Packaging firm takes a u-turn toward profitability

 This image is for illustrative purposes and does not reflect upon Deluxe Packaging.

This image is for illustrative purposes and does not reflect upon Deluxe Packaging.

BY ROY HARRYMAN

This article originally appeared in VP Magazine.

West Point graduate Jim Burden never envisioned a career beyond the military. But instead of fighting enemy soldiers, he’s spent the last few decades leading the troops in the packaging industry and winning battles on corporate balance sheets.
 
His latest victory has come as director of operations at Deluxe Packages in Yuba City, Calif. In a little over two years he has mopped up the red ink spilling from company ledgers, brought Deluxe back into the black and overseen a $5 million technology upgrade.
 
In military terms, you’d call that a rout. But, as all leaders know, victory requires a team effort.
 
“You can’t do this yourself,” he said.
 
A plan for success
Although he’s decades past his Air Force days, Burden still hears a reveille of sorts at 4:30 a.m. At age 54, he runs every morning and plans to compete in the Boston Marathon.
 
Leading, training, competing: Those verbs characterize the hard-charging yet team-oriented style that has changed the corporate landscape at Deluxe Packages.
 
The privately-held company, founded by Jack Williams, operates plants in Yuba City and Santa Fe Springs, Calif., and employs about 120. The firm specializes in packaging for fresh cut produce, dried fruit and nuts, rice, candy, dairy and bakery products, frozen foods and condiments.
 
Burden joined the company at a critical time: Deluxe had lost some key customers and was not turning a profit. Sales had fallen by about $6 million over a two-year period.
 
In the first 30 days, Burden and the company’s controller worked early mornings and late evenings developing a financial plan.
 
“We had the clock ticking,” Burden said. “It’s not a pleasure when you’re losing money and I take that very personally.”
 
He trained the leadership team in a management and software system called KRA, an acronym for Key Results and Actions developed by Development Dimensions International. Goals were reviewed every 90 days to ensure that they became reality.
 
“This company had never done any firm, long-range planning,” Burden said. “I have been a firm believer in goals, objectives and accountability and I have used them everywhere I have been.”
 
The three-year plan called for targeting new business, reducing inventories, improving manufacturing set-up times and lowering material costs as a percentage of sales.
 
In the first fiscal year after Burden’s arrival, the plan started to yield results.
 
Profitability was restored and revenues reached $25 million. In the next fiscal year, revenues rose to $30 million.
 
The company’s purchasing philosophy has evolved to become congruent with the business plan.
 
“Our goal has been to reduce the number of suppliers we use, to achieve better pricing through higher volumes and to reward the better suppliers,” said Steve Steckbauer, the company’s technical director who oversees purchasing. “Even with this consolidation, we constantly review new suppliers to see if they have products that are unique to the industry and to make sure we have viable back-up suppliers.”
 
There is certainly satisfaction in achievement. But why would Burden take a job riddled with challenges and obstacles in the first place?
 
“I’d done it before,” he said. “When you see that you are able to do that, it builds a certain fire inside you and you have the confidence you can do it and help someone out.”
 
In his first post-military job, Burden moved from the Air Force to Mobile Chemical, where he eventually became a plant manager. While there, he earned his master’s in business administration in the evenings. He also held management roles at what is now called Zimmer Custom-Made Packaging and Scholle Corp.
 
Leading the team
Burden envisions himself as a proverbial football coach. His goal is to empower individual managers to make decisions and to hold them accountable to achieving their goals. He avoids micromanagement and wants employees to develop their own solutions.
 
“It can’t just be Jim’s idea,” he said. “It’s got to be our idea.”
 
Although he has big accomplishments behind him, Burden feels his work is anything but done.
 
Deluxe is constantly evolving and innovating to meet the needs of customers. Growth is anticipated in the company’s package design and graphics departments. The firm is considering further technology improvements to its already renowned printing system. The company succeeds in a global market by offering competitive prices and working constantly to bring them even lower.
 
“We want to try to service the hell out of our customers and provide the best quality they can get anywhere,” Burden said. “I like for everyone to have fun, but but to stay very keen and competitive. We’ve all got a job to do. It’s important to our families, our owners, our customers.
 
“It’s not easy. I keep telling our folks here we’re only scratching the surface.”