When Paul Tasner got downsized out of a job during the recent recession, he wasn’t as glum as you’d expect.
Though Tasner, now 69, admitted he was surprised by his company’s action and had not yet formulated a plan, he was not without contacts or resources. “I’d been in the supply chain industry for 35 years, working in procurement, logistics, packaging, sourcing, manufacturing and delivery of products to customers,” he said. “So I figured I could return to consulting, which I’d done before.” While the Greenbrae, Calif. resident did go back briefly to consulting, he began to think about something more entrepreneurial. “My children were grown and I thought I was now in a position to really do something riskier.”
Taking a bet on Molded Pulp
The veteran of the packaging business began learning more about biodegradable packaging and was increasingly frustrated by the harmful pollution of plastics in the environment. He began researching the use of reusable materials in packaging and in 2011, co-founded PulpWorks Inc., in San Rafael, Calif., with his business partner, Elena Olivari, an architect and designer. PulpWorks designs and creates packaging products from molded recycled pulp. The material, similar to egg cartons, uses recycled paper, agricultural waste and cardboard to create molds, which are then manufactured to form product packages.
“They’re very safe and natural non-toxic products,” Tasner explained. “Molded pulp was really appealing because you are literally taking waste and molding it into something useful and absolutely doing no harm to the planet. In fact, you’re doing a good service because you’re replacing plastic, which never breaks down.” Now manufactured products encased in PulpWorks packaging can be found at Walgreen’s, Target’s and other retailers. Tasner said while he was excited about using fiber products in packaging, few manufacturers were.
“Outside of egg cartons, it was relatively rare. I wanted to use it as packaging for consumer products, not just paper plates or microwave box cushioning. We want to place it as a wonderful alternative to plastic.” He said lacking the volume pricing advantage that plastics enjoys, his product is slightly more expensive. “We’re almost the same price, but we don’t have the scale yet to reduce costs. There’s no question it can be very competitive with plastic, though.” For now he said his firm is contracting with manufacturers whose products are more expensive and can afford the slightly higher packaging costs and can boast about the environmental benefit of using sustainable packaging.
Michael Cronin, Chief Operating Officer at cosmetic products firm, EO Products, said he first met Tasner years ago at his former employer through the San Francisco Bay Area Green Supply Chain Forum Tasner founded in 2008.
Greening up the Supply Chain
“He was trying to see how people can green up the supply chain,” Cronin remembered. “We met again when he launched his business and figured out different ways to package smaller pieces of merchandise with sustainable fibers. Everyone else was doing plastic blister packs. We went forward with their design for the “anti-blister pack” pack, something that had no plastic or adhesive and still could work. We want to continue to push the boundaries on what we can create with pulp packaging.”
Cronin said Tasner is smart, passionate and dogmatic.
“He is able to call meetings with industry giants like Gillette and Procter & Gamble and knows what’s needed and what’s going on in the market. He’s very systematic and confident and is good at thinking outside the box. Paul comes with so much knowledge and contacts and in the packaging world.”
He said older entrepreneurs like Tasner have nothing to prove but what they’re trying to accomplish.
“We’re trying to help each other grow and trying to create a consumer shift,” he said.
Tasner said that his age has probably been a barrier more times than he knows, because some people may be uncomfortable mentioning it. But only once did someone discuss it. “He wasn’t gracious about it,” Tasner recalled. “He was just downright crass. More often than my age, I hear about how small we are. Some firms like to deal only with big and long established companies. We’re pretty comfortable where we are. I’m as healthy as a horse. And more importantly, I’m not in it alone. I have colleagues and a business partner and because we’re a small business, we all pitch in. If I get hit by a bus today, I know my partner and staff would keep the business rolling along.”
Like any first time entrepreneur, Tasner struggled with routine start-up challenges— raising funds, legal issues and incorporation, which he and his partner learned by trial and error. “What we did bring was a different set of skills: I’d been in the supply chain for 35 years and Elena is an architect with strong design skills. That was the big package we delivered to the business. My network, contacts and experience have been invaluable to us. And it took a lifetime to achieve those.”