By Barry Morris
With today's "new economy" dominated by businesses rooted in technology and other 20th-century breakthroughs, firms with origins in the 19th century and earlier are becoming increasingly scarce. Those that have survived have done so through successful evolution, remarkable resilience and, in most cases, several generations of family involvement. This combination aptly describes the formula for the success of Seattle-Tacoma Box Co., a 111-year-old producer of, among other things, stackable wooden containers for the mobile-storage industry.
It was in the wake of the devastating Seattle fire of June 1889--in which all of downtown Seattle was destroyed after a glue pot ignited--that Jacob Nist established the Queen City Manufacturing Co., parent company for Seattle-Tacoma Box. With Nist's employer, Seattle Lumber and Commercial Co., falling victim to the blaze, he and his son, Michael, launched a new enterprise making wood products such as egg crates.
Not all ran smoothly from that point forward. Fire would once again do major damage to Jacob's livelihood; in fact, the company endured major fire damage four times in its first 31 years. Other obstacles on the horizon would include the Great Depression of 1929, labor unrest in the Pacific Northwest, skyrocketing lumber prices, and yet another fire in 1973. These and other challenges, not the least of which was stiff competition from much larger corporations, would jeopardize the company's very existence. Yet the company endured, and has evolved into the multifaceted organization that exists today as Seattle-Tacoma Box Co.
Operations are headquartered in Kent, Wash., situated midway between the two larger cities comprising the company's name. Several other manufacturing facilities and distribution centers are scattered in Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii, and the company even runs a furniture-grade cut-stock operation in Tauranga, on the north island of New Zealand. While agricultural packaging, corrugated boxes and the like have always been Seattle Box's mainstays, it is in a particularly uncharacteristic product--concave blocks and straps to contain expensive steel tubulars for petroleum exploration and production--that the company takes great pride.
The venture began when a major oil company asked if it could store some of its North Slope pipe on the company's property near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Seeing that much of the pipe material was being lost to damage in transport and on the site, Seattle-Tacoma Box designed a packaging and containment system that was reasonably flexible for placement on uneven terrain, separated pipe sections from each other, could be loaded by forklift in a matter of minutes, could be stacked indefinitely, and provided significantly greater safety in handling.
The product proved highly successful, and opened exciting new business for Seattle-Tacoma Box that quickly spread to Europe and the Pacific Rim, including deliveries to offshore oil platforms.
Six Generations Strong
Beginning with Jacob, six generations of Nist family members have made contributions to the success of Seattle-Tacoma Box Co. Following in Jacob's footsteps have been two sons, four grandsons, three great-grandsons, three great-great-grandsons, and the latest generation, represented by a great-great-great-grandson named after the founder himself.
Mobile-storage vaults are currently a sizable part of the company's business, with about 7,000 units produced annually, according to Rob Nist, marketing manager and fifth-generation descendant. It was a neighboring entrepreneur, Tim Riley (founder of Door To Door Storage), who was instrumental in launching Seattle-Tacoma Box's vault business. "Tim came to me and said, 'Here's the business I want to do. Design me a box,'" Rob says. "We spent quite an extensive period of time designing the box for him. Then we got it done and made a few hundred of them. We've continually changed it to where it's at today."
Two specific types of containers are produced: One is a bolt-together, collapsible model known as the EasyBox, appealing to those customers wanting to create extra space in their warehouses to sub-lease during slow times of the year. Other customers prefer boxes that are nailed and glued together, and this can be done at the site by the customer himself or a Seattle-Tacoma Box crew.
A generally favored, semi-standard vault measures 8-by-5-by-7 feet. This size seems to provide optimum storage space, stackability and portability without the handling difficulties and other problems posed by slightly larger sizes.
Rob is optimistic about the storage-vault business. The mobile-storage industry is just starting to take off, he says, with awareness continually growing thanks to the service aspect of the business. He describes the phenomenon with this analogy: "Twenty years ago, everyone who wanted a pizza went to the pizza parlor. Today, you pick up the phone and they deliver to your door."
For the Nist family, greater awareness of the mobile-storage business means more demand, more entrepreneurs entering the field and, consequently, greater demand for Seattle-Tacoma Box Co.'s wooden vaults. The family plan seems to be laid out well.