Over the last two decades, Gill Loubser has – with admiration – tracked Joe Foster’s stellar progress since 1998 when he decided to leave Kohler Flexible Packaging and strike out on his own.
Twenty years ago, when Joe Foster embarked on an ambitious venture to establish his own packaging business, he told me: ‘It will be very successful and the name Foster will be big in South Africa and internationally.’
How gratifying it is to confirm that his bullish prediction was correct!
Some might quip ‘it’s the luck of the Irish’, but Joe Foster doesn’t buy that. Taking a retrospective look at the company he founded in 1998, the ever-affable Irishman has a rather more prosaic view. ‘If you want more luck, you have to take more chances, be more active, show up more often,’ he maintains.
Joe’s involvement in packaging started when he was 16 – initially in engineering. He was just 20 when he moved to Zimbabwe, where he was involved in engineering and production at a packaging plant, which later led to production and sales positions at Kohler Flexible Packaging. Aged 34, he left Kohler and set about fulfilling his dream of ‘flying solo’ by the time he was 35.
Indeed, it was this ‘can-do’, self-assured attitude – putting a deadline to a dream – that saw Foster Packaging evolve from a humble office in Joe’s Cape Town home to a well-respected global player, now Omniverse Foster, operating from Australian headquarters.
Well, that’s 20 years’ history condensed into three short sentences, but of course there’s much more to tell . . .
Going the outsource route
Joe’s initial business model was unusual. Not for him the norm of setting up a production facility or acquiring agencies; instead he opted to go the ‘outsource’ route – buying and selling what best suited customers’ requirements instead of touting only what he could supply or manufacture.
‘We partnered with selected suppliers who offered the best resources, standards and the constant innovation demanded by our customers,’ notes Joe.
‘Ownership’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘service’ are the rocks on which his business success has been built. ‘My approach has been to take ownership, to take responsibility for the products I sell,’ says Joe. ‘Customers should always feel confident that they’re getting the right specification, the right quality, and on-time deliveries – I was committed to being a reliable supplier and our success proves that we’ve delivered on this promise. Supplying packaging is not a “one-off” deal, but an ongoing relationship.’
The early inclusion of the word ‘International’ in the company’s name was also prophetic. From the beginning, Joe’s extended horizons and broad perspectives saw him seeking out partners in South Africa and around the world who could provide cost-effective, high-quality alternative packaging formats. And over the years he made concerted efforts to keep Foster International Packaging at the forefront of the global market, for instance taking part in any number of trade shows, both in South Africa and abroad.
In 2002, Joe relocated to Dublin to better manage this global expansion, and then in 2010 he moved again – this time to Australia. Here he established Foster Packaging Australia, where, among other things, he broke new ground by offering digital printing for short runs in flexible packaging.
Omniverse Foster set to disrupt the packaging market!
Then, in 2016, came the merger between Foster Packaging (both the South African and Australian operations), and Australia’s Omniverse, resulting in the Omniverse Foster Packaging Group.
After several years of collaborating on a variety of projects, the owners decided to pool their resources, skills and expertise to create a group with a greater international footprint, better purchasing power, stock management and efficient supply chain logistics. Between them, co-founders, Joe Foster, Brendan Yee, Regan Foster and Darren Brits, have a shared vision that encapsulates the highest level of customer service and superior quality packaging.
The company is now managed by a board comprising founding members Joe Foster (director, sales), Brendan Yee (director, sales), Darren Brits (COO), and Regan Foster (technical sales and operations manager).
A dedicated manufacturing facility in Melbourne includes an in-house laboratory for product testing and traceability, allowing Omniverse Foster Packaging to offer a wide variety of packaging, filling and testing capabilities, and exceptional customer service.
In addition, the group has sales offices in China and Vietnam, sources packaging from Asia and Europe, and has a licensing contract with a US-based packaging supplier.
The merger shifted both companies out of the SME space, creating a mid-tier supplier as an alternative to major packaging manufacturers and importers.
‘As the packaging industry continues to consolidate at the top end, there’s strong demand for alternative suppliers,’ says Joe.
‘The Australian market needs a nimble local supplier with an international footprint – one that can innovate, provide speed to market, offer the flexibility to cater to any run size, while offering access to a full range of packaging from accredited international sources,’ he adds.
The Pouch Shop concept takes off
Back in Cape Town, a sister enterprise known as The Pouch Shop has also taken off.
Established jointly by Joe Foster and Chris O’Brien, and aimed at small and start-up ventures, it offers a range of off-the-shelf pouches.
‘We help businesses to get up and running and once they’re strong enough to have their own branding on their pouches we pass them over to Foster Packaging. As we’re using the same production facilities, it’s a seamless transition,’ Chris explains.
And this arrangement is two-way street – when Foster Packaging’s customers require less than minimum orders, they’re passed over to The Pouch Shop.
‘Of course, we’re slowly expanding the range as we get demand,’ Chris adds. ‘For instance, our latest flat bottom pouches, and pouches with front zippers are available one box at a time.’
Chris is now assisting in the establishment of a similar project in Kenya and the concept has been copied in Australia, too, where digitally-printed mock-ups and runs as low as 500 pouches are also on offer from the Melbourne plant.
First-ever digital flexible packaging
Backtracking to 2009, Foster Packaging established a dedicated short-run digital flexible packaging business. Its centrepiece was an HP Indigo ws4500 installed at the company’s Irish facility; and this was the birth of Flexible Express.
Until then, the business had relied on medium- to long-run high-resolution gravure printing. However, by establishing this dedicated short-run facility in Ireland, Foster Packaging was able to supply short-run flexible packaging to its growing US, Irish and UK markets, as well as supporting the African market via the Cape Town office. According to HP at that time, this was the first business in the world to establish a dedicated short-run digitally-printed flexible packaging facility, meeting short-run requirements for pouches, films and bags.
When Joe relocated to Australia in 2010 he established a similar business there.
Celebrating two decades
To celebrate Foster Packaging’s 20th birthday, a dinner was held at Dixies Restaurant in Glencairn, Cape Town, where Joe took the opportunity to thank those who had been part of the 20-year journey – partners and colleagues, business connections and service providers, family and friends.
Special credit went to Beverly Popplestone, who joined Joe at the inception of Foster Packaging 20 years ago, and to Chris O’Brien who joined the company 15 years ago. Beverly still works at the Cape Town office and Chris now runs The Pouch Shop.
The anniversary celebrations also proved the perfect occasion for team building, as Joe’s co-directors from Omniverse Foster accompanied him to South Africa – the first time the Australians, Brendan Yee, Darren Britts and Lawrence Jaffe, had met the whole South African contingent.
It seems fair to say that the 20-year anniversary was well and truly celebrated and that the Foster Packaging family looks forward to the next 20!
So, it just remains to say ‘Slåinte!’ to a man of vision and to committed teams who fly the South African and Australian flags high on the international packaging stage.
A wise man once said: ‘Goals. There’s no telling what you can do when you’re inspired by them; there’s no telling what you can do when you believe in them; there’s no telling what will happen when you act upon them.’ That sentiment seems perfectly apt for Joe Foster.
And, as a thought-provoking aside from this tongue-in-cheek journalist, if Joe had stayed with Kohler Flexible Packaging 20 years ago, he would now be working for Australia’s Amcor group!