Knowlton Packaging is best known in the industry by the letters LEK – the “L” standing for les, or the French form of “the;” the “E” for Emballages, also French meaning “packaging,” and the “K” for Knowlton, a small town in Quebec, Canada about an hour and 15 minutes from Montreal and minutes from the Vermont border, where the company has its headquarters. But to say Knowlton Packaging is just a packaging company for toiletries, skin care and health care products would certainly be a gross understatement.
Established in 1991, Knowlton Packaging is a full-scale consumer goods manufacturer that produces high quality products for a wide range of customers, many of which rank among the top players in their industry. The company is recognized as one of the leading North American players in the contract manufacturing of personal care and over-the-counter pharmaceutical products and counts as its clients such heavy hitters as Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Coty, Gillette, Freeman, Idelle Labs, Aveda, and Kao Brands, which has expanded into North America with the acquisitions of Jergens and John Frieda.
Knowlton Packaging is no stranger to acquisitions itself.
The company is actually part of Novacap, a leading private equity and venture capital group that was established in 1981.
Knowlton provides a full service offering from purchasing, planning, processing, and packaging of an array of personal care products including antiperspirants (over 45 percent of its business is actually devoted to antiperspirants alone), skin care products, hair care products and more. Eighty-five percent of the products Knowlton manufactures end up in the United States. The rest find their way to Canada and the company also exports to Latin America, Australia and other parts of the world through their customers. It is the largest independent contract manufacturer of antiperspirant products in North America with close to 100 million units produced a year. Overall, Knowlton churns out an amazing 200 million units of product annually.
The current Knowlton Packaging facility has actually been in existence since 1956 and was originally a Clairol site, producing hair coloring products for the company. Later in the century it was acquired by Bristol Myers Squibb. By 1991, Bristol Myers Squibb decided to undergo a site consolidation and closed a number of its facilities worldwide. This opened the door for the local management team of the time to step in, purchase the assets and the facility and create LEK. Novacap further stepped in 2002 as some of the original owners were seeking retirement and have supported the growth of the corporation since.
“Initially we started with Bristol Myers Squibb as a customer. Over the years, we’ve grown that into over 20 customers,” says Mario Allaire, vice president of sales and marketing, who explains that Knowlton Packaging had its beginnings working with entrepreneurial customers. “We started by dealing with different entrepreneurs and building their portfolios and growing our company in that fashion.” But by 2001, Knowlton had nabbed the attention of some major multi-national players. “That’s when we started investing in high-speed lines, state-of-the-art processing, and larger, higher speed equipment,” says Allaire.
The original facility was an impressive and generous 280,000 square feet. However, through two expansions, Knowlton added over 100,000 square feet. Today, the Knowlton facility is a whopping 400,000 square feet and employs a dedicated and highly qualified workforce of close to 600 non-unionized employees. The company’s very flexible team operates five days a week over three shifts and 24/7 in times of high demand.
The company has 19 processing centers (six devoted to antiperspirant products alone) and can manufacture anywhere from 100 to 15,000 kilos of product. It also has 23 packaging lines and a unique warming and cooling technology system, used primarily for antiperspirant production.
Beauty & Botanicals
In the personal care industry the buzzword is always “innovate.” “Our customers are continually looking for ways to make their products with innovative characteristics,” says Allaire. “Whether it’s anti-aging, anti-cellulite, skin repair, warming lotions, innovative sun protection product, everyone is looking for the next big thing.”
Packaging innovations are prized by clients as well. Replacing aerosol cans with high efficiency pump delivery systems is a big trend. The company was also involved with the manufacture of a product in which the oxygen level needed to be controlled below 0.1 percent. “This product was very sensitive to oxygen and had to be kept in a totally inert atmosphere,” says Allaire. “We developed a whole manufacturing system (processing and packaging) for this product and the customer was amazed. We were able to do so by investing about a half to a third of the cost that a larger corporation would have had to invest. We owe that to the creativity of our people.”
Another trend Knowlton is noticing is the shift toward botanicals. “Vegetarian and botanical-based products are very popular right now and we don’t see this trend waning,” says Allaire. “We’re also starting to see a demand for full botanical products that would replace chemical based products entirely.” The company is investing heavily in product development, alliances and partnerships with key suppliers to develop botanical lotions, botanical deodorants, natural deodorants and other vegetarian based products.
The advantage to Knowlton customers is that it not only comes up with unique packaging ideas, it also helps formulate and manufacture the product. Knowlton develops and formulates lotions and other products for its entire clientele base. Many corporations rely on Knowlton when they want to introduce new products and new technology to the marketplace. “We recently presented eight formulations to one of our larger clients along with other selected suppliers,” says Allaire. “The advantage of having the supplier present a finished concept is that the customer saves a lot of time in the race to market. It essentially increases their resources and offers a more strategic solution.”
When it began in 1991, Knowlton Packaging made it a point to work with brand owners. Almost 15 years later, its strategy seems to be working wonderfully. True to its mission – to provide innovative, cost effective manufacturing solutions to brand owners – Knowlton Packaging’s strategic alliance with its customers is focused on providing the best total long-term value through its customized solutions in manufacturing and unique packaging and process quality control capabilities.
The company looks to launch its Web site in September of this year and is currently on the lookout for the ideal partner. “We’d like to expand into North America even further and are looking for the perfect partner to do that with. We have been on the look out and have done some interviews and are hoping to complete our search soon,” says Allaire.
In the meantime, Knowlton continues to invest in research and development, adding flexibility to its workforce and investing