Thriving Through the Recession and Beyond at Iowa Prison Industries
By Shawn Preston, Plant Manager, IPI Mitchellville Division, and Jennifer Borkovich, Marketing Director, Plascon Inc.
Iowa Prison Industries (IPI) has a mission of providing exceptional service, reasonable prices and quality products that will allow their business to remain self-funded, achieve growth and provide more jobs for inmates and staff – a big task in the current economic conditions. But luckily, there are products that can be made in a correctional setting that are always in demand. Plastic bags for example, can be used as trash can liners, food packaging, laundry bags, highway pickup bags or biohazard bags. They are found in almost every business, industry and institution. Their wide marketability and versatility make plastic bags the perfect product to generate recession-proof revenue for IPI.
Initially, Roger Baysden, Director of Iowa Prison Industries, began a bag manufacturing program as a cost-savings measure to produce plastic bags for internal use, producing 50,000 bags per month for use by the IPI Canteen commissary. Since then, IPI Plastics has moved into a larger space at IPI Mitchellville and their largest customer is now the Iowa Department of Administrative Services (DAS). By purchasing from IPI, DAS keeps money in their home state and enables IPI to provide meaningful work opportunities, job training and pre-release programming for Iowa offenders.
The bag making equipment, called a BSM machine, typically uses between 3 and 8 workers per shift per machine. The plastic film is supplied on large rolls that are loaded onto the machine that then slits and seals film to the bag specification entered into the computerized control panel. The machine can handle film widths of up to 51” and produces bags with lengths between 7” and 98”. Workers at the end of the machine remove, fold and box the final bags.
Expanding the Market
While some Correctional Industries bag manufacturing programs survive simply by making enough bags to supply their own needs, a big part of IPI’s success comes from the fact that they have won competitive bids when compared to private vendors. Target customers include schools, universities and non-profits. This success has been accomplished because of IPI’s commitment to integrity, quality, price and service. IPI staff includes a full time sales force that pursues every lead that comes in from current IPI customers, bid opportunities and the Internet. Bags can be delivered efficiently anywhere in the state because of trucking resources shared with IPI Canteen Division. According to Shawn Preston, Plant Manager of IPI Plastics Mitchellville, “No matter what specifications the customer is asking for, we will get the job done if given the opportunity.”
Meeting Unique Requirements
Working with a customer to specify the best bag for their needs is a critical part of the IPI sales process. In order to provide the most competitive price, IPI must look beyond the normal thickness, length and width specifications. IPI bags are made from a film that is stronger and more tear resistant than the bags sold by most of their competitors. “Because our bags are made from a stronger, more durable film, we look at the customer’s end use to determine what product to quote,” said Preston. “By pitching bags according to true bag strength as opposed to their current vendor’s advertised specs, we have consistently gained business and satisfied customers.”
IPI also has the ability to create custom bags, whether they are a unique length, a special color or require a specialty print. Creating custom sizes was a key to capturing business from Iowa State University – an account that has rewarded IPI with increased business. IPI Plastics also supplies bags to nine prison facilities throughout the state. IPI worked with Plascon and the prisons to create bags for special institutional uses including bags that are transparent for easier searching and others that are appropriate for Protocol/Biohazard bags. To expand business in the “Pay-as-You-Pitch” trash market, IPI has even fulfilled customer requests to provide individually sealed packages of five or ten bags and twist ties.
Shawn believes that an important factor in the success of IPI Plastics has been the partnership with Plascon. “We have been able to bid successfully for business across Iowa because we are able to work with Plascon to create competitive bids,” said Preston. “Plascon has helped us to ‘compare apples to apples’ when evaluating the products a potential customer is using today and has worked with us on pricing to capture large volume accounts when needed.” IPI began their bag program right as the economy began to slow, but despite that, sales have grown to $1MM per year. “We expect to see a 20-25% increase in sales in 2011 and have set a goal of $1.8 MM per year by 2013,” said Preston. “This level of sales would justify future growth in both equipment and personnel.”
Being Environmentally Responsible
One of the reasons for Preston’s optimism is the increasing demand for plastics that are biodegradable or that contain some recycled content. “We began offering biodegradable bags in 2009 and right now, they are less than 10% of our sales,” said Preston. The Iowa Legislature recently mandated that all state agencies be fully compliant in the use of environmentally correct products by the summer of 2012. “We see this as a key area for growth,” said Preston. IPI’s biodegradable bags contain a minimum of 30% recycled material and naturally degrade in 9 months to 5 years depending on environmental conditions with no toxic by-products. The biodegradable bags offer the same performance and strength as standard bags.
The Bottom Line
The IPI Plastic Bag Manufacturing Program has provided jobs and revenue to the Iowa Corrections Department throughout the current recession by supplying products that are consistently in demand regardless of economic conditions. A dedicated sales staff, a strong partnership with their supplier, Plascon Inc., and a growing demand for environmentally responsible plastics has allowed IPI to not only supply bags for their own needs – lowering internal costs – but also to win competitive bids in the open market. It’s a winning combination for IPI, the inmates and their customers.
For more information about the IPI Plastic Bag Manufacturing Program, please contact Shawn Preston, Plant Manager for Iowa Prison Industries Mitchellville Division at 515.967.7651 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.