Seattle-Tacoma Box Company has been a family run business that doesn’t sit idle on its impressive laurels and successful history. Instead, the company is finding new and innovative ways to make boxes stronger and sustainable for the next 130 years.
Some of the most useful things in life are those that are around us every day. Take boxes for example – we use them for storage or sending parcels, but we probably don’t think much about them after we’ve opened them or packed them away. But what if we didn’t have them? How much more difficult and disorganized would life be without boxes?
Now, take that a step further. What about some of our most important industries like agriculture and fishing? How would they get their goods to the shelves of your local grocery store without boxes? Or, more specifically, what are the best boxes to handle what farmers grow and fishers catch? Do they protect the product quality while demonstrating eye-catching graphic designs and being environmentally friendly?
These questions are exactly what Ferd Nist, President of Seattle-Tacoma Box Company, spends his time thinking about. “In the agriculture business and the fishing business, Mother Nature controls when and how the farmer is going to see his crops and when the fisherman is going to find his fish,” Ferd says. “To supply packaging to these industries you’ve got to be incredibly nimble, and our company is very much in tune with their need for boxes. And we know that their need could change on a moment’s notice so you have to be prepared for that. Unlike some of the larger companies, we can change course on a dime.”
When he says change course on a dime, he is talking about changing production in the time it takes to fly from Seattle to Sacramento. His son Rob was once on that flight in cherry season when the conditions peaked, and the cherries had to be harvested. When he stepped off the plane, he had five calls from clients asking to have boxes sent right away.
“That was a Wednesday and we responded by changing gears in our plants that day and got their packing products into their packing sheds the way that they wanted by Saturday afternoon of that week,” recalls Ferd. “That’s where your customer says, ‘I’m going to trust you guys for my packaging.’”
A reliable reputation is something Seattle-Tacoma Box Company has built over six generations. The company has been in business since 1889, started by Jacob Nist, Ferd’s great-grandfather, along with his three sons. Jacob uprooted his family from Pittsburgh and headed west, like many others did back then, to make a new livelihood. Eventually they came to Seattle and founded the Queen City Manufacturing Company in the wake of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which had engulfed Jacob’s previous employers. With optimism and tenacity, Queen City Manufacturing was founded and became the parent company to the Seattle-Tacoma Box Company. The company has been under the Nist family’s management ever since.
Ferd himself has been with the business for 60 years, working with both his father and his sons. When he was 20, he wanted to become a pilot with the Air Force, but his father asked him to stay with the company instead. “I think that was a great decision on my father’s part and my part,” he says, excited to mark the company’s 130th anniversary this year in 2019.
“Now I have been encouraging people to go into the family business to build it for the future generations.” His granddaughter, Erika Nist, came on board recently fresh out of college with new initiatives and “incredible drive.” Of course, she’s got the right DNA for the job.
The origin of this company’s story within the packaging industry lies in wood crates, like egg and milk for example, made out of solid quality wood. Wood was a constant for a lot of years due to the booming lumber industry in the Northwest. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the corrugated box industry began to appear.
Although the traditional wooden box company was doing well, the Nist family recognized the future was in paper-based material. With that in mind, Seattle-Tacoma Box Company formed the first independent corrugated cardboard company in the northwest in the early 1980s. While there were other corrugated box companies at that time, they were all part of large international companies. “We were very adventurous to start an independent corrugated box company,” Ferd says of the family’s aptitude for enterprise and agility.
And if you don’t think that making boxes is adventurous, you need to take a closer look. When Dole first started producing concentrated pineapple juice, Seattle-Tacoma Box Company developed bulk bins that would hold the 300 gallons of juice during shipping from places like Hawaii, the Philippines and Thailand. To do that, the company produced a box four-feet-square and about four-feet-deep that could hold liquid weighing around 3,000 to 4,000 pounds. The concentrate was in a near-frozen state during shipping, and then it was pumped out when it reached its destination – all of this made possible in an effective and collapsible container.
Seattle-Tacoma Box Company also produced boxes to hold drilling equipment that was shipped to the Arctic during the oil exploration. The company developed a 10-ton package that was durable and flexible to protect the 40-foot pipes it held for transport. This took numerous tests, including dropping the package and twisting it to make sure that it would hold up for journey, which reveals the company’s commitment to innovation. These containers were later shipped worldwide for companies in France, Scotland, Indonesia and Japan, which demonstrated the company’s capabilities on the world stage.
On top of challenging custom projects, Seattle-Tacoma Box Company is also taking steps to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly product that will have the strength to hold up to client specifications and demands. The two primary markets for the company are agriculture and fishing, therefore many of these products are stored in wet conditions, on ice or cooled with water. Therefore, the boxes have to be water-resistant. The current primary method for achieving this is to saturate the corrugated boxes in a cascade of paraffin wax. While such boxes may hold up long enough to reach the grocery stores, they are not able to be recycled and end up as landfill. Sustainability has become a dominant factor within the current packaging marketplace, with countries in Europe leading the way, so the company saw an opportunity to expand its business to include a sustainable packaging option.
“Over the years, we have seen the pressure increase to develop an alternative,” Ferd explains. “So we started to experiment with extruded corrugated plastic which is actually a similar material to those plastic real estate signs you see.”
The company began branching into the plastic box business in 2014. “We were able to test and test until we were confident that we could take an extruded polypropylene sheet and turn it into a box, and we feel we are on the threshold of having something special,” says Ferd. Not only would this innovation benefit the planet by reducing the carbon footprint, but the plastic boxes weigh about half of what wax cartons do and have greater structural integrity, rather than the wax alternative that deteriorates over time. These characteristics can reduce freight costs for clients and allow for longer storage and more efficient packing at the customer’s location.
Since developing the packaging division, the team believes they have a proof of concept that has encouraged them to expand their capabilities to provide sustainable packaging to a large demographic. To support this expansion and make this a reality, the company is building one of the first and largest plastic corrugated boxes factories in the country, based in Arizona, set to open this spring. This is a major investment for the organization, but it has designed the plant to be scaled up for future expansion.
Now the company is reaching out to major grocery chains to divert those saturated wax cartons from landfills and replace the packaging with the polypropylene carton. Erika’s group works alongside sustainability teams associated with the food service and grocery retail industry to collect the boxes for reprocessing. These collected boxes are reprocessed into post-consumer resin pellets that can be re-introduced into the core of new plastic boxes. “We wouldn’t spend $20 million on this if we didn’t think it would be a success,” Ferd says.
Certainly, it’s a notable accomplishment for any company to be in business for 130 years; it’s an even bigger accomplishment to be a family-owned business for that long. While there have now been six generations of the Nist family spearheading Seattle-Tacoma Box Company, Ferd is quick to point out that family is not always just those with the same blood line; there are a lot more family members among the 300 employees throughout the corporation.
“We really work hard to be a good employer and listen to our employees,” he says. “We have a great team and have hundreds that come to work every day to make it better. We also have cousins and brothers who work for us. They are not just part of the success; they are the success.”
One of the ways the leadership expresses their appreciation to employees is by being one of the few companies in the industry to have a profit-sharing plan where every employee is on the same formula, regardless of stature or family ties.
Clearly, the Nist formula is a winning one. As Ferd proudly says, “It pays to be adventurous in our industry and our family has had the fortitude to keep looking for new things and new ways to grow.”