WATERLOO — Covington Box is willing to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of its customers.

The business, located at 950 W. Union St., Waterloo, is KPC Media Group’s Manufacturer of the Year.

“First and foremost, we’re humbled and honored to even be in that category,” said president and partner-owner Tony Fifer. “I guess it means to me that there are some people out there, be it customers or community people, who are aware of what Covington stands for and how we treat the employees.

“We’re all a team in this, and that has been there since Day 1,” he said. “We’re in constant communication with each department of the plant. We have open-door policies and we have a lot of lunch-ins.

“To me, it just means our philosophy and the way we treat workers as though they are part of this one team, and this team does what it takes to make sure we have customer satisfaction ... It tells me that it’s working and it’s being noticed.”

The company produces corrugated boxes and containers, point-of-sale retail packaging, specialty-coated packaging for the poultry and baking industries, high-graphic printed boxes, die-cut packaging, packaging accessories, as well as hand-crafted corrugated caskets and direct cremation containers.

Most products are shipped to customers in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, but caskets and cremation containers go to customers throughout the country.

“We have a philosophy, when it comes to customer performance, to get the customer what they want when they want it,” Fifer said. “I know that sounds vague and simple, but it’s really the mentality of all the employees here that they will go the extra mile to make sure something gets done.

“Even if the customer calls the same day and needs packaging delivered to them, the employees here are very good at reacting and getting it done.”

Covington Box was established in 1981 in Ashley by Dean Kelly. Kelly; his son Glen; Fifer and general manager Mike Rogers are owners and partners in the company.

About 10 years after its founding, Covington Box relocated to a 10,000-square-foot building in Waterloo that was once home to a seed company.

Since roots were established in Waterloo, additions have increased the size to 200,000 square feet. Covington Box also has a facility in Edgerton, Ohio. Eighty-five people work one shift at Waterloo and five people work one shift at Edgerton.

“When I started in 1986, we were doing maybe $1 million. Today, we’re up around $15 (million)-plus,” Fifer said.

Covington Box is one of about 25 corrugated casket producers in the country. Covington’s corrugated caskets are made in Edgerton.

“They’re nice enough to be viewed in a church or viewed anywhere for services,” Fifer explained. “The whole casket can be buried in a vault like a traditional funeral or it can go directly into the retort for cremation.” Like traditional caskets, corrugated caskets come with a blanket and pillow.

“What got us started in the funeral side of this business was about 25-30 years ago, we worked with a local funeral director to come up with a better cremation box that was easier for the funeral directors to load a body in the box,” he said.

“We put an engineering team together and we came up with what we call the ‘easy entrance’ box. We received a United States patent on that item.

“That item is still our number-one selling funeral item,” Fifer said. “It goes everywhere throughout the United States. We sell that to the top casket manufacturers in the world.”

Last fall, the company made a $950,000 investment, plus a USDA grant, for a solar energy field at its Waterloo facility, with the goal of reducing electricity costs.

The Waterloo property is of 17 acres, and the solar field covers 1.4 acres. That solar field is providing 100 percent of Covington Box’s electrical needs in Waterloo.

“It’s literally cut our electric bill from $7,500 a month to $50 a month,” Fifer said. “It’s a huge cost savings with about a six-year payback.

“It was a large investment up front … but we see the dollars that we put into that solar field that’s going to allow us as a company to keep investing into the employees. It’s going to allow us to invest into expanding the business and the premises if we need to, as well as continue to give back to the community.”

The solar field, he added, prevents 395 tons of carbon dioxide per year from entering the atmosphere. It also leaves 300 acres of forest free to absorb more carbon dioxide from other sources.

The business continues to grow.

“We’ve seen growth almost every year,” Fifer said. “If you think about it, anybody who produces something, it needs to be packed and protected in some way, shape or form. As long as manufacturers are out there producing, they’re going to need us as packaging providers.

“As I look five years down the road, the electricity cost is almost gone and we’ve got two thriving facilities,” he said. “I could see us having maybe another facility because one of our niches if you will, we are probably the largest warehouse distributor in the three-state area of packaging.

“That’s why we have 200,000 square feet in Waterloo and 90,000 square feet in Edgerton,” Fifer continued. “It’s not just because it’s manufacturing (but) all of our customers we have, we build up inventory of their packaging needs against what their production is going to be.

“The niche is, with our own tractors and trailers — we have own our own trucking fleet — we can deliver to the customer the boxes within 24 hours notice of an order,” he said. “I could see adding another facility in terms of being able to accommodate what the market needs.”

“That’s why we only go maybe 60-100 mile radius is because we want to be sure within that 24-48 hours, they’re getting their packaging.”

Fifer sees paths to future growth.

“What plays into our favor is that there’s a continuation of manufacturers to look for lean cost, doing business in the least costly fashion they can,” he said.

“Everything costs money, so everybody’s looking for lean manufacturing, which means, if they’ve got the extra floor space, they want to put machinery in there and producing their widget, whether it’s in the baking industry, the poultry industry, the automotive industry or the medical industry.

“They just want to produce and ship,” Fifer said. “They don’t want the cost driver of storing their raw material taking up costly floor space. That’s where we come in.

“That’s when we say, ‘Instead of taking a truckload of packaging and have it sit on your floor, taking up floor space, you put that burden on us. We’re going to build ahead to your production. We’re not going to charge you for the packaging that’s sitting on our floor, only what’s shipped to you.’”

“That’s going to help them with their cash-flow. That’s going to help them with their lean manufacturing initiative,” Fifer continued. “It also gives them peace of mind knowing, ‘Uh-oh, we just ran out of packaging, but we can call Covington and it’ll be here the same day or the next day.’

“That mentality that we, 85 employees, strive to meet every day, that will never go away,” he said. “In fact, I only see that being more and more of a need.”

Covington Box currently collates and assembles packages for some customers. “We will take big skid boxes and place them on top of a wood pallet or corrugated pallet and we will put in that box corrugated partitions, corrugated pads, sometimes foam inserts. We’ll put the lid on that box and then we’ll strap the whole thing as a kit,” Fifer said.

“The customer receives that kit and it goes directly to their production line. All they have to do is take the lid off and starting loading their parts,” he said.

“Companies that are solely focused on high-tech manufacturing, they don’t want to take the time to have to assemble the packaging it takes to put the part in be able to ship it.

“We’re taking the burden off of them,” Fifer said. “It’s what we call value-added service. It’s our people that’s going to be assembling the packaging for them and taking it to their production line.

“I can even see it going a step further to where we will be receiving the customer’s parts, warehousing their parts, boxing their parts and shipping it to their customer for them.”

Within the next five years, Fifer envisions Covington either needing to expand its current facilities or purchase a property with a building already on it to handle that business.

The funeral industry is another potential growth sector.

“When you look at the United States of America and you take all of the states, cremation versus burial, it’s probably averaging about 50 percent that people are being cremated.

“That number’s only going to continue to rise,” Fifer said. “When we talk about the funeral industry, we’re going to be growing and expanding more product. That product takes a lot of assembly, so we’ll be hiring people for that section of business, as well as to take care of normal growth plus the new value-added service I see coming.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when some businesses closed, Covington Box was deemed an essential business and did not shut down.

“We had to remain open because some of our customers in the food industry needed packaging,” Fifer said. “The business here at Covington thrives on how the economy is doing and how manufacturing is doing. If everybody’s manufacturing and shipping product, then you relate that to us, and we’re doing good.

“Consequently during the midst of COVID, our sales were probably impacted by about 40 percent,” he said. “Nicely, though, we’re starting to see the rebound. We’re not quite back to pre-COVID but we’re climbing back up.”

Fifer noted Covington did not lay off employees and took advantage of the federal government’s Payroll Protection Plan for payroll.

Covington employees participate in Day of Caring activities in DeKalb and Steuben counties, including building a wheelchair ramp for the mother of one of its employees. “Our employees know we are here to help them any way that we can,” Fifer stated. “I can give you many, many occasions where we have helped employees with individual needs and problems.

“Any employee can come to my office, the door’s open, they can sit here and chit-chat and tell me about their problems,” he said. “It’s like we’re one big family. Even though it’s 85 employees, we know everybody by name, we know everybody’s interests, we know everybody’s problems, and we all pitch in to help.”

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