Hidden in plain sight: Vale Packaging shows why you can’t judge a business by its exterior—or an owner by their age

Posted on January 04, 2022 | By Stephen Kimber | 0 Comments

It was 2001, and Ed Baker was closing in on his 60th birthday.

He should have been slowing down, winding up, tweaking his golf swing or planning some exotic post-retirement vacation with his wife.

What he should not have been doing was considering starting over all over again.

Yet here he was.

 

Ed Baker co-founded Vale Packaging with Carla Rafuse (inset) when he was 60. Today, at 80, he’s still going strong.

 

Fifteen years earlier, he’d joined Chester Plastics—then a Nova Scotia-owned manufacturer of plastic trays for the food industry—as its marketing manager. At the time, he knew nothing about plastics; in fact, he’d spent the previous decades immersed in the beauty business.

“I did a lot of studying to bring myself up-to-date on plastics,” Baker explains today. “I would work in the morning in my office and do my phone calls. And then in the afternoon, I would work in the plant to understand the machinery—how efficient it was—because you have to be able to price product, you need to know how fast the machinery is, how efficient… You really have to understand the product that you’re representing.”

Baker came to understand his plastics products so well that, during his time with the company, Chester Plastics’ sales grew 20 per cent a year every year for all his 15 years on the job. “We had customers in British Columbia and Alberta,” he says proudly. “We developed a plant in Alberta, warehousing in Toronto, a lot of business in the United States.” At its peak, Chester Plastics employed 130 people.

He smiles when I ask how he managed such a feat from what seems like, well… the manufacturing nowhere of Chester, Nova Scotia, which is best known as a south shore summer destination for rich Americans and Halifax’s best heeled.

“You have to make them think you’re big,” Baker says simply. Stealing a page from Sony—a meaningless four-letter word that became the iconic global brand of a Japanese company, which had begun its own corporate life in 1946 as hard-to-remember Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo—Chester Plastics developed its own four-letter product line called Peak, an equally meaning-free word with an iconic rocky mountain logo. Rocky Mountains? Chester?

“The people in the west thought it was a western product.”

When the company opened a Toronto warehouse, it naturally acquired a Toronto telephone number. But, if you’d dialed that number, it would have been answered in Chester. “People thought we were a big company, and we did very good business in Quebec, in Ontario, in New York, huge business in Alberta and California.”

The company did well, and Ed Baker had fun. But then the firm’s local owners sold the business. The new owners ultimately became a corporate umbrella called Reynolds Food Packaging Canada, itself a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa.

That “changed everything.”

Largely because Chester Plastics had had no budget to hire salespeople, Baker had developed his own successful network of agents across the U.S. and Canada who represented the company and were paid on a commission basis. Baker spent a good deal of his time managing that very successful team. There were days, he says now, “when I was in three provinces and four states from when I left [Nova Scotia] at 5 o’clock in the morning till 11 o’clock that night when I’d go to bed somewhere in the States.” He laughs. “It was kind of like being a politician during an election.”

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