In 29 years, Vee Pak has gone from a small, family-owned start-up company to a leading contract manufacturer of personal care and beauty products for both Fortune 500 brand name customers and small boutique labels, with products manufactured in facilities in Illinois and Ohio and sold around the world.
Tom Zwartz, President of Vee Pak LLC, says, “When I tell people, no matter where they are, that I could go into their home and find products we make, they look surprised and say, ‘We don’t know who Vee Pak is. We’ve never heard of them.’ But if they use brand name personal care and beauty products, (cosmetics, topical OTC skin care, soaps, creams and lotions, hair care or sun care products), I can guarantee I’ll find a brand in their home that we manufacture.”
Not only will he find them in homes in the U.S. where they’re manufactured, he may find them in homes in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, where they’re also shipped and sold.
As a full-service contract manufacturer and solutions provider, Vee Pak offers customers specialized services in its FDA registered facilities, including product formulation and development; a pilot lab for scale up; a microbe-lab; complete analytical services; in-house stability programs, and packaging sourcing to create a turnkey operation. In turn, its customers have recognized Vee Pak’s superior performance and honored the company with numerous Best-in-Class Awards, including #1 in New Product Development and # 1 Quality System Implementation.
As Zwartz explained, Vee Pak’s history goes back to 1989 when Ralph Vennetti, owner of Print Flex, which manufactured pressure sensitive labeling, started the contract manufacturing business for his sons, Ralph, Mike and Dave, hoping they would run, grow, and build it up.
“As with any new business, the first few years were a struggle,” continues Zwartz, who joined the company in 2003 to assist the company in its growth strategy, “but it soon grew from three production lines to six, then to nine, and today we have over 35 lines.”
These lines are contained in four facilities which include a total of 600,000 square feet of manufacturing, warehouse and office space, three of which are in Countryside and Hodgkin, Ill, near Chicago, while the fourth is a 125,000 square foot LEED Silver certified facility which opened in 2011 in New Albany, Ohio.
“We manufacture for a number of different customers who range from Fortune 500 companies to emerging companies in the personal and beauty care space. You can find our products at Walmart and Target, pharmacies and beauty salons. We service customers that provide product to mass merchandisers, have their own prestige stores, and those who sell direct to consumer through infomercials, the internet, or through the use of product consultants. We sell to pretty much all supply channels in the market,” explains Zwartz.
Then after 28 years as a family-owned business, the Vennetti sons (their father having passed away in 2011) decided that in order for the company to grow further and expand its presence in the market it needed to align itself with an equity player that could help fund the growth and move to the next level. As a result, on March 9, 2017, the Vennetti family sold Vee Pak to Windpoint Partners, a private equity firm in Chicago which acquired Vee Pak with the intention to grow the company both through organic and inorganic growth – through acquisitions as well as through growth with existing customers. Ralph Vennetti, the oldest son, now sits on the Board of Directors and is able to continue to contribute his knowledge of the business.
Research & development
There’s a positive vibe about working at Vee Pak as it seems everyone’s contribution is valued. Although our interview began with the company president, it didn’t take long for Zwartz to insist, “I don’t want this story to be about just my point of view, because we have close to 750 employees, high-end professionals and shop floor production workers. We have some of the industry’s top analytical chemists, microbiologists, stability chemists, process engineers, mechanical engineers, industrial engineers, formations chemists and R & D specialists and you need to talk to some of them.” So we did.
Since ‘beginning at the beginning’ is the optimal place to start, we spoke with Cheryl Holloway, Director of Research and Development, where new products begin. A native of Austin, TX and a 1993 graduate of Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, she began as a technician for a Houston company which manufactured aerosols.
“Six months in, the lady I was working for resigned and I was told I had to develop 15 products and get them to market in four months. I had to self-teach as there was no one there to teach me,” she recalls. “Some of the hairsprays and mousses got national attention and when Vee Pak saw I had done all this work on my own, they said, ‘Well, she could definitely figure out how to do this stuff,’ and they hired me on the spot,” she shares.
“When I came on board (in 1995) our general manager would guide me through what I needed to do and the process engineer took me under his wing and showed me how to make shower gel and how to make lotion, so I had a lot of support.” In those early years, she notes that information wasn’t available on the Internet as it is today, “so it was a lot of self-teaching, time spent at model libraries and looking in trade magazines and working with suppliers for information and basically just trying to learn how to formulate shampoos, conditioners, body washes and things of that nature,” she explains.
“Vee Pak was a start-up and I was the only R & D person for several years. I was young, but I grew with the company and within a couple of years we’d landed several major accounts which led us to develop a speed-to-market model. We started working on this with one of our major customers because they wanted to get to market faster than their competitors, so we were innovating and presenting new ideas to them every two to three months and then we would start evaluating products at sooner time-points in our stability timelines.”
Stability is a good manufacturing practice that involves stressing the product in both a glass container and in the actual production package through a series of temperatures and exposure to UV light to see how it will react to determine shelf life or if it needs to be labeled ‘Do not refrigerate’, ‘Keep refrigerated’ or ‘Do not leave in excessive heat.’
“The typical stability test is about 13 weeks and so we started looking at six to eight weeks and the risk involved and making decisions with the customer on moving forward to market, so it was a fast pace and allowed us to grow quickly in a 10-year span. We grew substantially in our customer base and unit volume from that point on and I went from being a chemist to managing a staff of three and then four, and now seven people, as well as spearheading the innovation program and working with customers who aren’t familiar with the speed-to-market model.”
Responding to changes in FDA regulations and consumer / market concerns means Holloway and staff must work quickly, not only to develop and introduce new products, but also to replace a product with a new formulation when an ingredient is perceived to have negative effects. In the 90s she recalls having to reformulate all of the products that contained Cocomide DEA “and we’ve had to do the same thing with parabens, some sulphites, polyethylene scrub beads and tricoslan. As regulations and the market change we go to our customers and say, this has polyethylene in it and we have to remove it and work with them to get a replacement product to market as quickly as possible.”
Vee Pak is a fast-paced environment, which Holloway describes as both challenging and enjoyable. “We’re busy all the time. Since December I’ve worked on 70 formulations and right now, for 2018-2019, my staff has 250 projects in play. What’s fun for me is working with our clients and I enjoy the work in the lab. I liken it to cooking with food; instead I’m doing it with chemicals, but it’s the same process. You have a recipe in your head and you write it down, try it and say, ‘I don’t like the feel of it,’ so go back and try again, and that’s what I enjoy. And I really love the autonomy they give me here. They say, ‘make the customer happy’ and that is what I do. My goal is to not only make my customer happy but make their customer happy.”
Mike Anderson recalls that when he came to Vee Pak in 1995 with a newly minted Bachelor of Business Administration degree, there were “20 or maybe 30 thirty people working there.” Today there are close to 750, with seven in the Customer Service Department he manages, including five individual account representatives and support staff.
For him, like Holloway in R & D, it’s all about the customer and ultimately their customers — the end consumer. “Every customer is a priority. We make them feel that way, even though we have multiple customers, but when we talk to them they are the priority at that time, no matter their size, from the biggest corporations to the smallest.”
He keeps customers informed about the progress of their orders and makes sure there is flexibility should there be a need to adapt and meet changes. “As the forecast changes or volume demand changes based on the communication that goes back and forth, we’re able to adapt and change our schedule and become flexible to meet their needs. We have orders that are out six or eight or twelve weeks, but as the demand changes we’re able to push out or pull up specific orders to meet their demands. It does cause some anxiety, but it’s all for the benefit of the customer,” he says.
“I enjoy the interaction with them and learning about the new product development side of it. Launch cycles can be stressful, but when you put it all together and the plan works, it’s pretty satisfying.”
It took a few days to catch up with Beverly Pleasant, Director of Quality Control, as she was involved in an audit with a customer. (Vee Pak undergoes regular audits with both customers and FDA representatives.) “I look at audits as a free consultation and if they tell me, ‘you can do it better this way,’ we’ll take a look and see if it works for Vee Pak and if it does we’ll validate and implement it, so audits are always a learning experience. Nobody knows everything and there’s always room for learning something new.”
It’s refreshing to hear such openness in someone who’s been working for the company for more than 20 years. Like Holloway, she holds a Bachelor of Science (Chemistry) and first worked for another company. But instead of developing aerosols, she developed hand sanitizers — a precursor to her current position where she supervises 70 employees in both Illinois and Ohio, places where sanitization is a priority. In fact, it’s the company mantra.
There can be no cross-contamination between products, “so we have a validated cleaning process which can take between four and eight hours to clean the tanks, the pumps, the hoses, the production line. It’s a rigorous and detailed process we follow,” she explains.
“My main responsibility is to ensure we are meeting our customers’ requirements for the product going out of the building. I am responsible for ensuring that when we make batches they conform to specifications, for making sure microbe testing is being done and there are no microorganisms (bacteria, molds or yeast) growing in the product, and that the inspections on the lines are done properly and in a timely fashion.”
The product volume produced by Vee Pak is staggering. Batches are produced in tanks ranging between 1200 to 10,000 gallons while production lines “are trying to fill 6 to 8 million units” a week. Then the bottles or tubes are labeled, coded for traceability and placed in shipping containers.
Vee Pak’s future
All four employees we spoke with had high praise for the vision of Ralph Vennetti senior and for the sons who, as Anderson said, “wanted to do what was best for the people who worked there. They didn’t want someone to take it over and break it up as they’d worked hard to build up a great reputation — it’s an inspiring story, it’s an American entrepreneur success story.”
They also had praise for Windpoint Partners’ leadership which they believe ensures future growth. “We’ve just expanded the facility in Ohio,” says Pleasant, “and put in more lines and capabilities, so it’s an exciting time for Vee Pak.”
Zwartz, Holloway and Anderson agree. The future is not only exciting; it’s a beautiful time for the beauty business.