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Scaling a People-First Culture: The FirmaPak Story

In this episode, we delve into the creation of FirmaPak with CEO Rob Goldberg, Brent Driggers of Container Services (CSI), and Damon Neff of Apex Plastics. They share their experiences and insights on balancing the traditional values of a family-run business with the growth that goes along with a private equity partnership.  Rob, Brent, and Damon highlight the importance of finding a financial partner that respects family legacy, and how FirmaPak is focused on scaling a culture and a company that puts its customers and its people first. Listen in to learn how FirmaPak is navigating its path to growth while staying true to its core values.

Transcript

Introduction

Michael Burcham: Welcome to Microcap Moments, a podcast from Shore Capital Partners that highlights the stories of founders, investors, and leaders who have taken on the challenge of transforming ideas and small companies into high growth organizations, the journey of building and scaling a business takes one down many unexpected pathways.

 

It's a journey where we learn from our mistakes, fall down often, but have the entrepreneurial grit to pick ourselves up and persevere. Within this series, we will share these stories of success and failure, of the challenges and the rewards faced by those who dare to dream big, and through their lessons learned, we hope to inspire others who are on a similar journey of becoming, growing, and leading.

Anderson Williams: In this episode, we talk with the CEO of FirmaPak, Rob Goldberg, as well as Brent Driggers, whose family business Container Services (CSI) was the platform investment of FirmaPak and Damon Neff of Apex Plastics, the first add on. We will cover what might seem like a surprising set of topics for a private equity backed manufacturing company.

Rob, Brent and Damon speak to what it's like to run a family business. The importance of finding a financial partner that respects that family legacy and those family values. And we talk about how FirmaPak is focused on scaling a culture and a company that puts its customers and its people first. I start the conversation with Rob Goldberg.

Understanding FirmaPak

Anderson Williams: Welcome Rob and thanks for being here. Really looking forward to this conversation.

Rob Goldberg: I'm excited to be here with you.

Anderson Williams: To get started. Will you just introduce yourself and tell us who you are and what you do and where you do it.

Rob Goldberg: Sure. My name is Rob Goldberg, and I am the CEO of FirmaPak. I'm located in the Chicago area with other members of our leadership team. But frankly, the real work for FirmaPak takes place in the field, at our manufacturing facilities, or with our customers. And that's where I try to spend the bulk of my time. We have three manufacturing facilities in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.

 

Anderson Williams: And will you just describe for our listeners what Firmapak does?

Rob Goldberg: FirmaPak is the name of our rigid packaging platform. The platform is comprised of two companies, Container Services and Apex Plastics. Shore Capital, our private equity partner, made their investment in Container Services in January of 2023. And then in January of 2024, Container Services acquired Apex Plastics, and together we launched the Firmapack name.

 

In terms of what we do, we manufacture packaging, primarily bottles, that we like to say brings our customers passion to life.

Anderson Williams: And when you think about bottles, give us an example, so not familiar at all with what the manufacturing side of some of these consumer product goods I may be buying and not paying attention to packaging. Tell us a little bit about an example of what that looks like.

Rob Goldberg: Well, to start we have three different manufacturing processes that we use. This may seem a little technical, but I think it'll be helpful. We injection stretch blow mold, otherwise known as single stage or one step. We reheat stretch blow mold, otherwise known as two stage or two step, and we extrusion blow mold.

 

The single stage and two stage processes use PET, which is a type of plastic resin. And then our extrusion blow molding uses HDPE. At the end of the day what we do is really manufacture empty containers, primarily bottles, that are used across a variety of industries including food and beverage applications, things like fresh juice, honey, spices, sauces, dressings, and condiments.

 

Or other end markets like household care, automotive, and industrial and chemical. I think if you look around your home, you'd be remarkably surprised by the number of items that are made of plastic and are produced by companies like FirmaPak.

Anderson Williams: And tell us a little bit about how long you've been there and what you did before and what drew you to FirmaPak in the first place.

Rob Goldberg: I've been involved with FirmaPak since Shore Capital made its investment in 2023. I was originally a board member, and in January of 2024, Shore Capital asked if I'd consider leading FirmaPak as its CEO. Candidly, it was a very easy yes for me. I had been in the packaging industry for almost 10 years, and I most recently led the corporate development and strategy function at Berlin Packaging.

 

Berlin Packaging is also headquartered in Chicago, and it's the largest distributor of rigid packaging in the world. Of course, I knew FirmaPak as a board member, but I also knew FirmaPak as a bottle supplier to Berlin Packaging. And I saw a lot of similarities between Berlin Packaging and FirmaPak.

 

Both companies place a premium on customer service and thrilling their customers. Both companies want to take care of their employees and build a great employee culture and experience. And both companies really excel at serving middle America, by which I mean focusing on small and medium sized businesses that are the backbone of the U. S. economy, and can sometimes be overlooked by some of the larger packaging manufacturers that understandably, focus on multinational companies and other big businesses.

 

So these are all business principles that resonated very strongly with me, both professionally and personally, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to build upon these principles at FirmaPak as we continue to grow and scale the business.

The Shore Capital Difference

Anderson Williams: So you've got experience in the industry. You've got experience with big companies in the industry. You've got experience as a founding board member here with FirmaPak and now the CEO. Can you just talk a little bit about that experience and your experience of both the microcap space as compared perhaps to that larger company experience.

And then just that partnership with Shore that you came into as a board member, but then were not only willing, but ready and excited to step into a CEO role. So we just talk a little bit about that experience with Shore and in particular, the microcap sort of side of things, since you've had that larger industry experience.

Rob Goldberg: Absolutely. So private equity has been a part of my career really since its inception and then over the last 25 years or so in terms of Shore Capital specifically, I've known Justin Ishbia, Shore Capital's founder, for more than 20 years. Justin and I were actually former colleagues during the early stages of our career, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity for our professional lives to converge again.

 

One of the great things about Shore Capital and its focus on smaller companies is that it really gives someone like FirmaPak the opportunity to combine the best of a large organization with extensive resources via our partnership with Shore Capital. And then smaller businesses like a FirmaPak that's rooted in family values.

 

And I think that ability to get the best of both worlds, family values, which resonates with our customers and employees. And then all the resources that Shore Capital brings is a unique and unbeatable value proposition. We get things with Shore Capital that you really don't necessarily get with other private equity sponsors who might be focused on middle market or the larger side of the economy.

 

These are things like a best in class board of directors with independent directors who bring a wealth of industry experience. Multiple resources that Shore brings to the table to help us go faster with less risk. Incredible amounts of training for our leadership team so that they can learn new skills quickly to help them with our business. And then of course, capital to support future investment and growth.

Anderson Williams: Rob, I think a lot of people, when they think of private equity, probably don't put family values at the top of the list of things that they expect a CEO to be talking about. Can you just talk a little bit about that part of your experience and how that jives with the kind of growth that's expected out of a private equity backed company like FirmaPak.

Rob Goldberg: I think that there's often a misconception that private equity funds want to partner with a company and then immediately make dramatic changes to it or adopt cost cutting measures that impact employees negatively or undercut customer service. And there may be some private equity firms who do that, but that certainly has not been my experience with private equity and most definitely not my experience with Shore Capital and FirmaPak.

 

Shore Capital invested in Container Services, because it's a good business with good people who are interested in growing and providing more opportunities for their customers and their employees. And then Container Services was motivated to invest in Apex Plastics for all the same reasons.

 

Of course, there are changes that Shore Capital and FirmaPak want to make, but those changes are always done jointly with a partnership approach and in service of the long term interests of the business and its people.

Family Owned to PE Backed

Anderson Williams: Given Rob's experience and vision for FirmaPak, I wanted to step back and hear from Brent Driggers of Container Services (CSI) and hear more about his family business, their goals in finding a financial partner, and to get his perspective on this idea of scaling family values.

 

Brent Driggers: My name is Brent Driggers. I'm the President of Container Services and the Chief Operating Officer of FirmaPak, and I am located in Hillsboro, Kansas.

Anderson Williams: And tell me more about Container Services and what Container Services is.

Brent Driggers: Container Services was formed by my father, Darrell Driggers, and his partner, LaVerne Esau, in 1991. We started serving the honey industry, and that's still an industry that's a major part of our business. My father bought LaVerne out in 2013, and I joined in 2015.

 

We started our second location in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 2018 to better serve our customers in the Northeastern part of the country.

Anderson Williams: And Brent, as you think about CSI, your father started it, you took over. It's obviously a family business. What made you decide, or you and your father decide, to take on a private equity partner?

Brent Driggers: Our vision was to find a financial partner to enable us to partner with other like minded blow molding companies and create a platform spanning North America. To me, the key to that vision was to keep the high engagement with our customers while being able to offer them the advantages of technology that come with being a larger company.

Anderson Williams: And when you thought about that, did you have concerns about the nature of being a family business? And I know your industry has a lot of smaller sort of family run businesses. How did you think about finding the right partner and maybe what were some of the concerns and things you were looking for as you went through that process?

Brent Driggers: My largest concerns were protecting our customers and employees when taking on a partner. One key was that we maintain our facility locations, and if we didn't do that, then we wouldn't be serving our customers and employees well. And we needed to keep investing in our facilities, equipment, and people.

 

One of the things I loved is that we've been able to continue to add equipment and people in all of our locations. And we've been able to provide training opportunities throughout the organization. I love that our customers will see the benefit of this investment in people and technology. The biggest thing that we talked through with the employees was the opportunity this provided to just better advance their careers and serve our customers better.

Anderson Williams: And as you've brought on and partnered with Apex Plastics and formed FirmaPak from the founding sort of platform business of CSI, how has that vision and that aspiration played out?

Brent Driggers: Each time we're able to add a partner company like Apex, it adds to the interaction between the plants and being able to share best practices and have another group that we can go to. I love to see our teams interacting and growing as they are able to share those experiences and best practices.

Take Care of the Customers

Anderson Williams: And here is Damon Neff of Apex Plastics describing his goals and reasons for joining Rob and Brent to form FirmaPak and the challenges and opportunities in scaling the business and its culture.

Damon Neff: Yeah, Damon Neff, I'm president of Apex Plastics in Brookfield, Missouri, which is north central Missouri, about an hour and a half from Kansas City. Now, so first thing is, is both companies are well known for their service to their customers. And so, you know, that's just something that you can really build off of and going forward.

 

And so, When people found out, you know, we were getting feedback, you know, like you guys are a great fit. You strategically operate in the same manner. You take care of your customers. You're very quality focused. And so with our sales team and our management team, we take those things and run with them.

 

We have similar processes in extrusion blow molding, but our PET business is different. We do injection stretch blow, which is a one step and they do a two step. Each has its advantages. And so there's some markets we can each play in and some markets we can't. But our sales folks and our management team can share those opportunities back and forth. And it opens up our ability to serve our customers better.

 

And then obviously the locations, shipping with plastic bottles is a big deal. You know, we get a little better geographic area. And so our sales people can say, "Hey, you know, we're not able to get this business because of a freight issue, but, you know, this may work for you." And so there's a lot of talk back and forth about opportunities that maybe one plant wasn't able to fulfill in the past for various reasons that we can or they can't. So it's worked very well. And, you know, we just want to continue to build on that.

Anderson Williams: Can you just talk a little bit about how Apex has maintained or even improved or grown culture as it relates to this partnership?

Damon Neff: Yeah, so obviously there's a lot of consolidation in the industry and a lot of the small family owned businesses are getting bought up by larger companies and a lot of those companies are changing the way they do business and you know, to certain customers, that's an advantage to certain customers. It's a detriment.

 

And the thing about Shore and FirmaPak is, is they've realized the value of the way we do things. The culture at CSI and Apex has always been customer first, customer focus. No matter where you are, you know, one customer is not better than the next. And, you know, we try to make everybody feel the same, feel good about the business.

 

And FirmaPak and Shore, said, this is a great business model. We want to build on it. We don't want to change it. We want to build on it. And you know, that's been not just things that they say, but you see it in things that we do discussions that we have every day and we practice it. And so, you know, that's been the exciting thing for me is that it hasn't been a change from the way we do business.

 

It's been rewarded as this is the way we want to continue and we appreciate how you do business. And so that's been one of the things for our team here. That keeps them excited about what they do because, you know, we love to help the customers. We love to be problem solvers for people and give them something that they may not be getting somewhere else.

 

And CSI, you know, the feedback we've gotten where we cross paths and customers is the same thing. And people tell us, Hey, you guys are so much alike in the way you do business, that it's a perfect fit. And the benefit for us is that, you know, that's what we know. That's the model that we use. And Shore doesn't want to change that they want to build on that in FirmaPak. And so that's exciting for all of us.

Anderson Williams: It's clear that Container Services and Apex Plastics, and their leaders in Brent and Damon, were a great partnership to launch FirmaPak. And nothing is more important to growing and scaling a business than a solid foundation. But I wanted to come back to Rob and learn more about the next phase of growth, and specifically what that looks like as FirmaPak brings on new partners.

What Makes a Good Partner

Anderson Williams: Rob, when you think about growth at FirmaPak and you think about bringing on new partners and acquiring new businesses to grow the platform, what are you looking for and what makes a good partner for you?

 

Rob Goldberg: Well, first, let me just say that the most important growth for any business is organic growth. But if you find the right partner, acquisitive growth can be very compelling and can accelerate the organic growth of both FirmaPak and the company who chooses to partner with us.

 

Our acquisition strategy is always premised on finding good companies with good people who share our approach to business and who are excited about the prospect of partnering with us to make each other better. While every acquisition situation is unique, we try to approach all our acquisitions with this strategy in mind. And so what that means is that we have the following goals.

 

We want to preserve the culture and legacy of the company that we're acquiring. We want to retain the company's leadership so they can continue running the business. We want to retain all of the employees and ensure that they have a positive experience. We want to focus on combining, not integrating, this new company with FirmaPak. By which I mean, sharing best practices, listening and learning from each other, and ultimately making each other better. And finally, we want to create opportunities for the owners of the company we acquired to reinvest in the FirmaPak platform and share in future value creation.

Maintaining a Legacy

Anderson Williams: Rob, will you say more about that idea of legacy. I think a lot of founders who might be listening to this, when they're thinking about partner, when they're thinking about growth, you know, they've built a family business. They know their employees really well. Maybe they're deeply rooted in a community and this is more than just a way to make money and build a business, right? This is personal for so many people.

 

Can you just talk more about that idea of protecting that legacy and valuing that legacy?

Rob Goldberg:  People often think that the most important feature of an acquisition is the price that the buyer is willing to pay. And make no mistake, let's not be naive, price is always important.

But what you have to understand as a buyer, when you are looking at a family business, it's far more than just a business. It's something that somebody often created. It's something that they've poured their heart and soul into. And they have an immeasurable amount of sweat equity. What you're really doing is you're partnering with their baby.

 

It's almost like a member of the family. And you have to approach the situation with that in mind. We want to Preserve the culture of the business that we're acquiring. We want to preserve the name. We want to preserve the brand equity. We want to preserve the legacy. All of those things resonate with us very, very strongly.

 

And it's paramount for us that any owner understands that. This is not a acquisition as much as a partnership, it's not an integration, it's a combination. We approach this with a partnership philosophy in mind. There are no conquering heroes. There are only sharing ideas. There's only listening. There's only coming up with best practices.

 

We don't have all the answers, and we often look at the companies we acquire to figure out how they do things. And maybe we're the ones who need to adapt because they have the better ideas. If you have that mindset, then it's going to be a win win. And in the end, FirmaPak is going to be better. And so is the company who joins us. And it sounds cliche, but the goal is really for one plus one to equal three. And that three represents making each other better and achieving that accelerated growth.

Anderson Williams: So, Rob, where do you see FirmaPak going in the next five years and how do you see the platform growing and evolving during that time?

Rob Goldberg:  It's a great question. 2023 was a very challenging year for most packaging companies as the market was readjusting to a post COVID 19 environment. That being said, our team is very proud to say that this was not the case for FirmaPak.

 

2023 was an amazing year for us. We grew our volumes nearly 20 percent year over year. We invested in four new blow molding machines. We invested in three new palletizer. And we made multiple improvements to our compensation and benefit programs for our people.

For 2024. We're going to continue much of the same investing in new machines, in automation, and most importantly, our employees. We strongly believe that there is a unique opportunity to focus on small and medium sized businesses that are often overlooked by the giants of our industry, but who absolutely need packaging from a scaled manufacturer who can produce quality product on time and in the quantities that their customer needs every time. And that is what we're committed to doing now. And as part of our long term growth strategy.

Anderson Williams: If you enjoyed this Microcap Moments episode, be sure and check out our previous episode featuring Allison Therwhanger of Innovia Medical and hear about her experience building a family business with her father and their decision to partner with Shore Capital to successfully scale and ultimately exit their business.

 

This podcast was produced by Shore Capital Partners, with story and narration by Anderson Williams, recording by Andrew Malone, editing by Real Audiobooks, sound design, mixing, and mastering by Mark Galup of Real Audiobooks. Special thanks to Rob Goldberg, Brent Driggers, and Damon Neff.

 

This podcast is the property of Shore Capital Partners, LLC. None of the content herein is investment advice, an offer of investment advisory services, nor a recommendation or offer relating to any security. Thank you for listening.

 

See the Terms of Use page on the Shore Capital website for other important information.

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