For the past 75 years, not only has the economy changed, but the paperboard and packaging industry has greatly changed as the industrial base of the United States has shifted abroad. For any industrial company to sustain itself, a flexible outlook is necessary — as is leadership that is ready to build a strategy to meet a changing environment.
Proteus Packaging is proof that a firm that started out as a carton manufacturer in 1932 can invest in expansion and stay afloat in an economy where "smokestack companies" have become a thing of the past. To get the gist of who they are and how they have repositioned themselves in today's industry, Paperboard Packaging spoke to Proteus' ceo, Thomas Wamser.
Paperboard Packaging (PP): Can you give us an overview of Proteus and its history?
Thomas Wamser (TW): Since 1932, Beck Carton Corp. has been manufacturing packages for the pharmaceutical, nutritional, health and beauty, and automotive industries. The company is privately owned and, until recently, was located in three 100-year-old, five-story and 250,000 total sq ft buildings in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward.
We knew, however, that to effectively serve our global customers while also anticipating industry trends, the company needed to move to be more efficient. Two years of extensive planning, designing and building ensued with dramatic results: a new, 246,000-sq-ft, state of the art manufacturing and office building located in Franklin, Wis.
The move provided the perfect opportunity to change our name to better reflect our packaging capabilities; the name chosen was Proteus Packaging. Taken from Greek mythology, the sea god Proteus could transform himself to any shape — and was sought after for his insight into the future. The name evolved over time to mean versatile, capable and adaptable, qualities that Beck Carton customers have come to expect over the past 75 years.
As a single-story structure, the new plant supports a circular work flow: Raw materials enter the plant at the same place where finished products are shipped out. With four times the storage capacity as the three older buildings, the new plant uses only a fraction of the square footage, thanks to a high racking system and laser-guided forklifts.
The building's design has boosted productivity an astounding 25 percent. One example of this improved productivity is a pallet that would typically be handled 17 times in the previous buildings is now handled only four or five times. Such efficiencies save customers money, shorten project times, and improve warehousing and on-demand shipping. The increase in overall efficiency has helped keep pace with new business opportunities.
The new office design allows teams significant room to work, including mock-ups.
PP: How have you been successful leading the company?
TW: Proteus has benefited from a strong leadership team and minimal turnover. The experience of our staff has helped us thrive in the paperboard packaging industry, and develop a successful transition strategy to the new facility. My decisions always take into account thorough industry research and the recommendation of our experienced staff.
PP: From your perspective, what are some of the greatest challenges faced in the industry today?
Proteus took extensively time designing the new production floor to maximize productivity, keeping costs down.
International competition comes in many forms, both in vying for customers and raw material purchases. By providing value, flexibility and competitive prices, Proteus has experienced tremendous growth. We recently had a number of customers return to us because of problems in working with companies based overseas.
It is no surprise that U.S. companies are experiencing more people retiring from skilled positions than are coming in to replace them. Forty-three percent of the U.S. civilian work force will be eligible to retire in the next decade. Because of this, the Proteus team believes it is paramount to educate and excite younger generations about manufacturing. For example, we are working with technical colleges and other organizations to find good future candidates.
A Proteus employee monitors the new production line.
We have taken a serious look at training and mentoring new talent to ensure a smooth transition of knowledge between our employees retiring and the new workers. The company experiences only about 1 percent annual turnover. Employees average 15 years with the company, and some workers are second- and third-generation. However, even with this great track record, we do not take the changing demographics of our workforce lightly.
PP: What are some of Proteus' key strategic positions looking forward, and what's behind such positions?
TW: At Proteus, the "one size fits all" mentality is rejected. The company is always developing innovative designs and new structures for paperboard packaging, and is a packaging partner in the entire process, focusing on what makes a package effective.
A comprehensive implementation strategy was developed that includes a vision, clearly defined business objectives, a communication strategy and a structured training program.
The company uses both lean and 5S methodologies to help continually improve processes and control costs. Because of these efficiencies, customers receive highly innovative, functional packaging designed to support merchandising, marketing and warehousing efforts.
The objective of Proteus' lean manufacturing is to enable business growth, and reduce lead times and costs while improving quality and delivery performance. One way to increase customers' profitability is through a managed inventory and warehousing program.
An air scrap system allows 100 percent of waste is to baled and recycled.
Elimination of waste is a major component of the continuous improvement approach. There is also a strong emphasis on prevention rather than detection, and an importance placed on quality at the design stage. This customer-driven approach helps prevent errors and achieve defect-free production. When problems do occur within the product development process, they are generally discovered and resolved before they can get to the next internal customer.
In an industry driven by price and on-time delivery, everyone at the company — from design engineers to die-cutters to press operators — is encouraged and recognized for developing solutions that meet customers' needs, lower costs and increase profit margins.
PP: What role will technology play in your future success in times like these?
TW: Investments in technology are necessary for growth. Some of the new technology in prepress and printing is exciting, and we have factored that into our plans for future success. Improvements in quality have been made; and are a complement between our work force and state of the art technology. However, striving for quality improvements must not be static and are always analyzed.
To meet today's fast-paced, short-cycle schedules, the company includes technology research and investment as part of our annual strategic planning process.
PP: What's your perspective on global competition in the industry, and how are you reacting to it?
TW: Global competition is a challenging issue for so many U.S. manufacturing companies. Proteus balances between finding effective ways to sell to global companies, and not losing customers to global converters. The one-way street has to become a two-way divided highway for our survival.
Recent fuel cost increases are also making this more challenging. We are reacting by finding ways to make Proteus the best fit for customers on all levels, regardless of our location. Price is extremely important, but if you cannot get product to a customer in a timely manner or offer value-added service, the importance diminishes. Many customers are tightly controlling inventory turns — Proteus can offer value in this area where global companies cannot.
PP: What top factors will be on the minds of most paper and packaging executives in the next three to five years?
TW: The country's escalating energy costs and economic downturn are prominent issues that are on executives' minds as they examine the role these variables play on profitability.
Another topic Proteus Packaging has discussed is how to leverage the positive message of paperboard packaging. For example, many customers are looking for ways to use data to prove their sustainability and environmental stewardship. Paperboard packaging offers a compelling solution. Being green is a huge opportunity for a win-win with customers and suppliers.
PP: Is there anything else you'd like to say about your company and the industry that you haven't had the opportunity to say?
TW: Like the Greek sea god, Proteus, we have always looked into the future. We believe the future of paperboard packaging is bright, prosperous and offers tremendous opportunities for manufacturers and customers.
The company is grateful to be in such a rewarding and challenging industry. We also feel very fortunate to work with such astute customers and dedicated employees.