Columbia Container: ‘The Right Box at the Right Time’
By AICC Staff
March 22, 2021
The term “elevator speech” has gained some traction in the business world of late, based on the supposition that you had better be able to articulate the value proposition of your enterprise in the short span of an elevator ride. Visit the website of Columbia Container in Baltimore, and you’ll see a model of succinct clarity: “The Columbia Advantage: The right box at the right time.”
Brendan Moynihan, CEO, expands: “Columbia Container focuses on providing the cost efficiencies of a manufacturer with the high level of customer service typically found with a distributor.”
Moynihan, who started his career in 1986 as a sales representative for Oxford Container in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, explained that in his years at Oxford, he noticed there were many corrugated manufacturers that focused on high-volume, cost-efficient production runs and distributors who focused on customer service. “We saw a market opportunity for a company that could combine both these characteristics, and that has been our operating philosophy here at Columbia Container,” he says.
Rich History in a Rich Market
Feeling the tug of entrepreneurship, Moynihan left Oxford Container in 1998 and, with his partner, Jim Swope, purchased Columbia Container. Swope, now chief financial officer of Columbia, was a lifelong banker who left the financial world to start a career in the corrugated industry. Columbia emerged on the partners’ radar screen when Don Sturtz, who had been in the corrugated business locally for more than three decades, was looking to sell the company. As Moynihan tells it, Sturtz named the company Columbia Container because that was the name of the first corrugated box company he worked at—one with an interesting connection to local Baltimore lore.
“The original Columbia Container had been destroyed in a fire but had employed both Don and legendary Baltimore Colts Quarterback Johnny Unitas as salesmen,” Moynihan explains. “As we’ve heard the story told, Johnny worked at Columbia in his early years with the Colts, because the pay in professional football in those days was not enough to support his growing family; boy, how times have changed!”
Moynihan says Sturtz had no children interested in taking over the business, and like many good business owners, he didn’t want to sell without giving the people he employed a chance to continue working at Columbia. Says Moynihan proudly, “We still have one employee, Gerald Helmick, who worked for Don.”
Moynihan and Swope recognized the potential of the Baltimore market. Baltimore, as the major seaport between New York and Norfolk, is a major manufacturing and distribution hub. According to the Baltimore County economic development authority, manufacturing accounts for more
than 56,000 jobs in 1,800 employing companies. Industries such as machine tools, defense, food and beverage, consumer products, and building supplies take advantage of the city’s extensive and accessible rail, road, and shipping networks, making Baltimore the locus of an extensive box market area encompassing Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Northern and Central Virginia.
Moynihan says that most of Columbia’s customers are located within 60 miles of the plant in Baltimore. “Our market is comprised of food and beverage, pharmaceutical, distribution, and industrial companies,” he says. “Our largest concentration is in the food and beverage segment.”
Sales Manager Chris Saumell, who joined Columbia in 2004 after a 14-year stint in sales at Oxford Container, concurs: “We are heavily involved in food and beverage,” he says. “We sell brown boxes with one- or two-color print to a number of meat companies, spice companies, bakeries, food distributors, and retail food manufacturers, with customers also in industrial, bio-tech, and consumer products industries.
“We manufacture RSCs mostly—a lot of kraft single-wall but also a lot of oyster white double-wall. Recently,” he adds, “we have been converting a lot of D flute.” D flute has a caliper lying between C and E flutes and has as its major advantage a high strength-to-volume ratio. In other words, it’s a space saver for customers.
Saumell, who worked as a salesman under Moynihan at Oxford, oversees a team of four sales reps: Kevin Parks, Colin Moynihan, Shawn Yakscoe, and Ron Milhimes. He says they get a lot of opportunities because of referrals from existing customers. “We are seizing on our ability for quick-turn, reliable service and competitive pricing,” Saumell says. “We do what we say we are going to do; if we fall short, we communicate proactively. We give outstanding service at a competitive price. We have forged long-term relationships with many of our customers, and as they have grown, so have we. We rarely lose a customer.”
Last year, he adds, despite the COVID slowdown in May and June, sales were “up dramatically.”
Equipped for the Job
Columbia’s equipment mix supports its business model. The company has a 43 x 94 EMBA two-color flexo folder gluer, a 50 x 113 Langston Saturn III flexo folder gluer with die-cut section, a 60 x 80 Staley two-color rotary die cutter, a 74-inch Post folder gluer, and a 50 x 112 Serenco two-color flexo printer slotter with lead edge feeder. Moynihan explains that their quick turnaround capabilities are supported by the Langston, where standard setups are done in 14 minutes, and on the EMBA, where similar setups take all of seven minutes.
The most recent addition to this roster is the 74-inch Post. Acquired in 2019, it was completely rebuilt in early 2020 by Tom Torosian of Torosian Tech Services in Racine, Wisconsin. According to Moynihan, the Post will lead the company’s push into value-added packaging, particularly the addition of auto-bottoms, small RSCs, and glued trays in demand in the market.
Will Cole, in his role as plant manager, oversees the manufacturing floor. He’s a 26-year veteran of the corrugated industry with an extensive résumé of production responsibilities. “I’ve served in various capacities, including machine operation, supervision, superintendent, quality manager, and safety manager,” he explains. He has been at Columbia for four years.
Columbia, like many independents in North America, relies on a well-oiled maintenance plan to keep their older machines running efficiently. “We just use common sense,” Cole says. “We get feedback daily from our machine operators on the operational aspects of each piece of equipment. We track preventive maintenance using a simple Outlook task manager.”
Touring Columbia’s orderly plant floor, the emphasis on good housekeeping is evident. “We employ lean manufacturing principles, particularly 5S,” Cole says. “We are constantly looking at process improvement, especially setup times.”
The effort has paid off in supporting Columbia’s quick-turn-around customer satisfaction. Cole says his past experience has taught him what can be done with a dedicated and focused approach to process improvement. “I came from a three-shift integrated operation to a one-shift sheet plant,” he says. “I was asking myself, ‘How much could they be doing?’”
Now, of his experience at Columbia he says, “It’s amazing how much we are putting through this plant and what we are getting done, day in and day out. I am proud to be a part of this team.”
Christine Lee is Columbia’s customer service manager. She tells us she’s been with the company 13 years, adding, “with many more to come.” Lee is the linchpin in Columbia’s promise of quick turnaround and on-time delivery, a promise that starts with understanding and getting to know each account personally. “It’s all about knowing the story,” she says. “I sit down with our sales reps to help understand the ‘story’ on each account.”
Lee says that this data collection process is the key to acquiring and keeping loyal customers. “A simple rule is that the more you know about the account and their specific needs, the better your chances of figuring out what will work for them and winning,” she says. “I ask a lot of questions: What are the ? Where are their needs not being met? What are the three things they would change if they could?”
Lee’s enthusiasm for the business is contagious: “It has been a joy working for a family-owned company and learning about boxes,” she says. And acknowledging what industry veterans have long known, she adds, “Who knew boxes could be that interesting?”
Lee and her three colleagues in Columbia’s customer service department, Cliff Mangle, Ashley Fama, and Shakara Alston, also profess what she calls one of their “core beliefs” of continuous improvement. “We never stop improving what we are doing and how we are doing it at each of our accounts,” she says. “We constructively challenge our production team, tooling vendors, sheet suppliers, and even our customers to improve our understanding so we can improve our approach.” These practices inevitably lead to what she says is “a happy ending for each story.”
No member interview in the year 2020 can ignore the effect of the COVID health crisis. Corrugated industry data in the fall of 2020 shows a year-to-date increase in corrugated shipments of 2% or more over 2019, a figure driven by online shopping and government stimulus actions to dampen the negative effects of various economic shutdowns. AICC members have with near uniformity reported robust order backlogs but also tightness of material supply and increasing challenges in recruiting and retaining workers.
Columbia’s experience mirrors the industry’s. “We’ve had a dramatic increase in sales in this year alone,” says Moynihan. “Our lead times are three or four days, and we are four weeks into the addition of a second shift to keep up with the COVID demand. The second shift has really helped keep our lead times down.”
The company employs 53 people, and Moynihan credits what he calls a “tremendous core” of talent with keeping up with demand and keeping customers satisfied. Yet Columbia, like many independents in the industry, is struggling to find workers who are willing to commit to the rigors of working in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment like an independent sheet plant.
Moynihan and Cole rely on referrals to fill the gaps, offering monetary incentives to employees, dependent on how long their new recruits remain successfully on the job. They say they had their best success recruiting from commercial printers and binderies, which have similar job-shop processes and order procedures. Cole believes the key to finding and retaining good people, while challenging in today’s environment, is really very simple. “Simply do what you say and say what you do,” he says. “Treat everyone with dignity and respect. Word-of-mouth has been huge for us. We have an employee incentive program where it pays to bring in good people, and this has been working very well for us.”
As Moynihan sees it, recruiting and maintaining a high-quality workforce is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today. “We feel our people are our biggest resource and that our employees have significantly contributed to our growth,” he says.
When we ask Moynihan and Swope about their future plans for Columbia, both agree that technology will drive the company forward while keeping their focus on maintaining short lead times. “As technology continues to impact our industry, choosing the right equipment is critical,” says Moynihan.
Adds Swope, “We look at the direction the industry is going and look for strategic investment after our current machines are filled.”
Like so many independent sheet plant owners, Moynihan and Swope have established their success on well-maintained used equipment selected to support the mission. “We are a brown box plant focused on expanding our offering and pushing into new markets,” says Moynihan. “Our investment in new equipment will never stop so we can ensure our ability to meet the needs of our customers and grow our business.”
Moynihan and Swope are eyeing significant investments in the years ahead, and they have mapped out a multiyear plan to achieve them. In 2021, a multicolor inside-outside flexo rotary die cutter and stacker are in the plans. In 2022, a multicolor inside-outside flexo folder gluer upgrade. And in the years 2023–2025, identifying and moving to a new production facility from their current 70,000-square-foot space.
Columbia Container can, from many perspectives, be considered a model independent sheet plant— family-owned, well-defined core values around customer satisfaction, efficient performance and integrity, a loyal and dedicated workforce, and a diverse, satisfied customer base. But there’s more: Columbia, like many model independents, is also a pillar of the Baltimore community. When the COVID health crisis shuttered so many businesses and threw thousands out of work in the Baltimore area, it fell to state and local nonprofit food banks and distribution sites to provide food assistance to the needy. The Maryland Food Bank (MFB), the state’s largest food assistance safety net, provides, according to its website, 40 million meals per year from its locations in Baltimore, Salisbury, and Hagerstown. A key ingredient in the success of this enterprise is the packaging needed to deliver food to its clients. Columbia Container stepped up and, with the help of donated raw materials, particularly sheets from CorrChoice in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, has donated more than 550,000 boxes to MFB as of this writing.
About their membership in AICC, Moynihan, Swope, and Saumell are enthusiastic in their recommendation of the Association’s services. Both Moynihan and Swope are members of CEO advisory groups, and Saumell has taken it upon himself to avail his team of AICC’s Packaging School for individual and group training. In our visit with them, they called out AICC’s Taryn Pyle, director of education and talent development, and Chelsea May, education and training manager, for their tireless work in helping members train and educate their employees, especially in the environment of the COVID health crisis. “Taryn and Chelsea have been absolutely fantastic in their assistance to us this year,” Moynihan says. “They are a cohesive team helping members.”
Moynihan sums up AICC’s visit by returning to his opening remarks: “We focus on companies that require a high level of service and quick turnaround on their orders. We work hard to understand the needs and inventory requirements of each of our customers and then put a customer service plan in place to serve their needs.”
In other words: “Columbia Container: the right box at the right time.”
Steve Young is AICC’s ambassador-at-large. He can be reached at 202-297-0583 or email@example.com.