To the average person, the operation required to produce boxes for grocery stores, medical and beverage companies may not seem that complex, but at Green Bay Packaging Inc. (GBP), their approach is quite the contrary.
After all, how much sophistication does it take to make a square or rectangular box that just needs to be filled with product for shipping?
GBP is a privately owned, integrated manufacturer of paperboard packaging, headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The company owns forests and sawmills and employs more than 3,000 people and consists of over 20 divisions operating in 15 states, including the Hunt Valley, Md., plant. While all the divisions of the GBP company share the same name, it is a rather decentralized organization, with each division operating almost as an individual company, each with its own P&L.
The GBP Hunt Valley (GBPHV) production facility covers over 200,000 square feet. The loud hum of the corrugator machinery apparatus permeates through the complex and extends the length of a football field with many machines seamlessly tied together to provide the corrugated sheets.
At the front end of the huge corrugator machine, huge rolls of paper are inserted and fed through rollers and pasted together for specified thickness, called flutes. Further down the assembly line various rolls are bonded together to form the corrugated “cardboard” structure required to produce customized products for a specific customer. For instance, GBP produces retail boxes for bottles of beer like Clipper City and Miller Lite, packaging for medical products for Becton Dickenson, shippers for frozen food and cosmetics, and even retail displays for pet treats, produce, and other consumer products. Each finished corrugated product requires a specific standard of care in production.
Turning it around. Six years ago, GBP acquired the Hunt Valley corrugator operation from a failing box company. GBP was looking to get balance in its system by acquiring an additional east coast box plant to supplement their U.S. coverage. “This plant was the most underperforming plant in our system when we bought it. It was a failing company, so we had a big challenge on our hands,” said Aschliman.
“When I got here a year and a half ago, we were operating crazy overtime schedules just to get product out the door, to keep up with demand that amounted to only half our capacity,” said Aschliman. “We realized we needed to change the playbook,” he said.
After assessing the plant operations, Aschliman saw a great opportunity to increase efficiency. Since his arrival was during the height of the recession, the demand wasn’t there but it did provide a good opportunity to streamline internal processes for better efficiency. In addition, he learned that there was a major need for culture change. There had been many changes in ownership and too many ideas lacking implementation. And, there was a strong disconnect between the leadership and the line operations.
“We didn’t know who we were or who we wanted to be,” he said. Aschliman knew he needed a major transformation to build a cohesive team. He knew that he wouldn’t get a good product if the staff didn’t feel they had a stake in the company’s success. So he focused on culture change. “We took a step back and reevaluated our operation to engage our employees as stakeholders while also increasing the throughput,” he said.
Accordingly to Aschliman, now viewpoints from both levels are more integrated and there is buy-in on an individual basis and there is more of a family atmosphere. Trust has grown throughout the facility and there is a commonality of goals. One employee noted, “now we’re not just thinking about making boxes, but about making profitable boxes.” “We open up our books and let them know when we’re winning and when we’re losing,” said Aschliman. “Winners are recognized.”
Since the transformation, the plant has increased capacity with the same headcount and, Aschliman proudly noted, over the last six months they’ve had no layoffs and have gained market share, all during a depressed economic period. “We still have a long way to go, but we’ve made some major improvements,” he said.
In the world of boxes, GBPHV is not typically the least expensive box manufacturer, but they have established a niche with customers by providing additional value and low cost solutions. Retail marketing plays a big role in GBPHV’s selling efforts. The company has graphic artists on staff and manages the entire pre-press operation allowing them to be extremely competitive and control quality more effectively. GBPHV works very closely with the client to design uniform mock-ups and renderings, print layouts, colors and designs that will be compelling to the consumer.
“Our color and print management expertise has helped us become a market leader and has provided a competitive advantage, particularly with sub markets like the micro-brewery industry, which is extremely color and print sensitive,” said Aschliman. Every color is formulated and produced to a customer specific standard to help customers sell their product. “Our clients appreciate our graphic design work. Our packaging adds to the perceived value of what they are selling on the shelf,” he said.
As part of the culture change, GBPHV is constantly reevaluating the plant’s footprint and looking for opportunities to lean out its operations. For instance, they’ve saved on ink products for their printing and converting area by installing an “ink kitchen” instead of buying pre-made ink. The new ink system allows them to now buy the raw material in bulk and formulate color variations in house, increasing flexibility while saving on costs and eliminating waste. As another example, they recently invested in a “variable frequency drive” to power the production scrap abatement system. Aided in large part by that move, the firm has increased its throughput per kilowatt hour by 20%. In addition to the focus on energy conservation, they have made waste reduction a top initiative.
“Every pound of paper that we use from our system costs money to produce. That includes rejected product and wasted materials in process. That’s material that the company cannot sell to the market and is money down the drain,” said Aschliman. “So controlling and eliminating waste it is a top financial priority as well as an environmental one.”
GBP has long been a sustainability leader. “It’s woven into our fabric as GBP has led the way on closed loop water systems for its paper mills going back to the ‘80s”, said Aschliman. “To me, it’s all about waste and cost. If I’m losing money because we are not optimizing our energy sources or not eliminating waste, that is not good business,” he said. “And it’s bad for the environment as well.”
GBPHV has made a commitment to be part of a self-directed green team program with a cohort group of five other manufacturers led by Maryland’s Regional Manufacturing Institute. The program is operating under at U.S. Department of Energy grant through Baltimore County, Md., to help manufacturers with their energy conservation needs. Under the program, GBPHV is currently looking at their large corrugator to see if the heat generated from its operation can be transferred to the colder part of the warehouse as part of a waste-heat recovery effort. The corrugator generates enough heat to heat the whole warehouse area.
“We’re excited about working with these local manufacturers and RMI on this initiative,” said Aschliman. The RMI green team is helping GBPHV to learn from other manufacturers and providing outside expert guidance on cutting waste and optimizing its energy resources at the plant. “RMI’s efforts have really been a blessing in helping us to really focus on becoming a more sustainable and productive operation,” he said.
GBP has led the way on sustainability and has benefited from it. Over 95% of GBP’s paper sources are coming from certified sustainable forestry resources. GPB is planting what they’re harvesting, they are replenishing what they are pulping and recycling what they use. “Our entire company is saving the planet while improving our bottom line at the same time,” said Aschliman. GBP prides itself on taking a sustainable approach to sourcing its pulp and paper and has been a leader in helping to establish sustainable forestry to better ensure a dependable paper supply.
Much more than you might think, at first blush, from a company that “just produces boxes.”
By Peter R. Gourlay, RMI Green Team Coordinator and Columnist for Manufacturing Today Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.