This time around, Joe Oberloier decided to do things a little differently.
Oberloier is still in thermoforming, but instead of building another business providing its own products, Cam Packaging LLC of Gladwin, Mich., mostly does work for other thermoformers who need some short-term help.
This business model where he does so-called “tolling” work for other companies allowed Oberloier to re-enter the thermoforming arena needing less capital than if he was building his own molds to produce proprietary products.
“This time I thought I would approach it a little differently and just do work for other large companies and not have an arsenal of tooling sitting on the pallet racks,” Oberloier said.
Oberloier has been in the thermoforming business since he was a teenager, starting out by sweeping floors at thermoforming equipment maker Lyle Industries at age 14 when his stepfather owned that company decades ago.
Oberloier, now 56, went on to work at Ultra Pac Inc. in Rogers, Minn. and later founded his own firm, Packaging Direct, in 1995 before selling and getting out of the thermoforming business. That operation still operates as a D&W Fine Pack LLC facility in Gladwin.
With a passion for cycling and a 10-year noncompete agreement after the sale, Oberloier purchased a bicycle shop and grew that business into four locations during his time away from packaging. That's a business he still owns.
But another thermoforming opportunity eventually knocked. And he answered.
“With the new company, I just thought I would grab a machine and just do it a little different. When other manufacturers have breakdowns or they want to repair their equipment, that's typically when they come to us,” Oberloier explained.
Producing packaging for other thermoformers keeps operating costs down for Cam Packaging, but it was still a tough business to crack back into when he first started production in 2015.
“You start out bootstrapping. It took a while to get the first customer. And it was a fluke. They just knocked on my door one day. I hadn't done any outreach,” he said.
Oberloier, while in thermoforming for much of his life, had been out of the business for years thinking about bikes.
So, to an extent, he had to relearn the business. Oberloier knew the core components of being a successful thermoformer. But he had to catch up on technological improvements that had been made during his time away. And many of his past contacts in the business were gone.
Upon his return, Cam Packaging decided to invest on the equipment side of the business instead of tooling.
“I didn't want to go out and spend a quarter-million dollars on every mold. I know you don't have to spend that on every tool. But to compete in the really high-volume areas, you need very large, expensive tools,” he said. “That's why I decided I'd keep my money in the bank and just buy machines.
“We took the route of new, state-of-the-art equipment, which I think is attractive to our customers,” he said.
Oberloier's decision to jump back in to thermoforming came as a result of Mother Nature.
He was able to buy a new Lyle thermoformer, still in its shipping container, at a deep discount at auction. That's because the machine, which was being shipped overseas, was caught in Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The container was flooded with about two feet of salt water in New Jersey, but Oberloier was able to use his years of experience working on Lyle machines to repair the damage.
Cam Packaging started renovation of a former warehouse in Gladwin in 2012. Production started in 2015 in the 38,000-square-foot facility. After 14,000 square feet was added off-site, business has continued to grow and work is now under way on a 10,000 square-foot addition to the original building that will help with logistics and warehouse space.
“Right now, we do everything out of one door,” Oberloier said. “There are days when there are five semis out there.”
The new work will allow the company to have a separate receiving door and two shipping doors. And as business grows over time, the owner said the company will probably put an additional machine in the new space at some point.
Work on the $650,000 project is expected to be completed by late April or early May, he said. “None too soon because we're bursting at the seams.”
Cam Packaging's current equipment lineup of six inline thermoformers includes two large-format, 52-inch lines that make the firm unique among job shops, Director of Sales Michael Keen said. Those machines help attract the attention of larger customers looking for help with their workloads.
“That's a very unique niche to have that capability and capacity to help them with some of their own capacity issues. Possibly they have a machine that's down, and you incorporate that with the experience that Joe has and the crew here at Cam has, it makes for a great partnership with some of these companies we're currently working with,” Keen said.
While Cam Packaging's business model is to move from job to job, helping other thermoformers as needed, some of the work the company does can last for months.
“It depends. We ran six months for some people. I think 25 million berry baskets,” Oberloier said.
Cam Packaging's customers will provide the materials for production and shipping as the tolling company charges for conversion.
Every job is different for Cam Packaging, which posted 2018 sales of $1.43 million. So getting the tooling set up for production can be a challenge, the owner said. “Every setup is difficult. We fight it. But we have really nice equipment. Once you get these new modern, sophisticated machines set up, they just run very well,” he said.