The Polyethylene Pivot – Leading the Way to Sustainable Solutions
Facing challenges head-on has been Saeplast Americas’ way for more than 40 years, as its engineers and designers innovate and adapt to trying times, and as the company both cares for employees and meets customers’ needs before they know they have them.
The pandemic’s ongoing uncertainty and upheaval has led to an array of issues for both employees and employers. So it’s no surprise that Managing Director, Brian Gooding wants to first address the challenges the company – and industry at large – is currently tackling.
“Right now, it’s dealing with employees and making sure they’re safe, making sure mentally they’re in a good spot,” he says.
“I’ve never seen this number of folks in EAP [Employee Assistance Program],” says Gooding. “And for a variety of reasons. Some people have shared with me that they’re in EAP and I say good for you. You’re brave, you’re a better person for using it. You need to talk to someone that’s a third party, so you have an objective view on things.”
The number of mental health-related issues popping up in the workplace is at a record high, he adds. People are extremely stressed for many reasons, whether from COVID, hyperinflation, or uncertainty about the future, and that now includes the long-term implications of the war in Ukraine.
“We’re having to deal with this in the workplace,” he says. “It’s great we have an EAP program to help us, but certainly one of the biggest challenges we’ve had is helping people going through some extremely stressful times.”
The direct impact of supply-chain issues and trying to obtain product of any sort right now is another stress for the industry at large.
“The number of hours I spend during the course of the week talking to vendors, whether it’s about prime raw materials or even tertiary products – that can have a direct impact on your productivity level,” Gooding says. “I’ve never seen anything like this in almost 40 years in the workplace, where every day you have a new twist coming at you. You simply have to deal with it. Then the general inflation we’ve seen, all costs have skyrocketed.”
Saeplast’s main raw material is polyethylene resin, the same material used to produce garbage bags, the price of which is up 150 percent from two years ago to levels Gooding has never seen before.
“We’re trying to keep people calm and focused,” Gooding says. “That’s a full-time job in itself. These are unique challenges in what the business world has had to endure.”
Despite the issues, the company – and its employees – have done an outstanding job at not being distracted by things they can’t control. He says his team’s resilience and how they’ve handled the ongoing adversity is admirable.
“I’m extremely proud of their creativity in finding other vendors and other ways of doing things. Whether it’s raw materials, a process, or when something has gone sideways on us, the team has done an excellent job at figuring out how to get things done.”
The sales team has also learned how to sell value-added products virtually, while still conveying Saeplast’s value proposition. “We’re not about price, we’re about value,” he emphasizes. “Our product is kind of a ‘show me’ product. Our containers are big, they’re bulky, they have to be shown to folks, which is how we did it prior to COVID.”
Early on, the company sought out and adopted certain best practices as it grappled with the constraints of the pandemic, practices which have included virtual sales calls instead of driving or flying for hours to visit a customer.
Saeplast’s frontline production workers have also done an outstanding job dealing with disruption to family lives, while still helping other teammates where possible. “We’re really proud of our people,” says Gooding. “What we’ve had to do to keep the business running has been nothing less than exemplary.”
This includes a readiness to pivot when a raw material that used to have a one- to two-week lead time is now out 12 weeks. Previously, Saeplast had only one source for one of its key raw materials; now it has four sourced globally.
“There’s been a lot of hard work, research, and negotiations to find other supply channels,” says Gooding, but adds that the company hasn’t once had to shut down due to material shortage, which Gooding attributes to Saeplast’s employees.
“They’ve done an outstanding job at finding unique places in the world for substitute products so we can continue to make the best products in the world. Creativity has been first and foremost.”
Despite ongoing challenges, Saeplast hasn’t changed the two key elements of its core strategy: volume growth and diversifying business across the food segment.
“Our legacy business has been around fish and seafood,” says Gooding. “Those markets are quite strong right now, but fish and seafood based on quotas in the trading areas we deal with in the Americas can expand and shrink.”
While the quotas have been strong, pricing for Saeplast customers has also been strong, and most of them have been in investment mode for the last couple of years. That, together with Saeplast’s efforts to bring new solutions to the marketplace, has meant good growth over that time. “We want to continue that and actually take it one or two levels beyond where we’re at today.”
Beyond growth and diversification, the company is looking at expansion as well. It’s running its plant 24/7 and has done so almost since the beginning of COVID.
“Business remains strong and will continue to be strong moving forward,” says Gooding, and he’s quick to add that what sets Saeplast apart from other companies in the industry is its ability to provide solutions. Where other companies provide a “show and tell” of their product, Saeplast has moved in a different direction.
“We’re not about products,” Gooding says. “We’re about solutions, trying to understand what keeps our customers up at night. And sometimes our customers don’t know what should be keeping them up at night. It’s our job to educate them on best practices and better ways of doing things.”
In that respect, he says, Saeplast has shown tremendous market leadership setting itself apart.
“We want to lead, and it’s about creating solutions in the market around food safety and sanitization,” he says. “How do we take cost out of the equation, and not by just simply cutting a price, but how do we do things better and smarter? How do we reduce business risk or food safety risk for customers? That’s what we’re about, and that’s the biggest difference between us and our competition.”
Because of that mindset, Saeplast gets to market faster, often defining what a market wants to look like and the sorts of products that define the market, he says. While you never want to take your competition for granted, Gooding stresses that Saeplast offers a far more collaborative approach as opposed to simply providing product quotes.
Saeplast also makes the most impact-resistant product that’s still inherently sustainable available on the market.
“Why do we know this? Because we test all our competitor’s containers and we see the imperfections in what they’re doing,” says Gooding. “We spend 100 percent of our time in the space we deal with. We aren’t making insulated tubs and containers one day and something unrelated the next. This dedication to continuously improving our products is a differentiator.”
To that end, Saeplast focuses solely on what it does, and does it well.
“We have competitors who one day might be making septic tanks and the next making insulated containers. We don’t delve into unrelated business. We focus on what we do and what our customers are doing. We are laser focussed on material handling solutions for the food industry.”
That focus on sustainability and durability means products that last a minimum of eight to ten years. “We have bins in use out there that are well over 20 years old,” Gooding says. “So inherently they’re sustainable. But is that good enough? No.”
Saeplast is now embarking on a program with a resin vendor to bring out a new generation of polyethylene resin with opportunities for even more sustainability, using less heat to form containers and thinner, lighter materials with less plastic.
“We’re doing a number of those things in our products now to have less of a carbon footprint,” Gooding says. “Smooth walls and the lack of indentations and nice radiuses in the corners allows our customers to use less water, sanitizer, and soaps. The trickle-down effect of that going down sewers supports the sustainability initiatives we’re trying to do.”
Whether customers request it or not, Gooding feels a strong responsibility to continually improve product stewardship. “We’re going down this road anyway because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “People view our containers differently because they last so long, but that doesn’t absolve us from looking at better technologies and improved raw materials to make them lighter and stronger and last longer.”
That attention to eco-awareness extends to the plant itself, from insulating its walls to a recent LED-lighting upgrade that’s brought a significant drop in electricity consumption. The company’s also doing a major heat recovery project with the University of PEI’s fifth-year engineering students.
Whatever the company can do to reduce its carbon footprint and operating costs is an ongoing priority, says Gooding.
“We’ll always be focused on this,” he adds. “We want to do the right thing. If you think this business is about products, you’re so wrong. It’s not product focused. It’s solution based and it sets us apart from everyone in this space.”