1987-96, director of human resources and public relations, Kraft Paper and Board Division, UCC, Savannah, Ga.; 1981-87, manager of industrial relations, Savannah Mill, UCC, Savannah, Ga.; 1980-81, supervisor of industrial relations, Savannah Mill; 1971-79, U.S. Army artillery officer and helicopter pilot.

Personal: Age 58; born in Hartford, Ala.; married to wife Kathy; three children, two grandchildren.

Diversions: Fly-fishing, touring Civil War battlefields.

Connections: ipaper.com, (901) 419-9000.

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