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Chuck thinks outside the box to help make containers

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Boardroom bingo has to be challenging at Jamestown Container Co. You'd expect a company whose

Warrensville Heights facility makes 60,000 cardboard containers every day would outlaw the phrase "think outside the box" on principle alone. It appears on the company's web site, but with a twist: The Buffalo-based firm insists it can help customers think outside the box . . . and inside as well.

As corporate catchphrases go, it's better than "You deserve a box today," but not by much. No matter. The strength of the company isn't its slogan; it's the people who make the boxes -- espe cially the 25 or so who work in the plant. That was my take on a day spent with general manager Larry Hudson's team inside the noisy 85,000-square- foot plant (curiously enough the smallest, yet most productive, facility of the company's five plants).

My first stop was in the conference room, meeting a pair of father and son Joe Palmeris. The elder has been with the 52-year-old company since the late Glenn Janowsky founded it, and his son runs the technical services wing. The elder Palmeri is a co- owner, along with Janowsky's son, Bruce, who was also there. Clearly, Jamestown is family-oriented. Hudson shares no DNA with the owners, but he feels like everybody's favorite uncle. Besides, only a good guy could occupy a pennant-, poster-, and ball-festooned office that is an homage to all things baseball.

I learned stuff in the boardroom, like the industry uses 400 billion square feet of corrugated material a year, and that the scrap that produces is a good reason why box makers became one of the first businesses to go green and recycle. But the main thing I took from my boardroom time is that the company's top execs, while committed to business, like to laugh. They know that makes for a happy workplace, which makes for a more productive workplace.
Brian Bender, who runs the Langston, Saturn 3, Flexo Folder Gluer I worked on, is a case in point. He's conscientious about his job, moving like a honeybee on a pollen binge, but his smile is as infectious as his work ethic. We were making pretty fancy boxes, slightly larger than a shoebox and slightly smaller than a hatbox. I took turns at all three stations on the machine. At the mouth, Keith Skolaris and I fed sheets of corrugated paper into the machine. In between, Bender bossed the job, punching all the right buttons and making sure we all held up our part of the deal. At the other end, Brian Brown and I stacked the boxes - now cut and glued, but not folded into their rectangular shape - onto pallets. It's noisy, sweaty work. Especially considering that the machine that cuts the tabs that create the flaps for the top and bottom and glues everything together can run as fast as 200 pieces per minute. Thankfully, Bender was only running it at 160 ppm - and skipping every other unit to permit the intricate cutting, tabbing and gluing. I'd say the hardest thing about the job, once you learn little tricks such as loading the machine so that premade creases are in the right direction, is staying focused. Keep in mind that these machines are capable of cutting boxes made of cardboard that's as much as five-eighths of an inch thick. My pinky isn't that thick, and I'm a lot more attached to it than I am to a box.

And Lord, let me tell you about the paper cuts. Now Greg Becker, who's the company's Lake Erie Region manufacturing manager, pointed out that the boxes have bumpy edges - like what's left when you tear a perforated piece of paper - to avoid that. When I ran my thumb over the box edges, I could feel what he meant. It wasn't till I got home and saw the nicks in the forearms and the baby slices in my palms that I realized what a klutz I am. I'm fine today, thanks for asking. But I think I understand why Skolaris and Brown were wearing those gloves. Unless, of course, OW! was the winning boardroom bingo word.

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