News & Events

Manufacturing with the Environment in mind February 06 2016

By Jeff Wiebe

Flexahopper Plastics may not be a household name in Lethbridge, but it probably should be.

Flexahopper has been a mainstay of local manufacturing since the 1960s, creating rotational moldings for use in packaging containers, grain hoppers, and a variety of other products. In recent years, the company has made strong efforts to reduce its energy footprint, going so far as to be compliant with the Kyoto Protocol as of this summer. “The highlight for us is that we’ve been innovative, but we’re also trying to do it on a really low energy footprint,” says Bill Spenceley, owner and president of Flexahopper. “If people were to look at the products they buy, the most energy-intensive phase of that product’s existence is the manufacturing side of it. We want to try to see what we can do to bring that down, and our hope is that consumers are going to appreciate that.”

Flexahopper has had energy efficiency programs in place since 2007, when it began using wind-generated power for all of its activities. A few years back, management decided to add another 400 feet onto the company’s existing building, but they also wanted to future-proof the facility to ensure upgrades wouldn’t be necessary again for several years, so a variety of green initiatives were implemented. “We look at any way we can cut back our footprint – it’s a culture we’re trying to develop in the company. We’re going to keep trying different things to see what’s possible,” explains Spenceley, adding that employees at every level of the business are encouraged to question existing processes and suggest ways to improve. “It’s been a positive thing, and I’d like to broadcast that to other companies. This is a real opportunity for them to look at, and some tend to see it as not much of an issue. I think the people who aren’t doing anything at all are going to be outsiders.” The issue is important to Spenceley not only because of its obvious cost savings and benefit to the environment, but because of the looming threat of stricter government regulation in the future. “Businesspeople don’t like surprises, and we may find that down the road, our government has no choice but to impose restraints on growth or energy use because the rest of the world is demanding it.”

Despite being six times larger than it was in 1990, Flexahopper uses the same amount of energy today it did more than 20 years ago, and when the company becomes compliant with Kyoto this summer, it will be a world first for the rotational moldings industry. “Everybody tends to think that big industry is the one who should be doing something about it, and they are,” explains Spenceley. “Eventually it’s going to trickle down to smaller or medium-sized enterprises like us, so why not show it’s possible?”

 Some of the energy-saving measures won’t pay for themselves for a few years, but it’s that long term outlook that Spenceley says is often missing in the manufacturing world. “I own the company, and we’ve been able to do some great things, especially on the energy side – if I was a bean counter, thinking of that short-term philosophy, we’d have never even tried it.” Long term thinking has paid off for the company – as homegrown manufacturing has declined in favour of offshoring projects to China in recent years, Flexahopper has continued to enjoy growth, exporting its products all over the world. “What’s really neat is we’re bringing revenue and hiring people right here in town, instead of going in the other direction.”

In addition to leading Flexahopper, Spenceley is heavily involved in the industry, serving as vice president of the industry’s North American association and chair of its global association. He regularly attends manufacturing trade shows, and was dismayed to find a recent show filled with teams from China attempting to persuade managers to move their production overseas. “I went to that show and saw that, and thought ‘wow, this is dismal’. You see this exodus of factories out of the North American market, and most people don’t see how short-term that is,” Spenceley explains, adding that by adopting a longer- term outlook, his company is helping contribute to the future of Canadian business.

“I hire engineers – people come in here, learn a craft, learn about our processes. We train them and develop them – that’s the way you need to manage people. They’re the future leaders and innovators of tomorrow, and if they don’t get the opportunity to work in a factory like this, they’ll never develop that skill set.”