If your business has to ship it, their business likely can box it.
Watertown Box is an independent sheet plant based in Watertown, South Dakota, that creates packaging solutions for the manufacturing, service and retail industries.
“Think Amazon boxes that are properly sized for their product and printed with our customer’s logo. We also design point-of-purchase displays for retail, custom inserts, partitions, corrugated pads and packaging supplies,” said Mike Towle, a third-generation member of the family business.
“Most of our customers are within a 200-mile radius of Watertown, and they make anything from welding supplies to pizza boxes and everything in between.”
Founded by Thomas J. Towle in 1984, the family business employs 35 people and is entering its third generation of leadership.
“Almost anything that can be shipped in a box or can be aided by corrugated packaging, we can handle it,” Andrew Towle said.
“While we may not be the largest packaging and box company around, our customer service and quality and responsiveness are what we feel sets us apart.’
Brothers Mike and Andrew Towle entered Watertown Box in 2014 after their father, Patrick, who had succeeded their grandfather as president, unexpectedly passed away. Their uncle, Bill, who was vice president then became president.
“The board of directors came to Andrew and me asking if we had any interest in moving back to Watertown from Fargo to help with the family business,” Mike Towle said. “Since we came back, I took over the box design and sales management position while Andrew focused more on the nuts and bolts of the company as the operations manager.”
Bill Towle plans to retire in November, at which point the brothers – now shareholders and board members — jointly will run the business. And there’s a lot to celebrate. While Patrick’s death in 2014 could have created a crisis, everyone banded together to make it a record year. Since then, sales have grown by 57 percent, the company just completed a 7,500-square-foot addition, and it is bringing on a new press.
“We hope to continue on this path, and with the rise of online shopping and shipping boxes directly to the consumer, we feel confident we can continue this trend,” Mike Towle said.
The pandemic also brought “incredible growth,” Andrew Towle added.
“With so many items being shipped to homes and less in-person shopping, the corrugated industry as a whole saw record high demand,” he said.
“While that did create some supply chain issues along the way, we handle the pandemic well and have set ourselves up for the future. Companies will always have a need for corrugated boxes and shipping and packaging, so our industry is one that appears to be very steady heading into the future.”
As the Towles considered their own future, the family benefited from a connection with the Prairie Family Business Association that began through fellow Watertown family business Moffatt Products.
“We had known the Moffatts growing up in Watertown, and then when Mike and I moved back to Watertown to start with the company, they reached out and let us know what PFBA was all about and how it had helped them, and we are very thankful for that connection,” Andrew Towle said.
“We became more and more involved after a few webinars, and then Mike and I attended a Next-Gen Retreat. Every time after we attended a PFBA function, we just thought to ourselves we need to be doing more and more because we found such value in the networking and connection aspect of PFBA. Being able to talk with other families who are going through the same unique family business issues is almost reassuring because we know we are not alone in going through these same types of issues.”
Watertown Box is “a fantastic South Dakota success story,” said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association. “It’s been so rewarding to connect with this family and help them tap into the multiple resources we provide to assist in their transition and overall business operation.”
The brothers shared multiple ways Prairie Family Business Association has helped support their business and family needs.
Prairie Family Business Retreat
In 2021, the Towle family participated in the annual Prairie Family Business Retreat at the Paul Nelson Farm near Gettysburg.
“The retreat was really the catalyst that got the transition jump started,” Mike Towle said.
“The Towle family as a whole typically avoids conflict and asking the difficult or uncomfortable questions. So for seven years, we always knew the plan was for us to take over, but no one really ever laid out a plan and what the transition would look like. We were just kind of hoping it would go smooth when it happened, and hope is not a management strategy.”
Andrew Towle agreed.
“It gave us all just a chance to break away from the business for a few days and work on the business and the future of the company rather than working in it. It gave us a chance to sit down with one another and have hard, meaningful conversations about where we were at and where we saw the company going into the future,” he said.
“All of us came away with such clarity and understanding of where everyone was at that I couldn’t recommend attending the retreat enough. Also, getting to network and connect with other family businesses going through the same issues was so helpful as well as it gave us another resource to rely on.”
At the retreat, they met facilitator Kyle Kangas, who helped the family through its discussions.
“It was really the first time we had laid out a plan for the transition and what it would look like,” Mike Towle said. “The difficult questions were asked, they were discussed, and a plan was laid out. It was like this big weight had been lifted now that we finally had a game plan for the future of Watertown Box. There were so many positives that came out of the retreat that I can’t say enough good things about it.”
Entrepreneurial Operating System
Through Kangas, the Towle family was introduced to using the Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS.
“This was one of the best decisions we could have made as a company: to implement and follow EOS. Our entire leadership team always seemed to get lost in the day-to-day operation of the business that we didn’t often take the time to step back and plan for the future and figure out what goals and improvements we should be trying to make to help us reach our long-term goals,” Andrew Towle said.
“Just the strategic planning and ‘rock’ aspect of EOS is something that helps us immensely all get on the same page and helps us all work together towards those goals. I can’t even describe how much it has helped our meeting structure and also helped us focus on what’s most important for the business and how we can achieve our goals as a team.”
Their implementer continues to help provide a neutral perspective and narrow the focus so the company can concentrate on the root causes of its issues.
“Honestly, EOS is one of the best things we have ever done for our business,” Mike Towle said.
“Until EOS, we were basically doing things the way we have always done them. It’s not to say that it hasn’t worked, but my dad’s favorite movie, ‘Tommy Boy,’ had a great quote about growth: ‘You’re either growing or you’re dying; there ain’t no third direction.’ We didn’t know how or where to grow because we didn’t know where we were going. EOS allowed us to set future goals, and even though we don’t know exactly how we are going to get there, we at least know where we are headed as a company.”
Affiinity Peer Groups
Both brothers are involved in Prairie Family Business Association Affinity Peer Groups.
“It’s definitely something we both wish we had done sooner,” Andrew Towle said. “After every one of our quarterly meetings, I think I can speak for Mike and I in saying that we both leave them very fulfilled and with a better understanding of what issues we all are facing and steps we can try to take to help our businesses succeed in all aspects.”
The peer groups provide an outlet to discuss not just business but personal and family issues in a confidential setting.
“I have found immense value from my group,” Mike Towle said. “It is refreshing to see that you are not alone and that there are other people struggling with the same issues you are. The open and honest communication helps from people outside of your industry or echo chamber and brings some much needed new perspectives.”