When we sat down with the leadership of Seattle Tacoma Box Company on a warm, breezy afternoon in the conference room of their Kent headquarters and wood box plant, we found something unusual and unheard of for these times.
Across from us sat three generations of Nists — the patriarch, President and CEO Ferd Nist Jr.; Ferd’s son Rob Nist, the company’s COO; and Rob’s daughter Erika, who is in charge of corporate compliance, marketing, and sustainability — all playing active and pivotal roles in the day-to-day operations of the family’s 130-year-old business.
Not far away sat the rest of the Nist dynasty. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and spouses all typing away. Not to say the business is wholly family run; the Nist family only makes up a fraction of the company’s more than 80 employees.
The company was founded by Ferd’s great grandfather Jacob Nist, who, in the 1880s, decided to pack up his family of five boys and one girl and move from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Seattle, stopping for a few years in Kansas to try his hand at farming.
It is hard to know the exact timeline for the family’s arrival and subsequent actions leading up to the business’ incorporation in 1889. But when Rob became the company’s secretary, he went through old accounting ledgers and meeting minutes, and followed his family history through those business documents.
“You’re just laughing as you’re pulling out old minutes and you start reading through what they were going through back then, (things like) how they organized their business and (that) they’re going to buy a machine,” Rob said of the yellowed pages covered with old-timey script that he sifted through.
The company initially began as a molding and millwork business built on the tide flats in what is now south Seattle before it pivoted to producing wooden boxes due to cost.
“Box guys were at the bottom of the food chain,” explained Rob. “For a house, you use long boards; in a box, you use short boards. So, if there’s a big knot or defects in the wood, you can cut around (them) to make box boards … you’re buying (the wood) no one wants to use.”
The Seattle Box Company began growing and taking on clients who needed its boxes to ship fish, clams, oysters, vegetables, fruit, soda bottles, and more. In 1928, the company branched out to a new market and opened another location in Tacoma, aptly named the Tacoma Box Company.
Both plants operated until 1973, when the family merged the two entities into the Seattle Tacoma Box Company and moved operations to a highly industrialized part of Kent where the family still maintains a
Location isn’t the only thing that changed for the Nist family during its august history.
The company constantly tries to keep itself on the leading — if not the bleeding — edge of box innovation. Wood gave way to corrugated material milled with paper. Distribution and production had to be ramped up with plants and distribution centers along the West Coast. Next came colorized boxes featuring four, five, and six colors. Then there was food-grade, wax-coated boxes for produce.
Today, with the increase in ecommerce sales, the Nists are trying to reinvent their products again.
“(Online sales) are good for the corrugated business,” Rob said. “The last five years, it’s been a good business to be in. But it’s going to change again.”
Still, he noted the top ecommerce complaint from consumers is the amount of materials wasted while shipping a small product in a large box.
“They are pushing back on our industry and saying, ‘Hey, we want you to consume less paper,’” Rob added. “So, we saw a downturn in the first quarter this year and it was down because of being more efficient.”
Meanwhile, the company is reinventing the way it develops its products designed to ship produce. Previously, this was done with waxed corrugated cardboard. The company has been testing other containers with its SeaCa Plastic Packaging plant
“We started into the plastic version, which was another bleeding edge,” Ferd said. “We have now developed a corrugated plastic box for the egg industry and the fish industry. And we’ve been five years building those
The company has even developed a distribution and recycling system. In fact, for every million wax produce cartons that are converted to the SeaCa’s corrugated plastic cartons, the company estimates that 1,183 tons of waste — five times the weight of the Statue of Liberty — would be diverted from landfills.
One might think constantly operating on the bleeding edge could wear on a person, but the Nists all said they love their jobs.
“This is what I always wanted to do,” Rob said. “Sure, we all get frustrated from time to time and you walk into your dad’s house and say, ‘I quit.’ But then you both laugh, and you go home. I get up every day excited to go to work … I get to problem solve, and who doesn’t like to solve people’s problems?”