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Sumter Packaging: ‘Your Key to Service’

By AICC Staff

May 17, 2022



COMPANY: Sumter Packaging



PHONE: 803-481-2003


HEADQUARTERS: Sumter, South Carolina

CEO: Ben DeSollar



Ben DeSollar, CEO of Sumter Packaging in Sumter, South Carolina, can trace his company’s lineage back more than a century, to the founding of Iowa Fibre Box Co. in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1920. The newly formed company hired James O. Hoerner to sell boxes, and within 50 years, Hoerner-Waldorf was a nationally recognized supplier of corrugated packaging products. (See Nov/Dec 2021 BoxScore, “SMC Packaging Group: ‘Open. Transparent. Honest. Successful.’”)

The story continues: In 1938, the company hired Ed Fienning, DeSollar’s grandfather, as a salesman, and he would go on to marry James Hoerner’s sister, Eola Hoerner. Several years later, in 1958, they founded Kankakee Container in Kankakee, Illinois, where DeSollar’s father, Chuck Fienning, started as a salesman in 1977. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sumter Packaging itself, in the central South Carolina city of the same name, started in 1980 as a subsidiary of Kankakee Container. A common theme in the history of many independents—building a plant to serve a major customer—was the principal reason for the new South Carolina location. DeSollar explains, “So a customer of ours back in the late 1970s, AO Smith, was going to put a plant in the Carolinas, and it ended up in McBee, South Carolina. They said, ‘Hey, if you come down and offer the same quality service and price range, we’d love to have you make our boxes when we open up our plant.’ So, based on a demographic study, we put a 50,000-square-foot sheet plant here in a pecan orchard.”

Sumter now has three locations: the main sheet plant in Sumter, which over the years has expanded to 115,000 square feet; a smaller, 62,000-square-foot sheet plant in Statesville, North Carolina; and a 15,000-square-foot warehouse and assembly facility in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The company’s product mix is a combination of custom point-of-purchase displays, corrugated boxes and industrial packaging, digitally printed graphics, process printing, die cuts, and specialty items typically found in an independent’s production repertoire. Beyond these manufactured products, Sumter also provides contract packaging services, fulfillment, and logistic services for its expansive customer base. Talking about the company’s market area and services, DeSollar says, “We pretty much serve every market from internet entrepreneurs to national fulfillment for Fortune 500 retailers. So we hit a very big range of customers.”

He adds, “We are not in any way dependent on any one niche, so we can focus on serving all customers well.” Geographically, Sumter serves North and South Carolina, eastern Georgia, and parts of Virginia and Florida. On occasion, says DeSollar, the company will ship nationally and even into Canada and Mexico. “They can’t get boxes and, somehow, they find us.”

Equipped to Serve

Sumter’s locations are equipped to serve. The original plant, built in 1980, operated on a single shift and was equipped with a 66 Staley two-color rotary die cutter; a 66 x 141 two-color Curioni flexo press; and a 35 x 84 two-color Curioni flexo folder gluer as its primary equipment.

Since then Sumter’s main plant, now at 115,000 square feet with an expansion in the works, has added an extensive list of converting equipment to its original mix, including: an Emba 245 41 x 96 four-color flexo folder gluer with die cut section; an Emba 170 23 x 68 three-color flexo folder gluer with die cut section; a Simca 66 x 178 two-color jumbo flexo folder gluer; a Baysek die cutter; a J&L specialty folder gluer; a Post Specialty folder gluer; a four-color Serenco rotary die cutter; a 66 Staley two-color rotary die cutter; a two-color 66 Harper rotary die cutter; a 50 S&S flexo folder gluer; and a Stock semi-automatic litho labeler.

Sumter’s equipment roster covers the broad range of the company’s market demand, from basic RSCs to die cuts and higher-volume runs.


Sumter CEO Ben DeSollar (left) and Mitch Garner, production manager, at Sumter Packaging’s plant in Sumter, South Carolina.

Sumter’s capital equipment mix has also changed as the market area’s demand for high-graphic packaging has continued to grow. The company started moving toward graphics in the early 2000s with the addition of an ink kitchen and spectro-photodensitometers to more accurately measure color. The company added an HP digital printer in 2014 and later paired it with an XP44 Auto Kongsberg cutting table. As DeSollar explained, the company’s Emba 245, acquired in 2020, allowed the company to further accelerate its shift toward higher graphics. Mitch Garner, production manager, agrees, saying, “We learned a lot of printing lessons on the Emba 245 on what to do and not to do. Before that machine, our highest anilox roll was 360; now I’ve got 500s.”

Sumter’s next phase in its graphic printing capability is game-changing: a seven-color Göpfert 1628 rotary die cutter with two bundle breakers and inverter to allow easy configuration of inside-outside print runs. The machine, due in late 2022 or early 2023, will open new opportunities for the company. “To some extent it’s a new market, because we’re going to be able to produce products we haven’t been able to produce before,” DeSollar says. “We’re doing as much as we can to ramp up training early—visiting McLean Packaging in Philadelphia, John Kelley at Dusobox in Orlando, Florida, a number of other plants in the U.S. and abroad—and leaning heavily on the supplier base, not just at Göpfert, but John Bird of JB Machinery, our anilox roll, print plate makers, and ink suppliers.”

Service and Quality: ‘100 Sets of Eyes’

The company’s continuing investment in equipment and process improvement is an integral component of its success over the years. But its key strength in the market comes from its unyielding commitment to service. Indeed, when pressed for an elevator speech for Sumter Packaging, the CEO’s first words were “unsurpassed service.” The company’s logo, designed by DeSollar’s grandmother Eola Hoerner Fienning, features crossed keys and proclaims, “Sumter Packaging: Your Key to Service.”

One of the guarantors of Sumter’s service promise is Sherry Matthews, assistant customer service manager. She attributes Sumter’s gold-star reputation to the team spirit and longevity that is present in the customer service department, a spirit that also extends to the sales force and the plant. “I’ve been here for 35 years,” she says. “We have a lot of longevity in our customer service department, and everyone takes their work personally, their customers personally. We’ve just all worked together for so long, and we know how everything works here, and we know how to coordinate things.”

When asked to cite an example of this team spirit in play, Matthews refers to the lead-time challenges that have dogged the entire industry for the past two years: “We were used to being able to serve our customers next day if we had to, or two days, maybe three, five at the max. Then with the increased demand and the other challenges of the last two years, we had to increase our typical lead times out to two or three weeks.”

Displaying the conscientiousness of any good customer service pro, Matthews says, “You have to have flexibility because we need to minimize disruption to our customers. So if we had a critical situation, the sales manager jumps in, I jump in with Jimmy Ezell, the customer service manager, and with production, and we work something out for the customer.”

DeSollar adds that managing customer expectations has been an important part of the lead-time discussion: “We now have ‘by’ dates, and if we can get products out the door prior to what we’ve promised and our customer is able to take it earlier, then we’ll get it to them earlier. We try to have positive surprises and try to manage expectations based on the increase in demand.”

This service-first ethic, as emblazoned on the company logo, goes hand in hand with quality. DeSollar says the company’s longtime emphasis on continuous improvement is another essential part of its growth and customer loyalty. The company earned its ISO 9001 certification in 1997, implemented lean manufacturing principles in 2004, and holds a G7 Master Printer Certification. Processes aside, he attributes the most effective quality measures to the people who make up the Sumter Packaging team.

Teamwork Counts

“I think just having a bunch of really good people pulling in the same direction for such a long time has really helped us stand out in the marketplace,” DeSollar says. “We have 100 sets of eyes in the production area, and over time, they’ve learned what works.”

One of those sets of eyes belongs to Johnny Welch, lead man and operator of the Emba 245. Commenting on the challenging nature of the corrugated job-shop environment, he says, “Boxes may seem simple, but there are a lot of tricks that you need to know to get the first order out right and to make sure jobs are consistent after that.”

Jim Baibak, Sumter’s sales manager, who was on the road for 13 years selling for the company, echoes DeSollar and Welch. “As a sales rep, it was awesome being on the road knowing everyone in the plant had your back.”

People, Beginning With ‘Pops’

The Sumter team spirit is part of the company’s DNA. DeSollar attributes it to his grandfather, Edward “Pops” Fienning, and his father, Chuck Fienning. “Pops was just a wonderful guy,” DeSollar says. “When he was in his late 80s and early 90s, he used to volunteer and play piano for the ‘old’ people down at a nursing home in Hilton Head.”

Chuck Fienning started at the company in 1977 as a salesman in the Kankakee plant. In 1984, following the establishment of Sumter, he became the CEO. “Pops came to my dad and said, ‘Fix it or sell it,’” DeSollar says. “And he got things on the right track and put in a really solid base. I came in 2003.”

DeSollar’s background prior to Sumter is atypical, coming from the automotive turnaround world, where he was fixing up financially and operationally troubled automotive companies at home and abroad. “I was working for a Detroit-based firm; most of it was troubled tier-two and tier-three automotive suppliers. They also gave me some of the unusual assignments because of my prior background in Asia,” he remembers.

The offer to join Sumter, DeSollar recalls, was received through his wife, Cathy, who got a call asking if Ben was interested in coming to Sumter as chief financial officer. “She asked me, ‘If you worked for Sumter, would you have to travel as much?’ At that point, I had worked one day in my New York office after several years on the road for that company. I came here in 2003 as CFO.”

In 2009, DeSollar purchased the company, and Chuck Fienning retired. In the first year, DeSollar says, Fienning told him to move into the corner office, and Fienning and his wife, Sue, spent the next year traveling the world. He recalls, “He did it partly to give me space to run the company and partly because he felt ‘life is short, and I’m going to see the world with my wife.’”

DeSollar gives credit to his forebears for some of the innovative management practices still in place today. Chuck Fienning had everyone in management positions travel with the sales team to see customers. “Everybody from finance to customer service to manufacturing rides with sales,” DeSollar says. “That way, you are physically with the customer at their facility, and you see what can be improved from the customer perspective and how does what you’re doing fit into the big picture. A lot of times you get in your little silo and think ‘I’m accounting’ or ‘I’m production.’ Having management go out and ride with the sales team—that’s something that I thought was a great idea, and despite people being busy, I tried to expand it a little bit.

“We’ve got a good culture,” he adds. “We’ve been around forever; folks like us. People take time out and are good to each other. We also make sure that everyone has enough backup so that no one person is too stressed. We’re constantly going around to leadership here, asking, ‘What can we take off your plate? How can you bring people up?’”

This attention to everyone’s needs shows in the company’s overall employee longevity. “It’s not unusual—we just did a 35th anniversary present for Frankie, who’s been on the forklift for 35 years. There are a lot of folks on the floor who have been around for years. I think it started with Pops, who was a nice guy and brought in a bunch of good people.”

Baibak adds, “I was looking over a list of our 35 salaried employees, and 20 of them have been with the company over 15 years. That’s pretty awesome.”

Sumter Packaging continues to invest for the future, as shown by the anticipated arrival of the new Göpfert 1628. “I think graphics are going to be a big part of our future; the Göpfert is huge,” DeSollar says, adding, “If we just run the capacity off that machine, it might be a 50% increase in sales. This is a huge change for us.”

What is DeSollar’s outlook for the industry? He cites current challenges the industry faces: labor, the supply chain, and the economy. His advice to owners in the face of a potential economic slowdown? “Get all the debt you can now because of inflation,” he says. “The upcoming environment for getting new credit won’t be nearly as favorable—tighter credit standards, higher rates, and higher prices for new equipment with the inflation we’re having.”

Yet he’s optimistic as well. He thinks the supply chain crisis of the past two years will foster more onshoring of manufacturing. “We’ve seen a lot of manufacturing coming back to the U.S. over the past five years,” he says. “There’s been a lot of reshoring in our market across the board—for instance, even textiles and furniture, once thought to be dead industries in the Carolinas, have come back.”

Sumter Packaging’s success in the corrugated packaging industry has been shared with the industry at large. DeSollar’s father, Chuck Fienning, is a past Chair of AICC and served for more than a decade on its board of directors; DeSollar himself serves as a regional director for AICC and has served on the board of the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation for the past six years. DeSollar says it’s important for companies in the industry to be involved in their associations. “The pace of technical change in the corrugated industry has accelerated greatly over the last five to seven years,” he says. “Being active in the AICC gives you a front-row seat to see that change and get multiple perspectives on it. With the required investment for a new piece of equipment running in the millions, investing a small amount for AICC membership has been well worth it for the perspective it gives.”

We’ll give the last testament to Sumter Packaging to Welch. He remembers his introduction to the box business when he joined Sumter 30 year ago. “When I got out of school, I worked outside and said, ‘I ain’t going to work inside in a business.’ I ended up coming here and said, ‘I’m going to give it a shot,’ and 30 years later, I’m still here.”


Steve Young is AICC’s ambassador-at-large.

He can be reached at 202-297-0583 or