Leader Of The Year Dave Birkby: A Lifetime In Plastics Pays Off
It's a long and winding road from the quiet of rural Ontario to the high rises of downtown Toronto to the sprawling city of Calgary near the beginning of the Rocky Mountain range. For Dave Birkby, the president and CEO of Calgary's Westbridge...
It’s a long and winding road from the quiet of rural Ontario to the high rises of downtown Toronto to the sprawling city of Calgary near the beginning of the Rocky Mountain range.
For Dave Birkby, the president and CEO of Calgary’s Westbridge PET Containers, the only constants in his trip along this road were a willingness to take risks, and an ever-increasing involvement in the plastics industry. Cut to the present, and it’s a road that led to his being selected as this year’s Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) Leader of the Year
Born and raised in Chatham, Ont., Birkby began his business career in Toronto with Shell Canada, working as a chemical engineering technologist. A transfer into the company’s polymer division was to prove life-altering. “I realized that I didn’t know much about polymer chemistry, and that it was important that I should,” he said. “I enrolled in, and graduated from, the polymer chemistry program at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.”
Finding satisfaction in the world of polymers, but tiring of the commute to and from Toronto after 17 years with Shell, Birkby took a job with plastic bottle supplier Plax in Burlington, Ont. After Plax was taken over in the mid-1980s by Graham Packaging, also a plastic bottle molder, Birkby moved up through the company, eventually becoming manufacturing manager for Graham’s three Canadian plants: Burlington, Mississauga, and Montreal.
Graham Packaging marked another crucial point in Birkby’s career. “I became more interested in the overall operation of running a business, and decided to take a two-year business certification course at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.,” he said. “I came to realize that business itself was interesting, and that I wanted to learn as much as I could about the different aspects to running a business, such as accounting, sales, marketing, and human resources.”
Looking back, Birkby stresses the importance of his studies at McMaster to his later career. “Too often, someone tries to run a business with only an accounting background, or only a sales background, without a real understanding of the many other elements involved,” he said. “My time at McMaster helped in rounding out my background. I learned that you can’t run a business without knowing something about each of the elements that make up that business.”
In 1997, after 10 years with Graham Packaging, Birkby received an offer that he might not have been able to accept at an earlier time: to pull up stakes in Burlington and work as the general manager with PET bottle processer Yorkbridge Packaging in Calgary. A determining factor for him and Sherry, his wife of 40 years, was that their two children were adults by that point. Even so, the decision wasn’t easy. “All of our roots – our family and friends – were in Southern Ontario,” Birkby said. “But we decided to begin a new adventure by trying a five-year plan in Calgary, and then hopefully retiring back to Ontario.”
Having settled with his wife in Calgary, Birkby rose through the ranks again, and after three years was managing not only the PET plant in Calgary, but also similar facilities in Mississauga and Pennsylvania.
Then, in 2000, disaster struck: the merchant bank that owned Yorkbridge Packaging went into receivership. “I was devastated,” Birkby said. “My five-year plan went down the drain; also, I was in my fifties by that point, which is an awkward age to be at risk of losing a job.” Despite having fallen into receivership, the business continued to run – and after sober second thought, Birkby realized that, far from a disaster, this development represented a possible golden opportunity. “I realized that I knew the customers, the manufacturing plants, the equipment, and the people, and that the receivership afforded me the prospect of buying the business,” he said.
Birkby’s first step was to put together a business proposal. The second step was more difficult: finding a partner with enough money to help purchase the company. Through a business connection, Birkby’s plan had reached the ears of a Chicago entrepreneur named Carlos Nardo, who contacted Birkby and – after having performed the necessary due diligence – became his partner. “We outbid several other interested parties, and Carlos wire-transferred me his share of the money, still without having met me or seen the facilities,” Birkby said. “For my part, I cashed in all of my RRSPs and mortgaged our house. My wife was horrified, because this was our life savings, but we were willing to take the gamble.”
With Birkby at the helm, the company – operating as Westbridge PET Containers – carried on profitably enough. The next stage in Birkby’s evolution came three years ago, with the announcement that Amcor PET Packaging was closing its Calgary plant. “We were able to pick up some of Amcor’s contracts, equipment, as also as some of their employees,” Birkby said. “Nowadays, Amcor functions as a type of ‘big brother’ to us; there’s no financial interest or ownership, but we have a five-year agreement with them, and a very good relationship.”
As part of that agreement, Westbridge PET moved out of its old plant two years ago and into the 155,000 square foot Amcor facility. “It was a very expensive move that almost crippled us, but we needed the increased floor space,” Birkby said.
Today, Westbridge PET supplies PET preforms and bottles for the edible oil, liquor, beverage, and syrup industries. The company currently employs approximately 55 workers, a lean workforce that exemplifies the philosophy towards management-employee relations that Birkby has refined over the past 30 years. “Having a good relationship with – and a good understanding of – one’s employees is absolutely critical for any business,” he said. “Putting the right people in the right jobs, and keeping them motivated, goes a long way towards laying the groundwork for success.” In March 2009, for example, Birkby shut down the Westbridge PET facility for an entire day to carry out a business update and training program with all employees together. “We treat our employees with respect, and try to send them the message that we care about them and their training,” he said.
The value of cultivating good relations with workers is particularly important in the booming province of Alberta, where skilled labour has been in short supply. “Like most Alberta shops, we’ve had to learn to get the most out of the staff count that we have,” he said. “Although my wife is a teacher by trade, as human resources manager she’s helped me tremendously with an employee-focused culture that has allowed us to retain the best and brightest.”
For a PET bottle and preform supplier, there are advantages to being located in Alberta, as well. “We’re a mid-sized company, but there’s nobody in our size range west of Toronto,” Birkby said. “At one time, I was afraid that being in Alberta might pose a geographic disadvantage, but now – with the number of players in decline – I see it as an advantage. We have the ability to sell bottle preforms in Ontario, for example, without being perceived as a threat by Ontario firms.”
In addition to running Westbridge PET, Birkby – a grandfather of three – also balances his time between family, friends, and work on behalf of the Canadian plastics industry. A former chairman of the Western chapter of the CPIA, Birkby served as the chairman of the CPIA’s Board of Directors until May 2009. Currently, he serves as the only representative of the plastics industry on Calgary’s Manufacturing Action Committee, a business lobby group dedicated to establishing common purpose between manufacturing sectors in the region.
r close to a lifetime in the industry, Birkby seems both humbled and surprised to find himself the recipient of the CPIA’s award. “Being selected as the 2009 Leader of the Year is a real honour, and was totally unexpected,” he said. “I don’t consider myself to have done anything earth-shattering. I attribute whatever success I’ve had to family support, doing my best to look after customers and employees, and being respectful to our valued vendors.” CPL