Waste and recycling pros’ stories on faring the storm through COVID-19 continue rolling in – whether accounts of how they are still riding rough seas –or whether the waters have calmed, and the story is about what that calm looks like.
After having to do some quick pivoting, packaging designer and supplier Earthpack seems to have landed squarely on its feet. CEO Dave Bock reflects on what has gone on with his company from just before COVID hit, to where it is now, and how the company has actually grown by taking some chances through uncertain times.
Waste360: What packaging types do you design and for who?
Bock: We design and supply recycled paper and plastic merchandise bags for recyclers nationwide. For ecommerce customers we supply recycled boxes, shipping envelopes, tape, tissue paper, and stickers. The normal minimum order is 5,000 pieces, across the range of packaging items we provide.
Our core market is the fashion sports retailer, such as Zumiez, Volcom, Vans, and Jack’s Surfboards. However, we also provide our product to food and beverage companies, such as Pressed Juicery, Fill Bakeshop (the Mochi Donut shop), and Selanne Steak Tavern.
Among other companies are Yankee Candle, Black Rifle Coffee Company, and Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
Waste360: What were some challenges brought on by COVID-19 to the recyclable packaging industry?
Bock: The number one challenge was when malls across America shut down; it limited the amount of shoppers in a store space at one time. That restricted sales, which then restricted the amount of recycled shopping bags needed.
Waste360: What have been some of your key moves to keep on going this past year and a half?
Bock: We didn’t sit and wait around for the phone to ring. We worked diligently to turn this terrible situation into something that was positive. That’s when we shifted gears. We focused on more essential businesses (i.e. food and beverage companies) that were not as restricted, as well as collaboration with our retailers to enhance their online business and their eco-friendly options for ecommerce.
In the spring of 2020, it was important to me obviously to keep my employees safe and working. But also to keep them optimistic - not only about the future of Earthpack, but about the future of the crazy world we were living in.
I made a bigger deal when we closed a new account or received orders from our retailers, because it was so limited.
When we had done trade shows in the past, we always designed our own booths, and helped retailers with their store display windows. With these same sources, we created new products like plexiglass sneeze guards, which allowed our reps to check in on our clients’ health and provide them with something new and helpful for when restrictions were lifted. This type of project kept employees engaged and feeling important to the organization.
Waste360: Take us through a “normal” day around January 2020. Then take us through a “normal” day after businesses shutdown in March 2020.
Bock: A normal day pre-Covid would entail reviewing our key accounts, historical data. Determining when clients will need their next order. Developing new business. In-person employee meetings; planning travel to see clients or attend trade shows.
After shutdown it would be a 9 a.m. mandatory Zoom meeting, company-wide. We would discuss individual goals for each employee— what they wanted to get accomplished for the week to feel like they’re doing their part. I’d put an action plan in place for that given week and month, in terms of what I can do as the owner to provide what my employees needed to accomplish those tasks. For example, the guys wanted to re-rack the warehouse, and a finance admin wanted to merge an outdated system and integrate that with a new one. I gave them permission to work on non-revenue-creating projects like that, and in doing so, allowed them to feel good about their jobs and feel like they were still adding to the organization. When the restrictions were lifted, they didn’t have all the weight of their never-ending to-do lists (that don’t generate revenue), and that enabled them to be more creative and energized when business started picking up again.
Waste360: How was the production and shipment of packaging impacted as businesses shut down?
Bock: During COVID, we had customers who couldn’t receive orders due to their pause in business. The COVID challenge was: what do we do with all this packaging product being made that can’t be shipped out? We rolled the dice, because we didn't want the pandemic to affect my vendors and their sales. So, we continued to receive product and honor our contracts, not knowing for certain how long we’d be sitting on that product we couldn’t move. It wasn’t until Q4 2020 that we were moving product at a normal pace again. In that same time period, we added new warehouse space to mitigate the overflow temporarily.
Waste360: How was pricing affected by businesses slowing down? And if there was an economic disruption, how did you protect your operations and people?
Bock: It was a priority to me to keep my people on payroll, allowing the employees to pay into the system rather than taking from the system. That allowed us to receive product at the pre-COVID pricing and fulfill our obligation to customers that had been loyal to us for years. Then when the world opened up again, I had my work family intact. Everyone still had their benefits, profit sharing, 401(k) matching, etc.
It also enabled us to meet the needs of other companies whose previous packaging sources were understaffed and unable to provide product as we were able.
Waste360: How is business now?
Bock: That temporary warehouse space we had just for overflow storage is now filled up with brand new customers’ packaging product. Our ecommerce compared to pre-COVID has grown 10 times over. And it continues to grow.
2021 will be our most successful year in more than 32 years, not just monetarily. Every team member at Earthpack is reaping the benefits of that success.
We’re back to “normal” in that we’re again having in-person meetings with our clients. Travel and trade shows look hopeful for the near future. We’re actively seeking emerging brands that match our values, whether they want recycled packaging, or want us to ship and manage their inventory for their stores.
I didn’t keep my employees on to keep my business. I kept my employees on, and kept their benefits on, because I treat them like family. I honored my contracts and added space because I felt it was the right thing to do. And by doing all those things the right way, as a company, we’re stronger financially. We’re stronger with more diverse companies as clients. And we’re stronger in terms of employee relationships.
Waste360: Were you still working with recycled content after you expanded into ecommerce? Was this important to clients through the pandemic?
Bock: Yes, we were still designing and supplying packaging with recycled content. That will never change. For ecommerce products, the cardboard we buy is made from recycled materials; the paper we buy for the envelopes is made from recycled materials and printed with water-based inks. That core value of our company was never going to be - and never will be - compromised.
Some new customers simply didn’t know if their packaging had been made from recycled materials or not, or it wasn’t important to them previously. We were able to provide an eco-friendly, high-quality product to them at an affordable price. They just needed someone to answer their needs and design the packaging product for them. Others had existing packaging and they wanted to go the eco-route, and we were there for them as well. Lastly, there was a client that specifically asked for eco-friendly packaging, but needed help designing and distributing it, as well as managing their inventory.