Tools of the Trade
By Andrew Snook
Canadian dry-foods distributor soldiers on in uncertain times with strong packaging competencies and relentless focus on line efficiencies and product quality
The success story of Shah Trading Company is one built on humble beginnings.
What started out as a small business operating out of the Shah family’s home in the mid-1970s has grown to become Canada’s largest ethnic food distributor of rice and grains, beans, peas and lentils, spices and herbs, nuts and dried fruits and other specialty Items.
“The company was started in 1974 by my dad and his brothers,” says Sanjeev Shah, vice-president of business development and second-generation family member of the Shah Trading Company.
“It started off from the garage of our house, selling at the time to the small Indian community in Montreal. There was a growing population in Toronto, so we started catering to that market—importing some food items that were special to the Indian market. We were more of distributors at that point.”
With time, the Shah family realized very quickly that they had the potential to grow beyond serving a single market.
“We saw that the Indian market wasn’t big enough and that a lot of the stuff we carried was something that was in demand in other communities in other ethnic markets,” Shah says. “So we started selling to those markets as well.
“Within about three to four years, my uncle moved to Toronto to oversee the Toronto market and we grew from there.”
Fast-forward to 2021 and Shah Trading Company has grown exponentially. Headquartered in Toronto’s eastern suburb of Scarborough, the company now operates three locations in Ontario and one in Montreal, employing approximately 200 people.
“We have a huge product line. If you look at what we do with all the beans, peas, lentils, rice, nuts and dried fruits, I would say we have about 1,000 active SKUs (stock-keeping units), maybe more,” Shah says.
No company grows this quickly and successfully without the ability to build strong, lasting relationships throughout its supply chain.
One of those relationships that were forged by the first generation of the Shah family was with Tempo Plastics Limited, Innisfil, Ont.-based manufacturer of a wide variety of flexible packaging solutions including monolayer and laminated multilayer pouches, bags, and rollstock film with high-quality process printed graphics.
“We have a very long history with Shah, over 20 years, so I would call it a partnership,” says Tempo Plastics chief executive officer Leonardo Giglio who, like Sanjeev, is the second-generation of his family to operate his family’s business.
Giglio says the two companies have enjoyed a great deal of success together and that there is a strong alignment between the two businesses.
“When it comes to packaging technologies over the past 20 years, almost all our capabilities have been utilized to service Shah—rollstock, polybags, laminated pouches and films.
“Everything we’ve had capability for, we’ve done for them. It’s great that they’ve utilized our entire portfolio of flexible packaging solutions,” Giglio says.
One area where Tempo Plastics and Shah Trading have worked together extensively on many projects is in the private-label market.
“Even though Shah is our customer, we have a joint customer when we do the private label business,” Giglio relates.
“Because we have certain obligations as a preferred printer, and also certain obligations as the vendor, we need to work together to bring a solution to the shelf.
“Not only are Shah Trading using a lot of flexible packaging solutions, but they fit in the private label space for executing private label brands.
“And that’s a whole different kettle of fish,” says Giglio, adding that companies operating in that space need to be extremely agile.
“You have to be able to handle multiple SKUs, manage a lot a lot of different artwork, and then execute that whole supply-chain process for a retailer.
“That’s really been our bread-and-butter and Tempo’s core competency, and that’s the space that Shah lives in,” Giglio says.
“They’re a leader in that space, both in Canada and throughout all of North America.”
One thing that separates Tempo Plastics from many of its competitors is the company’s versatility.
“Not all packaging suppliers are vertically integrated like we are, and being able to offer so many different packaging solutions,” Giglio says.
“It’s very typical for some suppliers just to be doing laminated pouches, with some just doing rollstock and some just doing polybags.
“Because Tempo does it all under its portfolio, we try to offer a very simple one-stop-shop type of approach for a partner like Shah, so they can work with us to execute whatever their customers are looking for without having to source multiple suppliers.”
Not surprisingly, Shah Trading and Tempo Plastics are also very much aligned when it comes to sustainable packaging.
“Tempo has an emphasis on sustainable packaging,” Giglio says. “Shah has already moved into that space with some of our brand partners and started to utilize some of the recycle-ready technologies behind the scenes.
“They’re not getting a lot of credit for it,” he notes, “but these things are happening.
“They are also an early adopter and leader in that space,” Giglio asserts, “and we are very proud to work with a company that also values moving forward towards Circular Economy packaging solutions.”
After all the years the two companies have been working together, they have built a remarkable level of mutual trust and respect.
“It’s a unique relationship we have with Shah,” Giglio says. “It’s not often a second generation [company] gets to work with another second generation [company], and I think that’s kind of cool.
“It’s great that these two companies are still around and carrying on some traditions, because I think tradition is important.”
Naturally, Tempo Plastics isn’t the only supplier Shah Trading has relied on to keep its production growing and moving efficiently over the years.
The company has also invested in many Hayssen flexible packaging machines—a renowned equipment brand owned and operated by Barry-Wehmiller Flexible Systems since 1997.
“Shah Trading purchased its first Hayssen VFFS (vertical form-fill-seal machine) in 2003 and then, about every two years after that, they purchased the next four or five machines,” recalls Gerry Cellucci of Alex E Jones & Associates, Canadian sales representative for BW Flexible Systems.
“They now have eight Barry-Wehmiller flexible systems, including the Hayssen Ultima SVJ vertical FFS machine, all coupled with volumetric cup fillers.”
Cellucci says the Hayssen machines combine the ruggedness of machines designed many years ago with the high-tech electronics of today.
“Shah Trading have had these machines for so many years, they know this machinery very well,” he says. “They’re really happy with their investment decisions, which is why they keep buying from us.”
The bagging machines acquired by Shah Trading offer an extensive range of bag weight capacities—from 100 grams up to 11 kilograms—in the production of pillow-bags, tucked bags, and block-bottom bags, running both laminated and polyethylene films.
The Hayssen equipment can also add carrying handles to the larger-sized bags meant to hold from eight to 11 kilograms of product.
“When bags start to get really big, it’s very convenient to add a carrying handle,” says Cellucci, noting that the user-friendly Ultima SVJ’s servo-driven system incorporates off-the-shelf Allen-Bradley series controls manufactured by Rockwell Automation.
“When the film is pulled off the roll, the film travels through a set of rollers, which are all servo-driven,” Cellucci explains.
“This allows us to pull the film fast, which helps with film tracking. Then there are the pull belts, used to pull the film over the forming tube, which require little pressure and little torque—improving the film tracking characteristics.
“When you run a wide variety of films like Shah Trading does, this is quite important,” Cellucci notes, “because they can use a wide variety of films and not worry about film tracking.”
As Cellucci points out, all the Hayssen machines are designed to facilitate easy maintenance.
“It has an open-framed architecture, so it is very easy for maintenance people to work on the machines,” Cellucci says.
“Customers keep asking for lower-cost machinery and so you have some manufacturers that are designing machines that are purpose-built and have small footprints.
“Servicing those machines is a nightmare: they’ve compressed things so much that you have to rip half of it apart,” says Cellucci.
“When Hayssen designs its machines, they are designed with open architecture, so you have access from all four sides of the machine for maintenance and cleaning.”
The Hayssen machines have also been designed for retrofitting in the future, Cellucci says, to enable integration of additional technologies to incorporate additional value-add inline capabilities, like creating a form at the bottom of the bags and adding zipper attachments for resellability.
“Not being purpose-built machines, their flexibility makes them future-proof,” Cellucci says. “These machines have served Shah Trading well.”
Over their years of growth, Shah Trading have added several other types of packaging technologies to their facilities, including the PSG LEE baggers—manufactured in Korea by Leepak and supplied through its Canadian distributor Charles Downer & Co. of Richmond Hill, Ont.—for the company’s rice plant in Toronto.
“It provides us with a stand-up Ziploc bagger at a reasonable cost,” Shah says. That machine takes a ready-made bag, and fills it and seals it with total precision.”
To ensure rigorous quality control and uncompromising product safety, Shah Trading also purchased an Eagle Tall PRO X X-ray inspection system—supplied by Orangeville, Ont.-based system integrators PLAN Automation—for the company’s canning line.
“In 2014 we started our own canning line to make canned beans,” Shah recalls. “Before that, we were getting someone to manufacture the canned beans for us, whereby we would send them the beans and they would return it back to us canned.
“Now we’re in the business of our own canned products,” says Shah, adding the Eagle Tall PRO X typically scans about 220 cans per minute on the canning line, with plenty of built-in capacity to run a lot faster if need be.
“Our constraint in canning is the cookers; they are the pinch point,” Shah explains. “We can’t fill faster than we cook.”
Mat Bédard, vice-president and chief operating officer at PLAN Automation, says that the Tall PRO X X-ray system has the capability to run up to 1,500 containers per minute and 425 feet per minute.
“The big advantage with the X-ray system is it has the ability to see metal inside a metal product, like a can,” Bédard says.
As Bédard recalls, Shah Trading also wanted to be able to run detection for other types of hard-to-find contaminants like small stones, which the Eagle Tall PRO X X-ray inspection system can detect with great efficiency.
Moreover, the Eagle Tall PRO X X-ray machine’s side view detection coverage provides full inspection of a range of container sizes and can carry out multiple inspections at line rates in excess of 1,500-ppm (products per minute.)
Additional features include:
- • advanced image analysis with proprietary SimulTask software for automatic detection and rejection;
- capability to adjust to variable line speeds;
- easy installation over existing conveyor lines for seamless integration;
- on-board CAT 3 (EN 954), PLC (EN 13849) safety system with embedded self-diagnostics;
- a built-in modem and Ethernet card for remote technical support;
- HAACP-ready hygienic design;
- full event and contaminant logging;
- Standard A/C cooling on all models
Being an essential supplier of much-needed food items, Shah Trading had to be extremely agile to keep its plants running efficiently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had to do a lot reconfiguring of our lines to give people the proper social distancing: that was our main issue,” Shah relates.
“We had to plan ways to schedule lunch breaks on a staggered basis, so that the teams would not be filling up lunchrooms at the same time.”
Labour shortages have also posed a serious challenge for the operation, according to Shah.
“We had to increase wages many times to attract new workers,” Shah relates, “and because you can’t hire new people at a higher cost than what you’ve been paying your existing workers, the whole cost structure goes up,” Shah explains.
One of the biggest current challenges facing the company is navigating the new global supplying chain constraints, with Shah noting that the shipping costs in the agricultural importing business have skyrocketed.
“Freight costs from Asia have risen devastatingly high,” he says, “and because of that it doesn’t make sense to bring in certain products at this moment.
“The freight rates are now eight times what they should be,” Shah states, “and that just makes the cost not worth it.”
Additional supply chain issues Shah Trading has had to navigate have included shortages of cardboard corrugate for boxes, and shortages of glue for labelling its canned products.
Despite all these challenges, Shah Trading has largely held up well through the pandemic, according to Shah.
“We had a really good year last year,” Shah says. “The initial surge in demand for packaged food staples in the early pandemic days certainly helped us grow our business.
“It has dropped off a bit,” he concludes, “but for the most part our sales growth has been sustained.”