Washington state’s Yakima Valley has quite a bit to boast about. Sixty-some miles southeast of Mount Ranier, this region supports over fifty wineries, grows and distributes those famous Washington apples, and dominates the craft brewery scene (it produces 75 percent of all the hops grown in the U.S.). But agriculture is not the only type of production one can find in the Yakima Valley: just due south of the county seat lies a small town called Union Gap where a rising star in aluminum bottle production – Liberty Bottleworks – has boldly taken an industry from the clutches of foreign competitors. If you ask co-founder Ryan Clark how Liberty Bottleworks took a sub-$20 consumer good and made it less expensive than it’s Asian-produced counterpart, he’ll probably say something that reflects just how bullish LB is on American ingenuity: “It’s because nobody told us we couldn’t.”
Made in America – 100%
For Liberty Bottleworks, creating a completely made-in-America product in a zero waste facility has nothing to do with positive press or marketing. For this company, founded by Clark and his business partner Tim Andis, these values were at the core of the development of the brand, not awkwardly retrofitted to address a changing tide in consumer trends.
For Liberty Bottleworks, the concept of stewardship is foundational to the company’s goals. The bottles are made with recycled materials and are entirely recyclable, and the goal of the company is to continue to develop new processes in design and fabrication to make its products last longer and use less. Liberty’s commitment to being financial stewards means a percentage of every bottle sold helps organizations and people in need. Part of this stewardship means Liberty will conduct business in a way to preserve and protect all that makes this country great for future generations, by making its bottles in America, by American workers. “This is not our ‘ethos,’ or ‘mission statement,’ or ‘brand message,’” says the company – “it is our promise.”
For Clark, one of the biggest issues facing American manufacturers is one of confidence. We’ve become conditioned to believe we can outdone by global competitors simply because many foreign countries have an advantage in labor rates. But, he stresses, many costs (such as the price of aluminum) will be the same in Washington as in China, and using a technologically advanced factory can make up a lot of ground when paired against low labor rates in an antiquated factory setting. The other benefit to American manufacturing of an aluminum bottle is that the shipping costs (plus duty and tariffs) from Asia means an additional cost per bottle that Liberty doesn’t contend with. But it’s not just a numbers game — there’s an American manufacturing legacy that Liberty considers key to the competitive advantage. “I think this country has forgotten that we taught the world how to manufacture, and we’re about to give it another lesson,” says Clark. “People ask all the time — how do you guys do it? The answer is super simple. This is the best goddamn country in the world. We can make anything. Your birthright is to wake up and say, ‘I’m gonna kick the globe’s ass today.’”
The Liberty Bottle
Liberty takes China to task finding ways to make zero waste not only help the environment, but to also help cut production costs. The process begins with rolls of recycled aluminum that are punched and drawn painstakingly into the signature shape, designed to pour like a wine bottle and make drinking easier. Once formed, the bottles are rinsed via a process Liberty honed in order to create a byproduct that was safe for the environment: instead of a chemical combination, each component of the cleaning fluid is applied separately, making it easier to reclaim. After the individual chemicals are removed to reuse, what remains poses no threat to the region’s precious water game, notably the wild salmon population, which has dwindled in Washington state as the population has grown.
After the rinse, the bottles are conveyed into a clean room where the inside is powder coated. The coating creates a strong interior that resists cracking. A high efficiency conveyor oven provides a super quick cure for the freshly powder coated bottle and what comes out “is gold,” says Clark, referencing the basic 24 oz. bottle that comes off the line, ready to be finished to any customer spec. Printers cap the production flow, where bottles are adorned with anything from beer logos (Bud Lite did a promotion at last year’s Super Bowl using LB bottles) to a map of the Grand Canyon. Cylindrical digital printers means these graphics can fully wrap the bottle, uninterrupted, and layered color creates a contoured feel – almost like a relief map.
The last line of defense is packaging, where company employees pore over bottles before boxing to ensure there are no dents or imperfections. The cast-offs are either recycled (remember, this is zero waste) or donated to global humanitarian relief efforts.
The Liberty Team
For Clark, factory life and family life have a lot of the same qualities. “We all spend more time with each other than we do our wives, our kids, our husbands… and so often, on any given day, the stress level is high; passions run high,” explains Clark. “But at the end of the day, we’re a family. And like most families, we’re highly dysfunctional, but we still love each other like a family.” Liberty barbecues each Friday as a way for the family to recharge its batteries — and to say thank you for a week of work well done. To boot, manufacturing personnel are issued Razor scooters to use for moving around the production floor, and are allowed to play the music they like.
It’s important to the Liberty team that the playing field be level as well. “We don’t believe in a division of labor. What that means for us is that everyone in the factory is cross-trained to do everything. And it also means that today, you might be in finance or you might be repairing an electronic device, but you might notice that the bathroom really needs to be cleaned, and you just clean it,” says Clark. “From a cultural aspect, the worst thing that can ever happen is if someone thinks they’re above a job. Because no one’s above a job. But also, with all these different skill sets, no one is below a job.”
If you ask the Liberty team members about why they work for this company, many cite the core values around environmental sustainability and domestic manufacturing. They know they’re making a quality product, and it reflects in the level of enthusiasm the associates bring to their work.
Turnover on the plant floor is in the single digits, but when Liberty does hire, it’s no surprise the company makes extra effort to ensure its job creation is legitimate — not a smoke and mirrors effort. According to Clark, one requirement for getting hired is that the applicant be unemployed, since the company takes seriously the idea of creating jobs, not simply shifting work.
One-third of Liberty’s employees are veterans, and bottles are designed by real life “starving artists,” rather than some corporate design team. Liberty’s graphics department works to take the artistic vision of these contributors and develop it into a usable file that can be printed onto the bottles.
Really, the whole place feels less like an industrial facility, and more like a collaborative push towards a greater good — an oasis, perhaps, of socially conscious effort, wrapped in its own digitally printed personality. And it might as well be fun at the same time. Says Clark, “If we can make factory life a wee bit better, isn’t that the goal?”
The eCommerce Challenge
Liberty Bottleworks prides itself on making the only metal bottle on the market that is entirely made in America. Therefore, it can’t rely on off-shoring as a means of reducing costs. It relies, instead, on operational efficiencies to create a strong bottom line. Liberty Bottleworks uses NetSuite financials, manufacturing, inventory, order management, CRM, and eCommerce, with a direct-to-consumer website powered by NetSuite SuiteCommerce to manage its business end-to-end, while also expanding its retail network to about 1,400 including REI, Whole Foods, and L.L. Bean. But its omni-channel commerce has a bit of a unique twist.
In addition to its B2C online sale of standard metal bottles and its distribution through regular retail outlets, Liberty Bottleworks also offers custom bottles. While the company expected this to be about 10 percent of sales, this part of the business has recently exploded, which has added a level of complexity that would be unmanageable without an integrated solution to support it. NetSuite supports Liberty Bottleworks in managing up to one million components, including recycled materials.
This is a great example of a company that’s manufacturing consumer products that face a level of complexity added to a business that once might have been relatively simple. As consumers expect and demand more choice, merchants, distributors, and manufacturers require an added level of seamless integration that is impossible to achieve with spreadsheets and desktop-bound solutions. In order to manage the relationships between consumers, retailers, distributors, and manufacturers, you need seamless integration of financials, ERP, CRM, and eCommerce. “We didn’t know anything about eCommerce,” says Clark. “Every dollar we had, originally, went into the factory. Since then, every dollar we have goes into employee salaries. What we don’t have is stockpiles of cash just to go play around. But we knew we had to create that line of site; what we didn’t know is how to do it. And that’s where NetSuite came in. NetSuite helped walk us through how to develop the site, and what the critical aspects were. They taught us how to connect those dots.”