Chad Paulson, sales director for Rockford Package Supply, left, with his father, Howard, RPS president. Photo: Gary Pullano

May 31, 2016
Rockford Package Supply grows with new building

Recognizing and building upon the contributions of those who helped nurture the agricultural industry in Michigan was among the reasons for an established packaging operation to spread its wings with a new facility.

Howard Paulson, president of Rockford Package Supply (RPS) in Rockford, Michigan, said a lot of thought went into the company’s planned expansion into a 100,000-square-foot facility with combined warehouse and office space, but the impact of industry leaders remained front and center in that thinking.

“We’ve recently lost some pioneers in the industry who were among those hard working and extremely dedicated to their industry and were part of our business since the beginning,” Paulson said of the late Bill Braman, Bernie Swindeman and Gene Rasch.

“We all feel a tremendous responsibility to carry on that legacy and to be a steward of all the hard work and dedication people put into the fruit and vegetable industry,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the industry healthy for the next generation of customers and our family, who will become good stewards of the produce industry.”

RPS is consolidating all of its services in a move from Northland Drive in Rockford to Vitality Drive, at the corner of Seven Mile Road and M-37 on the Fruit Ridge. The ground has been broken for the new facility near Heeren Bros. Produce in Comstock Park. Opening of the new location, which will feature room to expand, is scheduled for Nov. 19.

“As the third generation of our family guides our business into the future, the new facility will allow us to provide an unprecedented level of service to our customers,” Howard Paulson said.

“We are responding to our customers’ needs that have grown a great deal in the past decade,” Paulson said. “We’ve talked about the speed of business in produce and we need to keep up with it so our customers can keep up with it.”
The business is currently in three different facilities.

“We are doing everything we can to provide the best possible service,” he said. “We felt in order to provide what our customers need, we had to have a facility to be faster, provide quicker response, be more accurate, and provide more services by doing so in a way that continues to make all of our fruits and vegetables competitive on the shelf.”

Upon completion of the project, RPS’ workforce should increase from 20 to more than double during peak seasons.

A long history

RPS’ tradition of service began when Lloyd Paulson added an extension phone line in the basement of his home in Rockford, and began selling plastic bags to produce packers in the Midwest. With the help and support of his wife Marilyn, the family built their business based on a simple mission: provide service beyond customer expectations.

The tradition continues with Howard Paulson and his sons, Chad and Ted Paulson, who is Southeast U.S. sales manager for the company. Chad’s wife, Kristin, fills the marketing and graphics design role for the company.

“We couldn’t do this without the incredible support of our customers, and we look forward to serving the next generation in our new building,” said Chad Paulson, sales director at RPS.

Howard Paulson said his father was initially a manufacturer’s representative selling plastic bags for produce in the mid-1950s. When his third son was born, Lloyd wanted to come off the road and settle down.

Lloyd started RPS in 1959, working with those in the industry, including Braman of Belding Fruit Storage.

“I was five years old when my dad started the business,” Howard said. “I can never remember not being involved in some way. As kids, we were answering the business phone that rang in our house. I took orders and talked to people. As we grew up there was no separation between the business and friends. Customers came for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas. On summer break we picked cherries, played on the farm – all with customers, and we had no idea they were customers at the time.”

Howard recalled helping Lloyd load trucks at the rail line when he was 8 years old.

Rockford Package Supply founder Lloyd Paulson, left, speaks with a customer at a produce show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo: RPS
Rockford Package Supply founder Lloyd Paulson, left, speaks with a customer at a produce show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo: RPS

He said family members “conspired” to have him come back to Michigan from California after he was married to help with the business.

“The business has grown, but we’ve always done one thing – provide packaging for fruits and vegetables – that’s all we’ve ever done,” Howard said.

The company does not manufacture packaging products.

“What we do is the service side – warehousing, delivering, branding, kitting, labeling, printing and value added. We let the manufacturers manufacture.”

Howard’s earliest recollections of the business was having himself, his father, one part-time bookkeeper and one truck driver/truck loader.

“And nobody worked year round. We were all kind of part-time, working when orders needed to be filled. In the slow season in the spring, everybody had other jobs. That’s changed.”

Fast-paced demands

The produce industry has become a “24-7 business. The demands are so great in this business that everybody needs it immediately. This starts with the consumers. They go to the store and say ‘I want this. I want it to look like this. I have needs and if you don’t fill those needs I will go somewhere else. The retailers – the Walmarts, Meijers and Krogers of the world – are really trying hard to distinguish themselves to get customers to pull produce off the shelf. Their demands are extraordinary. It can be the best broccoli, carrots, plums, apples and cherries, but if the consumer doesn’t like the way it looks, they won’t buy it.”

As is the case in most modern-day business endeavors, “everything is absolutely necessary to appeal to the customer,” Howard said. “You don’t have the luxury of lead time because the product rots. You have to handle it now. The demands retailers are placing on produce and what they want is literally changing every day. There has to be a new approach, new package, new volume, new price point – and they want it today.”

Howard said the grower-packer-shipper is not equipped with the expertise to respond to the retailer to meet their packaging demands.

“We do it on a daily basis with new products, new developments, new designs – they determine they want it on Friday at 4 o’clock and need it Monday morning. More and more we are closing the gap and going direct to retailers. It’s become really sophisticated and we have to take the burden off the packer-shippers.

“Technology has changed everything,” he said. “I come from an analog age and had the privilege of seeing both ways. I like this way better. One thing that has the most impact on the industry is the speed and amount of information.”

He said that while it took weeks to design a product 35 years ago, now “there’s a tremendous amount of information and you design a product sometimes in a matter of hours. More than anything, technology has contributed to the speed of doing business. Technology has eliminated the clock and the calendar. It’s all the time. You’re always on.”

The developments have enabled the response time to the consumer to decrease dramatically. “We’re responding to people buying produce more than anybody else. The response time to them is almost immediately.”

While wood products, including baskets, made up the bulk of packaging materials in the company’s formation, it has taken a back seat to corrugated paper, plastic, cloth and “only some wood products,” Howard said.

“Packaging for produce was much simpler 35 years ago with wood baskets, wood wire-bounds and three or four different packages – that was it. Now packaging includes atmospherically controlled films, plastics, molded pulp and other innovations. The breadth of materials now used is amazing.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure for material to be used in a way that is least disruptive to the environment,” he said. “Can you reuse or recycle it? All those questions come up in every single development project. In the old days, you just put them out in a back field and burned them. Nobody does that anymore, and for good reason.”

Chad Paulson said his career path started as a teacher, but he was attracted back to the family business full time.

“I recognized an opportunity here, and in the industry in general, and came in at a good time. The rest is history,” he said.

He has appreciated the opportunity to interact with others who did business with his grandfather, who died when Chad was 17.

“To have that connection is special,” he said.

Food safety emphasis

Chad said RPS has taken a lead role in food safety issues impacting the packaging industry, recognizing it “as a culture change we are embracing.”

“Technology is a big influence on the whole food safety program,” he said. “Now when you go to the store and pick up a bag, the information on there can lead you back to the lot number in the field. We have our own traceability system and cold-food safety system. We’re a piece in the supply chain. That’s the way the food safety system works in terms of traceability. Trace one step forward, one step back. It shows what shipper on what date, the production date, production shift. The packaging itself, our customers can trace it back.

“We’ve done all of this voluntarily for our customers to add that additional level of service, because the restraints on them are getting bigger and bigger every day.”

Howard Paulson said RPS is a Primus-audited facility that has been part of developing the audit process for packaging suppliers.

“We foresaw the need and went out into the marketplace to find out what we could do to be part of the food safety. The last couple of years when we’ve been audited, it’s helped us be part of that process.”

He said food safety is a “tremendous opportunity for the fresh produce industry. We as a packaging provider are part of the entire process. We don’t separate ourselves from the product anymore because if something goes wrong with the product down the line, we are part of that process. It takes more effort and expense to take part. That effort more than pays for itself in consumers’ confidence in every fresh produce item on the shelf.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

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