PLANT CITY— Highland Corp. was working for conglomerate Alcoa in 2007 when partners Steve Maxwell and John Durham decided to shift their 10-year-old business' focus from packaging distribution to manufacturing.
The result: Highland Packaging Solutions and a new client base, vegetable and berry farmers, including many in Plant City.
The departure raised eyebrows. For some food packaging companies, the unwritten rule was that agriculture "was a redheaded stepchild," said chief executive Maxwell.
"Many businesses don't like working directly with them," he said. "Agriculture is a pain. Farmers are demanding and need stuff right away and on weekends. But my grandfather was a farmer in South Georgia and I understood what farmers need and I understood the demands that can drive other companies crazy."
The retooled business model centered around flexibility and quick turnaround.
The company focused on same-day delivery and introduced plastic "clamshell" style packages in 16 sizes, mesh baskets and corrugated boxes for strawberries, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. It brought label-making operations in-house and even helped farmers create their own websites. It can label 3 million clamshells a day, enough to fill seven semitrailers.
"We don't even take orders like other companies. We have guys in the packinghouses," he said.
The new model worked, except for one problem. As Highland's client base and production grew, the Mulberry-based manufacturer found itself spread over four warehouses, leading to cost inefficiencies. It needed to consolidate under one roof.
"We looked around Polk County but couldn't find a building big enough to handle all of our operations," he said. "We needed 250,000 to 300,000 square feet, with an option to grow."
Enter Gordon Food Service on Park Road in Plant City.
Albertsons was moving out in April and landlord GFS had a 243,000-square-foot space at the west end of Gordon Food Service Drive coming available for lease.
The location provided a separate entrance, private fenced grounds with a guard shack, and expansion-ready space next door. It's near Interstate 4 and a rail spur. The companies inked a lease deal — one of the largest ever in Tampa Bay — in April.
"Having access to rail, that was a bonus," Maxwell said. "That's for the long term. Phase two is to bring in raw material by rail. Rail can save a lot of money."
For Maxwell, 50, the move 13 miles west from Mulberry, which came after two years of research, is a homecoming of sorts. Both he and his wife, Beverly, grew up in Plant City and graduated from Plant City High School.
"I know the city manager, the mayor, several guys on the City Commission," he said. "They're very pro-business here."
For Plant City officials, the move signals an economic boost in a still-shaky economy — both in new tax revenue and employment. Permitting for the manufacturer was fast-tracked to smooth the transition.
Most of Highland's 215 manufacturing employees will commute from Polk, but the company expects to add more than 50 seasonal workers from October through June, most of them likely coming from Plant City, Maxwell said.
Highland ships containers to packinghouses across North America and parts of Central America. Its core customer base, however, remains Central Florida farmers.
"We're thrilled and think the company is a great fit for Plant City," said City Manager Greg Horwedel, who learned in late January that Highland was considering a move. "It fits one of our core industrial functions, agribusiness."
Highland was not awarded tax incentives because the move is within Florida.
The company doesn't have a firm move-in date. For now, it's installing overhead sprinklers and intends to add offices in the southwest corner. The plan is to move equipment in late September or early October and start production in November.
"This will help us gain efficiencies," Maxwell said. "We'll go from four local warehouses to one, and we'll be able to have all of our employees there in one place. We love being with our people."
Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or [email protected].