Plastics Powerhouse

Inside the newly renovated Berry Plastics headquarters is a Mini Cooper. The red convertible was lifted into the 90,000-square-foot building during the construction phase that finished in February 2011. The car has never been started. It doesn’t have gas in the tank. It doesn’t run. Its purpose for sitting two stories above the pavement inside the largest private company in Indiana: to serve as a prop in a faux garage. “Prop” seems appropriate. Curt Begle, the 6-foot-9-inch president of Berry’s rigid closed top division, jokes that his outstretched frame is longer than the tiny car. As he stands next to it, along with not-much-shorter colleague Adam Unfried, president of the rigid open top division, the car nearly seems like a toy. Yet, the Mini Cooper is real. It shines in one of Berry Plastic’s display rooms and represents a big concept.

Nearly one year ago, Berry Plastics unveiled the garage along with other exhibition rooms including a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and outdoor patio — all stocked with the proper household products just as a home would be. These rooms, designed by Hafer Associates, demonstrate to Berry’s clients what their products would look like in cabinets, on shelves, in the shower, or in their cars. The Mini Cooper’s interior showcases two thermoform drink cups — the kind served at fast food joints — a pack of gum, and an unopened box of snack crackers. Each is packaged in plastic.

The concept is from former CEO Ira Boots. Featured in the February/March 2008 issue of Evansville Business, the now retired Boots helped Berry grow from $4 million in annual net sales to more than $4 billion. He acquired 30 companies along the way. “Under Ira’s leadership,” says Jon Rich, Berry’s current CEO, “Berry grew from a small, Evansville-based, plastic molding company to a national leader in the packaging industry.” Although Rich’s plans for Berry focus on continuing that growth, to mimic Boots’ prosperity is a tall order. “No matter what I do, I’m not going to duplicate Ira’s success,” Rich said at the September meeting for the Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville, a business incubator. He’d have to make Berry a $4 trillion company.

Still, early in his position of heading Berry Plastics, Rich has made the company bigger again. In the early fall of 2011, company officials announced the acquisition of LINPAC Packaging Filmco for $19 million. The Ohio company, which was a subsidiary of a United Kingdom plastics giant, championed packer processing film (think of the plastic wrap surrounding meat sold in groceries). But the best proof of Berry’s growth resides on the corner of West Franklin and Oakley streets where the 90,000-square-foot expansion is a part of the world headquarters. Employees barely had time to sit down in their new offices by the time Rich announced in June 2011 that Berry Plastics would soon look for 120 new hires over the next three years. The customer service, finance, and general administration positions would add to Berry’s 16,000 employees worldwide. The corporation, says Rich, is “a classic American success story.”

From laundry detergent containers near the washer to lip balm tubes on nightstands, the number of Berry Plastics products has grown exponentially since 1967. Originally Imperial Plastics, the company received a name change when Florida-based citrus grower Jack Berry Sr. bought it in 1983. It since has developed into a leading manufacturer of injection-molded plastic packaging, thermoformed products, flexible films, and tapes and coatings and has earned an extremely diverse clientele. Berry Plastics’ largest client constitutes only 3 percent of the business.

Additional clients have created the need for more employees. That job announcement in June includes careers beginning with salaries between $30,000-$40,000 plus benefits. This declaration followed the 2009 expansion of the thermoforming operations, which brought 360 production-related jobs to Evansville.[pagebreak]

Berry already had been leading the way with thermoforming since acquiring Chicago-based Landis Plastics in 2004. That acquisition, says Unfried, brought “state-of-the-art technologies which has allowed us to drive our organic growth while improving our financial performance. It is one of the fastest growing technologies and product lines in the country.”

Thermoforming, a manufacturing process using heat to mold a plastic sheet into a desired shape, allows Berry to create a super-sized cup designed to fit into any vehicle’s cup holders such as a Mini Cooper’s. Thus, Berry Plastics ended what Randy Hobson, the executive vice president of commercial development, says was the No. 1 complaint the fast food industry had against drink cups: easy spillage. The redesigned commodity costs fast food giants more to make, but it increased sales because super-sized cups universally fit — without spilling. “We are the largest supplier in that business today,” Hobson says. “A lot of the expansion in Berry has been in the thermoforming area. A big part of that was drink cups.”

Berry Plastics has made acquisitions that have led to national attention. Take, for example, the Kerr Group. The Pennsylvania-based company had just landed a new client, Target, the superstore with nearly 1,750 locations in 49 states, and in June 2004, Target executives pitched the idea to revamp the cylindrical prescription bottles almost universally used in pharmacies.

Their new bottle came from Deborah Adler, a onetime senior designer for famed New York-based design studio Milton Glaser. She recently had witnessed her grandmother suffer from an avoidable illness. She accidentally confused her pills with her husband’s medicine — and poor labeling and design were the culprits in her confusion.

Adler’s new bottles, known as ClearRx, showed promise, and once on the market in May 2005, her design earned praise. News outlets such as New York magazine dedicated pages to the new look. Consumer attention soon followed. They flocked to a prescription system consisting of a wide, flat label; six color-coded ID rings for each family member (purple is the most popular color); a patient information card; and a label magnifier.

One month after ClearRx’s debut, Berry Plastics acquired Kerr Group for $445 million. The purchase gave Berry nine more domestic facilities and a much bigger product line. “They brought with them a broad portfolio of products and customers,” says Begle, “that Berry had not been producing prior to that acquisition.” From closures to tubes, he says, the Kerr group brought more than ClearRx prescription bottles. Even so, it was that bottle that took the spotlight when, after five years on the market, it received the Design of the Decade award from the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Growth also comes from Berry Plastics’ team of designers dedicated to improving the function and aesthetics of plastic products. They generate ideas, test the potential products with focus groups, and review the results in a theater room filled with couches, chairs, tables, and a screen that movie theater owners would envy. There, they view tapes of consumers trying new products. The hope is to create an item ready for the market — and for Berry’s display rooms.

The design team’s work is why Evansville fourth-grade students, who take field trips to the manufacturing plant Downtown, scour their household kitchens for items made by Berry Plastics. To find a plastic product made by a different company is a rarity.

And their efforts lead to continued growth. In our 2008 story, Berry had 13,500 employees, ranked No. 107 of top private companies in the United States, and reached $3.1 billion in annual revenue. Today, the company has a workforce of 16,000, ranks No. 50 of top private companies, and boasted $5 billion in sales in 2010. Each year, Rich says, Berry has seen a 20 percent growth in sales and earnings, and in the past year of his leadership, two more companies, Rexam SBC and Filmco, have been added to the list of acquisitions. These moves “not only enhance our reach from a customer and product standpoint,” Hobson says, “but they also bring expertise, people, and technologies to the company.” Rich agrees. “The key to innovation,” he says, “is people.”

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