Forest Packaging: Quality, American-Made
By AICC Staff
July 7, 2022
There’s something all-American that rings true about every independent converter’s story: an entrepreneur with a dream; a 15,000-square-foot space; a couple of pieces of used equipment; a handful of loyal customers; and a few hardworking employees. So it was for John Kissock, who in 1966 founded Forest Packaging in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, Illinois.
One of Kissock’s hardworking employees in the company’s early years was Greg Kula, who joined Forest as a sales representative in 1980. “We were really, really tiny. We had a 15,000-square-foot building, a crackerjack Langston letterpress from 1918, a Thompson die cutter, and a slitter,” Kula recalls.
As things turned out, Kula in 1991 bought the company from its founder, recognizing the same opportunities as Kissock—small quantities, fast service, and longstanding relationships can build a very successful business. “John Kissock had no heirs and no one interested in the business,” Kula says. “It worked out good for him; he got everything he wanted. And it worked out good for me.”
Today, 56 years after its founding, Forest Packaging, now in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, is a thriving sheet plant serving the Chicago area from 65,000 square feet of production and warehouse space. The company’s 50 employees work in two shifts to produce 130 million square feet of corrugated containers and displays annually. Now on its second generation of ownership, Forest Packaging is planning its next phase of expansion and growth.
Those early years were full of challenges. The company had a stable of loyal customers but did not have the capability to meet all their growing demands. “We needed to speed up our processes,” Kula says. “We had a lot of antiquated equipment; we had to do a lot of farm-out work.” Equipment was not the only obstacle, however. Kula remembers the frustration he experienced with the physical plant of the company, which had relocated to Addison, Illinois. “We were so locked in the smaller building,” he says. “We just needed to get a larger facility and more capability, even in the standard things—die cutting and making simple RSCs. We were very inefficient.”
Forest Packaging’s second generation—Vice President John Kula and Senior Account Executive Jeff Kula—have been the catalyst for the company’s growth in the past 20 years. Greg gives John the lion’s share of the credit for the progression of the company’s machine additions and equipment capabilities. “John’s educated himself,” says Greg. “Since he was 12 years old, he’s been sitting on forklifts, so he has a knack for production.”
The company’s current equipment roster has evolved over a 25-year period, with the most recent acquisitions in the past decade. Forest Packaging has as its workhorse machines a BW Papersystems 66 x 118 three-color rotary die cutter; a Tecasa 50 x 111 two-color flexo folder gluer; and a Maramatsu 40 x 55 flatbed die cutter. Complementing these are an Automatän 7780 laminator, a Post 1080 specialty folder gluer, and a BCS (now Kolbus) Boxmaker.
According to John Kula, the evolution of the company’s current equipment mix begins in 2010, with the acquisition of the Post specialty folder gluer. Says John: “You go back to 2010, we didn’t have a specialty gluer; we couldn’t buy a new one, so we went out and found an 10-year old Post 1080. It was in a WestRock plant in New Jersey. They had three of them that they were running, and then they lost the business. Two of them were just sitting there.”
The machine was not, however, in working condition. Says Greg: “I remember going out to see this thing. It was all in pieces; there must have been an inch and a half of dust on this thing, and I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ But it was a good price!”
The machine required about $100,000 to rebuild. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t bring something in here with band-aids on it,” says John. “We rebuilt it from front to back—drives, shafts, and belts.”
As John explains, the capabilities of the newly acquired Post exposed certain weaknesses in the company’s upstream processes. “We weren’t designing things properly,” John says. “We’d do things and have problems and end up farming business out. So, we ended up getting the Post, and that systematically changed the way we design things.”
Adds Greg: “It was [the] best thing for our designers. We always designed around difficult gluing applications, and it hurt our business. We went from zero to really busy in a relatively short time.”
Just the Beginning
The Post addition had further ramifications, as John explains. “Then we upgraded our design department because now we could start doing things. We could add more work to our die cutter. So, we ended up with a used piece of equipment that opened up a lot of opportunities for us.”
From that point, the equipment acquisition dominoes began to fall, with John seeing a need for a new label laminator with production speeds fast enough to accommodate growth and take advantage of opportunities in those customers with higher-end packaging requirements. “We found an Automatän sitting down in Texas,” John says. “But the bones were good. We bought the machine, brought it in here, and rebuilt it on the floor.” Prior to this purchase the company could label, but not quickly enough to satisfy customers.
The need for new equipment continued to manifest itself. Although the company acquired a new Tecasa flexo folder gluer in 1997 for its longer runs—and that machine had long proved its value—its two aging flatbed die cutters could not keep up with demand. Working with Hitek Equipment, Forest Packaging acquired a new Maramatsu flatbed die cutter in 2017 to increase speed and enhance employee safety, which was a top priority. “The Maramatsu—the ease. You could almost bring a person in off the street and run it,” John says. “It’s a neat piece that started helping us.”
That same year it also acquired a new Kongsberg CAD table and added a BCS (now Kolbus) Boxmaker to the production floor. According to John, the Kongsberg table enabled the company to provide better-quality samples to customers: “It’s another way we enhance our service overall,” he says.
The BCS Boxmaker, for its part, allows Forest to take smaller runs formerly run on their high-speed rotary die cutter and move them to the Boxmaker. “This guaranteed the small jobs that built Forest Packaging would still be managed while opening up capacity on the rotary die cutter for our larger jobs,” John says.
And, in what John calls “Forest’s crowning moment,” in 2018, the company added a BW PaperSystems 66 x 125 three-color rotary die cutter and Geo. M. Martin stacker. About the die cutter, John says, “That 66 x 125, I don’t think we were three months in, and we said, ‘How did we ever get along without it?’ It was that instant. You can just see the amount of stuff going through it.”
To keep up with the throughput on the BW PaperSystems die cutter—and to address the growing shortage of labor—Forest Packaging installed an Alliance Machine Systems pre-feeder at the front end of the machine in 2021. “A labor shortage made finding employees increasingly difficult,” John says. “The pre-feeder allowed us to continue to serve our customers without worry.”
Being very pleased with the performance of the Alliance pre-feeder on their rotary die cutter, the company recently added a second unit at the front end of its Tecasa flexo folder gluer. “The pre-feeders have decreased employee fatigue, increased employee safety, and increased our efficiencies,” reports John.
And in November of this year, building on the push to increase throughput, Forest Packaging will add a Geo. M. Martin bundle breaker at the back of the BW Papersystems rotary die cutter. “We’ll start designing differently now to run multiple outs,” says John. “There are jobs we’ve lost because they wanted to have it bundled, and you can’t bundle 100,000 by hand!”
In sourcing equipment, the Forest Packaging leadership team found it important to favor machines built and serviced in America, and in their view, the supply chain of the past two years have proved this to be a sound philosophy. “Through all our equipment additions over the years, we have found it to be increasingly important, especially in today’s crazy world, that the machines are made and/or serviced within the United States,” John says. “Our mentality is to buy American to support jobs here.”
More Capabilities, More Market
Forest Packaging’s equipment investments have tracked the growth of its diverse customer base. The large Chicago corrugated market area is, as Greg Kula says, a “good” market. “You’re not just tied into one industry, like automotive. There are times when some industries are down, but others are doing better, so we drop here and pick up there. That’s the safety you get in this area.”
Defining Forest Packaging’s customer base, Dean DeGroot, sales manager, says, “It’s a lot of brown boxes, RSCs, die cuts. And that’s been spread among many industries—food, automotive, plastics, metal stampers, and printers. We’re not concentrated in any one industry.” DeGroot says the company’s current mix is a 60-40 split of industrial packaging and graphics and display work.
The immediate payout from its recent, strategic investments is a greater opportunity for the company in new or underserved markets. Referring to the BW Papersystems three-color RDC, DeGroot says, “It’s made a huge difference in speed and graphics. I’m amazed at what we can do graphically now. We’ve picked up so much business just because of that. We used to have to turn away business—‘we can’t hold that print; we can’t do that.’ Now we can do just about anything.”
Jeff Kula also weighs in on the new market opportunities the company now enjoys, especially in light of the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We really have had a lot of good opportunities presented to us,” he says. “We feel we’re in a good position as far as what we can do. And seeing how much more a blend of business that switched to e-commerce and direct-to-consumer, and now we’re seeing the retail side pickup, too.”
All the Kulas and DeGroot agree that their design department deserves the credit for stepping up to the challenge. “A lot of it comes from the design department, and how we’ve upgraded that,” DeGroot says. “The [Kongsberg] table, everything is now speed and how fast you can get that, and without the proper designers, the proper equipment, we were at a disadvantage.”
Forest’s designers, Bob Pucillo and Roger Lawlor, complement each other in their abilities, says John. “Roger’s more on the industrial side, and he’s very creative coming up with unique ways to protect the customer’s product,” he says. “Bob’s more on the displays, the higher-end stuff. The nice thing in watching the two of them work together—Roger’s picking up more on the higher end, and Bob’s also picking up on the industrial, brown side and coming up with solutions. It’s a fun process.”
The Forest Packaging leadership team will not rest on their oars as far as future planning is concerned. A new building is in their sights to allow for expansion and to increase their efficiencies even more. Any visitor to the company will be impressed with how much throughput they’re getting in a small, 50,000-square-foot space. John Kula has plans for adding a surge line after the Geo. M. Martin bundle breaker is installed on the die cutter to allow more output. “It’s tight, and we’re trying to maneuver,” he says.
“We’re doing all this in pretty tight quarters. A new building is on the list. We could probably double our current footage tomorrow—that’s what we would need, at least 100,000 square feet.”
Challenge and Opportunity
The Forest Packaging leadership group sees challenges ahead but also opportunities. One of the most immediate problems facing the industry is the shortage of workers. “Labor shortages are a real problem,” says John.
To counter this trend, Forest Packaging is creating incentives for current employees. “We’re offering bonuses to employees if they find someone who will be a successful employee for us,” says Greg.
“We would rather incentivize the people here than pay a signing bonus to someone we do not know,” John adds.
On the flip side, Forest Packaging has automated its processes so that fewer new people will be needed in the years ahead. “You’re going to see a lot of companies go that route,” says John, “because the technologies and the things we’ve done have allowed us to operate with less.”
The greatest reason for optimism and opportunity in the future, says Greg, is the very nature of the corrugated industry itself: It’s essential, it’s sustainable, and it’s domestic. “We’re a vital industry,” he says. “If the corrugated box didn’t exist, how would everything get to market?”
“We as an industry have always been sustainable. Cutting trees, replanting trees, and recycling everything,” John adds. “We were doing that even before it was a cool thing to do.”
“Another good thing about our industry,” says Greg, “is we’re so domestic; most of our product is made here.”
“Whatever we can do, we make under our own roof,” adds John.
Positioned for Success
Every company has an elevator speech. When asked about Forest Packaging’s, John says, “We want to be your partner. If we can’t earn the business, then we don’t deserve the business.”
In an all-American, independent kind of way, Forest Packaging proves this daily. In response to its customers and the corrugated packaging market’s changing needs, Forest has pursued steady, purposeful investment in new capacity and improved throughput while staying true to its roots. A second generation of leadership—forward-looking and always customer-focused—is well-positioned for the next chapter of growth, ensuring what Greg Kula had in mind when he bought the company in 1991: A quality product, fast service, and longstanding relationships will build a successful business.
Steve Young is AICC’s ambassador-at-large. He can be reached at 202-297-0583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.