Lebanon County-based Henry Molded Products Inc. was sustainable before green was cool, its molded recycled paper long competing with plastic and foam packaging strictly on quality, performance and cost.
The new environmental consciousness of recent years is a great addition to help drive sales, which have diversified over five decades from horticultural and floral applications to even the shipping and storage of large automotive and machinery components, CEO Douglass Henry said.
But the fundamentals remain the same.
"You can't survive on environmentalism and green alone. You must be functional and applicable and have the quality capabilities that the marketplace demands," Henry said.
Henry Molded Products was founded in 1963 by Henry's father, also Douglass Henry, through the acquisition of the operations when they were a tiny and failing subsidiary of another company based in the Midwest, Henry said.
Starting out with about 16 employees, the company has grown to more than 100, Henry said.
It's also expanded to two locations. One is the West Lebanon Township site and the other is in South Carolina to help serve the firm's customers who are located in the Southeast, areas farther west and the manufacturing centers of Mexico, he said.
The independent, family-owned business serves a North American market. Being a smaller firm helps it be more flexible and nimble, which is an advantage in responding quickly to customers' needs.
Henry took over the helm of the firm 22 years ago and set it on a course for diversification. From the beginning, it served two primary markets, he said.
One is providing the landscaping, horticultural and garden markets with molded paper pots, and the other is making products such as off-white paper vases for floral arrangements used by designers and others for weddings, funerals and occasions, Henry said.
The floral business in particular helped to lay the groundwork for specialization and new possibilities, he said.
"That's where we started to learn the fine art of design for specialty products, and nobody challenges you for that more than the floral designers," Henry said.
Customers today range from players in those two industries to automobile companies, technology companies that need packaging to ship computer equipment and a host of others, he said.
Henry Molded uses different mixes of recycled paper materials to create different characteristics in its finished products.
Some customer applications require a softer consistency. Others, such as those used in shipping large machinery parts, need to be stronger and more rigid, Henry said.
Raw materials it buys through brokers and some direct relationships with waste processors include old newspapers as well as old corrugated cartons from mills and from post-consumer sources, Henry said.
The company is essentially a smaller version of a paper mill, except that it makes three-dimensional products instead of sheets of paper, he said. But the basic principles of suspending fibers in water, then reconstituting the material to form the finished product, are about the same.
So the firm uses water that is recycled in a closed-loop system that's also been part of the firm since the earliest days, he said. Over the years, it's been tightened so that virtually 100 percent of the water is recycled.
"It was just a common-sense approach and a prudent way of doing things," Henry said. "That's just part of our DNA and always has been."
This aspect of the company has extended in recent years to include solar panels on a warehouse addition, he said.
Consumer awareness toward wanting products that are more sustainable and even a generational shift among buyers have helped to make Henry Molded's offerings more appealing, Henry said.
But Henry is also clear that being green alone does not make a business plan.
"We still have to perform on the basic levels of supply line consistency, quality and cost effectiveness. Without those three on the front end, the sustainability component is not going to get you very far," Henry said.
In general, the molded paper packaging industry has been growing steadily over the past 15 years and was not affected much by the economic downturn, said Joseph Grygny, head of the International Molded Fiber Association.
As firms and regulatory bodies have become more interested in sustainability, molded fiber has been taking the place of foam for similar applications, Grygny said.
Henry Molded is very well placed, highly innovative and has opened up new markets in molded fiber, he said. The company also is a member of the association, Grygny said.
Along the way, Henry Molded has retained customers from its earliest days.
New York state-based packaged, potted and bare root nursery stock company Garden Galleries Inc. has been buying fiber pots from Henry Molded for its business for more than 40 years, said Jed Brandow, vice president of sales and second generation of the family-owned enterprise.
The family's operations include the Kelly Wholesale Nurseries Inc. business and sell pretty much any kind of plant that drops its leaves to customers ranging from municipalities, garden centers and landscapers to hardware, grocery and discount stores, he said.
Henry Molded has been a great business to work with over the years, and the sustainability component has been an added bonus, Brandow said.
"It's a good additional selling point for us," he said.