You sometimes find inspiration where you least expect to find it.
That was the case for Ed Dever, who noticed while on a business trip to Japan that rice packages being prepped for shipment were wrapped not with plastic or string as he expected, but something that looked a lot like paper.
“I took that idea and thought, why can’t we do something like that here?” says Dever, who at the time worked in the paper industry and was living in Florida. “I started working on it and kept plugging away at it.”
Today, Dever’s idea – now patented – is at the heart of SDF Strapping Inc., a Brillion manufacturer poised for huge growth as it enters new markets and invests in its future. The paper straps – which are used in industrial and commercial settings to bind everything from cartons in warehouses to hospital sheets at a commercial laundry – are not only seen as more environmentally friendly than their plastic competitors, but safer, too.
“They’re doing something really unique and attracting customers from all over the country and world,” says Wayne Volkman, who retired as Brillion’s community economic director late last year and worked with SDF Strapping to help receive revolving loans from the City of Brillion and Calumet County to help get the business off the ground. “We had a quarterly Calumet County economic update there last fall and we just opened a huge number of eyes about the things they’re doing. People had no idea something so unique and with a global reach was being done there.”
The road to Brillion
As Dever began thinking about making his paper strap idea a reality, he teamed up with people he knew from the paper and converting industries. “Being in the Paper Valley seemed like a great place to be so I could get the products I needed as well as tap into the expertise,” he says.
He found a machine shop in Brillion to make a prototype machine that creates the paper straps. Today, the machine shop is gone, but SDF Strapping remains in its place in the building, employing eight. The company recently invested in a third winding machine that will allow it to better meet the needs of its growing client list.
From initial idea to full production, it took a lot of trial and error as Dever sought to make the paper straps mimic what the plastic straps could do, such as “give” a little yet bear sufficient weight. Throughout the process, Dever wanted to make sure that whatever straps were developed would be able to work with the current machines putting the plastic straps around products.
Dever, along with his wife, Diane, who is environmental stewardship liaison for the company, often pack their trailer with samples and hit the road attending trade shows and visiting potential clients as a way to get out the word about their product. The company has no paid marketing consultant and works locally with Zander Press to design and produce the handouts it shares with potential customers.
“The response we get at trade shows is huge. People love this product and often are trying to find a way to use us,” Diane Dever says. “But sometimes to get in on a new project, it may take six months of legwork to work on the set-up and to figure out what we need to do here to make it work. We sometimes just don’t have the time when we have all of this other stuff going on.”
“There’s so much potential,” Ed Dever continues. “Right now, we are focused on entering into the commercial laundry industry to see where that takes us. It’s something we can work into seamlessly since they are already using a similar product and our straps will work right away on the machines they already have in place.”
The commercial laundry industry doesn’t normally attract attention, but Dever says it’s a huge industry and includes hotels and health care providers that need to wash hundreds of laundry loads a day. Many contract with a third party who handles it all, including the bundling of sheets, towels, uniforms and more. Currently most use string or plastic. Both of those sources, Dever says, have their downsides. Plastic isn’t recyclable and requires a scissors to open the bundle. String poses a safety hazard. Paper straps from SDF can just be torn apart.
“You wouldn’t think so if you weren’t in the industry, but those plastic and string (straps) get on the floor and people can trip on them,” Diane Dever says. “If they happen to step in one of the paper straps, it will just rip.”
String and plastic can also get stuck in the machines, bringing operations to a halt while they’re pulled out.
SDF Strapping partnered with Gunderson Industrial Service (a sibling to the more well-known Gunderson Cleaners, which runs the dry cleaner retail outlets in the Fox Cities) to try out some of its products. Ed Dever made so many trips to the commercial laundry facility in Menasha that he joked he probably needed his own key. “We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was going to work,” he says.
Sam Feldt of Gunderson says his customers, including hospitals, like the paper straps. He says they are safer since employees don’t need to carry around scissors to cut open the bundles – they can just be ripped apart – and there’s no danger of tripping over plastic rings that fall to the floor. “Our customers, especially the hospitals, like that it’s also recyclable,” Feldt says.
Safe in the knowledge their paper strap would work with the standard commercial laundry equipment, Dever went ahead and ordered a new winder from Germany that more effectively winds the smaller paper straps.
“We are so excited to have the new winder up and running,” Dever says. “We had clients clamoring for this product once we started getting the word out and we couldn’t keep up with demand. Now that we’re set with the new winder, we’ll be able to add another shift so we can keep making the straps and using the new winder so we can meet customer demand and grow.”
An integral part of the success was making sure that the product was not only as durable as the plastic, but also cost neutral for the client. It also had to work with existing machines. When it comes to working with retailers and their suppliers – another huge growth potential – the same will hold true, Dever says.
“These are companies, like Wal-Mart, that are not only concerned about their environmental footprint, but also want something that doesn’t cost more,” he says.
When it comes to the packaging industry, companies everywhere are looking for ways to get their products from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible and at the lowest cost. Looking at all the ways that plastic straps and strings are used right now, if SDF Strapping’s products were used the impact would be “huge,” Dever says.
“We’re making headway in our current industries and looking at other processes that we may be able to use,” he says. SDF Strapping came away with 900 leads from a recent packaging expo. “There are so many people out there who love our product, it’s overwhelming, but right now we are focusing on what we can handle. Right now, plastic strapping is an $800 million industry – what percentage of that can we replace? I don’t know, but it’s exciting.”
To get to that next level, Dever says the company will likely add another shift of workers. Although the company is small, Dever says everyone is treated like family and he strives to treat workers like he would want to be treated. “Our faith is very strong in our lives and we live by that and it is central to everything we do,” he says.
The Devers share their Christian faith on the company’s website under a section called beliefs/values. While some businesses may put a mission statement there, SDF Strapping has a Bible verse and offers up a thanksgiving to God for what he has brought the company. Faith “isn’t something we shy away from,” says Dever. The company’s name is faith inspired, he adds.
Sitting around his then home in Jacksonville, Fla. in the early 2000s, thinking of a name for his new company, Dever threw around a bunch of initial combinations using his name, his wife’s and his son’s. But then, he was struck by an idea. He remembered a saying his mother used to say in Spanish, “Salto de fe,” which translates to “leap of faith” in English.
“I took the first letters of that and came up with SDF. It was a perfect fit because we were really taking a leap of faith with this business. We left our home in Florida, we left our jobs and came up here to work on this new venture. At the same time, it reflects our faith and the way we do things.”
Developing the strap definitely was a leap of faith, Dever says. It’s “more than paper and glue. We had some bumps in the road as we developed the product and process. We have now honed our manufacturing process, which will allow us to better respond and meet the demand out there.”
One challenge along the way was creating a paper product that stretched as much as plastic ones, but Dever kept at it and found success.
The machine developed by Dever that creates the unique paper strips takes just two people to operate. One person can run all three winders, including the new one, which handles the narrow strips necessary for the commercial laundry industry. The straps made by the company range in width from five millimeters to 19 millimeters. The straps are stretchable, electrostatic discharge free and can hold a tensile strength of up to 450 pounds. Despite that strength, the straps can be recycled along with other paper products.
Diane Dever says the strap’s “green” factor definitely attracts customers. “There are so many companies that have waste reduction goals and since our product can be recycled, it’s a natural fit,” she says. “By using our product, you’re keeping something out of the garbage bin in the back of a business.”
Ed Dever holds a spool of paper strapping that is being used by hose manufacturer Flexon to keep its hoses coiled up while sitting on the shelf waiting to be sold at Wal-Mart.
“Wal-Mart has said that if there are two products that are basically the same and cost the same, they will choose one with the paper strapping rather than the plastic strapping,” he says. “It’s very exciting. We are a small company by anyone’s standards and yet we’re working with the biggest names in business, such as Wal-Mart, Boise-Cascade and Amazon.com.”
Wal-Mart features SDF Strapping in a packaging success story it shared with consumer product manufacturers, focusing on how the paper straps can be used to replace plastic wrapping in secondary packaging applications (i.e. the way goods are packaged on their way from manufacturer to the store). Wal-Mart highlights that the straps are made from material that’s 100 percent forestry certified as a sustainable natural resource and that the straps are recyclable.
“Once we get beyond the secondary packaging market, there’s the whole consumer packaging market – think of the little wires or plastic you have to cut through as you open something you bought at a store,” Diane Dever says. “The opportunities are endless.”
A CLOSER LOOK
SDF Strapping Inc.
What they do: Manufacture and distribute industrial paper straps for use in manufacturing, logistics and the commercial laundry industry.
Leadership team: Ed Dever, president and CEO; Diane Dever, environmental stewardship liaison
Number of employees: 8
On the web: www.SDFstrapping.com