The 2019 CEO of the Year: John Hayes

Ball Corp. CEO John Hayes brings can-do attitude to sustainability

Photos by Jeff Nelson. 

As Ball Corp. readies a new campus in Westminster, John Hayes is running the multinational manufacturer from a temporary headquarters office in Broomfield.

“I can’t wait, because we have no good food options,” he laughs. “If I get one more thing out of the vending machine, I’ll go nuts.”

The new chapter will start in late 2020, but Ball’s path to becoming the world’s largest manufacturer of recyclable metal food and beverage containers has been a bit circuitous. From glass jars to surveillance satellites, Ball Corp. has been in 48 different business lines since its founding in 1880.

“Ball’s been around for 140 years now,” Hayes says. “You don’t get to be that old by not being sustainable.” That’s the triple bottom line, he adds, of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

His path has also had some twists and turns. Hayes, who turns 54 in December, joined the company in 2001 after working for Lehman Brothers in Chicago, where Ball was a client.  “I was stuck on that merry-go-round and didn’t know how to get off,” he says.

After an accident left Hayes recuperating for several months, “not one person from the bank where I worked came and visited,” he remembers, “but two drove up from Muncie, Indiana [Ball’s then-headquarters city]. One was Dave Hoover, who I succeeded as CEO. The other was Ann Scott, his assistant and now our vice president of investor relations. It had a profound effect on me.”

Hayes says it led to a “What am I going to be when I grow up?” moment. He decided he might want to work for Ball but didn’t want to live in Muncie. Then serendipity struck: “About six months later, they announced they were moving to Colorado. About six months after that, I agreed to join the company.”

After initially running planning and development, Hayes advanced to COO in 2008 and became CEO in 2011.  His tenure with the company overlaps with a big strategic shift. “The last 20 years, Ball has really put its shoulder into aluminum,” he says. “We think it’s the most sustainable substrate in the world for beverage packaging.”

The company acquired its largest competitor in the aluminum beverage container market, Rexam, in 2016, and divested steel container operations in 2018. But it’s been going on since Hayes’ promotion to CEO. “We got out of the plastic business in 2011,” he says, “because we saw this whole idea that plastic being recycled was a misnomer.”

Take a sample of beach sand from anywhere on the planet and look at it under a microscope. “You’ll see millions of micro-shards of plastic,” Hayes says. “That’s not going away unless you stop using it, and that’s our central thesis.”

Of all plastics used in human history, only 9 percent have been recycled, but “75 percent of all aluminum ever produced by mankind is still in use today,” he adds. “Think about it. Aluminum produced in the ‘50s and ‘40s is still in use today.”

It follows that aluminum has emerged as the material of choice for beverage brands. In 2014, about a third of new beverages were packaged in aluminum; in 2019, that has doubled to two-thirds. Aluminum containers sheath everything from water to wine. Hayes says canned craft beer has jumped from “zero” in the early 2000s to about 40 percent today, as volume growth is roughly double what it was in decades prior.

It all adds up to Ball making more than 100 billion aluminum beverage containers a year, or about 300 million a day, at facilities all over the U.S.

Beyond aluminum cans and aerosol containers, Ball is also a big name in aerospace. “In Colorado, the vast majority of people think we’re an aerospace company,” Hayes says. “That’s only 10 percent of our business.”

Founded in 1956, Ball Aerospace & Technologies is actually older than Ball’s beverage container business, which the company acquired in 1969. The wholly owned subsidiary has been involved with the Hubble and Webb telescopes, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and a host of other spacecraft. “At the end of the day, we look out at the stars and look back at the Earth,” Hayes says.

Business is booming, he adds, and Ball Aerospace has hired more than 2,000 people, the vast majority of them in Colorado, in the last 18 months.

Ball has won accolades for its diversity and inclusion efforts, topping Forbes’ “America’s Best Employers for Diversity” list in 2019. “We don’t need 18,000 people at Ball who think just like myself,” Hayes says. “If you get the inclusion part right, you’ll get the diversity part right.”

When it comes to managing and leading a company with nearly 20,000 employees, Hayes says he takes a “flat” approach. “We try to push decision-making as low as possible. That’s where the point of contact is.”

The result? “When you get people to speak up, you get better ideas.”

On the consumer side, Ball’s strategy dovetails into broad demographic changes. “We’re in the early stages of a generational shift of how consumers think about sustainability and how it relates to everyday life,” he says. “People are becoming much more sustainable in their choices, and we’re right in the sweet spot.”

Ball Corp. manufactures more than 100 billion aluminum beverage containers per year, many at this plant in Golden. 

That means Ball is always on the lookout for new aluminum applications, like replacing one-use plastic cups at football games and other events. Aluminum-cup manufacturing commenced in summer 2019, and a prototype debuted at Folsom Field in Boulder in September.

After piloting the concept at a few “petri dishes” like Folsom Field, Hayes is eying the multi-billion-dollar plastic cup market. “We’re in the process of finalizing the design of an upwards of $200 million facility that can make between 800 million and a billion of these,” he says. “It’s a huge opportunity for us.”

Hayes calls himself “a reformed hockey player,” and he likes to use the ice as an analogy for the workplace. “I always say the name on the front is more important than the name on the back of the jersey,” he says.

“If you can get a variety of people with different backgrounds working together as one, it’s very powerful.”

This article is part of ColoradoBiz Magazine's annual CEO of the Year feature. Read more about this year's finalists: 


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