Independent II: ‘Built by a Few, Succeeding With Many’
By Steve Young
September 13, 2023
Company: Independent II
Joined AICC: 2007
Headquarters: Louisville, Kentucky
President: Finn MacDonald
The story of Independent II in Louisville, Kentucky, begins with one Neil MacDonald, who retired in 1997 following the sale of his company, Independent Container, to Greif. His 30-plus years in the box business in the Louisville market built long-standing relationships with many good customers. So, before his formal departure, he did what any shrewd entrepreneur would do: He gave his home phone number to all of them.
“Our existing customer base was probably the loudest reason to incorporate Independent II,” says Finn MacDonald, Neil’s son and president of the company. “My father did the job of retiring; he just left his phone number with most of the customers.”
As Finn recalls, those customers were not shy about exploiting this valuable resource: “During retirement, Neil received a lot of phone calls, just about ‘Hey, who can we call …?’ or ‘We need a little help.’ There’s a point where any seller is going to say, ‘I’m your guy. I’m your help.’ ”
Independent II was thus incorporated in July 2006 in a 100,000-square-foot building with what Finn calls “typical grassroots equipment”—a 38″ flexo, a 50″ flexo, and a 66″ x 80″ die cutter. “We were able to hire some talent, earn some new business, and really start up a sheet plant,” Finn says, adding that the former Independent Container’s longtime, loyal customers stepped up and embraced the resurrected company and its stellar service. “We turned the ignition on, and we were probably 10 million square feet in month one. That’s the power of that existing business; that’s the power of being in Louisville for such a long time. When we opened the doors, sure enough, there were orders and there were sheets being delivered. It was a quick start.”
So quick, in fact, that Louisville Business First for seven consecutive years—from 2010 to 2016—cited Independent II in its “Fast 50” list of fastest-growing private companies.
Finn, 51, came to Independent II in 2010. His route there was circuitous. He graduated in 1994 from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, with a degree in English/communications. He then followed a disparate career path, from photojournalist to museum founder to owner of a historic inn. Cut from the same cloth as his father, Neil, Finn inherited the successful entrepreneur’s instinct for customer service, explaining simply: “Each of these career choices required an entrepreneurial vision, tireless work, and a dedication to always taking care of the customer.”
He carried this keenly focused customer service eye to Independent II when he joined the company. “At that time, Independent II was really shifting into fast-growth mode,” he recalls. “The market here was beginning to ask for more than just brown boxes, and seeing an opportunity to expand what the business offered its customers, how it was produced, and assembling the team to do it was a leadership challenge that appealed to me.”
Independent II’s long-standing customer focus was the starting point for Finn’s transformation and expansion of the company. “Independent II was built on ‘Take care of the customer by saying yes and getting it done,’ ” he says. “It’s the hierarchy of business, and it’s in our molecular DNA.”
While this ethos served them well, he recalls, it had its limits. “We did not spend a lot of time figuring out how to get things done more efficiently,” he says. “We had not spent the time investing in equipment and processes to make it easier.”
One of the critical limits to the company’s future was its physical location. Independent II operated out of two buildings: a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and a 200,000-square-foot warehouse across the street. “We were our No. 1 shipping customer for years because we had to ship our finished goods 100 yards across the street to our warehouse,” says Finn.
In spite of the layout, Independent II in its former location was running 40 million square feet per month with a respectable lineup of equipment: two BW Papersystems flexo folder gluers with die cut sections—a three-color 37″ x 96″ and a two-color 50″ x 110″; two Ward rotary die cutters—a two-color 66″ x 80″ and a three-color 66″ x 113″; a Baysek die cutter; a Post Torosian specialty folder gluer; and two Solarco Boxmatic machines—a 98″ one-color with inline feed and a 90″ two-color.
Finn and his Independent II team knew that investing in new equipment or plant flow in that packed environment was unfeasible. “We knew an expiring lease was coming, and we hadn’t found a successful way to connect the two buildings,” he recalls. “So that put a move front and center as our only option.”
With that decided for them, Finn and his team then faced the next two questions: To lease or to build? And where would it be located? “It was critically important for the company and our customers to retain our labor force and to not move too far,” he says. “You know if something looks great but it’s 35 minutes away, it doesn’t look great to anybody making that drive.”
Finn found a solution in what he calls a “hybrid site,” two blocks down the road with an existing building and an adjacent lot. “There was a building in half of the space and an empty greenfield next to it,” he says. “So if we tear one building down, shovel it over to the greenfield site, and level it, we get 340,000 square feet. We fit perfectly in that little puzzle piece of land just two blocks away.”
According to Finn, the ramp-up to the move was theoretically three years, with design, build, and machinery acquisition and plant layout. “Then we developed our timeline, which was 18 months, and we woke up to reality when supply chain and allocation issues hit us. We were literally finishing the new building, moving from the old site, and trying to produce and warehouse in both over a four-month period,” he recalls. “So, it was the best-laid plan that didn’t survive the fourth quarter of last year.”
In January, Independent II moved into its new 340,000-square-foot facility, where its 125 employees work two shifts to generate an annual corrugated production of more than 50 million square feet. Anthony Jennings, plant manager, oversaw the equipping and layout of the new plant. He came to Independent II five years ago from another independent corrugated box company in the Southeast. Finn calls him the “architect” of the new facility. Commenting on some of the challenges leading up to the relocation, Jennings says, “We had a great plan with new equipment coming into this building first, but with supply chain issues and everything that was going on globally, we had some hiccups here and there. We had to hit
a lot of curveballs.”
Jennings credits Production Supervisor Justin Gittings with a lot of the heavy lifting in getting the move done smoothly. “He held it together over at the old building while I was here laying out the plant; then, when we needed his leadership here, he made that move over,” he says.
Jennings explains that key hiring decisions were made to enable a smoother transition. “We did some strategic hiring on the leadership side. About eight months ahead of the move, we made a couple of hires so that we would be comfortable running two facilities at one time,” he says.
Jennings justifies the new positions by noting Gittings’ supervision of the machine centers running a majority of the production. “Knowing that we were expanding equipment here made that decision easy,” he says. “Justin is captain of 65% of our business, so we were able to justify additional positions. … We’re starting to hit our stride now, so I think it was a pretty successful move.”
Finn and Jennings also used Independent II’s membership in AICC to consult with other members who had also taken on major expansion and equipment installation projects. “Through our membership, we got real-time feedback on suppliers and services that are vital in making good investment and planning decisions,” Finn says. “AICC’s No. 1 benefit is interaction with and access to peers and plants.”
Independent II’s new plant is a showcase of cleanliness, efficient layout, and state-of-the-art production capability. In addition to the existing equipment moved over from the old location, significant investments were made in new equipment and plant flow, with ACS conveyors and load-tiering systems governing the movement of work in process and finished goods. On the converting side, the most notable additions are two Isowa flexo folder gluers: an Isowa Falcon 37″ x 95″ four-color with die cut section and an Isowa Ibis 47″ x 120″ three-color with die cut section. Both machines have Alliance pre-feeders and load formers and EAM Mosca bundlers. These two machines comprise what the team refers to as the “Isowa Island” midplant. Finn explains the operating principle that governs the center: “When we really looked at our labor and how one flexo would contribute to our game versus two, we opted for two sitting in a mirrored fashion. Paper could flow to them, nothing would get in the way, and we could get 65% of our day done in a shift. So that was the big swing, the big vision.”
Gittings confirms the machinery choice: “In our conversations when we were getting these machines, I’m hoping in six months we’re at our goals; we did it in three. We hit a million square feet on the Ibis on one shift in the first two months, and we’ve hit over 100,000 kicks on the Falcon in one shift.”
Tim Rosetti, shipping and warehouse manager, joined Independent II in February 2022. Far from being overwhelmed by the production speeds now being realized, Rosetti says the new plant, with everything under one roof, has improved on-time deliveries by a factor of 15–20 percentage points. “Now we have a solid warehouse layout,” he says. “We can handle the business we’re doing, but we’re also ready for growth. We are up to 94% on-time shipping, and when I started, we were in the high 80s.”
The amped-up productivity in the new plant serves Independent II’s market aspirations, as well. “Our slogan to the market is ‘Brown, Brand, and Digital,’” Finn explains. “Those three words represent the diversity that we’re trying to achieve in the marketplace. Brown still dominates. It’s what we’ve been doing the longest, and brown is what we’ll always do.” This mix plays well into the northern Kentucky and southern Indiana area, which Finn describes as a “great mix of brown, branded, and digital consumers in food and beverage, e-commerce, consumer goods, spirits, and home appliances.”
Independent II’s equipment roster has been curated to serve its diversification beyond its brown-box roots. As Finn explains, the “brand” in the company’s market pitch is supported by its two-, three-, and four-color printing capabilities in its Isowa and MarquipWardUnited (BW Papersystems) machines. But Finn qualifies the company’s graphics work. “We’ve got a fleet of converting equipment, but outside of the new Falcon, which is a four-color machine, our top-line printers had been three-color, and a lot of that had not been process- or built-color but had been just for multiple colors on a sheet. We have learned to handle basic brand well, and we have grown that segment of our business.”
The logical next level, Finn notes, would be a move to higher-end process printing, yet here again, he balances the company’s capabilities with the market’s expectations. “We moved out of brown and got into branded, but then that next step was process printing, prepress management, and developing a sales force that can sell complexity if you have a market that can accept it,” he says. “All of this is achievable, but in Louisville, we had to be realistic.”
Enter the Domino x630i single-pass digital printer. Installed almost three years ago, the four-color aqueous-based printer is an important part of Independent II’s aspirations to grow the brand and digital segments of its business by $10 million in the years ahead. Michelle Huber, digital print supervisor, oversees the department, and she and Finn agree that the Domino checks a lot of boxes for Independent II’s operational and customer service goals. Says Finn, “It takes a lot more than three people to grow and evolve traditional direct print to process printing. With the Domino digital press, it takes Michelle and her two operators the process of receiving and ripping a file and then hitting the green button. All of a sudden, we can have four-color through a single-pass machine.”
Finn explains that the preprinted digital sheets go directly to the company’s die cutters, where they are handled efficiently and there are no printing plates to receive, mount, or wash up in the process. As of press time, the Domino was slated to receive a coating section this summer, an addition that Huber says “will be positive for the client because a lot of clients want a coating or shinier, brighter print. It will help us grow.”
Independent II’s management team is a cohesive unit with a shared sense of purpose to serve the customer. Kelly Papp, director of business operations, joined Independent II only recently, and she brings with her 20 years’ experience at another Louisville-area independent. “We’re really blessed with a professional, experienced customer service team,” she says. “What we’ve been working really hard on is improving our communication and processes internally.”
This, Papp adds, is a natural extension of Independent II’s growth into the brand and digital segments. “It takes time to develop experience handling not only brown boxes but handling brand through displays, fulfillment, and everything like that, so we are actively spending time upfront validating our customers’ expectations,” she says.
Another new team member, Gracie Collins, is a recent Indiana State University packaging/safety program graduate. She is the director of quality, safety, and improvement, which encompasses the entire environment in the plant. She, like Papp, is committed to improving internal communication. Independent II’s weekly QSI meeting with production staff and the plant workers was her innovation. “It’s really important to get the team together to get everybody on the same page,” Collins says. “They don’t take breaks at the same time, so the Monday meetings have one topic, say, a quality topic, a safety topic, and one improvement topic based on the way the previous week went. You have that communication with the team, and you show them what page we’re on so they know what page to be on as well.”
Independent II has also added to the leadership team a senior controller who worked for one of the company’s customers. “I knew what kind of people they were; they were people of integrity,” the controller says.
The position allows the company to be more proactive—rather than reactive—in financial planning and strategic growth. Finn makes an analogy to Independent II’s logo, which features an italicized Roman numeral II. “If you look at it, those two blocks are always leaning forward. And what we’re trying to do across the company in manufacturing, in customer service, in our financial arm, and on the selling side is to lean forward and into both our challenges and our opportunities.”
Finn is the second generation in the second iteration of a successful independent company. When he joined Independent II in 2010, he knew that growth would require a more strategic and directed approach to the market and a team of talented people to guide it. The team he has assembled is not limited to the one within the company, however. Finn attributes much of his success in leading Independent II to his involvement in AICC. “I’ve used AICC to accelerate my professional development,” he says. “I believe my ability to grow and manage Independent II comes from many years of investing in AICC through meetings and programming, my work on the board of directors, and my brotherhood in my CEO Advisory Group.”
To confirm his commitment to AICC and to the advancement of the corrugated industry, Finn will assume the AICC chairmanship in the 2025–2026 membership year.
Independent II’s elevator speech is “Experience Packaging Success.” By any objective measure, Finn—and his team at Independent II—are proving this to their customers every day. Harkening back to his father Neil’s founding of Independent Container and Independent II and looking to the future, Finn, tipping his hat to his team, says simply, “Independent II was built by a few, but it is succeeding with many.”
Steve Young is AICC’s ambassador-at-large. He can be reached at 202-297-0583 or syoung@AICCbox.org.