As the craft beverage business goes, so goes Waterloo Container Co.
With the boom in wineries, breweries and distilleries in New York and around the Northeast, the company that supplies bottles and packaging to the beverage industry is booming too.
Construction of a $480,000, 37,000-square-foot addition in Waterloo, Seneca County, began this fall to allow the company to add another packaging line and bring in higher-speed equipment.
The company doesn’t make any bottles, but it procures bottles (mostly from U.S. manufacturers) and bottle closures. Then it decorates them for wineries in a variety of ways and also creates custom packaging for the filled bottles. And, recognizing that many beverage makers are too small to have large storage facilities for unfilled bottles, Waterloo Container will also hold customers’ bottle and package inventory in one if its seven warehouses until the containers are needed.
“They know they have their product here, but they don’t have to pay for it until they use it,” said Rich Swinehart, Waterloo Container’s CEO.
That’s the type of customer service the company has specialized in since its founding in 1980, just a few years after the farm winery bill was passed in New York that caused the Finger Lakes and other wine regions to flourish.
Owner and President Bill Lutz said it would have been hard to believe a decade ago that the wine industry alone in New York would be a $6 billion business. Five years ago, Waterloo Container employed about 22 people. Now the company has just over 60, plus some seasonal workers who come on in the busy season that follows the grape harvest. When the addition is complete, another 14 employees will be added.
Lutz is proud to say, “In the history of the company, the Lutzes have never laid anyone off. We’ve never had a slowdown.” Much of that is related to the industry the company serves. About 80 percent of the company’s business is for winemakers. But they’ve seen significant growth in breweries, cideries and distilleries, too. Some of Waterloo’s continuous growth, though, must also be attributed to Lutz’s tendency to diversify so he maintains control of various enterprises related to his core business.
Waterloo, for instance, owns its own fleet of tractor trailers and trucks and earned the necessary certifications to be able to perform both repairs and inspections on those vehicles. That’s helped the company avoid skyrocketing freight costs. And it helps with customer service. The company has nine trucks and more than 30 trailers so they can leave one to be loaded or unloaded at smaller wineries.
“We learned early on, if you could control that and do it yourself and provide jobs,” that was the direction to go, Lutz said. “Our goal was really to be the one-stop shop for everything.” That’s true for the larger wineries, and for the hobbyist wine makers.
“We also have people walk in and buy one case of bottles and closures,” said Richard L. Beauchine, chief financial officer.
The company’s customer base covers 36 states and Eastern Canada. Yet with all that business, Waterloo Container has remained true to its family-owned roots.
The numbers of wineries and farm breweries in New York have both passed 300, and they’re buying bottles, closures and packaging from this family-owned company. Waterloo Container also supplies bottles and closers to breweries, distilleries and makers of hard cider – Lutz said that’s particularly big in Canada. The one bottle procurement job the company handles that isn’t for an alcoholic beverage – not counting its own signature water bottle – is for a couple of lines of olive oil.
Sticking with alcoholic beverages, Waterloo Container has seen all the trends: in beverages, in bottles, in types of decoration and in closures.
“Growth in the Northeast has been really massive in the last 15 years,” Lutz said.
If you think you’re seeing more screw-caps on the wine you drink now, Waterloo can show you the proof in its use of Stelvin closures. Five years ago, Waterloo was supplying screw caps for 19 percent of its wine bottle business. Now it’s matching 35 percent of its wine bottles with Stelvin caps.
Another driver of growth is companies’ skyrocketing branding efforts. Marketing Director Bobbi Stebbins said the company had 200 custom packaging jobs in 2015. Two years later, Waterloo handled 2,400 jobs. She shows the multicolored printing on one company’s bottles that changes with the seasons as the winery keeps its look fresh.
And Waterloo encourages such customization with an expanding range of methods to do so, from shrink-wrapped labels that cover the entire exterior of the bottle, to eight-color printing on the bottle surface, to individual cartons for each bottle to cardboard cases to hold a dozen bottles and their individual cartons.
Stebbins showed off printing that made one company’s wine bottle look like it had a stained window printed on it, and a case that was printed to look like a wooden crate for holding grapes instead of a lowly cardboard box. More printing and packaging means more business, which means more jobs for Waterloo.
“The IDA (Seneca County Industrial Development Agency) is pleased to see this growth taking place …,” said Robert Aronson, executive director of the IDA. “The additional jobs will be a great benefit to Seneca County’s economy.”
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