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A Force for Independents

By Robert Bittner

March 20, 2024

As AICC celebrates 50 years of history, BoxScore aims to capture the experiences and perspectives of some of the Association’s long-term members—how they discovered AICC, how it has brought value to their businesses, and what they envision for the organization over the next 50 years.

For this article, BoxScore caught up with Greg Arvanigian, president and CEO of Arvco Container Corp.; Jay Carman, president of StandFast Packaging Group; Jerry Frisch, president of Wasatch Container; Jim Haglund, owner and CEO of Central Package & Display; and Joseph M. Palmeri, president of corrugated packaging for Jamestown Container Cos. (JCC).

BoxScore: What are your earliest memories of AICC?

Greg Arvanigian: AICC basically started during a discussion in my father’s room at the Drake Hotel in Chicago during a Fibre Box Association meeting around 1973, I think. It grew out of the independents feeling that the Fibre Box Association was dominated by the big companies and nobody was looking out for the interests of the independents.

I think there was a lot of enthusiasm around the idea of an independents-
focused association because they had their first official meeting fairly quickly in 1974 in St. Louis. As far as I know, it was a small event. But it was the start, and it got people excited. After that, the Association began to grow. I think the first big meeting was at the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World. I was a kid—13 or 14 years old—but I was there.

In one way or another, AICC has been a part of my life ever since.

Joseph M. Palmeri: Jamestown Container Cos.’ connection with AICC dates back to its beginnings. JCC is proud to be a founding-member company of the Association, with Joseph R. Palmeri, my father, attending its very first meeting in St. Louis in the fall of 1974.

Within a few years, as AICC gained traction, I, then in my early teens, was fortunate to travel to several meeting sites with my family. What started out as a vacation for me turned into quality time spent alongside my father as he met with other leaders of the corrugated industry. I didn’t attend the conferences per se, but I did gain valuable insight, even at an early age, into the business itself and how important it was to represent it well.

Jim Haglund: In the mid-1970s, I was a broker, selling to companies in the industry. One of the companies was Central Container Corp. They had impressed me [with how they managed their business]. So when one of the owners told me he was retiring, I said I’d be interested in buying his half of the business. Five years later, I bought the other half. And we’ve continued to build up the company, now called Central Package & Display.

AICC has been part of our success from the very beginning. There was a conference in Palm Springs, California, in 1975, I believe, that my business partner attended. I remember he called me one night, excited. He said, “Elliot Rhodes has this software where you put in the dimensions of a box, and it prints out the scoring allowances and sheet size and square footage!” We thought that was the greatest thing. And that was our introduction to AICC—learning about new equipment and new software that could benefit our business.

The Haglund family in front of Central Package & Display (from left): Kristin Haglund, communications and marketing coordinator; Jim Haglund, owner; Kathy Haglund, Jim’s wife; Mike Haglund, CEO; and Michael Gallagher, president. (Photo courtesy of Central Package & Display.)

Jay Carman: My introduction to AICC happened back in 1985, when my father, who founded this company with his partner, took me to a local Region 6 meeting in Chicago. I remember thinking it was kind of strange that we were in a meeting with our competitors! Once I got past that, though, I remember meeting the presidents and owners of various companies. And even though I don’t remember the topics that were covered, I remember thinking that the content was good. It just took me a couple of meetings to understand the organization and how valuable it was. And I know my dad, who was a founding member, got a lot out of it and enjoyed it.

Jerry Frisch: When I started Wasatch Container in 1995, I had over 20 years of packaging experience in the folding carton/rigid box world, along with a packaging engineering degree and my knowledge of the Salt Lake City market. I saw a need for an independent corrugated/packaging company in the region and seized the opportunity.

I needed to learn as much as I could about the industry, so I searched for an organization specifically for independents. I found AICC. I signed up immediately so I could receive their newsletter and other materials. 

My first meeting was in Las Vegas, and I was overwhelmed by the attendance. There were more than 700 people there. I was surprised at how welcoming everybody was and impressed with how open everyone was to share stories about their business. Several boxmakers and suppliers talked with me about my goals and offered advice for helping me reach them. It was valuable insight from people who already had walked in the steps I was about to walk. I felt the true meaning of entrepreneurial spirit.

BoxScore: How has AICC membership brought value to your business?

Arvanigian: The networking is invaluable to me. It’s one of the big drivers for why I go to all the meetings. You get exposure to what other people are doing, but it’s also about the contacts you make. There’s a lot of collaboration among manufacturers, and that collaboration is built on networking relationships—understanding what other boxmakers are doing and how your expertise can mesh with their expertise. We probably sell boxes to 30 AICC members because we do a lot of specialty stuff that their customers want but which they don’t do. I wouldn’t have any of that business without AICC.

Carman: In the early ’80s, the equipment we had was only capable of two- or three-pass work. My father thought that if we could manufacture a box in one pass, that would really increase efficiency and capability. Through AICC, he was seeing what his brethren were doing in other parts of the country, how they were increasing capacity and expanding their product range with this kind of equipment. Learning about their experiences gave him the information he needed to push forward himself. He saw the possibilities of what you could achieve by saving labor, expanding your offerings, and improving your service. So, he bought a flexo folder-gluer, which was a direct result of his involvement in the Association. That one machine enabled him to sell accounts and handle customers that he normally wouldn’t have been able to. That really catapulted our company.

Today, I look at AICC as a partner. My three brothers and I now own the business, and AICC has been part of the fabric of our company over the years. We’ve been active, attending national and local meetings, and utilizing training and networking opportunities. It has been good to have this organization open our minds and our eyes to what’s going on in the industry, helping us stay abreast on the trends, equipment, the competition, and so on.

Frisch: I could list a whole bunch of ways AICC has helped my business.

The Association helped us figure out how to get the most bang for the buck from the equipment and software we’re running, improving our workflow through software systems.

Equipment purchasing is another critical area. At the meetings, all of the different vendors are there. But, also, you can talk to the people that actually own the equipment; they can tell you things they’ve done with it.

It’s also been good to hear how people have financed their companies and the steps they’ve taken to grow.

Palmeri: Much of JCC’s growth, in my opinion, is directly tied to our involvement in AICC, particularly from the relationships we’ve formed through it and the opportunities it has afforded us over the past 50 years. It is my hope that the coming generations are as fortunate as us to be part of AICC for another half-century.

BoxScore: What AICC opportunities have been the most meaningful for you and your company?

Frisch: I want to mention two specific programs.

Jay Carman, president of StandFast Packaging Group, works with Rachael Accorsi, StandFast’s customer service manager. (Photo courtesy of StandFast Packaging Group.)

FirstPak is a program developed by AICC that helps boxmakers from one region service clients in another region. For example, if I have a local client that is opening a facility in another town, through FirstPak relationships and the network of people I’ve met during my time with AICC, I can reach out to a member in that town and discuss my client’s needs and, potentially, form a business partnership.

The other great program is the CEO Advisory Groups. These groups meet anywhere from one to three times per year and offer leaders the opportunity to meet in person, share what’s happening in our companies, hash over the problems we all have, mentor one another, and discuss best practices. Everyone is helping each other to get better.

Palmeri: Seeing second, third, and even fourth generations stepping into leadership roles [through the Emerging Leaders program] is both exciting and encouraging. These young professionals have taken the concept to new levels, attending meetings, networking, and learning from the best in the business. They understand that future success begins now and much of individual progress depends on these interindustry connections.

BoxScore: What thoughts would you like to share as you consider AICC’s industry role both now and over the next 50 years?

Arvanigian: I know that the organization has had to change with the times, but I still think AICC lives up to the initial goals established right at the start. AICC became kind of a force, a counterbalance against what the big guys wanted to do. And there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that it has had an influence on the behavior of the big companies going forward. They knew there was a collective group that would speak out against them when they did things that were not in the independents’ best interest.

I also believe AICC’s existence has been tremendous for spurring new business growth, and encouraging and equipping independents to enter the industry. If somebody wants to start up and they join AICC, there are a lot of tools available.

Carman: We are a one-plant operation, and we’ve tried to maximize and grow as much as we can, manage as effectively as we can, while being as efficient as possible with our resources. Over the years, I’ve noticed that AICC operates the same way. They constantly look to be innovative, to stay relevant. Whether it’s equipment, processes, sales, management techniques, digital printing, robotics, or whatever, they’re always trying to be forward-thinking when it comes to helping smaller and mid-size independents. They’re encouraging. They’re open to new ideas, getting input from the membership, and attracting new members.

There are a lot of larger companies in AICC now, but I absolutely feel that companies like ours still have a voice. But I’ll also say this: It’s absolutely true that the more you put into AICC, the more you get involved, the more benefits you’ll get out of it.

Haglund: Sometimes members tell me they’re not going to a conference or a convention—or they’re not going to renew their membership—because they don’t see anything that interests them personally. But it’s not always about what’s good for you or me individually; you have to look at what’s good for our industry. AICC helps our industry. That helps us. That’s why I’ve been involved as much as I have for 50 years, including serving as director at large, and then president/chairman. If you really want to benefit from an organization like AICC, you’ve got to get involved. You can’t just be standing on the sidelines.

Palmeri: Following in my father’s footsteps, I served on the board of directors, starting in 2012, and ultimately served as AICC chairman in 2018–2019. Through this involvement, I developed a deep understanding that cooperation in sharing of ideas, strategies, quality-process improvement, and so on would be critical components in making us more professional individuals, better independent companies, and, likewise, stronger as a group.

I believe that AICC is just as relevant in 2024 as it was in 1974. It served as an important bridge between the original members and the current generation of leaders, and I’m confident it will continue to play a vital role for those that follow.

Frisch: I’ve been impressed by how AICC does a good job of staying on top of what’s happening in our industry, whether it’s the impact of [artificial intelligence], preparing future leaders through the Emerging Leaders program, training in many areas—machine operations, hiring, best practices, safety, quality, customer service, sales and design—and so forth.

I expect AICC to continue working to help keep independents—often family businesses—relevant in the world going forward.

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.