How Key Wisconsin Converters Are Handling The “New Normal”

By Mark A. Spaulding  
From preparing for the worst early on to moving ahead with long-term, major investments, three key Wisconsin converters told their stories Tuesday about how they’re handling the “new normal” of running a manufacturing business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Executives from Green Bay PackagingRockline Industriesand NPS Corp. spoke as part of a panel during this week’s virtual Converters Expo 2020. Moderated by Barb LaMue, president/CEO of The New North, Inc., the participants offered their insights into sales declines happening simultaneously with skyrocketing product demand, how to keep employees safe and productive, and their expansion plans for today and into the years ahead. 
Here are some Converting Curmudgeon 
“bullet points of interest:”

Barb LaMue, The New North:
As a business and economic development clearinghouse, The New North represents 100+ companies across 18 northeastern Wisconsin counties – often referred to as “The Converting Corridor.” The region hosts the largest concentration of the paper-converting industry in the US, with 16,500 direct industry jobs and $5.1 billion of economic output.  

Bryan Hollenbach, exec vp-Green Bay Packaging
(Green Bay, WI):

A privately held, third-generation company founded in 1926, Green Bay Packaging (GBP) began manufacturing wooden crates before producing corrugated containers a few years later. Today, it is a fully integrated corrugated maker with its own timberlands, paper mills, box plants and value-added, coated label stock and folding-carton converting divisions. 

  • GBP is building the first new paper mill in Wisconsin (Brown County) in 30 years (see artist’s conception above). Ground was broken in 2018 and full production is expected to begin in mid-2021. The $580+ million investment brought 1,000 construction jobs to the area, and 200+ permanent papermaking jobs will be created.
  • GBP managers had their first meeting about the pandemic back on March 5 and formulated new SOPs by March 16. Daily “War Room” meetings have since become twice weekly. The company initially spent $500,000 on PPE for its employees.
  • Because e-commerce is a major growth vehicle for its markets, GBP first saw the impact of COVID-19 through skyrocketing sales to customers for e-commerce packaging. At the same time, its foodservice product sales died off, but now, overall sales have leveled off.
  • In conducting business, GBP staff couldn’t travel at first, but customers wouldn’t let them visit anyway. That aspect is easier now.
  • Top Tip: Don’t be a “one size fits all” supplier; provide very customized solutions for each customer.
  • In dealing with a broad variety of “back to school” arrangements, let employees change shifts as much as possible to handle having children learning at home.

Bill Bartnik, operations mgr.-Rockline Industries (Sheboygan, WI):
Established in 1976, the family-owned converter is a global leader in wet-wipe, coffee-filter and baking-cup manufacturing, serving customers in 50 countries. It has eight converting facilities, 92 production lines and three technical centers across North America, Europe and China. 

  • Managers at Rockline Industries (RI) actually met in late February already to begin formulating plans to deal with the coming pandemic. Frequent and targeted communication was key for both internal and external audiences. Among the tools: weekly situation updates, regular President’s Messages, and postcards sent home for employees; and associate & product safety service updates for customers. 
  • An RI task force, made up of a cross-section of departments, created the "Ring of Defense" impacting numerous company policy changes and establishing health & safety protocols. These included masks, contact tracing, new cleaning standards, vacation payouts, and monitoring and implementing CDC and WHO guidelines.
  • Early actions at RI were installing shields between workstations, continuous sanitation of common touchpoints in the plant and office, staggered breaks with a maximum occupancy set in the lunchroom, elimination of some shift overlaps, and office personnel working from home. 
  • There is now only one entrance into facilities. Visitors enter a tent, answer health questions, use sanitizer and get their temperature taken.
  • Demand for RI’s products shot up instantly, especially disinfecting wipes and retail coffee filters (for all those at-home workers having to make their own coffee). 
  • Every aspect of the supply chain was challenged. A deeper dive into supplier capabilities showed impressive flexibility, response and teamwork.
  • Some product SKUs were eliminated if a 6-ft worker distance wasn’t achievable during production, or line speeds were reduced, or eliminated to cut downtime.

Andrew Hetzel, Jr., CEO-NPS Corp. (Green Bay, WI):
Founded in 1996, the privately held company employs 600 workers at eight manufacturing plants across the US and one in the UK. NPS converts towel and tissue products for the “away from home” market and is the largest maker of meltblown (nonwoven fabric) spill-control products in North America. 

  • It was clear very early on that the pandemic was going to have catastrophic impacts on the markets NPS serves. Toilet paper quickly became a scarce commodity, and NPS could not make enough of it, along with increased hygiene driving demand for paper towels and wipes. 
  • The traditional “away from home” market will slowly come back but will never be the same. The hospitality industry will remain in a depressed state until after a vaccine is in place. Still, increased hygiene and sanitation should be long-term positives for paper products. 
  • Now more than ever it’s vital to be opportunistic. Talk to your customers; what are their unmet needs? Be creative; how can you meet these customer needs?
  • Time is of the essence: Move fast on new product development. Don’t wait until you have perfected everything because customers aren’t very picky right now. 
  • Be strategic in your customer care: All customers are not created equal, so know who your top three, most-important customers are.
  • Relationships matter more: The pandemic has caused people and companies to reboot how they think and what’s important to them. Focus on those that will be long-term partners for you.