Entrepreneurial Pivot at 175-year old Curtis Packaging: From Sustainable Packaging to Plastic Face Shields in Two Weeks

Pramodita Sharma, University of Vermont, USA

Established in 1845 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (CT), a small town of about 11,000 located fifty miles from New York city, Curtis Packaging has been manufacturing paperboard folding cartons for 175 years. Its clients include globally recognizable brands like Titleist (golf balls), Jim Beam and Grey Goose (liquor), Estee Lauder and Glossier (cosmetics), Lindt (chocolates), and Nova Max and Covidien (medical supplies). The 2019 revenues were 35 million, a quarter of which came from Titleist.

Since Don Droppo Jr. joined his family’s business in 2003 after seven years of insurance sector experience, Curtis has distinguished itself from its competitors by building its capabilities in printing, embossing, and hot stamping, while paying close attention to environmental sustainability. Using 100% renewable energy and recyclable materials, it is a certified zero waste to landfill company. In building these capabilities, Don relied heavily on insights gained through active participation in the Connecticut Business Industry Association (CBIA) and the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). A third of the 140 Curtis employees have been with the company for over 20 years, including four of the seven members of the top management team that met weekly to make key decisions. Since 2015, a typical Curtis work-week is 4-40, that is, 40 hours in four days and a three-day weekend. Friday is over-time day used for maintenance, deep cleaning, and filling pending orders. As 2020 rolled in, the ‘WE are Curtis’ spirit of commitment towards each other, their community and customers ran high. The company was proud to be listed among America’s top luxury sustainability packagers.

Corona Virus in US

US was hit hard and fast by the corona virus pandemic. On Jan 20th, the country reported its first confirmed case and by mid-May over 1.5 million had tested positive for the virus and the nation had lost about 90,000 citizens. As the US constitution gives states the authority to regulate their affairs, the response to coronavirus varied significantly from one state to the next. The reality for business leaders was constantly shifting day by day, as local, state, and federal authorities grappled to make sense of the rapidly spreading disease and rolling out policies in an attempt to balance the health and economic needs of their communities. Chronic shortages of personal protective equipment for front-line workers including medics prompted strong pleas for assistance from governors. The hardest hit New York (NY) state declared an emergency on March 7th. Variations of lock-downs followed in other states. Connecticut (CT), the home state of Curtis deemed all manufacturing as essential, while the neighboring state of Massachusetts (MA) closed its manufacturing operations. Thus, while Curtis could stay open during the lockdown, its largest customer Titleist in MA had to close operations for at least ten weeks. The pandemic crisis had hit Curtis!

Crisis Management at Curtis

When the head of procurement at Titleist informed Curtis of its closure, the top management team regrouped over a three-hour conference call Saturday, March 14th to evaluate the situation and plan for changes needed to continue operations without losing a single day of work, minimizing furloughs, and ensuring the safety and well-being of all. As Curtis is a one-location small manufacturing facility that serves global brands, its customers would ask for contingency plans including back-up plans for personnel and processes. This emergency plan had been updated about two years ago, and provided a basic pathway to guide the planning call. Curtis team was up for the challenge and energized to take charge. A two-step approach was adopted.

  1. Rapid Re-design

Given the nature of the covid19 crisis, three immediate measures were taken and regular communication via mass cell phone messages and company emails were sent to keep everyone informed of the evolving crisis and actions taken.

  • – 14 support system employees were re-assigned to work remotely; 10 new laptops were bought to facilitate their work as meetings switched on-line via Teams and Zoom.
  • – Thermometers were purchased and a new process established to take the temperature of everyone before entering the facility as one person could take the whole company down. No customers or visitors were permitted on Curtis premises.
  • – Equipment was reconfigured to allow for effective social distancing. Face masks, protective gear and hand sanitizers appeared, deep cleaning frequency increased. Shifts and breaks were staggered.

With the immediate needs managed, attention quickly turned to how best to contribute towards the pleas for protective equipment from the well-respected CT governor Ned Lamont, whose position on the critical role of environmental sustainability and local manufacturing aligned well with the Curtis team.

2. Entrepreneurial Pivot

Kerry Brown, vice president operations pointed out that die cutting equipment at Curtis was capable to sheeting plastic and wondered if face shields could be made of plastic. Immediately, the lead engineer Will Golebiowski began developing and sharing possible prototypes with the team. Within two days, he had come up with a one-piece design that sits comfortably on the forehead, ships flat and is disposable. Through his networks, Don tested the design with a few doctors in a well reputed local hospital, acquired two rolls of anti-fog plastic sheeting from a local supplier, applied for patent of the product, and spread the word that Curtis could provide 100,000 face shields per day. With a new website and order processing and delivery system in place, in less than two weeks Curtis went from conception to production and ready to deliver face shields packed in boxes of 150 units. Within ten days, the first order of 250,000 came from the CT Department of Corrections. By May 20th, the company had already received orders of 450,000 and was in discussions with the US government for millions of shields. For 175 years, Curtis had done nothing but paper and was a business-to-business supplier. Within two months of the covid-19 crisis, it had also become a business-to-customer supplier of plastic face shield.

Key Insights

  • – Framing of a crisis by the leader sets the stage for subsequent actions. A resolve to continue operations with minimal furloughs energizes an organization to rise to the challenge.
  • – Patient investment in building a cohesive and competent top management team accustomed to making collective decisions, primes organizational capacity for the essential collective pause to make sense of a chaotic crisis to manage current operations and plan for rapid redesign entrepreneurial pivots.
  • – Frugal entrepreneurial pivot is enabled by the cognitive and emotional slack built-in the system by the 4-40 work week norm and free-thinking dedicated workforce.
  • – Effective boundary spanning leader equally cued in with internal operations and external professional networks provides the essential bridge necessary for swift action and resource acquisition including customer orders.

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Sources: https://www.curtispackaging.com | https://www.curtiscares.life/ | Authors’ interview with the CEO Don Droppo Jr.