Insider Insight for Packaging Manufacturers

Insider Insight for Packaging Manufacturers
Leigh Ann Wilson, MBA
June 22, 2023

Attending the AICC (The Independent Packaging Association) conference in Miami gave me a unique perspective on the issues and challenges that packaging manufacturers face today. I was fortunate to meet and speak with AICC President Mike D’Angelo. Mike’s insight into the industry he is so passionate about led me to interview him so that others may benefit from his insider thoughts.

Leigh Ann Wilson and Mike D'Angelo at AICC Spring Conference

In a recent post on LinkedIn, you commented that “Disruption did not end with the pandemic.” Can you elaborate on that statement and how disruption continues to impact the industry?

Mike: It’s a cliché, but change is a constant.

The pandemic moved the demand for boxes to 2025 levels, and sales and buying practices changed. Now that the world is moving back to “normal,” sales and buying practices are not going back. Manufacturing best practices are not going back. Social media has changed a lot of the transaction nature of the business. Buyers will spend more effort through an online transaction than they would pre-pandemic. Customer expectations have never been higher. These are disruptions that were coming and were accelerated by the pandemic.

That means the next wave of disruption is closer than ever. It’s never been a static business. Don’t let the humble box fool you. It is very sophisticated in terms of how it gets made, what it conveys, how it gets to the box buyer, and then to the ultimate wildcard, the consumer. Too many opportunities for disruption to be complacent. Box makers are savvy out of necessity.

When you think of the future of manufacturing – how can companies differentiate themselves and remain competitive in this time of constant change?

Mike: By embracing technology and serving the customer better than anyone else can. The latter is the advantage of the family business, the agile operation, and the “yes” attitude. The former has never been more accessible. I was in the packaging equipment business for 35 years. There have never been so many good suppliers as there are today. A box maker has tremendous options and opportunities to transform their operations of today into the manufacturing plant of tomorrow, while maintaining and improving the customer experience that has been their advantage all along.

I’m optimistic – you have a product that is irreplaceable and incredibly sustainable. Manufactured by entrepreneurial, intelligent people. Talk about differentiation!

Leigh Ann: You mentioned sustainability, which is always a hot topic. I was surprised to learn about the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that puts the cost burden back on the producers.

Can you briefly explain EPR and share any thoughts on how companies or individuals can take action?

Mike: Essentially, EPR is a legislated mechanism that will drive brand owners and members of their supply chain to recognize and be responsible for the return of the product and packaging into the recycling/reuse stream.

Companies need to be aware of EPR coming on a state-by-state basis. They already produce the most sustainable, re-useable, recyclable packaging media known, and EPR should play to this strength against competitive packaging means.

Manufacturers should stay closely engaged with their local legislators.

As many manufacturers are bracing for a recession, do you have any thoughts on how it will impact the packaging industry?

Mike: There are two ways to look at the current and near-future box market – the incredible, pandemic-driven increase in business was sure to cool at some point, and we’re seeing it now. That’s a recession in AICC members’ business.

Macro-economically, there could be a recession. If there is, it is the most talked about, telegraphed recession of all time. It will not catch anyone unaware. The box business has always been cyclical, and AICC members have been through good times and bad. Knowing this, many use slower times to prepare for the next upcycle.

They become more efficient and better prepared to endure the ups and downs. Technology has provided many solutions. AICC membership brings everyone together. They talk. They share. They serve their customers.

I do get that sense of community. The packing industry seems to be very family-focused. Are you seeing mergers and acquisitions or more generational ownership transitions?

Mike: One of the great joys of this industry is the family focus. Not just in ownership but in the length of service of so many team members in box plants and among suppliers (for example – my 32 years at a single company and 41 years in the business). There will always be a healthy mix of M&A activity and generational ownership. Family companies buy family companies. M&A is not just public companies buying private ones. We also see a few startups each year. The entrepreneurial spirit of the box business will never diminish.

You referenced your years in the business. At the Spring Meeting, there were many stories of how individuals entered the packaging industry. What is your story of how you came to lead AICC?

Mike: I went to work in the industry two weeks after graduating from college. I worked for an AICC Associate (supplier) Member company and took an entry-level customer service role with the expectation that I would be a short-timer who finds a job in my chosen field while working.

After 32 years, I left that company as a Vice President. I had been an AICC member during that time and had served on the Board (and chaired for two years) of the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation (ICPF), an AICC Education Foundation (jointly with the Fibre Box Association).

I liked that aspect of service. I had been recruited to join another manufacturer to get them into the Packaging markets. Once that mission was accomplished, knowing I wanted to give something back to the industry, I approached AICC about a position, and then-AICC President Steve Young brought me on board.

In the past four years as the AICC President, what are you most proud of that the association has accomplished?

Mike: I am most proud of the way AICC facilitated members to stick together and unite during the Covid crisis and subsequent quantum increase in business, the incredible growth that AICC education programming has undergone in the past few years, and how deeply the opportunity to improve and access best practices has become rooted in member companies.

Leigh Ann: A big thank you to Mike D’Angelo for sharing his thoughts with me (and you). If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out AICC; I’ve found it a fantastic way to stay on top of industry trends.

Leigh Ann Wilson