Aug 09, 2023

Outside the box: Catawba Paper Box Company celebrates 75 years in Hickory

Skipper and Fan Smith, owners of Catawba Paper Box, are preparing celebrate the 75th anniversary of their company.

HICKORY, N.C. – In 1939, a box company on Highland Avenue began making packages that Hickory hosiery and textile manufacturers filled with their wares and sent out into the world. Today, 75 years later, about 20,000 boxes continue to roll off the lines at Catawba Paper Box Company every day, shooting out of hulking cast-iron machines almost as old as the business itself.

The production floor of Catawba Paper Box contrasts sharply with a modern manufacturing facility. The machines make a mechanical but not unpleasant sound, an almost warm sound, and impart a slight vibration to the wooden floors.

Those old machines, most dating from the mid-20th century, are surrounded by stacks of cardboard, shelf upon shelf of variously colored paper, vats of heated glue and finished boxes. There are machines for sheeting, scoring, corner cutting, taping, gluing and folding. A skilled staff operates the machines, some of which must be adjusted by hand to tolerances of fractions of an inch and all of which are maintained by an in-house machine shop.

Skipper Smith, 64, started working at Catawba Paper Box 40 years ago. He and his wife, Fan, have owned the business for the past 22 years.

"Originally, everything went out in our own truck within a 60- or 70-mile radius," he said. "Now, maybe a third of it does. Most of it is going beyond North Carolina."

"When I invested in the company 22 years ago, there were 12 box companies in North Carolina. Now there's just us and one other. Therefore, we worry as much about our suppliers as we do our customers, because they have fewer people to sell to," he said.

The decline in textiles in Hickory and surrounding counties meant Catawba Paper Box had to find new markets or go bust.

Today, the company sells boxes that will be filled with the truffles, chocolate bars and brownies made by French Broad Chocolates in Asheville. Confections sold at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus stores across the country are encased in boxes from Catawba Paper Box. There are boxes for fine apparel and stationary, games and puzzles, pharmaceutical supplies and medical supplies.

"The medical industry has become our largest business component," Smith said. "Laboratories like a package that's durable – and ours is – and one that's very, very green and nontoxic. You could eat these darn boxes if you wanted to. It wouldn't taste good, but they’re absolutely safe."

The rigid boxes made by Catawba Paper Box are unlike foldable cardboard boxes. A rigid box is made from a stiff piece of cardboard glued together and often covered by decorative paper with designs or a merchant's name printed on it. The company also makes clear, vinyl boxes, which are made much the same way as a paper box but from sheets of plastic instead of sheets of cardboard.

Another large component of Catawba Paper Box's business is custom-cut cardboard for furniture frames. Furniture manufacturers use cardboard instead of wood in some upholstered pieces because it's cheaper and lighter than wood. About 50 tons of cardboard each week are cut into odd shapes and sizes at Catawba Paper Box to fit and support furniture frames, and some of the business’ accounts with furniture manufacturers date back 30 years.

Andy Rhoney has been with Catawba Paper Box for nine years. His wife, Laurie, is the Smiths’ daughter. When he came to the company, Rhoney brought a background in graphic design and Internet savvy. As sales and marketing director, he oversees design and branding services for customers, purchases from vendors, and sells to customers.

Walking through the factory with Rhoney, it's clear he's passionate about the workings of the business.

"Look at this beautiful light up here – it's what I love," he said, firing up a machine from the 1960s known as a guillotine cutter. A fixture at its top casts a light reminiscent of a dimmed overhead projector or slide carousel. "It's like being back in school again."

Pausing at another machine, also probably from the 1960s, he pointed out the labels affixed to it. "It tells you where it's made, who made it. ... It's like something out of ‘Lost.’ I just love that," he said.

Rhoney isn't the only member of the family to work at Catawba Paper Box. The Smiths’ son, Graham Smith, recently joined the business as operations manager. Skipper Smith's brother, David Smith, is the plant manager.

Turning his family-owned business into a family-run business wasn't Skipper Smith's goal, but members of his family have simply been available at the times the business has needed their skills, he said.

Even when he brought his wife, Fan, into the business, it was more a matter of expedience than nepotism. She had left her job at with Newton-Conover City Schools to help care for his ailing father. Then, when Skipper developed an eye problem, he realized it wouldn't be a bad idea for his wife to learn a little bit about the business they own.

"Bless him, he took me in with no business background whatsoever," she said.

"It was tricky way to get an affordable manager," he said as he and Fan both laughed. "Underline affordable."

During the years he's run the business, Skipper Smith has taken on his wife, son, brother and son-in-law as employees, but all of the 28 employees of Catawba Paper Box make up a sort of extended family.

A handwritten sign posted in the production area reads:


The Work Only


The Worker


"That's a goal, certainly," Skipper Smith said. "People have good intentions. Sometimes they don't meet those, but hopefully if we attack the quality of the work and not the quality of the person, we’ll grow."

That philosophy seems to be paying off.

Catawba Paper Box was lucky to survive the great Recession and has done well through the past four or five years, he said. The business is on track to have a great year this year, and is preparing to invest in new equipment to make production more efficient and quicker.

"He's always said to the whole plant when we get together for our barbecues that family is first," Fan Smith said of her husband. "This company is important to all of us and it's putting bread on our tables, but I think these folks know he means that (family is first). We keep a promise. We really do. We’ve got a great, loyal group, and we couldn't be more proud of the people who work here. We’re grateful for them."

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio | All Of Our Podcasts Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio | All Of Our Podcasts Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio | All Of Our Podcasts Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube | RSS Feed | Omny Studio | All Of Our Podcasts