Teamwork propels Tetra Pak

Workers at food packaging maker share in savings, innovation, success

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Years ago, Tetra Pak Materials — the Vancouver-based arm of a global manufacturer of packaging for various foods and beverages — would ask job candidates whether they were capable of lifting 50 pounds and turning repetitively.

Today, the questions are different, said Robert Baker, who manages the company’s 175,000-square-foot plant in the Fruit Valley area. Now it’s “can you balance your checkbook?,” he said.

It’s a change that underscores the ongoing transformation of not only Tetra Pak but also of overall American manufacturing, which has contributed robustly to the nation’s economic recovery.

Strong technical and problem-solving skills are increasingly prized by manufacturers, experts say. In fact, a Brookings Institute report in February said “lifelong training of workers at all levels” is one key to increasing the sector’s global competitiveness.

Tetra Pak has embraced that concept. To cut costs and drive innovation, Baker said, the company encourages employees to work smarter, to form teams to fix design and organizational problems, and to embrace change.

The company also is busy reducing its carbon footprint, both to help the planet and to further drive down costs. It envisions a future in which environmentally aware consumers increasingly prefer its cartons — primarily made of paper — over plastic containers such as the ubiquitous water bottles that have grown popular with consumers. The argument generally is that plastic is far more wasteful than paper. “Our main competitor,” Baker said, “is plastics.”

Business has thrived

The Tetra Pak factory is tied to a multinational, privately held corporation that was launched in Sweden in 1952 and that raked in nearly $10 billion in revenue in 2010. The company employs about 22,000 people worldwide.

The company is known for its aseptic packaging technology which extends the shelf-life of perishable food products and allows them to be shipped to areas of the world lacking refrigerated transportation and storage systems.

The Vancouver facility does not produce aseptic packaging, however. Instead, its specialty is gable-top packages of all sizes for milk, juice, and other liquid and food products. Inside the cavernous plant, a network of hair-netted workers, scurrying forklifts and fast-running printing presses makes the place thrum right along.

Baker, the factory manager, declined to divulge the local plant’s revenues but said it sold 1.3 billion liters of packaging in 2011, its best year to date.

The Vancouver manufacturing operation employs 145 people, all of whom are union members, at an average hourly wage of just over $20. Additionally, there are 28 salaried employees. Tetra Pak Materials weathered the economic crash for primarily one reason, Baker said: People still need to eat and drink.

“It’s a good time to be in the food business,” he said.

Staying competitive

Meanwhile, the Vancouver facility has stepped up efforts to become environmentally friendly, including everything from boosting its recycling rate (it reached 97 percent in 2010) to introducing red-worm composting to break down lunchroom trash.

Tetra Pak Materials, along with other food processors in Clark County, also is participating in a grant-funded, energy-saving program spearheaded by Clark Public Utilities. The program assigns an energy project engineer to work with a group of area food processors to lower their energy consumption. The idea is to help the companies keep costs down, stay competitive and to maintain their workforces in the face of increasing global competitiveness, according to Bonnie Moore, director of business services for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, the nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter.

During a recent visit to the Tetra Pak plant by CREDC and city officials — including Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt — and regional workforce and educational leaders, Baker raised the paper-versus-plastic issue.

What would help the company, Baker told Leavitt and other officials seated inside a conference room, is if the city would launch a campaign favoring the use of paper containers.

“We’ll consider how we can promote paper over plastic,” Leavitt replied.

The company is serious about treading lightly on the earth, Baker said, because it’s the right thing to do. It also makes good business sense, he added. “It’s a competitive advantage.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econhttp://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com