Pakko founder Nina Nguyen thinks outside the box for homegrown manufacturing

Pakko founder Nina Nguyen thinks outside the box for homegrown manufacturing

When Nina Nguyen’s parents - Vietnamese migrants making a living as farmers in the Lockyer Valley in rural Queensland – called on her to find cardboard boxes to package their upcoming harvest, she didn’t think they would be a challenge to find.

Calling on overseas manufacturers for cost-effective, sturdy, moisture resistant boxes that could handle changing weather conditions for interstate logistics across the east coast, the young entrepreneur bumped heads with multiple problems.

She faced issues including language barriers with overseas manufactures, factoring in exchange rates from US dollars, bulk minimum order requirements, and a lack of quality control on products manufactured abroad.

There were also long lead times of 10 to 12 weeks, which her parents were unable to wait for as they were getting ready to harvest.

“All that got me thinking that there must be other people in the same position as my parents with the same frustrations,” she explains.

“That’s when I had the idea - what if I could create a business of custom packaging with a new level of convenience and affordability with no minimum order and it’s all made right here in Australia?”

That was the beginning of Boxco, founded in 2011 with a specific focus on horticulture that still supports 200 farmers in the Lockyer Valley and Logan.

Boxco sources its cardboard boxes from overseas, but amidst growing demand from both agriculture and other sectors, in 2017 Nguyen took the plunge to set up her own local manufacturing plant. Thus, Pakko was born, producing a range of cardboard-based packaging including customised boxes, shipping boxes, mailer boxes and business boxes.

Now with more than 5,000 active customers across Australia such as Queensland Health, Go For Zero and Telstra, Pakko remains fully owned by Nguyen who has bootstrapped the business the whole way through with her team growing to 25 staff based in Brisbane.

"Our whole supply chain is in Australia. Everything we manufacture is under our roof in Geebung, Brisbane," she says.

Sizing up quickly

“The first two years was a real big rollercoaster ride. I didn’t have the financial backing to employ experienced staff to run the machinery. I had to learn everything myself from scratch,” Nguyen says.

“There are so many moving parts in manufacturing – sales, machinery, production, processes, dispatching, invoicing, quotes, you name it. I had to learn it all to understand who I needed to bring into the company for the lifecycle of that box.”

The steep learning curve gave Nguyen the backbone to prepare for what was to come.

“The first two years taught me to be adaptive to the environment, to try to understand and learn from the mistakes and rewrite the processes," she says.

COVID hit in Pakko’s third year, a time when the business was forced to adapt and grow exponentially in response to global supply chain disruptions and restrictions on overseas imports.

With empty supermarket shelves, Pakko was contacted by Coles and Woolworths to provide a packaging solution to stock shelves across the country. Pakko also won the contract for the COVID test kit boxes distributed across Australia during the pandemic.

At a time when businesses were letting staff go due to cost-cutting measures during the COVID disruptions, Pakko employed five additional machine operators and three developers to keep up with demand.

“It was one of those challenging but rewarding time. During COVID we had something like over 2,000 quotes a month," Nguyen says.

Unable to keep up with that demand, Pakko quickly developed an innovative technology in just a few months to streamline the front-end customer experience by making it possible for customers to get a quick online quote.

With half of the team made up developers, Nguyen describes Pakko as “more of a tech company now than manufacturing”.

“I say that because we’re so innovative in what we do. We’re trying to streamline and make the process easier for customers," she says.

Persevering through challenges

Nguyen wasn't prepared for the challenge she faced in the early days in a predominately male-dominated manufacturing industry as a young, inexperienced woman from a migrant background. She was told by one man in the industry there was no way she'd be able to make it in such a traditional sector characterised by male leadership in multi-generational family companies. 

“It was quite disappointing the lack of support I got at that time. For me, every day it was a challenge," she explains.

She did however have the belief of her parents, who were holding onto her success with a thread to keep the family business alive.

“My parents came here with nothing. They backed me and supported me and had two mortgages to give me the funding to support me. I was going against all odds. We would have literally been living in a cardboard box if I wasn’t able to pull it off," she says. 

As an entrepreneur who ventured into various industries before box manufacturing, including beauty, fashion, tattoo artistry, and digital technology, Nguyen, who believes nothing is impossible and that there’s always a way out of a problem, didn’t let anything stop her from finding a solution.

“When someone tells me I can’t do something, I am even more determined to prove them wrong,” she says.

Nguyen’s perspective as a business leader is shaped by her upbringing and seeing the challenges and uncertainties her parents faced when coming to “an unknown place called Australia” to build a better life and a business from scratch.

“Seeing firsthand my parents struggling as migrants coming to Australia, not being able to fit in was something I held close to my heart. My parents gave me the knowledge, my education and understanding of how lucky I am to be here in Australia,” she says.

“When I started Pakko I had to bring those beliefs with me because that embodies who I am as a person. I wanted to give people the employment opportunities to come and work regardless of their background, or if English was their second language, or if they didn’t have the experience. I would take them on and guide them and give them that opportunity.”

With 70 per cent of the Pakko team coming from diverse backgrounds where they speak a language other than English, and 50 per cent of staff being female, creating a culture of diversity and inclusion is incredibly important to Nguyen, as well as sticking to work–life balance practices.

"I brought colour to this place to try to change it," she says.

“I also invest in coaching and training to ensure every team member can grow and develop as a person. I want them to come to work and feel excited and inspired and feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves.

Future-forward expansion

Nguyen has plans to expand Pakko globally in the next two years, starting with expansion in Asia–Pacific.

“We’re looking to expand our global reach and explore our technology and production capabilities. It’s something we really need to do to stay ahead of the industry,” she says.

However, Nguyen knows how important it is to get the business model right here in Australia first, while keeping innovation front of mind.

“We aim to revolutionise the manufacturing industry through building our own technologies, writing programs and software that communicate with our machinery to streamline our front-end and back-end production processes, ensuring efficiency is there to reduce the costs for our customers without compromising on the quality,” she explains.

Pakko is currently working on technology that will reduce the turnaround time from 10 to 12 working days to just eight working days, which she says is “unheard of”.

Nguyen says they have made manufacturing “fun, young and exciting”, changing the paradigm of a traditional industry. The need for keeping up with technologies, while being mindful of sustainability in a rapidly changing world, is at the forefront of what Nguyen is focusing on as Pakko continues to grow and expand in the manufacturing space.

 

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