A Look Inside the Un-Factory
Trini Linares and her four daughters cherish family vacations. Warren Weisberg is less enthusiastic. When the Linares clan travels en masse to Mexico—as has happened a few times in the past do zen years—Weisberg's factory crew declines 15 percent. "I don't like it, because that's a big part of production going away at one time," says Weisberg, a co-owner and vice president at PortionPac Chemical, a Chicago maker of cleaning fluids. "But we make do. They're a family."
For their part, the Linareses are always happy to return to the PortionPac factory on the city's Near West Side. The place feels less like a manufacturing plant than a combination greenhouse and family garage. Natural light spills through long skylights in the ceiling, nourishing the small jungle of plants that thrives, improbably, next to tanks used to mix chemicals. In summer, workers deflect the sun by unfurling beach umbrellas erected over their stations. Music and chatter bounce off the walls; the company's machines were designed to run quietly, in part to encourage conversation. "People know each other a long time, so it is good we can talk. It is a nice place, and we love being all together here," says Linares's daughter Rosa Ortega, who has worked at PortionPac for 15 years. (In 2009, the company had turnover of 2 percent. Average tenure for the company's 84 employees is 13 years.)
Multiple family clusters work in the factory, and it's obvious why parents recommend the place to their children and siblings recruit siblings. Requests for personal time are always honored: Ortega cobbled together her own sporadic schedule during the year her 3-year-old son battled cancer, and she worked four-day weeks the following year to accommodate his ongoing therapy. Out of respect for family life, PortionPac never runs three shifts, even during its busiest season. A few years ago, at the workers' request, it ratcheted quitting time back to 3:30 p.m. so parents could get home earlier to their kids. (The shift now starts at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.) There are no production quotas, and employees switch off tasks regularly, keeping tedium at bay. Once a year, executives and managers spend a day laboring in the plant, looking for ways to make the work easier.
For PortionPac the employer, the focus is on the men and women who mix chemicals, seal bags, and build boxes in its 29,000-square-foot plant. For PortionPac the brand, the focus is on janitors, who are the end users of the company's products. PortionPac makes liquid cleaners; its goal is to replace the dozens of bottles and sprays cluttering custodial supply closets with two or three staples in color-coded, portion-controlled envelopes. It was the first company to hold classes on safety and effective cleaning for janitors in its primary markets (schools, office buildings, and prisons) and the first to hire a national education director targeting custodians' needs. PortionPac also runs recognition programs to help businesses celebrate their cleaning staffs.
Chairman and co-founder Marvin Klein points out that cleanliness affects areas as varied as student performance in schools and productivity in offices. "It all depends on janitors, who have been ignored and abused by society, with no concern for their health or working conditions," says Klein. "The word janitor comes from the Roman god Janus, who was the keeper of the keys. Historically, cleaners were honored. They were trusted. We want to go back to that." On the practical side, says Klein, "if you work in a building where you know who the janitor is, you are going to create less dirt."
Years ago, PortionPac commissioned two Diego Rivera-esque paintings of janitors in the acts of mopping, polishing, spraying. Customers of its recognition programs receive prints of those works; the originals hang in Klein's office. "Janitors are part of the hidden work force," says Klein, indicating the painting behind his desk. "If you treat them well, give them respect, they are more productive, and the whole economy benefits." PortionPac benefits as well: The company's revenue was up 8 percent in 2009, and is approaching $20 million.
Promoting the nobility of janitors is just one of PortionPac's causes. The other is sustainability. Its products come premeasured, which prevents waste. Because they are concentrates, less energy is expended for packaging and shipping. Janitors reuse the same spray bottles and mixing containers over and over.
Unlike the industry's recent converts, PortionPac traces its green roots to the era of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring rather than Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The business was founded in 1964 by Klein, an executive at a company that made floor-cleaning machines, and Syd Weisberg, one of Klein's vendors. Weisberg was an inventor and ardent environmentalist; a startlingly contemporary brochure he wrote in 1972 describes threats posed by nine types of pollution, including the greenhouse effect. He created detergent concentrates to curtail the waste generated by shipping a product that is 90 percent water.
Warren Weisberg, Syd's son, is also adept at making things. Warren, who became Marvin Klein's partner when Syd died in 1975, designed and built all the manufacturing equipment in the factory. (Klein's son Burt succeeded his father as president a few years ago.) More recently, Weisberg built a machine that automates the filling and sealing of the portion-controlled envelopes. But he scrapped it after deciding he trusts humans more than machines to perform quality control. Also, machines don't need jobs.
Another reason Weisberg prefers people to machines: You can't learn much from machines. Weisberg spends much of his time in the factory, soliciting employees' opinions of sample products or simply working alongside them. Once a year, the rest of the front-office staff follows suit. Nothing defines the culture of PortionPac so well as Front to Back Day, a 20-year tradition. On that day in June or July, a temp or an employee's relative answers the phones while staff members from the receptionist to Marvin Klein report to the factory to receive assignments from plant supervisor Mary Jaramillo. "We want them to see how difficult the jobs are," says Jaramillo, a 24-year veteran of PortionPac. "If I tell someone I want to change something, they may say they want to think about it. If I make them do that thing, they see for themselves and—boom—I get what I want."
Front to Back Day culminates with a barbecue. Several workers compete to build the best grills out of 55-gallon drums; Weisberg hand-rubs the ribs; and employees supply sides and sauces, some made with tomatoes and peppers harvested from the company's vegetable garden. "There are a lot of parties," says Ortega, whose family makes its own tortillas in the plant. "You work hard, and you eat well."
Like the production crew, PortionPac's office staff works in natural light. Everywhere it is surrounded by paintings and sculpture. This is not corporate art, but rather the challenging, sometimes discomfiting personal collection of Weisberg, who prefers art that requires some mental exertion. A plumbing theme runs through some of the 100-plus pieces, and at least two of the sculptures—one a street scene nestled inside a rusty trash barrel—were created by an artist who did time as a janitor.
Sales and marketing are the domains of the company's president, Burt Klein, who was finance officer at a money-management fund before joining PortionPac. Where some leaders practice management by walking around, Klein practices management by walking around, noticing people in distress, and coming to their aid. Several employees told of receiving free legal assistance—for example, with a relative's immigration papers—or financial help when a car expired unexpectedly or another emergency arose. The experience of Margie Alvarez appears typical. Having suffered a long string of personal setbacks, Alvarez, a division coordinator and 11-year employee, turned up sobbing one morning because her grandmother had just died, and she could not afford a funeral. Klein whisked her into his office and wrote her a check for $6,500, repayment arrangements left to her discretion. "I didn't even get a chance to finish explaining before he said he'd help me out," says Alvarez.
Klein, affable like his father, becomes briefly incensed when discussing what he sees as some workers' vulnerability. "Of course we help them," he says. "We borrow money at 5 percent. The employees pay 21 percent. That's unconscionable. How are they ever going to get out from under, let alone get ahead?"
Klein offers a different kind of support to the salespeople, who sometimes need time to get comfortable with PortionPac's unusual incentive structure. The company does not pay commissions but does pay bonuses for hitting various marks, including signing up "shared-savings" accounts that encourage customers to use only the product they absolutely need. "High-commission salespeople are going to sell the customer as much as they can. We want customers to use the right amount," says Klein. "That's environmentally sound and economically sound. And if it's economically sound, they'll keep us around longer." (Many customers have been with PortionPac for decades. Its first customer, Royal Supply Company, a distributor in West Virginia, has been on the books for almost 50 years.)
Nonie Knight, a regional sales manager based in Texas, found the incentive structure alien and fretted for the first two months, because her sales were so low. "Burt kept telling me not to worry and reassuring me that they were in it with me for the long haul," says Knight. She is even more grateful for the accommodation Klein made for her philanthropic bent. Before joining PortionPac, Knight worked for the nonprofit West Texas Lighthouse for the Blind, selling pens, pencils, and other products made by people with disabilities to state-run institutions, such as prisons. As a rep for PortionPac's correctional division, Knight calls on many of the same customers, and Klein lets her present the catalog for the nonprofit TIBH Industries, whose mission is to create employment for people with disabilities, before pitching PortionPac. "What harm could come from that?" asks Klein. "It's a great organization, and she had an emotional connection. It's not like you can tell someone the day they are hired, 'From now on, you believe in PortionPac and that's it.' "
Which doesn't mean some folks don't feel that way. Jerry Kantlehner retired from PortionPac years ago but couldn't stay away. He travels often between his home in Kentucky and the company, where he consults for the correctional division. "I love this place," says Kantlehner. "You can't just cut yourself off from people you've known and a way of doing business you've believed in for more than 20 years.
"Working here is a little like being minister of a parish," he says. "You keep the congregation happy, and if that happens, the donations roll in."
To take a visual tour of PortionPac's plant, go to www.inc.com/top-workplaces.