Southern Champion Tray turns 90 [photos]

SCT officials believe company culture has helped drive growth

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Southern Champion Tray CEO John Zeiser, right, and SCT Chairman Chuck Zeiser speak about the company's manufacture of food trays and other paperboard packaging products in Chattanooga.

By the numbers

460 Number of SCT stock items it sells20 billion Number of food trays SCT is estimated to have sold over 90 years845,000 Square feet SCT has in Chattanooga and Mansfield, TexasSource: Southern Champion Tray

Southern Champion Tray Chairman Chuck Zeiser recalls when the Chattanooga company was a four-person operation.

Today, the business employs 650 people, including 555 in Chattanooga, making and distributing paperboard packaging products for the bakery, food service and custom retail markets.

"I've seen a world of change," said Zeiser about the company headquartered off Manufacturers Road that last week turned 90 years old.

Zeiser, 80, said he took the helm of SCT when he was 35 years old from his father, Milt, who first headed and later bought the business from a Toledo, Ohio, company that set up operations in Chattanooga in 1927.

"They sent him here to put in a division," said Zeiser about his father. "He understood machinery."

At first, the business struggled in Chattanooga, he said. But his father, Zeiser said, put into place core foundations of running the company - honor your word, take every discount, pay your bills on time and avoid debt.

"It was a good foundation to build on," said Zeiser, who stepped up as SCT's president in 1968. Over the years, he grew the company's manufacturing capabilities and added an internal sales force, in-house graphic arts, a custom products division in Mansfield, Texas, and a trucking operation.

Also, he said, as a Christian, he wanted the company to reflect those principles and he instilled such a culture into the business.

"We've been blessed," Zeiser said. "I've seen miracles about people coming to the company. They want to come to a company with values. [They'll] come and make less money."

In 1993, he gave way to his sons, John and Bruce, who took the reins of the business on a day-to-day basis.

Company chief John Zeiser, 56, agreed that SCT is known by its culture.

"It defined SCT. It has created a positive environment. We try to run the company by Biblical principles," he said, adding that it flows through how the company treats customers, suppliers and employees. "We have amazing people. They've made a significant impact on the company and helped drive SCT."

Zeiser said there are 70 employees who've been at SCT for more than 20 years.

The chief executive declined to give sales figures for the privately held business. But he said while the industry's growth is about 1 percent to 2 percent annually, SCT exceeds that every year.

Over the last 40 years, the company has averaged 10 percent annual growth, Zeiser said.

All of the SCT's products are fiber-based, he said, which is important in an environment of sustainability.

"We like that," Zeiser said. "Our industry plants five trees for every one harvested."

In Chattanooga, SCT has manufacturing operations on Compress Street and Amnicola Highway, where it also has a large trucking facility. In addition, the company has a key facility in Mansfield.

Last week, STC unveiled an investment in an HP 30000 Indigo press in Mansfield that marks the company's entry into digital printing.

"This investment is a further commitment to our customers who value design flexibility in their packaging," the CEO said. "While SCT presently has lithographic and flexographic presses, this state-of-the-art digital press opens up new capabilities in the area of short run, personalized packaging."

Zeiser said the company uses both virgin and recycled materials to make its products.

Food trays, for which SCT has been known over the years, are now less than 20 percent of its sales but still core to its growth strategy and market offerings, he said.

The company has developed full lines of catering and food service products, which are sold across the United States and in 16 countries, Zeiser said.

In its Compress Street manufacturing site, the business runs a vast collection of machinery to make its products.

Hearkening back to Milt Zeiser, the company still builds some of its own machinery, giving it an advantage over competitors, officials said.

"It goes back to our roots," John Zeiser said.

SCT also has in-house artists and designers, he said, and he showed off food trays with University of Tennessee and University of Georgia logos. Zeiser said SCT designed a one-piece shoe box for Christian evangelist Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse organization that distributes items to needy children.

"We make a large majority of them," the SCT chief said.

Looking ahead, Zeiser said, the company plans to stay in expansion mode. Central America is an area where officials said they see opportunity.

Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] or 423-757-6318.