- Category: Business Spotlight
- Published on Friday, 19 October 2012 01:00
- Written by Scott Johnson
Reflecting Southwest Washington’s vibrant agricultural economy, food packagers stand out as among the most important regional manufacturing sectors.
With the economic crisis and increased competition globally, local food manufacturers have faced challenging times. According to the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, food manufacturing in Southwest Washington has declined over 5 percent since 2006.
At Neil Jones Food Company in Vancouver, President Matt Jones said that while the past several years have been a struggle, the result has been consolidation and a focus on efficiency.
“There are fewer producers, which has actually had a healthy effect on the industry,” noted Jones.
Focused on processing a variety of canned fruits and juice concentrates, Neil Jones Food Company currently employs more than 350 people locally, primarily at its Northwest Packing Company at the Port of Vancouver.
In the food packaging industry, Jones said that two significant competitors have left the market, leaving just two primary competitors remaining.
“We’ve seen a lot of sourcing changes and a lot of packaging changes in our business,” said Jones. With competition from China, he added, “the capacity of these different plants became underutilized.”
Industry consolidation has increased demand, according to Jones, and his company is now focused on increasing its competitiveness.
“You have to be more efficient in how you run, with higher quality packaging innovation,” Jones explained. “So the industry is in the process of restructuring and trying to reinvent itself to be competitive with what the consumer wants.
“Every fruit facility has been struggling, so consolidation is the first step to bringing the industry back to a healthy position,” he added. “Now the next step will be significant investment into these plants to make sure they are competitive.”
At the Northwest Packing plant, Jones stressed the importance of developing the employee group by focusing on improved training and making sure employees have multiple skill sets. The result of doing that, he said, will move people toward longer-term employment and greater versatility.
The company is also investing in manufacturing equipment and adapting to changes in the packaging market.
“[The adaptations] amount to packaging changes which the average person would see in the supermarket, such as going from cans to cups and plastic, flexible packaging, pouches and thing like that,” Jones said. “The evolution is still very early now, but you’re going to see more and more of that.”
According to Jones, the key to success in the future of food packaging is a commitment to investment. With a settling occurring in the industry and more work volume due to consolidation, Jones said he feels confident in spending more.
“To compete in this global environment is going to take continual and substantial investment,” he said.
As a major employer in Southwest Washington, Jones said the Neil Jones Food Company is committed to the area. Jones recalled the roots of the company in the region, going back to the early 1970s.
“We’re a private, family-owned company, and we’re looking toward the next 25 years here,” he said. “We’re looking to employ more people locally in the community and hopefully to grow our business right along with that.”