North Salt Lake, Utah
Owner and President Jerry Frisch is taking an innovative approach to growing his packaging manufacturer in diverse markets.
"When I was a young kid, I would go with my father to the paper mill," he says of his upbringing in the Twin Cities. "I must have got paperboard manufacturing in my blood somehow."
After starting in the industry with a longstanding Minnesota manufacturer, he moved his family to Utah in 1990. "I was looking for work," he says. "Either you buy those companies or you leave them."
After a stint in sales at Utah Paperbox, Frisch joined forces with Paul Keyser and other partners to launch Wasatch Container in 1995. The group built a 35,000-square-foot facility in North Salt Lake and equipped it with used machines to supply Utah Paperbox with corrugated cardboard.
Wasatch Container moved into foam fabrication by 2000 and expanded its capabilities significantly with the acquisition of American Excelsior in 2002 that included a 69,000-square-foot building that nearly tripled the company's floor space.
The company's third division -- highly engineered wooden crates for aerospace, medical, and military uses -- emerged after a 2004 meeting with Boeing where someone asked, "Hey, are you guys in the crate business?" Frisch's response: "You bet we are. Absolutely."
The affirmative answer led to supplying Boeing with crates to ship parts worldwide that come back to Utah every so often for refurbishment.
And the division has emerged as the perfect complement to high-volume, low-margin packaging for food and beverage customers. "At one point, we built a crate, where I don't know what was in there -- I don't want to know -- that cost $27,000," laughs Frisch.
He says it all comes back to listening to customers. "That's how entrepreneurs start businesses and start divisions and grow things," he says.
Another critical factor? Reinvestment. Case in point: Wasatch Container invested $500,000 in a new three-color flexo folder-gluer in 2008. A month later, the Great Recession commenced, but the new capability to print colorful packaging allowed them to grow during tough times with craft beer and confection customers, including Uinta Brewing and Sweet Candy.
"It was very difficult to make all those payments," says Frisch, "but, in hindsight, if we hadn't invested in that piece of equipment, we probably would have never survived."
He says the company has invested nearly $3 million in equipment since 2007. "You have to continue to reinvest in your plant and equipment to stay competitive."
The cumulative effect of the investments has allowed for innovative, full-pallet displays for Sweet and award-winning packaging that's printed inside and out for Bohemian Brewery in Midvale, he adds. "It's helped us grow and helped our customers grow," says Frisch.
In an industry that's "virtually flat," Wasatch Container is posting double-digit growth in 2015. "I feel very good about that," he says, crediting an employee incentive system that promotes safety and on-time delivery. The latter has increased from 65 percent in 2010 to more than 99 percent today. "I think that's really changed our culture," says Frisch.
Challenges: "Continuing to look for new business," says Frisch. "We want to expand our graphics as much as we can."
Diversification has made the company stronger, he adds, but it's also a challenge. "It challenges you on your investments. You have to keep up on everything."
Opportunities: While only 12 percent of sales come from outside Utah, Frisch sees plenty of runway for growth in the Salt Lake area. "We obviously want to grow our business out of state, but there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in this valley," he says. "Our challenge is just getting the word out."
Needs: A new building. "I want to get everyone under one roof," he says. The target is a 135,000-square-foot facility with acreage to expand in metro Salt Lake. "That's our 2016 goal."