Alexir Packaging – Tom Sene talks exclusively to The Grocery Trader

tom.jpgAlexir Packaging Ltd is the market leader in direct food contact packaging made from a renewable and sustainable resource. Established in 1989 and based in Crawley, West Sussex, Alexir’s primary focus is on offering packaging innovations, supported with excellent customer service and operational facilities to enable its products and services to best meet its clients’ requirements. Alexir recently launched its Alexipack range of food cartons, combining the use of a bespoke material developed in conjunction with a leading board mill and unique tray forming technology, and is forging growing business links with supplier partners in the Far East. The Grocery Trader went to Crawley to meet Tom Sene, Alexir Packaging Ltd’s Sales Director, and find out more.

Alexir Packaging is situated on the Manor Royal industrial estate near Gatwick. The working atmosphere is dynamic and efficient, presumably much as when Robert Davison founded Alexir. Robert is still MD of Alexir Packaging and Chairman of its sister companies Alexir Contract Packaging and Alexir International, and the Davison family are the group’s major shareholders.

Regular readers will know Robert Davison as a leading figure in the UK packaging industry, who divides his time between Alexir and his demanding role as Chairman of Pro Carton, the UK packaging industry body. In June 2007, Packaging News added Robert to the “Power 50” within the packaging industry, formally recognising him in their words as “someone who makes a significant difference in the packaging industry and excels at his job.”

“Alexir Packaging’s success,” Tom Sene observes, “is largely due to the management team’s longevity and experience. The seven of us have collectively been here over seventy years.” Tom joined Alexir in 1996 as an estimator, having served his apprenticeship in the print industry. Even in the early days Alexir Packaging was always more than a packaging printer, as Tom points out: “Our company takes a consultancy approach and has specific expertise in direct contact food packaging.”

Tom heads a sales team of four, and two sales agents. He sets and delivers Alexir Packaging’s sales budget, and works with Technical Manager Stephen King to develop new packaging products to meet customers’ requirements: “We supply a range of products that can be bespoke manufactured to suit most client requirements. This is in addition to what a ‘normal’ carton company can offer. If someone needs a more complex packaging solution, we involve the rest of the group.” Tom keeps a firm hand on the day-to-day details: “I have overall responsibility for ensuring our customers are one hundred percent satisfied.”

Focused on food packaging
Alexir Packaging (AP) has 85 staff across the UK and a freehold site at Crawley of 27,000 square feet, plus storage off-site at satellites in the North, Midlands and South.

group-8.jpgAP’s 2007 turnover was £9.5 million, £8.5m of it cardboard packaging, the rest being complementary products such as vacuum formed trays. It produces some 150 million cartons per annum, over 90% of it primary packaging that the consumer sees on shelf, mainly for the UK food retail (75%) and single use foodservice markets. Some 60% of Alexir’s business is primary packaging for direct food contact. These products include sandwich packs and other packaging for the ‘food to go’ market.  Alexir uses specialised coatings for packs containing salads and other delicate foods so there is no leaching and shelf life can be extended.

An important part of Alexir’s production services the cosmetics, toiletries and pharmaceutical industries, which account for 10% of turnover: “Our cosmetics and toiletries packaging add value to premium products. We invest considerable time and development work in achieving high standards for our customers.”

Tom Sene is clear about Alexir’s place in the industry: “The majority of UK carton companies need volume to keep their plants busy. We are no different here, but we believe we add value by understanding our customers’ needs and the pressures placed on them by the retailers, for example weight reduction, however we have provided solutions which go beyond the traditional ‘reduction in weight of existing material,’ one of the UK retailers’ major objectives. We stand out for our commitment to exploring different materials and using more renewable substrates.”

A winning combination
Alexir offers clients a combination of strengths – innovation in cardboard; sustainability and environmentally friendliness: specialisation in direct food contact packaging; and expertise with non standard materials, backed by technical and after sales support and dedication to continuous product improvement. “We truly believe our expert knowledge, skill in design, sourcing and manufacturing experience sets us apart.”

3-packs-1.jpgThis point of difference has given rise to breakthrough solutions like Alexipack, in response to retailers’ target to reduce packaging. For example, Tesco’s objective is a 25% packaging reduction by 2010. As Tom explains: “Our customers are challenging us to reduce the weight of their packaging. The norm for ready meals is a plastic tray and a board sleeve, so for Alexipack we removed the board sleeve and combined the tray and label, offering excellent weight reduction opportunities compared to current formats.” (See below for more details on Alexipack)
This kind of creativity is key to Alexir’s success. On site at Crawley is an in-house studio led by Paul Garner, which comprises three experienced cardboard engineers and four graphic designers. It specialises in pack design for cosmetics, food and drink, toys and pharmaceuticals. Tom Sene: “The design studio operates autonomously and are certainly as good as anyone when it comes to creative graphic and constructional packaging challenges.”

Packaging designs are often supplied to Alexir by clients’ design agencies but the design studio’s autonomy means Alexir can offer an authentic studio response, which many clients find attractive.

Alexir also has an NPD and technical support team at Crawley, led by Technical Manager Stephen King. Their focus is to innovate and deliver new packaging concepts for the sales team to present to clients. These are designed with full supply chain requirements in mind, and include sleeve materials suitable for oven or microwaveable products. Vital because much of the packaging produced in Crawley will be in direct contact with food, Alexir’s test kitchen has an oven and a test sealing kit, to check samples from each batch.

set-of-3.jpgSome 97% of Alexir’s output is for the UK. Complementary products such as vacuum formings or other non-cardboard items are sourced through Alexir International, a UK-based sister company with strategic partners worldwide, offering a comprehensive package to meet the needs of group customers. Jeremy Field, a director of Alexir International, explains:

“We build relationships with Alexir clients on many levels. On a basic level, we supply backup to Tom and source products in the UK or overseas. If Tom gets an order for packaging for chocolates for a multiple retailer, say, Alexir Packaging would produce the cardboard boxes but Alexir International would be able to add value by sourcing trays, labels and so on. A lot of customers have lost their in-house packaging technology resource after streamlining their manufacturing, so there are fewer packaging technologists around, which is where we can help.

“We’re constantly looking for new products and substrates, including environmentally friendly options, to open up our offering and the clients we sell to. We’re looking to build long term relationships with suppliers around the world and enter into geographical exclusivity agreements in the UK and Europe.”

Three levels of service
Alexir offers service in three categories: Value Pack, high volume, low unit cost carton manufacture; Premium Pack, premium packaging, which is innovative, non standard packaging; and Premium + Pack, a Complete Project Management service involving all the available resources as required, including manufacturing packaging through Alexir Packaging, product sourcing through Alexir International and contract packing at Alexir Contract Packaging in Uckfield.

The majority of high volume food producers and bakeries use Value Pack, says Tom Sene, but the other two areas are growing. “Packaging materials used to take second place to clever graphic design when consumer were selecting products at the point of purchase, but now materials and recycling are becoming more important in shopping decisions, we expect much more recognition for solutions like Alexipack and the companies behind them.”

Alexipack – smarter packaging all round
Alexipack”® is an entirely new pack concept from Alexir Packaging, launched in January 2008 (see above). It combines the use of a bespoke material developed in conjunction with a leading board mill, and unique tray forming technology. It is a patented tray with an optional lid and is a proven packing line system specifically designed for ready meals, but also ideal for hot products, chilled products and salads. All the packs in the range are made from renewable and sustainable resources, and suitable for dual oven, freezer and chiller use. The flat flanges have been created for ease of production at the sealing stage; the wide, clear surfaces offer excellent 360 degrees branding. The format also provides attractive weight reduction opportunities compared to current formats.

set-of-3.jpgCustomers for Alexipack so far include Tesco, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. Suppliers involved to date are Bakkavör, Kerry Foods and Samworth Brothers. Products from these three in the Tesco Healthy Living range featured in the recent “Breaking Into Tesco” TV series.
Tom Sene observes: “With Alexipack we were talking to the retailers about their needs to meet the packaging reduction target, and came up with an innovative solution that improved on their existing arrangements and crucially, looked great on shelf.”

Alpha C- fully compostable packaging
Almost all cardboard packaging is 100% bio-degradable but Alexir have gone one step further and have got their Alpha C range accredited by the UK Compost Society, a first for a UK carton manufacturer. This means the whole pack, and not just the board, has been tested and certified 100% compostable within 12-14 weeks. The carton can be produced with or without a window: it is available in various sizes and can be designed to meet specific customer requirements. Alexir has supplied compostable board trays for chilled ready meals to M&S, Foo-Go and Greencore, and compostable primary packaging for salads. Its non-grocery compostable applications to date include sustainable plant packaging.

Tom Sene: “There are a lot of claims in the market about biodegradability. We have been making products for some time from materials that comply with the EU mandate on reducing biodegradability times. With Alpha C the whole of the packaging is compliant: from here our aim is to come up with compostable packaging for all clients. A lot of packaging people are talking about things like this, but we’re probably one step ahead in terms of bringing these ideas to fruition.”

Setting standards
Alexir works to the ISO9001, BRC and FSC standards, among others: “The standards are generally driven by retailers, packaging integrators and the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP.) Each retailer is setting their own, differing targets to reduce their packaging, but now the EU directive is law, the manufacturers have to declare how much packaging they’re using. As suppliers we advise customers on the weight of the cartons they buy from us. If we can offer packaging that doesn’t go to landfill, we will promote it.”

Adding to its authority, Alexir is a member of Pro Carton, the industry body that promotes the benefits of using cartons to manufacturers, including packaging buyers, brand owners and other decision makers. Pro Carton’s lobbying in this area includes awareness of carton packaging’s sustainability and recyclability.

In 2006 Alexir attained the UK Packaging Award for Cartonboard Packaging, sponsored by Pro Carton, for the St James’s Teas Pyramid Tea Caddy Carton. Alexir has also won awards for its work for Old St Andrews Whisky and the Gordon Ramsey Just Desserts cartons. Further awards are expected in 2008.

Finding the right solution
Developing a new pack for a client starts with finding the facts, says Tom Sene: “We analyse their problems, needs and objectives, and from there we specify the design and the materials.”

The process can take as little as 48 hours, or several months in the case of direct contact food packaging that needs on-site trialling. Tom Sene and his sales team work closely with Alexir’s technical team: “There are few other industries where the supplier’s sales director is closely involved with all aspects of the client’s business.” After the spec is agreed and the order given, delivery takes anything from three weeks to three months, depending on the requirement.

Looking forward, Tom Sene sees the key factors likely to impact on Alexir’s business being the Euro and exchange rates generally, rising raw material costs, ever rising fuel prices and UK media negativity towards manufacturing generally. But he isn’t fretting about it. Despite worries elsewhere in the UK economy, Tom says Alexir has experienced growth in the current financial year, primarily down to its innovative approach to service and solutions. He feels the packaging industry should think positively about the opportunities within reach:
“At a recent carton conference one speaker was trying to encourage suppliers to realise the value they can add to products,” says Tom. “We’re already highly active in that area, but there are possibilities open to everyone.”

Low cost manufacturing offshore doesn’t currently affect Alexir, Tom explains: “We’ve positioned ourselves primarily in the food market, which requires just in time manufacturing to very high standards and independent audits by customers. For larger contracts where cost is more of a factor we are able to offer alternative, keenly priced solutions through Alexir International.”

alexir_packaging_logo_2005.jpgAlexir Packaging Ltd has aggressive growth plans in the UK including investment in more manufacturing plant, which Tom says should help it achieve our growth target of 20% over the next two to three years. “We will stay focused on the UK and Ireland, but we’re looking to licence our products in Europe, following strong interest at IFE Pro2Pac 2007. Meantime we have plenty to keep us busy, developing products our customers want, providing the best possible service and adding value to their businesses by helping them achieve greater sales.”

Alexir Packaging Ltd
Tel: 01293 544 644
www.alexir.co.uk