In 2019, AccuLink Packaging President Tom O’Brien invited Tim Mages to come to his office to discuss a business idea. O’Brien was looking to expand and diversify his print-on-demand business that he had started out of his garage in 1980. He had recently been introduced to O’Brien through a mutual friend in the industry.
Mages was willing to listen. He kissed his lovely bride goodbye, promised to be back in time for dinner and drove the four hours from his home to the AccuLink headquarters in Greenville, North Carolina. Mages had worked for over 30 years in flexible packaging, and his career was winding down. He still enjoyed dabbling a bit in consultant work because he still was free to choose his hours, spend more time with his family, and perhaps even write his first novel. So why did he take the meeting with O’Brien? Was he looking for a new challenge? Did he miss the human interaction: getting to know his colleagues and their families working on site? Read on to discover Mages’ why.
The meeting with O’Brien went well. So well, in fact, that Mages completely lost track of time. At 6 pm, while the two of them were scratching out business plans on a 12 by 15-inch envelope in O’Brien’s office, Mages’ phone rang. It was his wife. He had lost track of time. He would not be home in time for dinner. But the meeting had been a success. Armed with his father’s work ethic and love for a challenge, Mages shook hands with O’Brien and agreed to become President of AccuFlex, the newest division of AccuLink.
Mages reflected on his decision, “I felt like Tom felt. There was a need in the market for that short to midsize flexible packaging, to really service the new and up and coming companies and the emerging brands. I put the plan together and sold it to the bank. Subsequently, I put in a proposal to the state of North Carolina, and they chipped in with funding. In January of 2020, we started in the building I am in now.”
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” —English Proverb
Just 45 days later, COVID-19 hit. Mages reflected on the effects of the shutdown. “In hindsight, the timing [of COVID-19] couldn’t have been worse, but we persevered. I believed in what we were doing. There was a need in the market. The biggest COVID-19 challenge was getting our name in front of people.”
According to the AccuFlex website,“Our customer focus will be on the manufactures of snacks, confectionery products, coffee and granola/cereals. Opportunities within the pet food arena will be explored.” There is no mention of cannabis packaging. When I asked Tim about it, he explained, “We weren’t even thinking about cannabis packaging in 2019. Cannabis packaging was not on my radar. I had identified a list of 40 companies in the Southeast as potential targets [for our business]. We started by going out and talking to people or emailing. At some point, we had people approach us from the cannabis industry. There are a lot of opportunities out there.”
Mages shared how this newly discovered interest motivated him to look into the possibility of expanding into the cannabis arena. “We explored [the cannabis market], and then we started to explore child-resistant zippers. We learned that there is much opportunity out there in a very fragmented market. Each state has their own rules and regulations. These cannabis companies [were and] are looking for people like us who can manage short run, quick turnarounds, not huge volumes. They are all starting their own little brands, and they want that CR zipper.
Mages also discovered that the cannabis industry is a bit like the Wild West. “There are no national packaging standards for cannabis. California and few others have mandated that the minimum thickness of the flexible pouch must be 4 Mils (one Mil equals .001 inch) or greater. It is about the thickness and the robust tougher feeling for child protection. Other states have followed suit, but nothing is in writing.”
Despite the gun-slinging reference above, Mages does not regret his decision to lead AccuFlex into the cannabis arena. “We started with just a few small companies, and others started calling us. Now, I am dealing with brokers who are bringing new people to me. Most are state focused, small distributors. Today, 50-60% of what we do is in the CBD (medicinal marijuana) or cannabis packaging niche.”
The world of flexible cannabis packaging certification is, at best, discombobulated. Cannabis is not legal nationally and, therefore, not federally regulated. There are no universal standards that the 17 legal recreational cannabis states must adhere to or comply with. As a result, companies like AccuFlex are hesitant to get their pack-ages certified. Mages ruminated, “If our package is certified in one state, will that certification be valid in another?
And there are other concerns:
1. If cannabis is legalized nationally, will prior certifications no longer be necessary, or worse, deemed invalid? (Note: the Moore Act and the Safe Banking Act have passed the House and are now awaiting passage in the Senate.)
2. The cost can be prohibitive. To be certified in one state, it takes 10-15 thousand dollars per each size pack-age. And the process takes multiple months. “One company spent the money to get a small and a large pouch certified. We are considering doing that because it gives you the bookends. But it is quite expensive,” Mages said.
Furthermore, the requirements for opacity and labeling vary in each state, making universal packaging difficult. But there is one flexible packaging constant in all the states where recreational cannabis is legal. Mages explained, “All the pouches I have done today involve the child resistant zipper. There is not a national standard in the U.S., and the states do not require a specific film of production process, but they all require a child resistant zipper.”
Mages added, “We’re a startup. We have been in operation a bit over 11 months. Our long-term goal, when cannabis is legalized federally, is to have certified pouches for production. Most companies aren’t certified because the regulations in the states are all over the map.”
There is a lot of work being done to bring sustainability to the flexible packaging cannabis market. Mages explained how his company is helping to lead the way. “We are really focused on being more sustainable. Part of it is using all polyethylene films, and the other part is the work we are doing with a number of companies in the bio-based film and bio-based zippers.” But sustainable, flexible packaging for the cannabis industry is not yet a reality.
Mages described the zipper-flexible-packaging dilemma: “There are two films that are used: one’s a nature flex, a cellophane based film that is made from pulp. The other is a TDS compostable sealant web. Those are laminated together with a compostable adhesive.” Therein lies the rub. Mages explained, “No one yet has a child resistant compostable zipper that will adhere to these compostable films. The regular polyethylene zippers, that I use on all my other structures today, will not adhere to the compostable film because there is a difference in the melt index. They are not compatible. They just do not stick to each other. None of the biobased films today work with a child resistant zipper.”
But because cannabis companies are committed to being sustainable, there is hope. Mages explained, “Even if the package is more expensive, the emerging brands want to carry home that sustainable message. They are committed to it. They feel it is the right thing to do, despite the higher cost.
As a result, there is a lot of work being done today to create a compostable film that is made from biodegradable plant-based resins that is also compatible with a compostable biobased CR zipper. I have done some trials, but they are not commercial yet. Everyone recognizes the need to get that package into a bio-based film coupled with the compostable bio-based zipper that has the child resistant ability.”
Perhaps the AccuLink website says it best. “Our efforts within the flexible packaging market will be to focus on sustainable film options for the industry. Working with industry leaders and visionaries, we will help bring to market BOTH recyclable and compostable grades to the small and mid-sized manufactures.”
Mages no longer sips tea under his proverbial magnolia tree enjoying the semi-retired life of a consultant. And, according to Mages, he would have it no other way. “I love a challenge. Tom and I took a leap of faith outside of our comfort zones, and we do not regret a thing. It is fun and challenging running a startup. It is a lot of work, a lot of hours, but I am having fun. And I love working with people: whether it is the customers, the suppliers, or our small group here. I love getting up every day to interact with and lead the people here.”
Mages believes that a leader needs to do more than work hard. A leader needs to also care about his colleagues and be committed to doing the right thing. Mages grew up in Buffalo, NY, and attributes this work ethic to his blue-collar roots and his father. “My dad had a big influence on me early on. He worked in factories all his life. He worked in a brewery and then at Chevrolet. My summer job was working in the Chevrolet plant one year, and then I spent two summers on the loading docks in Buffalo.”
As a result, he has a lot of respect for the workers in his manufacturing plant. Mages said, “Any time I work on an operation, I get to know everybody who works in the place. I call them by their name and look them in the eye. Any success I have had is really a result of the success of each individual that has worked for me. In the end, you do what you know is right deep in your heart.”