ATLANTA — Barry Shepherd, who with his wife Denise, founded Shepherd Thermoforming and Packaging Inc. in Toronto 30 years ago, thinks he knows why he is the Thermoformer of the Year: Because his family's story represents what countless other thermoformers have done since the early days.
“It's been quite a journey, but it's been a journey that so many of us here in the plastics industry have traveled,” Shepherd said in an acceptance speech during a Sept. 1 awards dinner at the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Conference in Atlanta.
Shepherd Thermoforming and Packaging employs 40 people in its 42,000-square-foot plant in Brampton, Ontario. He served the Society of the Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Division's board of directors and worked on several committees. He was technical editor of the division's magazine, SPE Thermoforming Quarterly.
“I'd like to respectfully suggest that the reason the board chose me to receive this award, is not so much the technical achievements, or the relative minor contributions to the division. But it has to be for the fact that my family is a pretty good example of the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in thermoforming. We were one of many companies in our industry that survived the early years and have built a small company that is known for innovation,” Shepherd said.
Bill Kent, last year's Thermoformer of the Year, introduced Shepherd at the awards dinner. “His philosophy was, we're in this together, with both his customers and his employees,” Kent said.
Barry Shepherd tells his story
Shepherd was 19 when he started working in packaging, designing and making samples for several corrugated box companies. He liked the work, and took jobs in packaging and sales while he and Denise raised their two sons, Todd and Mark — who now run Shepherd Thermoforming and Packaging.
“But my motivation to be my own boss was there,” he said.
He joined Kodak Canada in 1970 and was involved in development of packaging for Kodachrome slides, an early use of thin-wall injection molding. Kodak gave Shepherd a love of photography — and he salted his speech in Atlanta with photos showing the history of the company, projected on a screen behind the stage.
Finally, he made his move while working at one company.
“In 1984 I made a spontaneous decision to quit my job as a sales manager, and I told my boss to give me this little office in the corner, ten feet by ten feet, and let me sell for him, as well as other packaging manufacturers. My boss at the time, had a habit of taking three-Manhattan lunches, so I caught him one afternoon shortly before he nodded off, and made my proposal. He accepted. Denise joined me. And that was the start of our life in thermoforming,” Shepherd said.
Initially, the company sold packaging items, then took on contract packaging. A break came about six months later when he connected with Alloyd Co., an early thermoformer that made its own equipment. They needed a Canadian sales representative. “At the time I didn't know what thermoforming was. I thought it was a fancy word for vacuum forming. But within a couple of years, I built sales for Alloyd of over $1 million,” Shepherd said.
Todd left college and joined the company. Within a few months, he took over running the plant. The small company moved to a bigger building and bought an Alloyd blister sealing machine.
“And for a few years, I thought contract packaging was going to be our business. But I really took a liking to the technical side of thermoforming,” he recalled. “So we mortgaged the house to buy a new, inline Armac former — now Sencorp of course. We moved to a bigger place, and told Alloyd we were going it alone.”
The company got into thermoforming.
“This was the toughest time for us. Our business was growing. We had so much to learn about tooling, about plastics. We were working seven days a week. And it was really taking a toll on us,” Shepherd said.
He told about his and Denise's lowest moment: “One very cold and windy Saturday morning in January, in our little plant just outside of Toronto, I went into the plant to run a blister order. We'd only had the Armac a few months, and we had an order on the machine — I think it was the first customer we ever had, Noxema. It was a 24-up tool. But we hadn't really learned how to build stackers, back then. So I would get the machine running and I would stand at the end of the machine, cutting the sheets of blisters with a pair of scissors. Stacking them. Moving them over to the table, where they would get stripped out manually.”
He showed a photo of the primitive operation.
“I had locked all the doors. So Denise came to a side door. And I had just enough time to run over to that side door. I had about six seconds to get over there. So she was pounding on the door, standing outside. I stepped outside to help her with the hot coffee and lunch. The wind blew the door closed and we were locked out!” he said.
“I'll always remember that day 25 years ago, as being the lowest time. We laugh about it today, but it was the lowest time in our lives in thermoforming. 18,000 blisters an hour running off the end of the line and we were standing outside in the freezing cold, with the wind blowing down between the buildings. And no way to get in. In a moment of helplessness and on the verge of breaking down, Denise and I looked at each other and said, ‘What the … are we doing?'” (Shepherd said he edited the actual stronger language because three of his grandchildren attended the Thermoformer of the Year ceremony).
He kicked a panel on a shipping-area door, and the husband and wife team spend the rest of day cleaning up thousands of blister packs off the floor.
The company moved again and bought a second Armac. In 1997, Shepherd Thermoforming & Packaging got into heavy-gauge thermoforming. “This diversity makes us a true custom thermoformer,” he said.
Shepherd is now retired, but he remains active in developing new projects for the company. And 2015 is a landmark year: The business is 30 years old, Shepherd is 70 and Barry and Denise will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
They both try and stay away from the company and leave it their sons to run.
“These days I'm much happier on a kayak in the middle of a lake with my fly rod and my camera,” Shepherd said.
Jim Throne wins award
The SPE Thermoforming Division also named the winner of its Lifetime Achievement Award: industry consultant Jim Throne, who runs Sherwood Technologies in Dunedin, Fla.
Division chairman Mark Strachan said Throne, who holds a master's degree and a PhD in chemical engineering, has written six books, more than a dozen chapters for technical books and nearly 2,000 technical papers. He is a past Thermoformer of the Year.
Throne said he was one of the people that reorganized the Thermoforming Division in the 1980s. “I want to encourage you folks out there to bring in other people into this group,” he said.
Throne quipped: “I will tell you right now. I may look old, guys. But I've got a lot of tread left.”