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Making custom industrial containers for 64 years

When Daniel Healy was a kid playing on the blue airplane at Kenney Field in the Town of Tonawanda, he wondered what was made at the giant factory just north of it; the very factory that had donated the land on which the park was built.

Years later, as its manager, he knows better than anyone else about what goes on inside the local plant of the Delaware-headquartered, publicly traded corporation.

The Greif factory on the busy stretch of Colvin Boulevard just north of Brighton Road has produced fiber drums since it opened as the Continental Can Company in 1948.

Made to order according to an endless variety of specifications, the drums can be filled with anything from dry chemicals to peanut butter to wires.

They're used to transport large quantities of a product from one manufacturer for use or repackaging by another. The plant can produce 4,200 drums a day and can do runs as large or small as needed by its 100 customers, which include Smucker's in Pennsylvania and its largest account, Lincoln Electric in Cleveland.

Greif makes other kinds of industrial packaging for its customers around the world; steel containers, plastic drums, water bottles.

Its main competitors are American Fiber Drum in Chicago and Enviro-Pak in New Jersey, but the Tonawanda plant also competes with Greif's 12 other drum-making plants in the United States.

But even as other of Greif's plants have closed, the local plant remains open and has even absorbed some work from other closed factories.

Its location helps it remain successful. Greif ships primarily throughout most of New York State, western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Being just south of the Canadian border and a minute from the I-290 give it advantages into Canada, home to Greif's key Ontario market and Montreal distribution facility.

Proximity is a huge advantage for Greif, considering its unique shipping difficulties.

"A lot of what we ship is air," Healy said. "That can be a challenge, especially with fuel costs. We really have to maximize every truckload. We fill every inch out and all the way up to the top. There's not an ounce of space that's not utilized."

The drums it ships are light but very large, with a lot of empty space inside. When it can, it ships smaller drums inside larger drums.

When Greif closed two of its plants in Canada, the Tonawanda plant brought in some of its machinery and absorbed some of the plants' work, which included the manufacture of steel lids. Today, almost every industrial container cover in North America, whether it is used by Greif or another drum maker, is made at the plant.

It wouldn't have been a surprise if Greif had closed the site after acquiring it from competitor Sunoco Products' fiber drum division in 1998. As has happened time and again with local manufacturers, the new owners might have opted to close the local plant, lay off workers and consolidate work to existing facilities.

But its strategic location and those container covers are two major factors in its survival, helping it compete against other Greif plants and the company's rivals.

"That's part of this plant's staying power over the years," said Healy. "We offer a different function that other plants don't, which is to make parts that are pivotal to production at other plants."

The workforce is much smaller than it was when the plant ran two full shifts in its heyday under Continental Container. But that was before many manufacturers switched from shipping materials in paper drums to using cheaper alternatives, like plastic bags.

Greif itself markets its paper drums as a cheaper alternative to plastic drums, one that comes from a renewable source and can be recycled. In fact, most of its paper is indirectly sourced from its timber properties and Virginia paper mill.

It's a selling point that is becoming more salient in an increasingly ecology-minded world.

Still, despite the focus on efficiencies and automation that often translate into massive "right-sizing" layoffs in manufacturing,

Greif's 64-person workforce of salaried and hourly employers is not much smaller than the 72 it employed when Greif took the reins from Sunoco in the 1990s.

That is another secret of its success: its workers.

The least senior employee has six years at the plant, while the most senior worker has put in 43 years.
"It's really pretty amazing the longevity of our workforce and the amount of experience in this plant," Healy said.