By Lawrence Bivins
A plastics process technician with Berry Global in Battleboro, Tony DeRose has a career in plastics production that stretches 25 years. He has been a Berry Team Member for the past four of those years, working in injection blow molding. The work is intricate, challenging and rewarding all at the same time, DeRose says. The keys to success, he explains, all fit neatly within the company’s core behaviors: United, Focused, Accountable and Agile – or “UFAA,” standards that take the company and its Battleboro facility where it needs to be.
Working with plastics can also be dangerous, which places a premium on safety practices. When Berry Global took over the 104,000-sq.-ft. facility in 2014, the plant had a mediocre safety record. By emphasizing training and workplace safety, the facility now has an exemplary record. “We’ve come a long way in four years,” says DeRose. This past May, the North Carolina Department of Labor presented Berry Global in Battleboro with its coveted “Gold Award” for its outstanding safety record. DeRose was among the employees attending the banquet to proudly accept the honor.
How did the company do it?
“We have quality staff here,” DeRose explains. “Everybody pulled together as a team.”
Formerly Berry Plastics, Berry Global, Inc. is a Fortune 500 manufacturer and producer of plastic packaging. The Indiana-based company operates worldwide, employing 23,000 workers across 130 facilities in Asia, Europe, North America and South America. Its Battleboro operation churns out 650,000 pounds of product each month. Specifically, that’s about a million bottles per day that are sold primarily to pharmaceutical manufacturers.
“We sell plastic. That’s what we do,” says Mark Powell, plant manager at the site. Powell has over 30 years in the plastics industry himself. The site in Battleboro is one of many in Berry Global’s Consumer Packaging Division. The facility operates around the clock, in response to the ongoing needs of its pharmaceutical customers. “We sell a big portion of our product locally,” Powell says, “but we ship throughout the U.S.”
Powell expects operations to grow, and the company’s 11-acre site in Battleboro offers room for expansion. “It’s a matter of getting the business,” he says. It also comes down to being able to bring on and properly train the necessary workforce. Proficiency on Berry’s production systems requires from six to 12 months of training for someone with a basic technical aptitude.
Enter the company’s secret weapon: veterans.
“Military experience helps from a technical standpoint,” says Powell, a former Marine. The hands-on skills that come with military training provides a firm foundation for learning to work with specialized production equipment in a manufacturing setting. Additionally, there are the soft skills that are important. “Veterans have discipline, work ethic and a certain level of maturity necessary to be successful,” says Powell.
In recruiting former military personnel, Berry works closely with the NC Works Career Center in Rocky Mount. NC Works has eliminated the hurdles that once existed in transitioning veterans into the civilian workplace. A key part of that was developing a common language that military and corporate human resources managers could share in describing skills, aptitudes and experience. With sprawling bases like Fort Bragg and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina ranks 6th in the U.S. for the transitioning military personnel. As labor markets tighten, especially in technical fields, exiting service members are a human resource Berry likes to tap.
“Approximately 25 percent of our workforce are veterans,” says Ashley Miles, human resources manager at Berry Global. They range across all age groups and job categories. “They’re eager to do a good job, and they appreciate having a good job,” she says.
Miles, a Rocky Mount native who has worked in the HR field for the past 18 years, says Berry Global sets the bar high when hiring. Being able to communicate well is a must. “Even our packing positions require writing skills, and all our positions require basic reading comprehension skills,” says Miles. New hires must also be able to mesh well with the facility’s team-oriented culture. “Attitude is our primary indicator, and then we review skill sets from there.”
Berry also places a premium on training, which is offered both in-house and outside. “Nash Community College has been very good for us,” says Mark Powell, calling the college “a huge advocate” for manufacturers in the region.
Support from the state and community have also played a positive role in Berry’s turning around the once-struggling plant. When the company wanted to explore the possibilities of rail access, for example, officials at Carolinas Gateway Partnership made the necessary connections with railroad representatives to sketch out a potential rail spur to the plant. “CGP was very helpful with guidance,” Powell recalls. Berry relies on heavy trucks, both in receiving raw materials and shipping out finished goods. State transportation leaders have been eager to work with the company in addressing accessibility needs. “The DOT has been very receptive to our issues,” Powell says. “They’re listening.”
Berry’s production process consumes copious supplies of electricity and water, making supportive relationships with the Rocky Mount Department of Public Works very important. Working with the City of Rocky Mount Utilities, Berry has reduced its utility costs by 14 percent over the last four years. “Our electric bill has dropped dramatically,” Powell says. “Some of that savings came from rate reductions and some of it came from demand management measures they’ve helped us take.”
Assistance from outside has gone a long way in restoring the plant’s long-term viability. But in the end, quality management from within Berry Global has been pivotal. “We had some real challenges when I first got here,” recalls Tony DeRose. “Workplace safety begins with the company taking the time to care about its workers. We have an employee-friendly Management Staff, and it really makes a difference.”
[Lawrence Bivins, a Raleigh business writer, is author of North Carolina: The State of Minds.]