Business evolutions often take time and involve strategic marketing, planning and management changes. All three have been key to the evolution of Flexpak Corp., a Phoenix-based thin-gauge custom packaging thermoformer. Founded in 1974, Flexpak has been a family-owned company except for the two times (1976 and 2002) it was sold. Both times, the family re-acquired the business to save it from poor ownership. Now, new ownership is again is settling in, but this time it is welcome.
Jim Boley, vice president of business development, explains that Flexpak once again is owned by others - its employees. After the bad experiences with buyers, the founding Bond family decided that the best way to keep the business in "good hands" was to make it an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) funded by the company's profits. As the family gradually turns over ownership to employees, it found professional mangers in Steve Murray, its president and CEO, and Boley.
"We're now over 50% employee owned," says Boley during a recent visit by PlasticsToday to the company's facility. "It provides a good retirement plan for the owners, but the best part is that all the employees think like owners. They know what a pound of plastic is worth if you have to scrap it. The ESOP has helped our quality and efficiency."
Currently, Flexpak employs about 60 and operates in an 84,000-sf facility with eight Sencorp inline thermoforming machines. Services include design engineering, concept development, tool fabrication, part validations and supply chain management.
Flexpak started as a contract packager, sealing blister packs but not making them, Boley explains. "We began making the packaging in the mid-1980s after selling the contract packaging business, and today we're strictly a custom thermoformer of packaging, primarily for the medical market, but also retail and electronics."
Because of Flexpak's proximity to Mexico, the company serves many companies that operate as Maquiladoras along the Arizona/Mexico border. Medical packaging accounts for the lion's share of Flexpak's business. After a downturn in the retail market during 2008, the company made a big push into medical and has reaped the rewards of this shift. To accommodate the medical OEMs, Flexpak houses six of its thermoforming machines in a controlled environment to minimize dust and other contaminants. The company also received its ISO 9001-2008 certification in 2009.
Flexpak continues to serve the retail market however, with its design engineering staff striving to add value to its customers' retail packaging through innovative packaging ideas. The company also offers prototyping with an in-house SLA 3D printer in the engineering department. "We can create a new packaging idea for a customer in just a day or so, then give it to them to evaluate," says Boley.
Rapid prototyping unit earns its keep
For the medical market, Flexpak uses the SLA 3D printer to "print" copies of the actual parts, such as the surgical tools that must fit into the package, to ensure that the package design is a perfect fit for the instruments. "The SLA printer has been a real value-add for us," Boley says.
Recently, Flexpak announced that it installed new software capability to reduce machining time and enhance complex machining processes. Using the new multi-cut software option, prototype molds can be reproduced precisely to production multi-cavity molds. With tolerances on the molds typically in the range of "thousandths of an inch," the new functionality eliminates variables. The process of machining detailed undercuts was previously dependent on manual mills or handwork, so the new software reduces time and cost to manufacture.
Tom Sipek, director of Flexpak's tooling operations, acknowledges that the company has saved as much as 40-50 hours per mold by producing molds matched exactly to the prototype design. "We've also improved accuracy," he adds.
The company's "green" efforts include reclaiming all of its trim scrap and returning it to its material supplier. "We have less that 1% of material going to the landfill," Boley says.
Flexpak gained recent recognition by being ranked number 9 on the Valley of the Sun's Non-Electronic Manufacturers in the Phoenix Business Journal. "It's very exciting to be included in a listing that includes Boeing's Apache Helicopter Division, PING golf clubs and TRW's Occupant Safety Restraint Division, just to name a few," Boley says.
Flexpak was also on the "short list" of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Arizona Manufacturers Council 2011 Manufacturer of the Year selections, of which FlexPak was a finalist. The company was also featured on cable TV when How 2 Media came to the plant and filmed a segment for its "World's Greatest!" program. "We've worked hard to be a company of excellence," states Boley, "and this is great public recognition of our dedicated employees and their outstanding team work and commitment to excellence."