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Column/Opinion July 29, 2013

Redefining the outsourced supply chain

To state the obvious, contract packaging is rapidly evolving. Perhaps the hardest aspect of a co-pack partnership is finding the right fit in the first place.
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To state the obvious, contract packaging is rapidly evolving. The core outsourced-packaging function is easily understood, but the form and function of the contract packaging organization is a moving target. Decades ago, a co-packer was defined by the machines the company had on the floor.

Packaging-specific services remain a much needed, much in-demand core competency. Consumers want the benefits of the latest primary containers, pouches, blisters, pillows, stick packs, and/or the latest secondary innovations in POP, club packs, multi-packs and the like.

It’s why, to cite one of innumerable examples, Salt Lake City-based Northstar Labs has steadily upgraded its injection molding, liquid filling and four-color digital label printing capabilities. And it’s why Fairport, NY-based LiDestri Food & Beverage, for instance, leveraged its contract manufacturing and packaging smarts to develop a new multi-compartment flexible pouch format and expand into pharmaceuticals.

Brands, too, find themselves in the co-packing game. Toad-Ally Snax, Bristol-PA, which markets its own brand of chocolate-covered goodies, nets new business through additional contract and private label work—something even the largest brand marketer-manufacturers do whenever company-owned production assets sit idle for so much as a shift a week—just to keep capacity at 100% and feed the bottom line.

Those for whom co-packing is the core focus are doing much more these days to give a brand anything it can, from upstream package development and manufacturing to downstream warehousing, fulfillment and logistics.

Fave Juice, for example, outsourced just about everything but product development and marketing to The Scoular Company, which manages everything from ingredient and material procurement to manufacturing, logistics and contract packaging—even finding and managing day-to-day operations and growing a nationwide network of co-packers.

One day, it’ll be hard to define the very term “contract packager,” because the overarching industry trend isn’t on four-walls production, but on the supply chain. Whereas co-packers were once seen as a “stop-gap” solution, tomorrow’s contract packagers are “sophisticated logistical specialists,” says Chris Nutley, president of MSW Packaging Services and Contract Packaging Association president.

This reality is reinforced by Industry consolidation, notes Lisa Shambro, executive director of the Foundation for Strategic Sourcing, in her latest column. She points to private equity firm Wind Point Partners’ merger of Hearthside Food Solutions and co-packer Ryt-way Industries, which has created a $1-billion contract food and consumer goods manufacturer-packager with 19 facilities across seven states.

Likewise, Coregistics, itself a merger of co-pack and supply chain firms, just acquired Chicago’s Cano Packaging to offer food brands “increasing operational efficiency while significantly reducing their total supply chain costs,” according to CEO Eric Wilhelm.

As contract manufacturers and packagers broaden their horizons, large logistics firms are also deepening their packaging capabilities. GENCO, for instance, has formalized its contract packaging operations into a new, dedicated business unit. Dave Mabon, president of the business, says that brands are seeing savings into the millions of dollars due to tight partnerships aided by data visibility, or integration, across the “functional silos” present in large organizations.

The savings in purchasing, packaging, logistics and other “silos” need to be seen in cumulative form. Managers who ask, “What’s in it for my department?” need to recalibrate their attitudes and put on their cross-functional thinking caps.

Contractors need to maintain tight communication but also remember that big brands will continue to outsource as well as take work back in-house as the spreadsheet dictates. What should they do? “Enjoy the ride while you have it—and build other business for when you don’t,” advises Tom Bacon of Aaron Thomas Co., in the latest Personal Best profile.

Perhaps the hardest job in any co-pack relationship is finding the right fit in the first place. Online tools can help, from “Find a Contract Packager” link on the CPA’s homepage (www.contractpackaging.org) to Sealed Air’s Co-Packer Connection (www.copackerconnection.com), a matchmaking database service that now boasts more than 1,000 facilities indexed down to their machinery, financials, certifications, and more—as we’ve covered in the news.

Come to think of it, everyone and everything I’ve mentioned here, and more, is detailed in this July/August Contract Packaging, in print and online. Read on!

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