Salt Lake City (HQ: Wilton, Connecticut)
Founded: 2008 (1975 as Huish Detergents)
Owned by Vestar Capital Partners
Employees: 3,000 total at locations in Utah, Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Minneapolis, and Ontario, Canada
Plant Director Darren Ericson is helping guide the country's second-largest manufacturer of laundry detergent to growth with a turnkey private label operation.
Founded as Huish Detergents, the Sun plant in Salt Lake opened in 1985. The corporate offices moved to Connecticut following a 2007 merger with Unilever's North American laundry detergent division, but the facility remains the hub of the company's manufacturing for the western U.S.
Melding national consumer brands with Huish's private-label focus, the merger represented "a unique opportunity," says Ericson, a 20-year company veteran who's helmed the Utah operation since 2009. "Huish was a major player in the retail-brand business."
That's something of an understatement. The company commanded 95 percent of the private label market, a statistic that still holds true today. The client roster reads like a who's who of retail, including Costco, Target, Walmart, and Kroger.
But the private label detergent business has changed in recent time. "It's been an interesting evolution," says Ericson. "The emerging trend is a lot of our customers want to offer top-tier national brand equivalents." The proof is in the detergent: Sun has won accolades from Consumer Reports for its private label products.
That change has helped drive strategy in recent years, and the push towards premium has been matched by Sun Products' approach. "We're not just your vendor, but we're truly your partner," Ericson explains. The company offers its private-label clients a marketing team, point-of-sale support, and other services.
But the business is not dominated by private labels. The company's national brands, including All, Sun, Snuggle, Surf, and Wisk, have the second-highest market share in the U.S. and represent roughly half of the company's sales, he adds.
In all, Sun Products makes 3,200 SKUs in Salt Lake and ships all over the West. A sister plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, covers the East.
Ericson says the Utah facility does all of its plastics, packaging, and printing in-house and is also home to a R&D lab. "One thing that makes Sun very unique in our industry is our vertical integration," he explains. "We have complete control of our supply chain. We view it as a competitive advantage."
Challenges: A shift in corporate culture started taking root in 2013. "We're working on a 'high-performance environment' concept, which is all about empowering our workers," says Ericson. "It's a different way of managing that takes a different perspective: It's no longer command and control, it's more mentoring, coaching, and encouraging to be more empowered in their daily work. They feel they belong to something more, rather than [just being] one of 700 or 800 people at a factory."
The challenge is ongoing. "It's a journey," he adds. "It's about continuous improvement."
Opportunities: Ericson notes that the overall market has been flat in recent years as Sun's market share has risen. Powdered detergents have been on the wane as a new market takes off.
"The new and emerging technology is single-dose detergent." Sun makes both single-dose detergents for both laundry machines and dishwashers and is "experiencing double-digit growth across the segment," says Ericson, noting that the new manufacturing capability required "significant capital investment."
Needs: Talent. "We are always on the lookout for good people," Ericson says.
Another continuous need: "We will continue to make significant capital investments," he adds. "We don't see that slowing down. We have a lot of equipment and a lot of automation, and we continue to invest in our infrastructure."