WOODSTOCK, ILL. (Jan. 25, 11:10 a.m. ET) -- Daniel Slavin, the second-generation president and CEO of family-owned custom packaging thermoformer Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc., wants more growth and more profits — just like anyone else who runs a company.
But what is equally as important to Slavin, if not more important, is to make sure the company's beliefs, culture and hard- work ethic stay ingrained in its workforce. That includes the firm's management team and its next generation of family leadership — as two of Slavin's sons and his daughter work for Dordan, which is celebrating its 50th year in business this year.
One of his sons, Aric, is sales manager; son Sean is an account executive; and a daughter, Chandler, is sustainability coordinator and marketing director.
"Obviously, we are constantly looking for growth and for good sustainable growth," Slavin said in an interview at the company's headquarters and manufacturing plant in Woodstock. "But how much growth is irrelevant, particularly in this climate.
"With the third generation involved in the business, what I want to do is instill in them the same beliefs and guidelines we've always had," Slavin said about where he wanted his company to be three-to-five years from now.
"What we are always striving for is to operate ethically, and to have integrity internally and externally," he said. "All companies have a culture and the most important thing for us is to maintain our culture of fairness and honesty to each other and to our customers.
"Our vision is that the company needs to grow in the manner that it has, stay true to its underlying principles and guidelines, and produce high-value, highly engineered products that are well-designed and well-thought-out," Slavin said. "Everything is a matter of hard work. We have to work hard, we have to be price-competitive, we have to be lean and we have to be smart."
Those values have served Dordan well, particularly as more consumer goods companies look for clamshells, insert and display trays, bifolds and blister packs that can help them better sell their products, better protect their products from damage during shipping, or make those companies into greener and more sustainable businesses.
Tools of the trade
Dordan has forged an identity as an engineering-driven custom thermoformer because of its ability to design products as well as its ability to make tools in-house — enabling it to facilitate a smooth transition to manufacturing.
All of the tools Dordan uses to develop prototypes and for production are machined in-house from aircraft-quality aluminum on four large-format computer numerically controlled machining centers in the company's tooling department.
That tool-and-die operation is in an enclosed room inside Dordan's 50,000-square-foot plant, housing 11 thermoforming machines with the capacity to convert 75 million pounds of material a year.
Slavin also points with great pride to the ability of the company's engineering team to help customers and potential customers quickly develop new packaging options.
* For example, Dordan developed for one customer a thermoformed dust cover that can be placed over thermostats and fire-detection devices during construction to protect the products from paint and other contaminants.
Dordan was able to overcome process limitations that had prevented others from developing that product by incorporating injection molding technologies into the thermoform tool to allow for larger undercuts for snap features.
* Similarly, it recently redesigned the packaging for a line of consumer faucets, replacing a molded pulp tray that was housed inside a corrugated folding carton with a thermoformed tray and a lid with a die-cut window. Not only did the new packaging reduce the packaging weight per selling unit, it increased the visibility of the attractive elements of the faucet, while keeping less attractive elements from view.
* Dordan also teamed with natural material supplier Ecovative Design LLC of Green Island, N.Y., to develop a thermoformed "grow tray" that serves as the mold in which their recently developed EcoCradle insulated shipping cooler is "grown."
Dordan has been involved in the redesign of the packaging for the GoPhone from AT&T and the model One LE GPS navigator sold by Amsterdam-based TomTom International BV.
"We have always been an engineering-based company," said Slavin. "We are not trying to be all things to all customers. We look to find areas where we can bring value to the customer."
And that value can vary from customer-to-customer, he said. With electronics, for example, there is more concern with protecting the product's fragile components, whereas, with general retail goods, there is greater interest in a design that showcases the product for the consumer, he said.
"It is a combination of functionality and costs that wins someone over," said Slavin. "And you also have to design a package so that it can be manufactured in a cost-efficient way. We can show customers how it will be assembled, and how it will sit as a final product."
But even as it makes those changes to develop packaging that has better value, and often reduces costs as well, Slavin said Dordan won't ever compromise quality just to cut costs, or to make a sale.
One reason is that quality is paramount to what Dordan does. "Everyone talks about quality, but it is measurable, and quality talks when you are developing packaging," he said.
The second reason is that, over time, Slavin has seen a lot of company cultures change, and not always for the better, when new management arrives on the scene.
"This is a family business and a lot of family businesses are disappearing" — either through mergers or from acquisitions by private equity investors, said Slavin. And he has seen many of those companies adopt a different mentality when they are no longer family-owned.
"The culture changes because [to some new owners] there is no belief in anything but the bottom line and taking another 10 cents out of costs," said Slavin. "The bottom line is extremely important to us, but not at any cost."
In the past few years, Dordan has also taken on a leadership role in providing information to its customers, and to the public, about the sustainability footprint of packaging —- much of it since Slavin's daughter, Chandler — who majored in religious studies at DePaul University with a concentration in ethics and social justices — began working for the company in 2009.
"There is no silver bullet for sustainability," said Chandler Slavin. "But by taking an informed, systems-based approach to sustainability, plastic processors can develop truly sustainable packaging options for their customers."
Her father agreed.
"Sustainability is a real issue and a real requirement," said Daniel Slavin. "We have to consider what we make, how we make it, and its impact based on a life-cycle assessment.
"Our goal is to do research on sustainability and to help the industry become thought leaders on sustainability issues because there is so much misinformation about sustainability among consumers, retailers and consumer goods companies," he said.
"We have to show them what is and what isn't sustainable or recyclable, and help them separate the facts from the fiction," Slavin said. "We feel it is important to provide our customers with all the information, so they can make informed decisions."
He understands, though, that not everyone is going to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, or with the same passion.
"A lot of times customers don't want to be bothered with what's going on, and some are only interested in what marketing says it can sell .... or what retailers want," said Slavin. "But I think it is important for all of us is to get the facts out. The important thing is to get people to discuss the issue and to encourage them to start somewhere.
"What we are still trying to do is fight the anti-plastic battle with facts," Slavin said. "As an industry, we continue to be damaged by claims of multicomponent products being 100 percent recyclable when they are not. A highly laminated SBS [solid bleached sulfate] board impregnated with a solvent-based sealed blister is not recyclable."
Slavin is quick to add that sustainability still remains just one factor that companies consider when choosing a packaging solution, and that Dordan must meet all the concerns of its customers.
"The No. 1 question we get is how can you reduce my costs," said Slavin. "But we have to make sure that cost reduction doesn't negatively affect the integrity of the packaging because cost reduction carried out too far can have a point of diminishing returns. The packaging has to provide protection for the product from damage."
He is also well-aware that companies won't use sustainable packaging just because it's sustainable.
"No one is really willing to pay more for some of these products," he said. "But they will consider it if it's the same price or less."
The sustainability initiatives at Dordan don't just involve the packaging it designs and manufactures. The initiatives also extend to a number of projects Dordan has taken on over the years that are designed to improve the company's environmental footprint and reduce waste.
* It collects and recycles all post-industrial corrugate.
* More than a dozen years ago, Dordan switched from wood pallets to lighter-weight pressed-wood pallets for storage and shipment. That enabled the company to reduce the number of trucks it uses for transportation of skids, reducing CO2 emissions from those trucks by 50 percent.
* In 1997, Dordan reduced the amount of kilowatt-hours of electricity used in its manufacturing plant annually by 150,000 kwh by switching to different light fixtures — a change the firm says is the equivalent of reducing CO2 emissions by 150 tons a year.
* Since 1981, Dordan has returned all post-industrial plastic scrap to material manufacturers to be recycled into reprocessed plastic sheets or rolls.
Like many thermoformers, Dordan makes clamshell packaging out of a variety of materials, including six bioplastic resins — two of which it just introduced in November: Aeris InCycle, a lightweight expanded/foamed recycled PET from MicroGreen Polymers Inc.; and Kl"ckner Pentaplast Group's TerraPET sheet, which is partially made — 30 percent — from sugar-cane renewable resources, not petroleum.
But the vast majority of its packages the past 10 years have been made from recycled PET, said Dordan's general manager, John Kreider. "Recycled PET is becoming the material of choice. It is a lot easier to recycle."
That was underscored by the Canadian grocers' initiative, designed to facilitate recycling, that requires all food clamshell packaging, as of Jan. 1, 2012, to be made from PET and use labels and adhesives that don't disrupt recycling streams.
Most of the packaging Dordan makes are for consumer products. But it also makes non-clean-room pharmaceutical/medical packaging and some specialty/ custom food packaging on a case-by-case basis.
What direction the packaging market will take in the future, and how Dordan will approach those changes as a company, is an issue that is always on the table, Slavin said.
"The market questions are discussed and pondered continuously here and at other companies," said Slavin. "The biggest and largest-growing segment of the [packaging] pie is food products. Medical is also a strong niche, but that takes a long time to develop and we don't do clean room medical right now, just other medical applications."
At this point, Slavin is not planning any shift in strategy for the family-owned business.
"The economy has been somewhat stagnant the last three years," said Slavin. "I don't think we should make a decision to switch directions in an economic downturn."
But he is optimistic about the future because he is seeing more companies bringing manufacturing back from China. "The make-it-in-America surge could help," he said. "That may be a boon for retailers" and companies that make packaging.