The huge growth in ecommerce, food purchasing, and the closure of “Main Street” shops has fuelled a rapid rise in the use of corrugated packaging. Reacting to the change in market conditions requires agility, speed to market, and flexibility to react to customers’ changing demand patterns during periods of turbulence. To support this, VPK Packaging UK and Ireland has maintained its strategy based on a centralized service that is agile and flexible.
The past 20 years have been quite a revolutionary change for VPK Packaging UK and Ireland. Rivalling the bigger players in the market, its growth has meant it is now one of the most prominent corrugated packaging companies in the UK and Ireland, with seven sites.
With the 2021 UK Packaging Company of the Year award (presented by Packaging News) firmly under its belt, the corrugated company is beginning to stand out as one of the top suppliers of corrugated packaging across the UK and Ireland.
Looking back, and despite the global unpredictability the pandemic brought with it, 2020 was a year of activity for the company. First, VPK’s corrugated operations in UK and Ireland (formerly known as Rigid Containers) were rebranded as VPK Packaging, along with the company’s other European corrugated divisions.
As background, under its ownership over the past 22 years, VPK Group has invested more than GBP120 million (about US$157 million) into the division. The Desborough location was transformed into the UK flagship site, whereas greenfield sites in Wellington and Selby gradually increased capacity to fully mirror operations on all three sites. In 2015, the acquisition of ICS Europaks in Limerick, Ireland, further strengthened the geographical spread. With a strong focus on high quality printing capacities, the UK and Ireland divisions enjoy a solid reputation with high service requirement customers.
Also in 2020, VPK acquired a majority stake in CorrBoard UK Ltd., a leading supplier of corrugated cardboard sheets located in Scunthorpe. The site includes a 320,000 sq ft modern factory equipped with a new fast order-change Fosber 2.80m corrugator, using a CO2 neutral production process.
Following fast in October, 2020, was the acquisition of corrugated packaging producer Encase. VPK has now fully merged Encase’s three UK sites (Banbury, Leeds, and East Kilbride) with the existing VPK UK corrugated operations. The acquisition has also enabled VPK to gain its first site in a new geographical location: Scotland.
VPK has a proven track record of successful investments and acquisitions in corrugated manufacturing assets. These include an ultra-modern greenfield investment project in Halden (Norway) and the acquisition of Viallon Emballages in France. VPK Group has also set clear plans to convert the Alizay (France) paper mill into a recycled paper-based production site with long-term sustainable development in the circular economy. As a significant step in this project, VPK Group has ordered the conversion of the existing paper machine with Valmet, the Finnish leading developer and supplier of paper industry technologies.
Significant machinery investments across the plants over the past years have included a BP Agnati Corrugator, Mitsubishi EVOL printing systems, and Bobst systems, among many other large ancillary investments. These have all positioned the company as one of the most well-invested integrated converting sites in the UK and Ireland.
A NUMBER OF CHALLENGES
Last year did deliver a number of challenges regarding capacity; this was felt across the whole corrugated industry. However, since the pandemic hit, the corrugated industry overall has played an essential part in keeping the supply chain functioning — an effort that VPK UK & Ireland is proud to have joined.
The sales and marketing director for UK & Ireland, Julian Freeman, comments on the pattern of change that the company experienced: “Overall, we reacted with agility and flexibility to our customer’s changing demand patterns for packaging during this period, which is something we are very proud of.”
The demand for e-commerce has obviously increased significantly. As an example, corrugated packaging is proving to be the ideal format to meet the exponential growth of the e-commerce sector, with eye-catching printed boxes being an increasing part of brand awareness. Corrugated e-commerce packaging is able to interact with the customer at the point of use through its design. If the box is decoratively printed inside, for example using an inside print, it can even “talk” to consumers when opened, supporting brand positioning through relevant messages and graphics.
Freeman adds, “As COVID restrictions came off, we saw an increase in brick-andmortar shopping. Realistically, the pandemic situation has pushed the transition from ‘high street shopping’ to e-commerce at a higher speed than what would have happened normally.”
Recruiting people is still an issue across the industry, and attracting people to the industry has been a huge focus, Freeman says. “We’ve been an essential industry throughout the pandemic and we’ve played an important role in keeping supply chains operating, and because of this high-profile role it will hopefully attract new talent to work in the industry.”
The demand for sustainable packaging is key to future strategy too. The environmental credentials of corrugated packaging continue to make it a popular choice for retailers looking to swap the single-use plastic option with an alternative.
Customers are looking at how corrugated packaging can play an integral part in their overall packaging targets. This falls in line with investment too, and it’s an essential synergy of state-of-the art equipment to produce packaging in a lean, low-waste manufacturing environment.
Freeman comments: “Our strategy will focus on delivering reliable, high-impact, and sustainable packaging solutions for a wide variety of goods, and we need to ensure we have the latest machinery to deliver this, so continued investment is essential.
“Sustainability is at the core of our business and reducing our environmental footprint and contributing to a circular economy are important parts of our business.”
During the early part of 2020, the company started the implementation of a new IT system. “This kind of implementation is never without teething troubles, but it has now been successfully installed at all of our sites and puts us in perfect synergy with VPK systems across Europe,” Freeman says. “We believe that we are now one of the most technically advanced corrugated packaging manufacturers in the UK, with an IT system that ensures maximum productivity.”
He recognizes too that the packaging sector is often criticized for “over-packaging” products, which raises the question: Is the industry doing enough as far as right-sizing is concerned?
Freeman comments, “It is a big focus area within our industry. Our in-house design and technical teams both work with customers to ensure they have a product fit for purpose but without it being excessive.”
He feels that the industry has a great story to tell regarding sustainability. “As an industry we need to be aligned. By stressing the positive role that corrugated packaging plays overall in protecting and enhancing the goods we buy, we can counter this. A balanced approach will also ensure that consumers continue to see the benefits of corrugated materials, however as an industry we must not rest on our laurels in delivering this message.”
An exciting two years of acquisition and continued investment will continue, especially as the previous Encase business is continually integrated into the VPK business strategy. For the company, the future means growth, more acquisition, the development of strong values, being a great place to work for employees, and offering a great service to customers.
“In addition, our understanding of the environment and increasing concern for sustainability will drive the business forward,” Freeman adds. “Now that we are one brand it means that our strategy is ever more strengthened. Delivering the sustainable corrugated packaging solutions customers and consumers demand means VPK is continually investing in its sites.”
This year there will also be a firm focus on enhancing the service offering to customers and pushing the HQPP capabilities across the company’s flagship sites: “We will continue to push forward in the market and ensure that we offer the best service in the industry to our existing and future customers.”