It is funny to think that I have been reporting on this industry for 27 years, yet I have never set foot inside this impressive business. It is a name that has always been there, a name that everyone talks about, yet many people know little about them. £70m in sales turnover, 3m sqm per week of board converted, totalling 150m sqm per year – and yes, it is a sheet plant!
Established in 1860, Sheard Packaging is a fifth generation, family-owned business. With almost 220 employees, the company runs continental shifts on a 24/7 basis. Based out of a 37,000 sqm site, the 16,000 sqm of manufacturing and warehouse space is home to the UK’s largest sheet plant – and one could also say, it is one of the UK’s largest corrugated manufacturing sites, full stop.
One thing that has kept the business agile is its flat management structure and fast decision-making process. It was in the early 2000s that current CEO, Roger Whittaker, (pictured at top, left) decided to try and enhance the business offering and set on a path of investment and innovation. “Prior to this, we had been focussed on recycling and basic box making,” he explains. “I sat down with my father and set out a strategy that would see us invest in flexo converting equipment. We had been to see the brand new Cepac facility in Rotherham and this visit formed the basis for our vision for the future – we were instantly taken by all the EMBA casemakers lined up, and we very quickly decided that this was the right machine for us – the rest, as they say, is history.”
Obviously, the packaging Sheard produces is sustainable and recyclable, something that is important to them. But social responsibility is also a key driver. “We employ the best people, we keep them well trained and we look after people in our community,” explains Lee Shackleton, Managing Director (pictured at top, right). “On top of that, we invest in the most modern machinery and set the highest standards for customer service. As probably the leading independent in the UK, we have a commitment to ensuring we have industry-leading service levels, best quality and going the extra mile to keep customers happy.”
The customer base is large, encompassing well over 300 different businesses throughout the UK. The base is also diverse, including food & drink, household and chemicals, produce and horticulture, pet food, on-line and e-commerce, pharma, furniture and industrial. There really isn’t much that Sheard can’t produce. Of course, accreditation always helps; the business holds ISO 9001, ISO 14001, BRC, FSC and Sedex certification.
“Although the customer base is well established, we are always looking for new opportunities,” adds David Hainsworth, Head of Sales. “Thanks to the latest investments in high-speed casemaking and HQPP, we are looking to new markets, including the exciting sector of web-2-print. Our management team is looking for further growth, but we want to make sure any growth is sustainable and profitable. After all, the company has always ploughed its profits back into the business and that will continue, as proven by the recent £15m investment in new equipment and services.”
Over the last seven years, Sheard Packaging has pretty much doubled in size, both in turnover and output. Back in 2014, the company was converting around 75m sqm of board per year and generated sales of £30m. Projections for this year suggest the bar has moved to 150m sqm of board and £70m in sales. And this trajectory looks set to continue.
“We are not afraid of change and embrace new technology and solutions,” says Roger Whittaker. “Since the early 2000s, we have invested pretty much every year and the last 18 months have been no different. We embarked on a big project and even though COVID-19 and Brexit put a spanner in the works for many businesses and industries, we continue to see the rewards of our forward-looking strategy.”
But one question that many will want to know; at those volumes, wouldn’t a corrugator be the next step? “We are box makers, not board makers,” says Roger Whittaker. “It doesn’t really matter how much we grow, our skill sets are converting board and working with customers. We have no experience with making board and with a relatively restrictive location, the addition of a corrugator would make little sense at this time – through our suppliers, we have six corrugators to call upon. We have good relationships and excellent service levels with our board suppliers and even though the industry is facing fairly extended lead times on board at the moment, as the UK’s largest sheet plant, we can still flex our position and get pretty much guaranteed deliveries.”
As Roger Whittaker outlined, the company has added several high value items of converting equipment and peripherals. First up was a Bobst Expertfold speciality gluer, with glue detection and auto eject for faulty boxes, to run alongside an existing Bobst Visionfold.
This was quickly followed by a seven colour Göpfert Evolution HBL rotary die-cutter, equipped with Göpfert’s anilox roll turret system and print management camera, JB dryers, Göpfert pre-feeder and Dücker automatic palletiser. Finally, a four colour EMBA 245 Ultima QS Dualbox with Absolute doctor blade units and Hedson dryers, Alliance pre-feeder, Alliance EPal palletiser and Signode’s new high-speed strapper. They also added a further Alliance pre-feeder and two Alliance QPal palletisers to existing EMBA casemakers.
“We have been very happy with each of the new machine lines,” confirms Lee Shackleton. “We have been using EMBA equipment for a long time, and we keep going back to them for new machines because of the inter-changeability for our operators, dies, stereos and spare parts. To complement the installation of the new equipment, many infrastructure improvements have also been made such as a £2m Despatch Bay and Warehouse and materials handling systems supported by Avanti Conveyors.”
The converting capabilities are now most impressive. Three EMBA 170 QS casemakers, two EMBA 245 Ultima, one EMBA 245 Ultima Dualbox, a DongFang Apstar seven colour rotary die-cutter, the brand new Göpfert seven-colour Evolution HBL, two Asahi flatbed die-cutters, a Vega speciality gluer and the two Bobst folder gluers.
But that is not all! The final piece of the jigsaw has been the new Innovation & Design Centre or iDC as it will be known. “We are unveiling our brand new iDC, where we have increased our design capabilities with the addition of a Zünd digital cutting table and a complete upgrade to the suite of design software,” explains David Hainsworth. “We have added two more full-time designers and an NPD manager to the team and our emphasis is on creating imaginative, functional packaging for our growing customer base. Our technical team will be well positioned to support our two pillars of Innovation and Sustainability and drive pro-active improvements.
What Is Next?
So, what are the plans for the years ahead? “In basic terms, more of the same,” concludes Roger Whittaker. “We are targeting 200 million sqm from our site and we are currently looking at new machinery which will help us deliver this. We believe we have done a good job getting to where we have today but feel we have more to come and want to be known as one of the most efficient corrugated plants in the UK, employing the best people and delivering service excellence to our customer base. Our family business has come a long way and we are proud of everything that our team achieves, even through these trying times. We like to see ourselves as partners, rather than just suppliers. If our customers succeed, we grow with them. We have the same philosophy with our own suppliers, be it board or machinery. We see them as partners and part of the reason for our success. That is why we stay loyal and keep our eye firmly on the path in front of us.”