Forty Under 40 Perspectives: Innovation is a team effort By Leigh Ann Burbes

Writer William S. Burroughs famously said, “When you stop growing, you start dying.” As a green industry, we understand all too well the literal interpretation as it applies to plants, but it is easy to lose sight of the figurative meaning. We are all creatures of habit, but to grow the bottom line, a company must build innovation into their strategy. Whether you’re reinventing an old idea or introducing a market disrupting product/concept, innovation should be at the heart of any organization.

My journey with T.O. Plastics began as a regional sales manager. Shortly after, I quickly jumped at the opportunity to fill a hybrid role as the senior market manager. This career transition came at a perfect time as I became a first-time mom with all the chaos and joy … and, let’s face it, the exhaustion that comes along with parenthood. I was able to focus my efforts behind the scenes and spend more time at home with my family. T.O. Plastics has always had a family-first culture and is aware that a company’s growth is a byproduct of the team’s growth, not the other way around. As senior market manager, I was able to serve as a liaison between engineering, operations and the sales managers to manage new product development. For us to continue to grow, we needed our sales team qualifying and bringing the ideas in for new products, but not getting bogged down by the internal processes and necessary research to follow the project from conception to production.


Our new product development team represents the collective input of our commercial team, engineering and marketing. When it is customer specific, we include the sales manager, and along the way pull in additional stakeholders like our operations team or industry partners, such as automation equipment manufacturers or tag manufacturers. It is a team effort that requires each member to contribute their area of expertise. We structure the process with the following four stages: discover, define, develop and deploy.

First is the discovery stage, where we identify the need. This can be a simple modification to an existing product, like automation compatibility, or a brand-new product. We gather the voice of the customer to determine specifications and take the time to learn how the customer uses the product in every aspect of their operation. This stage is often the longest and most important of the four. It can also sometimes be the beginning and the end of a project.

The next stage is to define the project. We put the details from the discovery stage into a CAD design, and we explore the viability of the project both from a customer and a production standpoint. We conduct design reviews both internally and externally and close in on the budgetary numbers.

The development stage usually begins with prototyping. We can produce full-size prototypes, 3D printed or partial prototypes of a small subsection of the whole product. Once prototypes are complete, we go back to the stakeholders identified in the discovery stage. Does the product meet their expectations; is there compatibility; are there any aspects that need to be redesigned? After verification, the tool build begins. We are proud that everything we build is manufactured in the U.S., from the tooling to the finished parts. While the tool build is under way, we create a sales and marketing plan for the launch.

This leads to the final stage of deployment in which all departments throughout the company work together to bring the idea from conception to completion. By including the cross-functional teams, we are able to ensure a quality finished product for our customers that will stand up to their operational demands.


In my experience it’s not always about being the first to the market with a new product or process, it’s about the journey it took to get there and the result. Being a fast mover has its appeal, but the luster quickly fades when the result is subpar. Sometimes the result of innovation is not even visible externally. It can be a structural change within your team, a change in process or something financial regarding your budget. Regardless, the best innovation occurs when you aspire to grow, commit to the process and are not afraid to fail.

At T.O. Plastics, we have recognized that some of our best innovations come directly from our customers — whether it is helping them improve operational efficiencies or enhancing plant growth. We want to be more than their supplier; we want to become their partner. It is because of those partnerships that we can introduce new products that are both thoughtful and viable.

I am honored and grateful for being inducted in the 40 Under 40 Class of 2022. Thank you to GPN for taking the time to recognize the future of our industry and congratulations to the entire Class of 2022. Keep raising the bar.

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Leigh Ann Burbes

Leigh Ann Burbes is senior market manager at T.O. Plastics in Clearwater, Minnesota. She is a member of GPN’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2022 and can be reached at