BY PETE DALY-REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS JOURNAL
Just out of curiosity, Vic Hansen, president of Display Pack, slipped his iPhone into new packaging his company was going to make for Verizon Wireless – “and it fit like a glove,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Verizon’s going to be carrying the iPhone really soon.” A few days later, Verizon announced to the world that it was, indeed, offering its customers the iPhone.
Display Pack, a family-owned and managed manufacturing business that was launched single-handedly by Roger Hansen in a Grand Rapids garage in 1967, is an integral part of the process that puts a lot of hot consumer products on shelves across the country, from corporations such as GE, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, DeWalt Tools – the list goes on and on.
Display Pack, located on Monroe Avenue on the north side of Grand Rapids, has been growing its expertise in innovation along with its quick response time to its customers, and that apparently has everything to do with its success today. Being privately held, Display Pack does not reveal its annual sales, but it is well-known across the country in its niche of product packaging.
“In terms of the overall packaging industry, we have a pretty small amount of market share, but if you look at just those companies that do everything, like we do, there’s not too many that are as big as us,” said Hansen. “Our tagline is ‘single source solutions.'”
Display Pack makes its own tooling for its thermoformed production of plastic packaging, and it does its own design and printing of the paper product labels in each package. It has about 180 employees, the majority of them at the Monroe Avenue plant, although several are at a small plant Display Pack opened in southern California in 2008.
Recently, Display Pack registered a new trademark, Ecohesive™, for a pressure-sensitive latex adhesive it perfected. Hansen said competitors use a thicker type of adhesive that “doesn’t look good.”
“We were able to perfect that and we’re selling millions and millions of packages” using Ecohesive, said Hansen. Being a latex-based adhesive, it does not contain solvents, which is a plus in today’s green movement. It also does not require heat to make the seal, thus saving energy, and there is no “dwell” time required for the glue to set while under pressure. As soon as a surface coated with it touches another surface coated with it, “it’s stuck – right there,” he said, so products going through the packaging machinery at a GE plant “can fly through the machine.”
Hansen said this type of adhesive has been around for a while but was difficult to work with, so few companies used it. “I would say we perfected it,” said Hansen. “Our people just sat down together and said, ‘We can figure this out.'”
GE is one of Display Pack’s larger customers. GE CFL light bulbs have been distributed in Display Pack packaging for some time, and early this year, the new LED light bulbs from GE began landing on retail shelves in Display Pack packaging. “We’ve done already, in 2011, the amount of business we did (with GE) in all of 2010,” said Hansen. “We’re looking for a very good year with them.”
A couple of years ago, Display Pack developed a new type of package with a hinge for AT&T iPhone accessories. Later, Display Pack further refined the design and trademarked its own brand of packaging, Accessible Pack, which reduces waste. “As soon as we came up with the design, we applied for the patent, and I think God was blessing our company. The patents (for both design and utility) flew through the system much faster than normal,” said Hansen.
“The big sticking point for many people with plastic packages is, you have to use a machete to open ’em up, and somebody often ends up with a cut finger,” said Hansen. For certain products such as carrying cases for cell phones, customers typically want to open the package in the store to make sure their phone fits the case. If it doesn’t, the customer crams the product back into the ruined package and tries another.
The Accessible Pack can be opened without a machete and without destroying it – and can be re-closed. “With our product, somebody could (open) the package dozens of times and you would literally not know it,” he said. “I stopped counting when we were somewhere around 15 to 20 million (Accessible Pack units) that we had shipped – and that was in the first year,” said Hansen.
“If you go in an AT&T store right now and buy a case for your iPhone, there is probably a 95 percent probability that the package was produced at Display Pack.”
Since 1978, Display Pack also has been an auto industry supplier. It produces a decorative, simulated wood appliqué that is applied on the interiors of high-end automobiles. “We are literally the oldest company in the world that’s producing this kind of wood grain” product, said Hansen. Its share of the market is growing, but not because the market is growing. The growth is due to Display Pack picking up work that used to be done by other companies that have recently gone under.
“There is just a small handful of companies in the world that are producing this,” he said. The recession “hurt everybody,” said Hansen, which forced Display Pack to change in ways that made it more competitive. “We created a very fast, nimble environment,” said Hansen. “We can make decisions very quickly and get our customer from (new package) concept to full production, at times, inside a week – which five years ago was pretty much unheard of.”
Hansen said the biggest challenge in the packaging industry now, in what he calls “the new economy,” is “speed to market.” “Many of our customers either can’t afford to or refuse to hold amounts of inventory anymore, so when a need arises, you have to be ready to respond or you might not get the order,” he said. That was the case before Christmas when Verizon had that hush-hush new project that would require 2 million new packages ready to go ASAP after New Year’s. It was delivered in less than three weeks from start to finish. Another large retail company based in Grand Rapids recently needed new packages “right away.” Display Pack produced samples for review within a week; a competitor had told the customer it needed four weeks.
Hansen said his firm has developed a team process for new product development. The core of it is the creative department, but it also involves people from virtually all other departments. His brother, Jon Hansen, is a vice president of the company and “works in what we call the skunk works,” said Vic Hansen, “secret machines, secret processes.”
A Display Pack skunk works project, said Hansen, is one such as: “How do you take a plastics (forming) machine that uses $10 worth of electricity an hour to operate, and turn it into one that uses 23 cents an hour to operate?” “We really did that,” added Hansen.
Display Pack is wary of the economic situation today, as are many companies that survived the Great Recession. Plastic prices are shooting up as a result of its key ingredient – petroleum, which will keep Display Pack looking for more solutions.
“We think we’re on the road to recovery, albeit it’s looking so slow, it doesn’t feel like its growing. It’s going to be a few market sectors and a few regional areas in the country where things are growing,” said Hansen.
The company is planning for the future, however, including investment in new equipment with a short ROI. But Hansen said Display Pack plans assume there will be no growth in the economy, “as though another economic tsunami is going to hit us. We don’t really believe it’s going to happen, but we think that’s the safest, most prudent way to do it.”
IMAGE FROM LEFT, Display Pack national director of development, Andy Blackmore, president Vic Hansen and vice president of operations David Korhorn are shown near GE and AT&T packaging and several of the packaging awards the company has received over the years.