Steve Carlson joined Ludington-based plastic and foam product manufacturer FloraCraft Corp. in February 2000 when the company acquired the firm he had started with his father.
In the 22 years since, Carlson has gradually worked through the ranks, most recently serving as chief operating officer. As of Jan. 1, Carlson added president to his job title and will take on new duties involving product strategy and marketing.
The company’s ongoing strategic planning involves organic growth by continuing to invest in technology to make operations more efficient as well as a move to tap into new markets.
In a recent interview with MiBiz, Carlson discussed the company’s growth plans and shared advice to ensure seamless succession planning.
How will your role shift now as president?
For me, most of my career has been on the operations and management side of the business. This role will allow me to work closer particularly with our revenue, marketing and product areas; make more contact with customers; and have more direct involvement in the product strategy.
What are some of your priorities as you look at strategic planning?
We have a number of strategic goals that we will continue to develop. One of them is, as we continue as a plastics company in West Michigan, to find opportunities to do everything we can to have a better environmental impact on the planet. We are a plastics manufacturer, and there is a strong desire to continue to minimize our carbon footprint.
One strategy underway is to continue to use post-consumer plastics in the foam we make. We just took a big step of obtaining International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) for the controlled use and sustainability of our feedstock. These kinds of investments are really important to us.
We want to continue as a U.S.-based manufacturing company, and we would like to continue to bring those products from overseas back to Michigan to increase our portfolio of products manufactured here. We’re also looking to invest in our portfolio of foams to make a wider variety of foam products and expand our customer base in new markets.
It sounds like you have organic growth plans ahead. Is the company considering any opportunities on the M&A side?
I think we’re going to be focused on really growing ourselves organically. We’ve got a roadmap in place to continue to more vertically integrate our foams. We’ve primarily been a floral and craft supplier, but as we continue to increase our portfolio of foams, we’re looking at being partners with different markets and industries. It’s still in the conceptual stages, but we are vertically integrated in XPS (expanded polystyrene) foams and plan to really grow that in the future.
During your two decades at FloraCraft, you have helped lead the company’s Industry 4.0 and automation strategy. Do you see room for additional investments in this space?
Oh, definitely. Automation and tech are going to continue to be really important to us. We’ve made a lot of investments particularly in the last four years. It’s a common story in West Michigan, but we’re in a small town we all love to be in. As we continue to grow our business, we have to be more efficient as our growth outpaces our ability to hire local talent. We are constantly working on our internal talent, and we’ll be shifting somewhat over the next few years from partnering with tech companies to designing some solutions in-house.
Has FloraCraft struggled to find talent to meet your needs, and if so, how are you managing through that?
The labor challenges actually have eased up a little bit in the last six months. We’re feeling more stable particularly with the hourly and production work, and we’re probably in a better spot than we’ve been in over the last couple of years. I’m not sure what part of that is the economy, but right now, it’s not the challenges we had in 2021 and 2022.
What have been some of the bigger internal company shifts during your two decades at FloraCraft?
When I first joined the company, we were really a foam fabricator, buying our foam from other parties and cutting the foam into shapes. In the time I’ve been here, we’re fully integrated now and extrude our own foam from start to finish. There’s been a big shift in really growing our new product development and marketing departments. Instead of a foam fabricator, we offer more integrated consumer products that serve a wide variety of industries.
How about major shifts on the retail side among your customers?
Retailers have been pretty stable over that time, but if there’s one dynamic that has really shifted in the last seven to eight years, it has been the growth of dollar stores. It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of retail. Because that’s a value-side proposition for the consumer, when we are able to service those customers, those products tend to be at a lower price point with a lot more volume.
FloraCraft also has maintained a strong focus on succession planning. What advice do you have for companies as they consider their next generation of leadership?
For us, it comes down to a couple of key things. First of all is communication: We actually talk about it, and all the time. I think in some companies it just doesn’t get talked about because no one wants to talk about a future without a key person or key people. We’ve been actively talking about it, managing it and doing talent assessments on all of our individuals, making three- to five-year plans, and looking at how we can give those high-performance employees educational opportunities. And it’s about trying to create a vision of what the company could look like in buckets going forward, and putting people in the right place.