Amazon and ‘unboxing’ revive century-old business
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas – Sometimes everything old is new again.
Just ask the folks at Pollock.
The maker of millions upon millions of corrugated boxes is celebrating its 100th anniversary with renewed vigor thanks to the “Amazon effect” – where every sort of product is being bought online and shipped to people’s doorsteps in those lowly, ubiquitous containers.
Pollock’s two Grand Prairie plants churn out nearly 2 million square feet of corrugated products every day – about 450 million square feet a year.
To put that in perspective, if the boxes were used as carpet, it would be enough flooring for more than 400 50-story skyscrapers.
One can only hope that consumers are recycling most of them.
Pollock doesn’t make mailing bags. But it distributes a ton of them – literally.
“The Amazon effect has affected freight and shipment,” says Lonnie Pollock III, CEO and controlling owner of his family’s $275 million industrial packaging and distribution company. “So many items that didn’t used to be shipped are today. Pills come in mailer bags instead of boxes.
“Mailers cost less than corrugated (boxes) and have a more positive public perception.”
Unboxing videos: The centenarian company is also getting a New Age boost from the latest thing in marketing – the “unboxing experience.”
You may have seen the YouTube videos of people showing delight as they find out what’s inside a box they’ve received as a gift or of companies explaining and demonstrating their products by unboxing them.
There are even professional unboxers with millions of followers who grade the experience once the top of the box comes off.
For them, plain packing paper and bubble wrap are non-starters.
“Here’s the deal,” says the 63-year-old CEO. “The unboxing experience is now a marketing tool. Seriously. Companies measure themselves on the reaction of people opening their boxes. Three years ago, we never sold anything for the interior of a box. Now it’s not just a box. It’s the box and the stuff inside it.”
Just how snappy products look on the shelves is key to getting those products to move into consumer hands. Pollock has a design department that helps customers come up with eye-catching exterior and interior packaging and point-of-purchase product displays.
Gimmicks: Craft beer is a growing segment.
Pollock’s designers came up with a 99-can, 7-foot-long box as a marketing gimmick for Austin Beerworks’ Peacemaker pale ale.
“They did TV commercials with the box sticking through a Volkswagen,” says Pollock. “It’s not about the box. It’s about the promotion.”
It’s also about reducing costs.
The day I was in the design center, a team from an oilfield equipment company was working with Pollock salespeople to come up with a better box to ship its valves. Nothing sexy about it. But cost and function are a big deal.
“It’s hard to design a box on the internet,” says Pollock. “We need to meet our customers and understand their business. We typically have three groups come in each day.”
Pickle Juice shots: The company has been working with Mesquite-based Pickle Juice Co. for three years. It has designed little shot bottles in various sizes and bladder bags for the concoction that’s used by bicyclists to prevent cramping.
Filip Keuppens, vice president of global sales and marketing at Pickle Juice, says Pollock has done such a dandy job at improving designs at a lower cost in the last three years that it is now his company’s only supplier of packaging materials.
“We value vendor relationships that work beyond simply taking orders and shipping products and help us be innovative and find creative solutions to complex problems,” Keuppens says.
This specialty work is the company’s added value, says Pollock, and just one way he intends to keep his family’s namesake going for the next 100 years.
Diversified: Boxes – those it churns out and those it buys and distributes – make up only about 20 percent of Pollock’s annual sales.
“Today we’re a multifaceted distribution company selling pretty much everything you need to run your business,” says Pollock as we tour the corporate office, warehouse and manufacturing complex next to Lone Star Park.
Pollock goes by Lonnie III, a tradition started by his father who thought Lawrence was too stuffy but hated the name Larry.
Under his third-generation, three-decade leadership, the company now distributes $215 million in goods – everything from eco-friendly cleaning materials and biodegradable fast-food packaging to dishes and floor-scrubbing machines.
“It’s our hundredth year, and we’re excited about that,” says Pollock. “But it doesn’t really matter what you did last year or even last week. It’s what are you doing now and for the future? We’ve built a really strong base and been through a lot of things. But you can’t live on your reputation. You have to build on it.”
Origin: Pollock’s grandfather, Lawrence S. Pollock Sr., was just 26 when he started Pollock-Burt Paper Box Co. in 1918. Woodrow Wilson was president, and World War I was ending. Charlie Chaplin was the biggest silent-film movie star in the world, and the most popular car in the country was the Model T, which was being made in what became the Adams Hat Building in Deep Ellum.
Pollock Sr. left Dallas to serve in the war, bought out his partner upon his return and began building his packaging empire. In 1926, he consolidated his growing operations into a state-of-the-art facility at South Lamar and Alma streets.
Over the years, Pollock added waxed paper and flexible packaging. At one point, the company made the printed polyethylene bread wrappers for nearly a third of all loaves baked in America, thanks in large part to getting the business of Mrs. Baird’s.
In the mid-1950s, Pollock Sr. couldn’t entice either of his sons to step up and run the company. So he merged the business into St. Regis Paper Co. in New York, which wanted Pollock’s flexible packaging business and all those bread wrappers.
Back in the family: In 1971, St. Regis found itself at odds with federal antitrust rules and sold Pollock’s tiny $7 million distribution segment back to the family.
Lonnie III bought controlling interest in the company from his grandparents’ estate and became CEO in 1989.
His father had discouraged him from joining the company, because his dad never really liked it. But the more Lonnie II tried to push Lonnie III into a different career path, the more determined III was not to listen.
“He shipped me off to our plant in Houston one summer, and the rest is history,” says Lonnie III. “I loved it. Still do.”
Expanding: Today, Pollock’s main plant and warehouse runs around the clock with three shifts.
Next year, Lonnie III plans to start an expansion that will double the size of the facility and consolidate its two plants. “We want to get everyone under one roof again,” he says.
Lonnie III calls himself the bird dog. “We have a bevy of segment specialists in our company to help our sales professionals. I’m the generalist. I recognize the opportunities and call in the help.”
For example, the company has a team of eco-experts to encourage customers to go greener.
“You get stuff at your home all the time – you’ve got a bunch of boxes, you’ve got envelopes, the little air pillows in there,” Pollock says. “My mother used to keep all the packaging for Christmas. If you kept all of the stuff that you get today when you get stuff shipped to your house, you’d have to have a storage unit out back. There’s a lot of waste.”
Pollock is following his grandfather’s principle of business. “It’s just common sense. Know your customers and take care of them. Our products are generally available all over the place. We’ve got no exclusives. We’ve got technology out the wazoo and all the modern stuff. And that’s important. But at the end of the day, we’re a people-to-people business.”
Each of Pollock’s 3,500-plus customers has a dedicated salesperson.
On average, the company’s largest 20 nameplate customers – including Dillard’s, Barnes & Noble and Gamestop – have been doing business with Pollock for more than 20 years, he says, some approaching 40. “It’s easy to lose a customer. It’s hard to get them back.”
It’s all relative: Lonnie’s younger brother, Richard, is the company’s general counsel and a minority owner but doesn’t have a day-to-day role. His retired uncle Robert also holds a smaller stake.
Lonnie III’s 30-year-old son, yes, Lonnie IV, oversees purchasing, sourcing and merchandising as well as vendor relations.
He’s sometimes called Quatro – a moniker he earned as a 15-year-old summer warehouse worker.
“As long as people stay away from ‘Little Lonnie’ they can call me whatever they want,” says the 30-year-old, who says he’s looking forward to having a son who would be named Lonnie V.
As for working for his father, it has its ups and downs, but never any over and outs.
“We have never been in any big fights regarding work,” says Lonnie IV. “And as time has gone on, he has even started to ask me for advice. So it has been nice to have slowly earned some extra trust.
“Ultimately, when we do not see eye to eye on things, his way goes. But I understand that he is the boss, so I accept it and move on.”
“I’m probably not the best boss for a son, or so he tells me,” Lonnie III says with a satisfied grin. “I always explain to him that being my son is a curse and a blessing. He says I treat him differently. I tell him to get over it.”
With Lonnie IV on board, Lonnie III has no plans to sell. “I’m not sure I’d be a good associate for someone else.”
Next weekend, Pollock is bringing together the extended clan – over 700 associates, suppliers, friends and key customers – for a big do at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Dallas Love Field.
“I think my grandfather would be really proud, and my dad would be saying, ‘I can’t believe you’ve done all this.’ “
AT A GLANCE:
Headquarters: Grand Prairie
Ownership: Lonnie Pollock III and family
Annual sales: $275 million
Employees: 460 full-time – 275 in Dallas/Fort Worth and the rest in Texas locations; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta.
Number of customers: Approaching 4,000
Shipping locations: 20,000-plus
Lonnie Pollock III
Title: CEO, Pollock Corp.
Education: Walnut Hill Elementary; Greenhill School, 1973; studied general business at University of Texas in Austin
Personal: Single with two daughters, Kimberly Wolff, 35, and Tracy Pollock, 33, and a son, Lonnie IV, 30; two grandsons and a granddaughter
SOURCE: Lonnie Pollock III