Piedmont National is a wholesale distributor of shipping supplies and packaging automation equipment headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. With fifteen locations in seven states and retail partners in cities throughout the country, Piedmont is providing packaging solutions to customers nationwide.
Founded in 1950 by Hugh Marx as the Piedmont Paper Company, the company’s mission from the very beginning was to focus on the quality of its products and its customer service. Over the course of its existence, the company has seen significant organic and acquisitional growth as a result of this approach. It has grown from a distributor of packaging supplies to a leader in automated packaging solutions for customers across a wide range of industries.
Today, Piedmont is still family-owned, having passed through three generations of ownership, but has expanded its capacity substantially. It employs more than 250 people and is proud to be entirely debt-free. Due to its financial stability, the company has been able to invest heavily into continuing its growth trajectory and improving its facilities. In 2016, extensive renovations were performed to refresh and update the company’s headquarters in Atlanta and in 2017, an Equipment Innovation and Testing Center was added to that facility. That same year, it acquired three new companies in Texas and Florida, further expanding its capacity and geographical footprint. Growth, both organic and acquisitional, has been a hallmark of Piedmont National throughout its lifetime.
Piedmont National is finding a great deal of success in an industry that is currently facing a number of challenges. One of the most significant of these is a nationwide shortage of truck drivers. According to a 2018 report from the American Trucking Association, the United States shipping industry has 50,000 fewer drivers than it needs, and this shortage has been a growing concern in the sector for at least the last three years.
Beyond the lack of drivers, sourcing new equipment is also a challenge. “It’s hard to get trucks,” says company CEO Gary Marx. “If you want to order a new truck or trailer there’s about a six month lead time.” As the demand for its services grows, the company’s ability to increase capacity could be constrained by these factors.
One way the company has been able to mitigate these challenges is by targeting high-growth market sectors. It has focused on acquiring and developing expertise in e-commerce and is working with a number of large-scale companies to streamline their automated packaging systems. “With e-commerce exploding, we’ve developed extensive expertise in that area,” says Marx. “It’s a really good time right now.” By focusing on markets that are trending up, Piedmont has been able to share in their success and grow alongside.
Beyond e-commerce, the company works with customers in a wide range of markets including food, automotive, logistics, and more. Despite having fifteen locations, the company’s broad customer base is still geographically diverse enough that it is often necessary to fly technicians all over North America to work with clients and find the right solution for their individual needs.
Indeed, finding custom solutions to unique problems is a key component of Piedmont’s value proposition. “We have a highly skilled, factory-trained technical service department; we’ll fly them anywhere in the country,” says Marx. “Let’s face it; if a production line goes down, the whole plant is shut down. It’s important that we have the right people. We make it work. Whatever it takes, we follow the customer.”
Key to the company’s ability to differentiate itself in the marketplace is its expertise in the design and implementation of packaging automation systems. Piedmont has an expert team of engineers on staff that are capable of designing new and retrofit automation systems suited to any packaging line. The company will send its team to a customer’s facility to take a careful look at how their operation works and provide a proposal that details how the customer will benefit from the recommended solution. Piedmont is committed to finding the right solution to a customer’s problem by taking the time to understand exactly how their operation works.
It can be particularly challenging to design an automation solution that marries different pieces of equipment from different manufacturers, and even more difficult to synchronize those with existing IT systems. For example, the company can automate a packaging line to print RFID tags and apply them to packages, but the identification numbers on those tags need to be fed back into the IT system so that the company can track them, and this can be a challenge. Last year, Piedmont hired an engineer who specializes in connecting automation equipment to existing IT systems for data collection, monitoring, and more. Having the right people on staff has been a key differentiator for the company and this new addition has significantly improved the value that the team can bring to Piedmont’s customers.
Piedmont uses a data-driven approach to staying informed about its customers’ needs, and can sometimes be even more informed about those needs than the customers are themselves. The company collects information about each customer’s order history and stores it in a cloud database where it can be analyzed. Specialized software is used to look at all of those data points and make detailed reports from them. As a result, Piedmont knows when a customer is low on inventory and when they need to order new products. The team can look at order histories and may notice hidden problems with a customer’s production line when they’re ordering more packaging than is typical, or if one shift is ordering significantly more than another. By collecting and analyzing data, Piedmont is keenly aware of its customers’ needs and is very efficient when it comes to meeting them.
The company offers a wide selection of packaging materials and supplies including everything from corrugated cardboard shipping boxes and the tapes and strapping needed to keep them safely closed, to the foam, bubble wrap, and surface protectors needed to fill the voids in those packages to ensure products stay protected during transport. Piedmont can provide all the supplies a company might need to package its products.
Its product line of automation equipment includes everything an automated packaging line needs to operate. It offers machines that will automatically build boxes from flat cardboard sheets or blister packs and clamshells from the plastic feedstock. It offers conveyors to move things, baggers to place items in bags, weigh fillers to fill packages up to a given weight, and equipment that can label packages and track their identification codes. It has void filling machines that can fill the void space in a package with inflated plastic or paper, reducing waste as well as the need for workers to perform these tasks.
One of the newest product lines available through Piedmont is the Fetch Robotics line of warehouse robots. These are essentially autonomous, self-guided warehouse workers that can move around within a warehouse and transport pallets, trays, and items. They can move autonomously, can follow instructions from a smartphone, and can even be made to follow a human worker around the space.
Historically, shipping costs were calculated based on the weight of a package, but since 2015, many of the world’s leading transportation companies have implemented a new pricing system based on “dimensional weight” which accounts for the physical size of the product along with its weight. In order to adapt to this change, companies must reduce the size of their packaging, and to this end, Piedmont offers a wide range of equipment that can facilitate more compact shipping solutions. Shrink wrapping and bundling machines, for example, help to keep packages as small as possible, reducing freight costs overall.
“One thing we’ve been really good at is saving customers money by right-sizing their packages,” says Marx. “I might sell you a solution that will cost you a few cents more, but if I can save you 50 cents a box on freight that’s a good deal. Since everyone provides free shipping it’s important to keep your freight costs as low as you can.”
Recently, a major retailer made some substantial changes to its packaging requirements. Customers that sell their products through that retailer must modify their packaging to meet these new standards and Piedmont is perfectly positioned to help its customers in making these changes. By paying attention to how the industry evolves and carefully maintaining relationships with customers and vendors, the company has been able to move with the rapidly changing trends.
Going forward, Piedmont hopes to expand its geographical footprint by establishing locations in all major U.S. metropolitan areas. With nearly 70 years of experience and growth in the packaging industry, the future is promising for Piedmont National.