Passion for packaging led Clemson alumna to key role at Burt’s Bees
The right fit is always a primary concern in packaging design, and that’s something Burt’s Bees R&D Group Manager for Cosmetics Innovation Courtney Cloninger has had a knack for finding in her own life.
Having grown up in a “house divided” — her father is a Clemson University alumni; her mother opted for in-state athletics rival University of South Carolina — Cloninger needed only one visit to Clemson’s campus as a junior in high school to decide where she wanted to spend her college years.
“My big brother was in school there and loved it,” she said. “It was the Carolina Panthers’ first season, and they were playing in Death Valley, and I went to a game with him — and walking around the campus, I just loved it. So, my intention was to go to Clemson. It was the only place that I actually applied to college because that’s where I knew I wanted to go.”
Likewise, when it came time to pick an academic major, when Cloninger found the right fit, she says it was readily apparent.
Cloninger knew she wanted to do something based around math and science but also needed an element of creativity. Listening to her parents and brother discuss packaging science as he considered a change of majors, she realized it was a good mix of the skill set she hoped to develop, as well.
“I was invited to tour the packaging lab at Clemson, and we basically spent the day in the lab doing all kind of fun things,” she said. “I remember we canned T-shirts and used some of the equipment, and it really just drew me in. So, I decided that was going to be my major.
“I was still wavering between that and some kind of engineering, but as soon as I got into it and started taking the packaging classes, I knew that was the right fit for me — and I never looked back.”
Again, when she graduated from Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences in 2002 and set out to find a job, Cloninger said it was about finding the right fit. Having grown up in the Rock Hill, S.C., area, she wanted to stay in the Carolinas, but also find a career that suited the skill sets she’d built at Clemson.
Burt’s Bees, based in Durham and Morrisville, N.C., was one of the first companies to respond to her resume submissions, and she landed an interview with co-founder Roxanne Quimby. What Cloninger learned upon arrival was Burt’s Bees didn’t actually have a packaging department.
“Their creative services and their head chemist had been doing all the packaging development at the time, so they hadn’t been doing a lot of testing and hadn’t really been doing any type of looking at options,” she said. “After the interview, I got the job offer and came up here and have been here ever since.”
Of course, Burt’s Bees products are now a staple in national chain stores with their recognizable honeycomb design, but the company was largely in its infancy when Cloninger came aboard. It has since been sold twice — first to AEA Investors and eventually to Clorox — and its annual sales have multiplied more than five-fold.
And Cloninger has been a part of that growth, having risen from the company’s first packaging design engineer to heading up a 10-person team that handles packaging development for all new products for Burt’s Bees.
Most recently, she has moved into a new role in charge of cosmetics innovation, leading a team that handles all innovation work for cosmetics, including packaging, product development and process development.
While the team tries to draw synergies with Burt’s Bees existing products and utilize some of its existing packaging to get products on the market quickly, it also took aim at making “a really big splash” by designing custom packaging for many of the products in the launch of its brand-new cosmetics line.
“We tried to tie into our brand equity, so several of our packages are honeycomb or hexagon shaped, so it kind of draws on that insinuation that bees have and the way honeycombs fit together,” she said. “But one of Burt’s main missions is to use sustainable packaging, and that means using a lot of recycled materials, which can present some challenges … so we kind of have to balance the sustainability aspect with consumer usage and functionality.”
Cloninger said her time at Clemson University provided her with a solid background on which to handle those challenges, as well as the hands-on knowledge to know what to expect in the industry. Her emphasis was in food science, which prepared her for handling the natural aspects of Burt’s Bees’ products, what is known in the industry as “kitchen chemistry.”
“There are a lot of food-grade products and food-based ingredients, even, that we use,” she said. “That was something that, at first, I didn’t know if I would have a direct application for that, but it has actually come in really handy.”
Due to her experiences and the relationships she built in college, Cloninger said she is a “big believer in supporting Clemson.”
Cloninger sits on the Food, Nutrition and Packaging Science External Advisory Board, and she also set up an co-op program at Burt’s Bees that recruits students from Clemson, which has been so successful that three of the interns have been hired for full-time positions.
“Courtney is a great example of what an excellent student can do with our multi-disciplinary packaging degree,” said Jeffery Rhodehamel, chair and professor in Clemson’s Department of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences. “Her wealth of industry experience and love of Clemson make her an excellent and valuable member of the department’s External Advisory Board. Her willingness to provide co-op opportunities continues to strengthen our student’s real-world experiences that they bring back to the classroom before embarking out on their own careers.”
And Cloninger doesn’t hide her love for Clemson from her co-workers.
“Everybody at work actually teases me because they know how passionate I am about Clemson. I’m a big supporter of Clemson football, and of course, it’s a great time to be a Clemson fan,” she said. “The great thing about having some fellow Clemson alumni who work as part of my team now is, when I first started working at Burt’s, I was the only Clemson fan surrounded by mainly N.C. State fans … and caught a lot of grief. But now I have a lot of fellow Clemson fans here, which is fantastic.”