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Carrying On

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Carrying On

August 31, 2002 - 21:00

The success that Ferguson Supply & Box Mfg. Co. has enjoyed in the last eight years is bittersweet for owners Paige Ferguson Burgess and Chip Ferguson. Even though they are successfully continuing the legacy of what their father, Charles Ferguson, started 43 years ago, they'd give anything if he were still around to see their accomplishments.

Charles, founder of the Charlotte, N.C.-based corrugated sheet plant, died of lung cancer in 1994.

"He'd be very proud," says Chip. "We say that a lot. We wish he were here to see what was going on. I feel like he's always watching over us anyway, smiling, proud of the team, of what the team's done."

Soon after Charles learned of his illness, he approached his daughter, Paige, about taking over the sheet plant. She agreed and began working at the company in 1994. Chip soon joined her. Their father died three months after Paige started.

Although Burgess, 39, and Ferguson, 35, never planned to take over Ferguson Box, it turns out that following in their dad's footsteps came naturally.

Using the Artios CAD system and a Data Technology sampletable, Packaging Engineer Steve Judd works on a customized package design.
Using the Artios CAD system and a Data Technology sampletable, Packaging Engineer Steve Judd works on a customized package design.

With the help of top managers, they put in place a strategy that would lead to phenomenal growth, tripling the company's size in eight years. In that time, the company purchased a competing sheet plant and invested in several new pieces of equipment. All told, this puts annual revenue at more than $20 million.

This growth has not gone unnoticed. The Charlotte Business Journal recently published a list of the area's top women-owned companies. Ferguson was ranked second behind Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. of Charlotte Inc. In addition, Burgess was profiled as one of the top 25 business women in the area.

Burgess says she makes it a point to get involved in the larger picture of Charlotte manufacturing. Next year, she will chair the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce Manufacturers Council.

In the Journal article, Bob Kellen, vice president of the manufacturers council, says that one of the things Burgess learned from her dad is persistence. "If she believes in something, she doesn't back off."

Ferguson Box has several pieces of equipment from McKinley Machinery, including this jumbo two-color flexo folder-gluer .
Ferguson Box has several pieces of equipment from McKinley Machinery, including this jumbo two-color flexo folder-gluer .

Burgess is quick to point out that the success of Ferguson Box is a team effort. Growth, she says, comes from the guidance of very knowledgeable managers with a positive attitude, well-timed acquisitions, being located in a economically healthy region, a diverse product mix, and a strong customer focus.

"We already had the philosophy ingrained here that we were very customer service oriented. We take care of our customers. We will always find a way to make someone happy," she says.

Ferguson adds, "We've got quality people, and we've continued to do things the same way my father started doing them. One of his legacies that Paige and I have carried on is to take care of the customer, take care of employees and everything else takes care of itself. That's why we've grown."

Piecing It Together

Ferguson Supply, which recently changed its name to Ferguson Box, consists of two divisions spread across four facilities. Division 1 is the manufacturing operation and Division 2, which is run by Chip Ferguson and located in a separate building, is the stock box, overruns and misprint operation.

There has been and will continue to be some re-shuffling of facilities this year. Last year, the company purchased Westport Containers Inc., a competing sheet plant, and moved into Westport's facility in May. (Westport and Ferguson were part owners of Pinnacle Corrugated, a North Carolina sheet feeder. Ferguson is still an owner.)

Team Ferguson (from left) Susan Dunn, Jeff Hargett, Chip Ferguson, Paige Ferguson Burgess, Mike Sherrill, and Gene Massey. Ferguson Box's new name and logo is in the background.
Team Ferguson (from left) Susan Dunn, Jeff Hargett, Chip Ferguson, Paige Ferguson Burgess, Mike Sherrill, and Gene Massey. Ferguson Box's new name and logo is in the background.

The current location of the stock box operation may be sold once the business is relocated into the old Ferguson manufacturing site.

"We'll still run Division 1 and 2 and a warehouse, and then we'll have 220,000 square feet," Burgess says. "There are so many details and it has to all work."

Combined square footage of the four sites is currently about 280,000. The company employs about 135, including 11 salespeople who sell for both divisions, and runs two full shifts.

It All Started With $35
It All Started With $35

Division 2 accounts for about 30 percent of Ferguson's business and continues to grow. A marketing director recently was hired to help the sales representatives cross sell Division 1 and 2 products.

"We're training our salespeople to not just look for box business. We want them to look for all kinds of business," Ferguson says. "In the next year, a lot of our growth will come from this area because of the different items that we sell. If we already have a customer that's buying boxes, we can (suggest that) he consolidate his vendors and buy his supplies from us."

An 80-inch Post folder-gluer was installed in 2000.
An 80-inch Post folder-gluer was installed in 2000.

Ferguson Box's product offering is very diversified, encompassing a mixture of brown box and graphics serving customers within a 150-mile radius. A staple product is 200-pound C-flute. This mixture is what keeps the company "recession proof," says Steve Judd, packaging engineer.

"Our product mix is so varied that we really don't have a lull in our season," he says.

Equipment Drives Growth

One key to Ferguson's growth and stability is the addition of equipment, which has generated new markets and customers, according to Mike Sherrill, vice president of sales.

For example, he says the Data Technology sampletable, which was purchased about four years ago, is a tremendous sales tool. "The sales people can get something designed and walk out, many times the same day, and be back at the customer with a box."

The newest pieces of equipment are a McKinley 66- by 190-inch two-color jumbo folder-gluer and an 80-inch Bobst/Post specialty folder-gluer, which were purchased in September 2000.

Combining Companies
Combining Companies

At the time, the company didn't have any business for the new machines. "Now we wonder what we did without those pieces of equipment," Burgess says.

Both of these were purchased with Industrial Revenue Bonds, which also were used to finance the acquisition of Westport Containers. The bonds are offered through the county and can be used on anything having to do with manufacturing, according to Burgess.

In 1996, Ferguson installed a 37- by 98-inch flexo folder-gluer from McKinley Machinery. Both McKinley folder-gluers have Pacesetter computer controls from Intelligent Machine Control.

The company also has an EAM Mosca strapping system.

A turning point for Ferguson Box came in 1992 when the company bought a three-color 66- by 115-inch McKinley diecutter to gain more graphics business. Sun Automation installed a Rainbow Graphics system on the diecutter, the first McKinley with a "high graphics" system.

The company contacted graphics consultant Lee Grantham of Mark Tr¥ to help the plant produce high quality print jobs.

Purchasing the diecutter was actually a result of Charles Ferguson's conservative fiscal policy. Sherrill, who has worked at Ferguson Box for 30 years, recalls a conversation Ferguson had with his accountant. "He came to Charlie and said, 'We see a problem. Everything in your plant is paid for. You don't have anything to depreciate. You need to buy some equipment.'

"We didn't have a flexo box machine. Everything we did we ran in two passes.

We were always very fiscal. We always tried to watch the dollars," Sherrill says. "Charlie came to me and the plant manager and said, 'We want you both to come up with a proposal about what you think we need to buy.' We both arrived at the idea that we needed to buy a three-color diecutter. At least a two-color."

Sherrill based his decision on a graphics seminar he attended at a 1991 Association of Independent Corrugated Converters meeting. "It was pretty much a brown box world back then," he says. "The speaker predicted there would be a 35 to 40 percent growth in white liner in the next 10 years."

After Charlie approved the purchase of a three-color diecutter, Sherrill says several plant employees couldn't understand why. "They were saying, 'We haven't had a three-color job in the last 10 years. What do you want with a three-color diecutter?'"

Looking back, Sherrill says the installation of the machine changed the plant in a lot of ways. "For people who had worked here a long time to see new equipment, that says that this company is actually doing something now."

Over the years, Burgess says the company has relied heavily on its suppliers. "We do a lot of team selling. Sometimes we've taken our customers to the platemakers. Our ink suppliers have been here to meet with our customers. We learn a lot from the experts."

Ferguson Box purchases its inks from Poteet Printing Systems and its plates from Container Graphics Corp. and Mark Tréce.

"For a lot of projects we'll have the platemakers, Poteet ink and the customer get together and discuss how we're going to accomplish what we're trying to do," Sherrill adds.

Plotting A Course

Whether it's buying new machinery or taking on a new project, every detail is carefully planned at Ferguson Box.

Managers have regular strategy meetings at an off-site location.

"We try to figure out where we are and where we want to go in the next three, four or five years," Sherrill says.

This planning has obviously helped the company stay its course on the road to success.

Burgess likes to joke with the managers, most of whom were hired by Charles, that the reason the company is so successful is because her dad raised them all.

This sentiment is echoed by industry veterans Tom Skinner of Phoenix Packaging, Winston-Salem, N.C., and Lou Wetmore of Triad Packaging, Conover, N.C.

Wetmore, a long-time friend and mentor to both Burgess and Chip Ferguson, says when he talks to both of them, it's like talking to their father. "The apple didn't fall too far from the tree," he says.

Skinner says it actually has been helpful that Burgess didn't have much industry experience when she started. "She's always asking the question, 'Why can't we do that?,' when something comes up. She's a good administrator and she has a great staff and she takes care of them."

Despite Burgess's and Ferguson's successful run, they believe that if their dad were still alive, he could help them.

"We are continuing to do things the way he always has, but I'm sure there's always some good advice we could use," Ferguson says.