Leading the Way
Polytainers founder building a long-lasting legacy of product innovation and educational achievement
Some people are born to lead, some work their way to achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them. And some, like Bob Barrett, manage to embody all three routes to the top through a rare combination of strong work ethic, astute business instincts and exceptional generosity of spirit and communal goodwill.
As Founder of one of Canada’s largest and most successful plastic packaging manufacturers, the Chairman and CEO of Toronto-headquartered Polytainers Inc. is a much admired and respected elder statesman of an industry where genuine leadership is a vital ingredient and prerequisite for continued relevance and viability in today’s technology-driven economy.
Since founding Polytainers in 1968 as a packaging operation aligned to the dairy industry, how Barrett led the company’s ascent to the elite ranks of the rigid-plastic-packaging industry’s pecking order is a compelling story of leveraging continuous improvement, innovation and superior customer service to achieve world-class manufacturing competencies and competitiveness.
According to Barrett, Polytainers is one of North America’s top three producers of open-top rigid plastic containers used by major dairy and food producers to package the vast array of everyday products like yogurts, ice-cream, dips, cream cheese and cottage cheese, margarine and a multitude of other staples requiring product protection and shelf life, with high-impact retail shelf presence.
“Our unique dry offset printing process was far superior to anything in the market when we started out,” Barrett recalls, “and it remains a core competency for us today.
“We are in the business of helping our customers sell more product by packaging it in high-quality decorated containers that jump off the shelf,” Barrett explains.
“We started out as an injection moulder with three small machines producing up to 60 cups per minute,” Barrett recalls.
“Today, we produce the same-sized cup, using a thermoforming system delivering 1,600 containers per minute,” he relates.
“That’s productivity,” he extols, “that’s innovation!
“It’s the same thing on the printing side,” Barrett points out.
“We started out printing 90 cups per minute, requiring two people on a three-colour printing press.
“Today, we can print 630 cups per minute, in eight colors, with just one person running the press,” says Barrett.
“There really has been a remarkable change in the industry over the years.”
Operating as a vertically-integrated, privately-owned enterprise enables Polytainers to enjoy considerable time-to-market advantages, according to Barrett, along with a more proactive approach to capital investment.
“We make all our own moulds,” Barrett says, “and we make our moulds not to make our final products cheaper, but to make them better.
“And that means that our machines run more reliably, at faster cycle times, with less maintenance costs than a lot of other systems.”
As Barrett points out, Polytainers has invested millions in recent years to improve the environmental profile of its products through light-weighting, switching to more recycle-ready materials, and designing more sustainable options.
“The real question is not whether our containers are recyclable, which they are, but how many are actually recycled,” Barrett says.
“The industry is adjusting to that change with new mechanical and advanced recycling technology solutions that will address this problem,” says Barrett, while complimenting the work done by leading NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like PAC Global and Canadian Plastics Pact (CPP) for advancing the larger cause of plastics circularity.
As an active member of both organizations, Polytainers is well aware of the burden of responsibility and regulatory pressures weighing heavily on plastic producers of all types to come up with practical and circular end-of-life solutions for their products.
“We are also actively investing time and resources into R&D (research and development) efforts and initiatives to incorporate PCR (post-consumer recycled) resins into our products,” says Barrett.
As Barrett points out, Polytainers has reduced the weight of its standard 170-gram (six-ounce) container by 64 per cent over the years through thin-walling—resulting in a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of its packaging products.
“The real problem is perception versus reality,” Barrett states. “Many people just choose to believe the perception no matter what kind of LCA (life-cycle analysis) data we provide favoring a plastic solution.
“They will always be against plastic no matter what!”
Changing that mindset will require more effective consumer education at all levels, according to Barrett, whose life-long advocacy and support for education excellence across Canada has been fittingly honored with the naming of one the country’s newest industrial innovation hubs after him.
Located near the entrance to the North Campus of the Humber College, the new Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation (BCTI) is a 93,000-square-foot, five-storey, standalone LEED Platinum- and Net Zero-certified facility designed to prepare the next generation of Canadian workers for careers in industrial automation, robotics, design engineering and other sought-after high-tech fields critical to Canada’s economic viability and competitiveness.
Formally unveiled to the public in April 2019, the state-of-the-art building is a striking, glittering architectural landmark—hosting interactive technology zones, digital media studios, cutting-edge prototyping and assembly areas, etc.—that was made possible with a start-up funding donation from The Barrett Family Foundation (BFF), which was established by Bob and his wife, Francine Rouleau-Barrett, in 2013.
“My wife Francine and I have always been philanthropists, sprinkling money here and there to support causes and people we believed in,” Barrett says.
“The BFF has become a major part of the ESG (environmental, social and governance) mindset at Polytainers.
“We like to work with people who get things done,” Barrett states, “and the people at Humber and BCTI are action-oriented and entrepreneurial in the way they think and approach opportunities.”
States Barrett: “Humber College is pleased to play a part in helping educate our young people for rewarding and meaningful careers that will contribute to Canada’s economic well-being.”