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Thoro Packaging: Building Brands from the Inside Out

By Melissa DeDonder

Thoro Packaging is in the brand building business, and business has been booming for more than 45 years. The Southern California-based printed folding carton manufacturer partners with companies of all sizes – from small businesses to top Fortune 100 companies – to provide custom, innovative solutions that add value to brands. "You won’t find any ‘cookie-cutter’ or standard packaging approaches here," said Jan Steiner, president/CEO.

What you will find is a company that prides itself on quality, customer service and value-added processes that have set the company apart from its competitors since day one. Thoro’s reliance on continuous quality improvement and its investments in technology and automation have built and sustained the company’s reputation, not only with its customers, but also with its employees.

Success at lightning speed

In 1967, Macy Dabek saw a need for a quality short-run folding carton company in Southern California. Equipped with very little cash and a lot of determination, he founded Thoro Packaging in January 1968. From the humble beginnings of a single 1-color printing press, one small diecutter and a glue bottle, it didn’t take long for Dabek to build a successful business.

Within three years, the company moved to a larger facility. Dabek’s daughter, Jan Steiner, joined the team when "it was a small company – a one-girl office, and I was the one girl," she said. Over the years, Steiner worked a variety of jobs at Thoro, when she wasn’t in school or working full-time in Sears’ executive training program. "When the company really started growing, Dad asked me to work full-time. and I protested because I was getting paid at Sears," she explained. Steiner became an official full-time employee in the office and then moved into sales, but when her father’s health required him to step down as president in June 1982, the board of directors elected Steiner to continue his legacy of quality and customer satisfaction.

Thoro continued to grow and expand under Steiner’s leadership. In July 1990, the company moved to its current facility, located in Corona. In 2003, an additional 38,000 square foot building provided a finished goods warehouse and made room for future expansion. The company became a three-generation family-owned business in 2007, when Macy Steiner, grandson of founder Macy Dabek, became general manager after working in several positions at Thoro and at companies in Germany, where he learned best practices in manufacturing. Thoro currently occupies 112,000 square feet of space, employs 150 people and averages $30 million in sales.

Managing it all, from structural design to warehousing

One key to Thoro’s success is its ability to do everything in-house, from structural design and prototyping to printing, finishing and warehousing. "We have an award-winning structural design team, which really sets us apart from our competition," Steiner said. The team considers all aspects of packaging design, including shelf appeal, functionality and product protection, and then uses Structural Computer-Assisted-Drafting (CAD) to provide swift turnaround on samples, prototypes and electronic dielines.

Thoro’s niche is short- to medium-runs, providing flexibility for the company and its customers. The bulk of the work is generated from the medical, pharmaceutical, health and beauty and consumer packaged goods industries. Because these industries have the most stringent packaging requirements, the company is ISO 9001:2008-certified, in addition to other certifications and compliances, including but not limited to G7 Master Printer certification, cGMP compliance and ISO 12647-2 compliance.

Thoro is fully committed to customer satisfaction, growth and continuous quality improvement. Because of its work with the medical and pharmaceutical industries, the company has mastered the art of Braille embossing. A blind embossing procedure has been incorporated into the manufacturing process, effectively reducing the number of production tools required, minimizing the overall number of processes and costs involved and increasing efficiency in the production process overall.

The company prioritizes investments in state-of-the-art equipment and technology and evaluates any new technology to see if it will be a good fit. Steiner said her philosophy is to automate wherever possible, and she invites the employees to be part of that process. "We ask our employees what we can do to continue to be the best that we can be, and we look for ways to automate that type of perfection," Steiner said.

Thoro’s path to automation recently included the additions of a Bobst EXPERTFOLD with ACCUCHECK, an automated platesetter, a Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106 (8-color/two coaters) and automated quality systems that are inline and offline. The company utilizes integrated circuit (EyeC) technology in the prepress and printing departments to check all sheets against a PDF. "If something such as a trademark has dropped off, or if there are imperfections on the plate, the EyeC shows us that, and we can correct it immediately," said Cheri Liles, prepress supervisor.

In addition to the ability to scan full press sheets, every carton also can be scanned for defects. This defect screening may include, but is not limited to, color accuracy, graphic content and print quality defects. Text is able to be verified 100-percent against customer-supplied files in any language. Cartons with defects are ejected automatically, without stopping the line.

Liles said the EyeC and ACCUCHECK on the gluer even catch imperfections in the paperboard. "You’re not going to get that type of control otherwise, unless all of your equipment is brand new," she said. In addition, Thoro has a dedicated employee who checks all of the jobs to ensure accuracy coming off the printing press, before anything moves to the next stage of production. With this level of control, Thoro is able to maintain a defect-free packaging guarantee.

Liles shared another advantage of the recent EyeC and plate room automations. "We run three different presses with three different plate sizes so, at any time, 300 various sized plates are housed in the cassettes. Automation has moved us from a labor-intensive eight plates per hour to an automated 33 plates per hour, while eliminating the need to have someone physically move each plate through each stage of the process," Liles said. This automation basically is considered "lights out."

Because of the company’s focus on automation and continuous improvement, Thoro has a Lean Engineer dedicated to analyzing challenges and designing solutions. An example of a recent solution is the foil stamping die inventory, which was growing rapidly while everything was being shoved into drawers. "We didn’t have a good way of storing our inventory, so we automated it – modifying old plate drawers with categories and creating an electronic die searching tool system. It was a huge improvement because it took so much time off our work," Steiner said.

One of Thoro’s customers took notice of these improvements and invited the company to make a presentation in a Supplier Quality Circle case study competition. "We’ve competed twice now, and we’ve won both times, with the most recent being the highest honor in the annual competition," Steiner said. "It’s a win in two ways – for us and for our customers, who also can benefit from our best practices."

Another best practice at Thoro is climate/humidity control, using a combination of air conditioners and swamp coolers to add humidity. "We may be the only folding carton company on the West Coast with humidity control," Steiner said. "We keep things as consistent as possible – in temperature and humidity – because it affects everything, from the materials and equipment to our people. Climate control is good for our printing process and, as an added benefit, it’s good for our work environment, too. The more consistent the temperature and humidity are, the more consistent the print is."

Employees that play together, stay together

Steiner said that it takes more than the latest technology and production techniques to attain and maintain success, and she attributes the bulk of Thoro’s success to its skilled production team. Frequent team meetings facilitate the exchanging of ideas and implementation of programs to ensure a "We can do it" work ethic, combined with the skills needed to produce consistent, quality products.

Thoro retains its exceptional team through a variety of traditional and out-of-the-box activities, including training, idea exchanges, an incentive plan, contests and more. The company’s Opportunities for Improvement initiative encourages employees to collectively or individually generate ideas about how the company can improve. "We really encourage our employees to participate, and they do," Steiner said. One way the company encourages forward thinking is through a program called Steiner Diner. A group of eight people from various departments are taken out to lunch with Steiner to learn about each other and to share ideas that they have to make their jobs easier or more efficient.

Training is a key tool at Thoro, and the quality department team assists with training. Most of the training is departmental – and sometimes cross-functional – to look for better ways of doing things. All employees are trained in team dynamics and are provided with basic statistical tools to use for continual improvements within their teams.

Supervisors and office staff also receive training at Thoro School, which provides an overview of every department, as well as what the procedures look like in each department, the impact of one department on another and how the departments work together. "Thoro School provides a well-rounded look at all of the processes that it takes to produce our cartons and how each person can impact those processes," Liles said. "It provides a deeper understanding of an employee’s role in the company – the why we do it and how we do it – so that we all can work better as a team."

Liles said a big take-away from Thoro School is that it reduces the "Can you just..." or "I only need this..." mentality, so that employees have a better understanding of the time and processes involved in every task – even the tasks that may seem menial on the surface. In addition to Thoro School, employees attend various training courses and seminars as needed.

Thoro maintains a "play together, stay together" atmosphere. The company hosts many contests and programs that foster morale, including a carton contest, birthday wheel and more. "It’s fun to see what people come up with during our annual recycling contest. One of our employees created a YouTube video demonstrating the creative things that you can do with recycled materials. Other entries included using wine bottles to create lamps or turning paperboard cores into foot rests," Steiner said.

Thoro’s internal culture fosters learning, professional growth and experimentation. The company conducts a great deal of research and development when moving a customer’s big ideas from concepts into reality. "In order to get a finished product to work the way the customer envisions it, we have to play with it – from reconstructing the customer’s files to making changes on the press as we’re running it," Liles said. "As an employee, it’s a perk. A lot of places won’t let you experiment and innovate because of the expense involved, but our management team gives us the flexibility to be creative."

Thoro acknowledges its employees through recognition programs focusing not only on individuals, but also on teams. A company-wide incentive plan is based on safety, customer satisfaction and profitability. Profits are shared with employees based on criteria in each area. Steiner said it’s a simple plan that is reviewed during plant meetings, approximately every two months. "If it’s a building year, we may have no bonus; but, in some years, employees have gotten from 40 to 125 hours of bonus pay tied to their hourly rate," Steiner said.

The biggest morale booster for Thoro’s employees may be the opportunity to promote themselves. "Our operations manager started as a feeder on the press, our second shift supervisor as a temporary worker and our structural design manager started as part-time summer help," Steiner said. With a precision-like focus on employee morale, it’s no wonder the Printing Industries of America honored Thoro as one of the Best Workplaces in the Americas in 2012 and the Best of the Best in 2014. In addition to these accolades, Steiner recently was honored by OutputLinks as one of Ten Women of Distinction at the 2014 GRAPH EXPO Gala in Chicago.

Awards and accolades

Thoro’s reputation and work speaks for itself; however, the company has been honored with numerous awards and accolades throughout the years. Recent awards include a Bronze Award in the 2014 Foil & Specialty Effects Association’s Gold Leaf Awards in the Best Use of Specialty UV Coating category for the company’s Web Center Card piece. Another Bronze was awarded in the Best Use of Foil/Embossing in the Display Self-Promotion category for the 2103 Handbag Promotion, a project which included Unifraxion® diestamping. The Printing Industries of Southern California also recently recognized Thoro with its 2014 Print Excellence Awards in three Best Of categories – Presentation Folders and Portfolios, Folding Cartons and Finishing Techniques, as well as Awards of Excellence for Business Cards and Foil Stamping and Embossing/Debossing categories.

"We always have had a passion for perfection, and we have used it to become a leader of top quality in our industry," Steiner said. Whether that leadership is in the form of producing award-winning pieces or providing the level of customer service that produces the many referrals who turn into loyal customers, Thoro knows how to distinguish itself in the marketplace.

Trending toward the future

Steiner said the company is prepared to navigate the trends of today and those that lie ahead. "Customers want sizzle and bling, and that’s not going to disappear," she explained. Steiner said embellishments are a big focus right now, and Thoro is doing a lot of research and development in that area. Sustainability is becoming increasingly popular, and the company offers a variety of sustainable packaging options, including carbon-neutral printing. On-shoring is another trend that the company is navigating, taking on more jobs every month that previously were run overseas. Many of these jobs include laminate, and Steiner anticipates more laminate jobs in the future. "We will continue to offer comparable laminate alternatives, as well," she said.

Thoro will continue to offer the best packaging solutions and prices, while staying on top of trends and emerging technologies. "Our philosophy from day one has been to do what we can to satisfy our customers," Steiner said. "We’ll continue to work closely with marketing departments and designers to offer a wider variety of cost-effective looks that ‘wow’ and add value to brands, and we’ll continue to invest in what we need to create future success, for our customers and our employees."