COVER STORY – Don't box them in – Menasha Packaging breaks out with sustainability measures

Posted on Dec 5, 2011 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Mike Waite, the president of Menasha Packaging, stands in a room full of boxes. Just don’t call them cardboard boxes. Rather, they’re corrugated boxes and designed to not only deliver their contents safely to their location, but also do it while looking good.

Today, consumer goods packaging no longer just moves products from Point A to Point B; it also often ends up on the store shelf itself and can convey information to customers, such as QR codes.

Menasha Packaging, a division of Menasha Corp., is making a name for itself putting together innovative product offerings for some of the country’s largest consumer goods manufacturers, including Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Hershey’s. And while putting those products together, Menasha is also gaining attention for its sustainability practices.

“Eighteen months ago, we took a step back to examine our company to see where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do,” says Jim Kotek, president of Menasha Corp. “It came down to what do our customers want? They wanted us to be more sustainable and have more environmental-friendly solutions. Being sustainable is not only the right thing to do, but the voice of the customer was also pointing us in that direction.”

You’ve probably seen Menasha Packaging’s handiwork during a visit to the grocery store or a big box retailer. The Neenah company designs and manufactures the large product displays found at the end of the aisle as well as smaller individual packaging items. Then, there’s the company’s line of product and shipment packaging materials.

To make all that happen, Menasha has 21 locations across North America employing more than 3,400 workers (including 1,800 in the Fox Cities) that make products worth nearly $1 billion annually.

Ten years ago, Waite says a decision was made to focus more on packaging for the food products and personal consumer goods industries rather than the larger shipment boxes.

“We saw manufacturing was changing and knew we had to change with it,” he says. “We looked at what industries would least likely shift production off-shore and focused in on food and consumer goods since those products’ biggest customer base is right here in the U.S.”

Another change came six years ago when Menasha Packaging jumped into creating and making the end-of-the-aisle product displays. “We’ve been able to decode what retailers are looking for when it comes to consumer goods product displays and make sure our customers are aware of that,” Waite says. “Being in the right place at the right time helped catapult us from being a regional player to being a national player.”


Packaging legacy

Since its founding in 1852, Menasha Packaging has been involved with getting products from one place to another. Founder Elisha Smith started out making wooden buckets he would often deliver himself through Menasha and Neenah. As companies started shipping products longer distances, Menasha changed with it. Through it all, Smith’s family retained majority ownership making Menasha the third oldest family-owned business in the United States.

Today, instead of making wooden pails, the company makes a sophisticated line of corrugated boxes and containers that move everything from Hershey candy bars to Kleenex boxes. And they do it always keeping an eye on the company’s carbon footprint. Last year, the company rolled out its 20/20 Vision, a plan designed to reduce the carbon emissions, water consumption and solid waste by 20 percent relative to 2010 production levels by the year 2020. The company just released its second annual Sustainability Report, which outlines the moves Menasha is making to reach those goals.

“Our brand of sustainability is about building positive environments for generations to come that’s focused on building economic value, being socially responsible and improving environmental stewardship,” Waite says. “Improving the triple bottom line of people, profits and planet is what drives us.”

As to how its sustainability programs got off the ground, Morgan Wiswall, purchasing initiatives and sustainability manager for Menasha Packaging, points to Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer began an initiative to become greener itself and one way to do that was by removing packaging from the supply chain. As a packaging provider, that could have been potentially bad news for Menasha Packaging, but it wasn’t.

In fact, it was good news. Companies turned to Menasha Packaging to help them meet the new guidelines.

“We have an environmental sustainability calculator we use to show customers the effect of what we’re doing has on the environment,” Wiswall says. “We use the calculator to show packaging alternatives to customers and, at the same time, show savings in water, waste, etc., that can be achieved.”

But while creating less waste, Menasha Packaging had to also ensure what was inside the package was getting where it needed to be in one piece, he adds.

After working with clients to make their products as green as possible, Menasha Packaging began looking inward. “We started asking ourselves, ‘what can we do in our operations so they use less water and energy and cut down on waste?’” Wiswall says.

From there, the 20/20 Vision plan was born. By creating more sustainable products, Menasha Packaging became more “green,” Kotek says. Menasha created teams crisscrossing the company, creating common scorecards and metrics related to sustainability.

“Our 20/20 Vision is all about doing what’s right for the community, the environment, our customers and our employees,” he says.

Menasha’s sustainability teams develop ideas that can easily be shared between different plants and even between Menasha Packaging and ORBIS Corp., a Menasha Corp. subsidy that manufactures plastic reusable packaging.

Menasha Packaging worked with Focus on Energy to look at ways to save on energy costs at its Wisconsin plants. One part of that plan will be fully in effect this winter as the company uses a new heat exchanger to take heat from the corrugator and use it to heat parts of the plant.

“Heating the plant evenly is difficult. We used to have some people out in the plant working in T-shirts in winter because it was so hot out there while other people in the plant were wearing several layers because they were farther away from the corrugator,” Waite says. “Now with the new exchanger, we hope to take the heat created from the corrugator and use that to evenly heat the plant.”

If all goes as planned, the company’s natural gas use at the plant could decrease by 25 percent, Wiswall says. After seeing how the system works this winter, he says a similar set-up may be added to other Menasha Packaging plants in cold climates.

“With facilities across the United States, what works at one site may not work at another because the climate is different,” Wiswall says. “Some things, such as putting in new light fixtures, may work everywhere, but other programs, such as the heat exchanger, won’t work. What we do is site specific.”

While some of Menasha’s green initiatives aren’t visible to the general public, such as the heat exchanger, other ones like the five wind turbines spinning in front of the company’s headquarters along U.S. 41 in Neenah are.

“Right there, that’s a visible sign of our commitment to sustainability,” Waite says pointing to the turbines. “People see that and get a feeling for our commitment to the environment.”

The company is part of Wisconsin’s Green Tier Program. It also received a Business Friend of the Environment Award from the Wisconsin Environmental Working Group, an affiliate of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

“There’s a lot out there regarding sustainability, but we need to be careful with our choices. Sure, we could make ourselves a lot more green if we converted our plants to geothermal heating, but the cost benefit isn’t there right now,” Waite says. “If we were building new or doing a major remodeling, sure it would be something we would look at, but we’re not going to do something if the cost of doing so is too high. It all comes back to the triple bottom line of people, profits and planet.”

Since the company is privately-owned, Waite says Menasha Packaging does have a little more time to show a return on its “green” investments. “Sure, we don’t have the quarterly pressure public companies have, but our owners do want to see results – we need to be good stewards of their investment.”

One way Menasha Packaging has done that is to focus intently on its customers and their individual needs.


Focused on customers

With a customer base running the gamut from consumer health care giant Kimberly-Clark Corp. (just down the road in Neenah) to candy maker Hershey, Menasha Packaging knows that one size does not fit all.

One way the company seeks to better understand its customers and help them get a leg up on the competition is through its Retail Integration Institute. This special service uses the company’s own in-house Retail Research Center and research firms to monitor consumer trends and point-of-purchase innovations.

Waite says that by using that information, Menasha Packaging can bridge the gap between the consumer goods manufacturer and the retailer to not only what’s happening in a big box store like Wal-Mart, but also the logistics on how to get a product to its destination.

With facilities across the United States, Menasha Packaging employs local designers to help customers.

“What they’re doing on the West Coast is different from what’s being done on the East Coast and both of those are different from what’s happening here in the Midwest,” Waite says. “We found it more helpful to have our designers close to our customers so they can work together on the best solution.”

To keep pace with its rapid growth, Menasha Packaging is investing in its facilities.

At the Neenah preprint facility, the platemaking process was streamlined and investments were made in new equipment and software. The changes allow the company’s folding carton group to break down files, separate, proof and assemble plate-ready files before being sent to the preprint group for platemaking. Before making this change, Menasha previously purchased components, plates and separations from suppliers.

“Our customers are focused on lean – they want the waste taken out of the supply chain. One way we do that is by doing more of the chain ourselves,” Waite says. “We really have become a brand extension for our consumer packaged goods customers.”

Menasha also made sure its expansions at the Neenah folding carton plant and a plant in Hartford were built with high energy-efficiency specifications, including T8 fluorescent lighting, insulation and high-efficiency air conditioners. Also in Neenah and at a plant in Lakeville, Minn., aging converting machines were replaced with single high-speed flexo-folder-gluer machines that deliver fast, high quality run speeds with less set-up time.

“Our mission is to help our customers protect, move and promote their products better than anyone else,” Waite says. “This ‘better than’ thinking also means providing cost-effective solutions that contribute to their bottom line while at the same time making sure our solutions are as environmentally friendly as possible. Their success is our success so we are very attuned to always making sure we’re meeting – and exceeding – their needs.”