As seen in the Business section of the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, December 11, 2011:
by Cheryl Hall
Steve Hanna has never faced a packaging challenge he couldn’t handle.
Hanna and his 25 staffers at Protective Packaging Corp. in Carrollton make heat-sealed packaging products that keep just about anything safe from impact, mold, mildew, static electricity and corrosion, whether items are in transit or being stored.
Shrink-wrap a Lockheed Martin F-35 test jet?
What about a four-story telescope headed to the highest observatory on earth in the Chilean Andes?
The 63-year-old chief executive and owner of Protective Packaging won’t blink an eye.
His is one of those strange and wondrous specialties that I delight in discovering here in North Texas.
Hanna is negotiating with a company in New Iberia, La., that’s shipping an entire mining system to a nickel mine in Newfoundland on a barge. “It’s a huge system with 10 separate 60-by-80-foot modules, and these pieces that have to be protected,” Hanna says. “It would be a $150,000 project for us if we land it.”
But about 75 percent of his business is less exotic.
One of Hanna’s mainstay customers buys several hundred thousand heat-sealed bags a year so that its ball bearings — from 2 ounces to 2 tons — don’t corrode.
Some of his more rudimentary packaging products keep Dole pineapple cans from sweating off their labels while making their way to the U.S. mainland, MREs from degrading before troops need to eat them, and flowers from wilting in transport from South Africa.
He makes millions of small bags for parts suppliers. Just how many millions, he’s never counted.
Protective Packaging will close out 2011 with about $9 million in sales, its 15th straight year of increased profit and revenue, despite economic hard times worldwide — actually partly because of them.
“We went down to Chile and mothballed an entire natural gas plant that was being shut down,” Hanna says. “They said, ‘Hey, we don’t know if we’re shutting down this plant for six months or two years.’ So we helped them figure out how to protect everything, from electric generators to huge motors and pumps on site.”
Caterpillar Inc. wanted to keep its inventory of bright yellow bulldozers and farm vehicles from fading in the Arizona sun, so it bagged them. Hanna figures the economy is picking up because Caterpillar has stopped buying bags.
Next year is shaping up to be another record, Hanna says. He’s negotiating with the Sierra Army Depot to mothball equipment coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hanna can’t give the price of specific bags, but a moisture barrier bag that will protect a weapons system the size of a railroad car costs $2,500.
His business started out strictly packing standard freight. In 1996, Hanna bought a packaging division he was running for a large logistics company. His boss cut him a sweetheart deal.
“I bought the inventory for $60,000. A forklift cost more than that. I kept all of the people.”
Three years later, a call from a major defense contractor would begin to shift his focus.
“In 1998, an engineer at Boeing in St. Louis called us three days before Christmas. He said, ‘We’ve got this new weapons system, and it’s got to be able to sit on an aircraft carrier or in a bunker for 20 years without any mold, mildew or static electricity getting to it and without corrosion. Will you come see us?’
“I asked, ‘When?’ And he said, ‘Tomorrow.’ Evidently he’d called four or five people before us and they’d all said, ‘That’s Christmas. We’re not coming.’ Well, we took off up there the next morning.”
“We” was Hanna and Jim Hiller, his general manager and partner.
It took months to come up with a way to protect the Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance kits. Thirteen years later, Protective Packaging is still working for Boeing, and it recently received its preferred vendor of the year award.
“The most fun thing is the freedom we have to be creative on these projects,” Hiller says. “No one else out there really does what we do, not the variety of projects anyway. We really never know the totality of what the job will entail until we’re in the middle of the process.”
Jimmy Davis, project manager for Coastal Logistics Corp. in Savannah, Ga., buys moisture barrier bags from Protective Packaging.
“In our business, we often find ourselves up against the gun,” says Davis, who handles factory moves. “We’ll give a customer a bid and wait and wait. Then they’ll call and want us there in two days. Steve and his guys will have those bags traveling on a plane the same time my guys are traveling.”
A few years ago, Lockheed Martin Corp. had to get two F-35 Lightning II jets from its test lab in Fort Worth to a BAE Systems facility in Brough in the United Kingdom.
The new-generation test jets, which were structurally complete but lacked avionics and engines, needed to be trucked on flatbeds from Fort Worth to Houston, shipped across the Atlantic and floated upriver on the coast of England and without incurring a nick, scratch or hint of moisture.
Dexter Henson, spokesman for Lockheed Martin F-35 communications, says the complicated cargo move came off without a hitch. “We have used their services on five test article moves since then,” he says.
So how do you package an F-35?
You bag it in a really large, specially designed moisture barrier bag, wrap the bagged jet like a Christmas gift using shrink film and tape, and heat the package to make it form-fitting.
One of Hanna’s most memorable moments came the first time his crew got to that final step in wrapping an F-35.
“Of course every engineer is out there watching us wrap their baby,” Hanna says. “Our guy takes this flame gun and goes over to torch the plane, and all these engineers zoom over there to stop him. I see all these guys running straight at me. I pushed our Lockheed point guy at them. He said, ‘It’s all right, guys. It’s all been approved.’ They thought we were going to send a $60 million jet up in flames.”
General Dynamics Satcom Technologies in Kilgore, Texas, has hired Protective Packaging to do similar safekeeping for 25 115-ton, highly specialized antennas before they’re shipped to the world’s highest astronomical observatory being built in northern Chile. So far, 23 have been wrapped and sent on their way.
Even though Hanna has been able to figure out how to protect some monumental pieces of equipment, he has been stymied by weather conditions.
Hanna and a team went to a radar site in Kwajalein Island — “you get to Hawaii and you keep going way out into the Pacific” — where a U.S. defense contractor wanted a huge radar dome protected. “We got there and this thing is 50 feet in the air and the wind is blowing 60 miles an hour,” Hanna recalls. “We’ve got this huge sheet and our guys are literally going up in the air like they’re tethered to a kite. Every time the wind got over a certain level, the safety officer yelled, ‘Stop, stop.’
“We did that for seven days. He finally said, ‘You guys go home. We’ll put it on ourselves.’”