By Jayne Armstrong, District Director, U.S. Small business Administration's Iowa District Office
After his hometown of Clinton, IA, (population 25,719) was devastated from the International Paper plant closure in 2001, resulting in 355 lost jobs, Bob Simpson saw an opportunity for a niche market business utilizing the experienced professionals who remained in the region.
It all started with bakery boxes. Artisan bakers worldwide needed better packaging to protect and present their cakes, macaroons, cupcakes, cookies and candy. Simpson and his team at Big River Packaging had the recipe for success – a commitment to excellence in relating to customers and continuous improvement applied to all aspects of the business.
John Huling, co-founder and vice president, was picking up doughnuts for the employees of his new company and asked the owner of the local bakery if he had any packaging needs. John listened and learned of a need to hold cupcakes steady in their pastry box. The BRP team developed and manufactured a paperboard cupcake insert to do just that. The design was such a hit with customers that Kip Simpson, Bob’s son and the business’ computer expert, suggested they build a website as an experiment to see if people would purchase BRP's boxes over the web.
Today, Big River Packaging generates about 95 percent of its sales through the brpboxshop.com e-commerce store. The ever-evolving site has quickly become BRP’s virtual business card. Using analytic tools to understand the market and social media to connect with customers, the company has built a significant fan following. The business now serves over 133,000 different customers, including a small volume of international sales.
Customer loyalty is a major contributor to BRP’s success. The typical international customer spends more on shipping than the cost of the boxes. Big River Packaging credits the high quality, large assortment of sizes, excellent service, and the product uniqueness as the reasons why customers come back to BRP time and time again.
From the beginning, Simpson and Huling saw their employees as their biggest asset. The owners based their business plans on the basic concept that employees who feel valued are critical to small business success. As a result, everyone at BRP is encouraged to identify new ideas and processes to solve problems and improve efficiencies.
“I want this to be a great place for people to work,” said Simpson, president of BRP. “It’s everyone’s commitment to our customers and to each other that gives us an advantage over our competitors.”
BRP opened in 2005, eventually expanding into a vacant big box retail location, and now employs 39 people with over $9 million in sales. The start-up operations and multiple expansions were supported by four SBA 7(a) loans, all paid in full, through Gateway State Bank, with the investment and savings of Simpson and Huling.
Thanks to BRP’s vision, commitment to customers, talented employees, ability to overcome adversity and contributions to the community, Simpson was recognized as SBA’s 2018 Iowa Small Business Person of the Year and one of the top 53 small businesses in America during National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C. The business was nominated by Andy Sokolovich existing industry manager, Clinton Regional Development Corporation and Maureen Miller, president & CEO, Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Simpson’s 33 years of production and management expertise in the folding carton industry led to his reputation as a problem solver and turnaround specialist. He recognized there was an untapped market with companies that valued exceptional customer service and quality for their short-run folding carton needs. BRP’s Value-Added/Short-Order-Strategy was developed to support small order quantities that didn’t fit into the big-volume strategies of the packaging industry. BRP ultimately created a viable business opportunity to better serve its customers in a manner usually available only to multimillion dollar accounts.
While the bakery industry is BRP’s niche market, the boxes are also used by customers for other unique items such as candles, baby clothes and items from gift shops. All items are developed in-house using CAD software and prototyping equipment. Custom jobs are made to customer specifications but even the exclusive stock boxes populating BRP's growing catalog are developed with input from bakers prior to being handed off to the short-run manufacturing process.
Success didn’t happen overnight. Like many small businesses, BRP overcame many obstacles and revised strategies before it found the right recipe for success. Thanks to a vision founded on a strong faith and belief in its employees, Big River Packaging has become a leader in its industry.
Jayne Armstrong is the district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Iowa District Office based in Des Moines.