Repeated selection as one Canada’s “Best Managed Companies” doesn’t happen simply by maintaining best business practices. If it did, probably every third firm in the country would get the nod. Instead, it takes more — a lot more. Creative thinking and constant reinvestment are other prerequisites, for sure, but still not enough. The final piece of the puzzle might just be assembling — and keeping — the right team of people. It’s a tall order, but flexographic printer and packager PolyCello has pulled the whole thing off to near perfection.
Family-owned since 1956, Amherst, N.S.-based PolyCello is one of Canada’s largest and leading flexographic packaging companies, running 10 flexographic presses and employing 385 workers between its 200,000-square-foot production facility in Amherst and a second 75,000-square-foot printing facility in Belleville, Ont.
Started by P.G. Emmerson in 1956 as a modest polyethylene and cellophane packaging converter with six employees and one printing press, PolyCello is now led by a third generation of the family, president and CEO Stephen Emmerson, who has guided the company towards enough awards to keep that other Nova Scotia overachiever Sydney Crosby happy for life. The firm has been named as a Gold Standard winner of Canada’s Best Managed Companies program for having received the award for five years in a row, repeatedly been awarded for product innovation and technical excellence by the Flexographic Technical Association, been certified by the environmentally focused Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, won a Family Enterprise of the Year Award for Nova Scotia, and has most recently been named to the list of Nova Scotia’s Top Employers of 2014 and Atlantic Canada’s Top Employers of 2014.
PolyCello offers start-to-finish services including extrusion, printing, laminating, graphics, plate-making, and converting. In-house capabilities include marketing support, pre-press and graphics expertise, and logistics solutions. The company makes packaging for the food industry — including frozen vegetables, fruit, seafood, potatoes, and pet food — and also for clients in the towel and tissue, and lawn and garden markets.
KEEPING IT TOGETHER
It’s not easy to keep a third-generation family business together in a world of rapid change, but PolyCello has managed to remain on the cutting edge of technology for 58 years while staying employee-focused at the same time — not to mention financially successful. The company has grown 10 per cent per year since 2006, with an annual average growth of 10 to 14 per cent per year for almost 20 years. “One of the keys to our success is that we continually invest in equipment to address current and projected capacity,” said Stephen Emmerson. “We’re not a typical location that you would expect to be serving a large North American market. Our company has had to invest heavily in both its people and its technology to be able to compete from this distance.” To that end as well, the Belleville plant was purchased in the fall of 2006 to increase capacity and assist in the company’s expansion into central and western North America.
A more recent acquisition is a 10-color VistaFlex flexographic press from Windmoeller & Hoelscher. Installed in the Amherst plant, the press is part of PolyCello’s ongoing $10 million capital expansion, helped by a $7.1 million repayable loan from the province of Nova Scotia. “The new press allows us to continue to grow, better meet customer demand for smaller print runs, and expand into new export markets,” Emmerson said. “When the company first started, our clients tended to be in the Maritimes and Quebec, but we now have major clients throughout North America, from the Pacific region down into the southern U.S.”
New product development has also been vital in helping PolyCello to help those clients sell product. Investment in the company’s Innovation and R&D department has resulted in a major boost to business over the past few years, Emmerson said, and such spending will continue in the future. The department has grown from a one-person operation to an eight-person department, and is supported by a full technical lab to help develop new packaging concepts.
Another investment has been in environmental controls implementation. “Our team meets regularly to determine methodologies for dealing with waste products and curbing emissions,” Emmerson said. “We continually assess every aspect of our operations to identify opportunities to further reduce our environmental footprint.” The company currently provides two primary environmentally progressive forms of packaging under its MicroPack steamable and SmartPack recyclable brands. According to Emmerson, SmartPack packaging replaces millions of landfill-bound laminated products. The company also uses VOC-free lamination, and an inline electron beam-cured, solventless coating process.
DOWN HOME TOUCHES
Polycello’s many investments have paid off in spades, with the employees — 300 in Amherst and 85 in Belleville — currently working in shifts around the clock to keep up with demand. And it’s this team of dedicated, longtime workers that Emmerson credits as the biggest source of the company’s strength. “Our product lines require a highly trained workforce,” Emmerson said. “Most training is done in-house, and the orientation period for employees lasts up to two weeks, during which time we take them through the whole facility so they can learn how everything works.”
And while the latte sippers in Canada’s urban centres might regard PolyCello’s location in rural Nova Scotia as a drawback, Emmerson sees it as a source of strength. “Our workforce is very stable since we don’t have competition down the road tempting our employees away, which can be a problem in metropolitan areas such as Toronto and Montreal,” he said. “For this same reason, the workers we hire haven’t been trained at other local converting companies, because there aren’t any. But as long as a person has the right attitude to fit into our culture, we’ll teach them to do the job. And they want to work with us because we’re seen as leaders in our industry. The wide variety of awards PolyCello has received says as much about our workforce as about our management, so we celebrate all of our wins and share the recognition among all of our employees.”
Employee contributions are recognized in other ways, as well. Workers with children starting university can apply for one of three bursaries handed out by PolyCello every year, to a maximum of $2,500 a child. Students who don’t receive the bursary can get an interest-free forgivable loan from the company to help offset university expenses. “All the student has to do is pass their year and the loan is completely forgivable,” Emmerson said. “They don’t have to pay it back.”
The company also promotes good employee health, even paying for workers to join local gyms or fitness programs. They also share in PolyCello’s success through a profit-sharing plan, and are encouraged to save for the future with contributions to a defined benefit or defined contribution pension plan, which the company matches.
The team-building aspect of the job doesn’t end on the plant floor, either. PolyCello maintains an active social committee made up of employee volunteers. The committee plans out a number of events throughout the year, including paintball competitions, bowling nights, a Christmas party, and summer barbecues. “We’re a family here,” Emmerson explained. “It sounds like a cliché, but we really do believe that the family that plays together stays together, and this attitude is perhaps the biggest factor of our success.”