Running a business is hard, but running a family business can often be more challenging. I spent many of my teenage years working in my uncle’s sandwich shop, so I know how tough it is when responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, and you take your work home with you. That’s why hearing a success story like Uline’s is so heartening.
Uline – a family-owned business, believe it or not – is the leading distributor of packaging, shipping, and industrial materials in North America. Liz and Dick Uihlein started the company from their basement in 1980, and from humble beginnings, it rapidly evolved into an industry leader.
There’s a lot of potential in the wholesale industrial supplies industry – it hit a valuation of $81.5 billion in 2022 – which will undoubtedly have helped Uline succeed.
But any industry with potential is usually also an industry with fierce competition, and this one is no exception: approximately 9,016 other companies are vying for a more significant market share in the US.
Uline’s current valuation is $3.84 billion, putting it (just) ahead of rivals like Direct Supply. However, the entry of online retailers, especially behemoths like Amazon Business, into the industrial supplies wholesale space has disrupted the business model of traditional companies.
In this Uline competitors analysis, I will explore in detail the effectiveness of Uline’s business strategy and provide an overview of the companies with which it competes.
The Bottom Line Up Front
Uline is the leading distributor of packaging, shipping, and industrial supplies, with annual revenue of $5.8 billion. It has built this success through strategic acquisitions and industry expertise.
However, my main concern about Uline is its reliance on a catalog as its primary marketing channel, which is outdated. While it might work in this particular industry, there is a gap in the company’s budget for marketing techniques that give a higher ROI.
Rivals like Veritiv, by comparison, seem much more modern. Uline will need a digital marketing shake-up to maintain its industry-leading position.
List of Uline’s Main Competitors
- Veritiv Corporation
- Piedmont National
- WCP Solutions
- Berlin Packaging
Uline’s Business Strategy
Uline is a privately held shipping and industrial supplies wholesale company. It was founded in 1980, and its headquarters are in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. The company’s first product was the H-101 carton sizer, which it still sells today.
Liz and Dick, the company’s founders, still have an active role in business operations. Liz is the president and CEO; Dick is the chairman of the board of directors; their children are company executives. It is set up as a passthrough corporation, meaning income flows through to investors or owners.
Uline’s catalog of over 800 pages includes products like janitorial supplies, paper wraps, peanuts, tape, labels, food service and packaging, and facilities maintenance equipment.
The company uses a hybrid revenue model incorporating production with markup. Some products it produces, while others are manufactured externally and sold at a wholesale price. Its mission is to “exceed our customers’ expectations – delivering every order with speed, passion, and operational excellence.”
In the 1980s and 90s, Uline expanded, with operations starting in California, Minnesota, and New Jersey. At this time, its product catalog contained over 4,000 products.
The early 2000s saw Uline begin operations in Canada and Mexico, and it also opened distribution centers in Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. By this time, the catalog contained around 17,000 products.
Uline has a mass market business model which doesn’t differentiate between customer segments. Consequently, its minimal marketing relies partly on the bi-annual catalog it sends to potential customers.
In 2021, Uline came 73rd on Forbes’ list of America’s biggest privately-owned companies.
The founders of Uline are well known in Washington; they have been donating to Republican campaigns since the 90s using money they earned through the company. On average, they contributed $15,000 a year up until 2009, which has steadily climbed.
These political associations are relevant to Uline’s overall business strategy because consumers are increasingly concerned about the political and ethical stances of the companies they buy from.
Republicans may be encouraged to buy products from Uline. Still, things could also go the other way, causing people with opposing views to steer clear, especially in a country as politically polarized as the US.
Alienating half of the population might not be the best way to do business, though Uline certainly isn’t struggling; in 2021, its annual revenue was $5.8 billion.
Uline Competitors Analysis
Uline competes against companies like Packaging Supplies and Piedmont National in the wholesale supplies industry.
Veritiv Corporation is a B2B provider of publishing, packaging, and hygiene products founded in 2014 with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. It was established upon the merger of International Paper Company’s xpedx division with the parent company of Unisource Worldwide.
Veritiv has approximately 160 US, Canada, and Mexico distribution centers. Six core values guide its business operations:
- One team
- Passion for results
- Customer focus
- People commitment
- Operational excellence
The company counts big-name brands like Ford, Le Creuset, DICK’s Sporting Goods, Procter and Gamble, and Dell among its customers.
Many of Veritiv’s products are designed to be sustainable, and the company is part of several responsible partnerships, such as with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which is essential for its brand image.
Compared to Uline, Veritiv’s business operations are broader; in addition to selling things like e-commerce packaging, temperature-controlled packaging, and paper, it also offers facility solutions. These solutions revolve around healthcare, hygiene, equipment, parts, and service.
Veritiv uses a transactional revenue model, selling a range of products and services. It makes some products while others are manufactured elsewhere. In 2020, the company introduced Veritiv Vine, a new packaging and brand design offering to bridge the gap between design and packaging production.
Veritiv sources the highest quality partners to supply its products, including 3M and International Paper. This approach promotes customer reach, an effective supply chain, and reduced administrative costs. It also has a network of Centers of Excellence to manage the supply chain.
The company’s only acquisition was of All American Containers – a family-owned leading manufacturer of rigid packaging – in 2017. The acquisition gave Veritiv additional selling, marketing, and distribution channels in the US rigid packaging market.
Veritiv recently announced a purchase agreement with Imperial Dade to sell its Canadian operations. Veritiv expects to use the net proceeds to support future growth initiatives and its $200 million share repurchase program when the deal goes through.
Between 2018 and 2021, Veritiv was in the “accelerate” stage of its three-part journey, which involved optimization, investments in growth segments, and building a broader service platform.
In 2021, Investor’s Business Daily named Veritiv Corporation the second-best company in the US based on stock performance. It reported $6.85 billion in revenue that year, up from $6.34 billion in 2020.
Piedmont National is a packaging solution company that prides itself on innovation. It was founded in 1950 by Hugh Marx, and his children still have an active role in the company today. Its headquarters are in Atlanta, Georgia.
Piedmont sells packaging equipment (including corrugated cardboard, shrink film, warehouse supplies, and stretch wrap) and packaging materials (including case packing, blister sealing, and robotics). It uses a markup revenue model because it sells products manufactured by other companies.
Additionally, Piedmont offers consultation services to help businesses adapt to changes in the packaging industry cost-effectively.
Then, four years later, it acquired American Packaging Services, which had locations in Birmingham, Montgomery, Decatur, and Dothan. This allowed Piedmont to expand quickly without diverting extensive resources from existing business operations.
As well as expanding through acquisitions, Piedmont has also invested significant money in building and improving new facilities. In 2007, it opened a new branch in Knoxville, Tennessee; it expanded the warehouse in 1561 Southland Circle in 2008; in 2010, it opened a branch in Albany, Georgia; and 2017 saw the creation of an innovation center in Atlanta.
Piedmont has issued a sustainability statement stating the company’s goal is to “implement reusable, recyclable, and responsible initiatives internally and through proactive consultation with our customers.” Thus, many of its products are made and sourced sustainably, which is vital in this industry.
Piedmont National’s annual revenue is $154.5 million.
WCP Solutions is a privately-owned wholesale provider of packaging supplies, janitorial supplies, paper, envelopes, and food service solutions. Formerly West Coast Paper Co. was founded in 1930, and its headquarters are in Kent, Washington.
WCP has local facilities in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska, with local customer service teams and account managers stationed at each location.
A markup revenue model supports the company’s wholesale business strategy.
Like Uline, WCP uses catalogs as a way of marketing products. However, instead of putting all products into one enormous catalog, WCP separates the items by product type. For example, it has a beverage catalog for drinks supplies.
One of the things that sets WCP apart from competitors is its dedication to customer education; it runs webinars on various topics related to the products it sells and the general packaging and cleaning industries. These help to boost customer retention and also to acquire new customers.
WCP has made a few acquisitions in its ninety-year history, though fewer than many of its competitors. In 2019, it acquired Crown Distributing, a company specializing in food service and janitorial supplies based in California, helping WCP consolidate its commitment to the Northern California market.
The company outsources a significant portion of its marketing activities to Sproutbox, which provides WCP with high-quality, consistent social media content and management, website design, video production, and blog post content.
Through Sproutbox, WCP saw great results, with a 26% increase in LinkedIn engagement, a 14% increase in Instagram engagement, 100+ new videos and photos, and a new website.
WCP Solution’s annual revenue in 2021 was $171 million.
Berlin Packaging is a hybrid packaging company founded in 1898 with headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. It sells bottles, kegs, containers, dispensing pumps, pharmaceutical packaging, design, supply chain, and financing services.
The company has over 130 sales offices and distribution centers worldwide, with locations in Canada, the US, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Greece. It has over 1,700 suppliers, 1,500 employees, and a five times market growth rate.
Berlin Packaging started life as a smaller, container-based company called Alco Packaging, earning $69 million in sales annually. Alco was bought by lawyer Andrew T. Berlin, who renamed it and turned it into the company we know today.
Berlin’s business strategy focuses on making packaging easier for customers and helping them increase their revenue and productivity. It uses a transactional revenue model for its services and a product markup/production revenue model.
Studio One Eleven is the design and innovation division of Berlin Packaging, and it’s one element of the company’s business model that sets it apart from many rivals.
The thing that’s unique about Studio is that it offers its consulting services for free in exchange for supply agreements. As many critics pointed out, this was a risky strategy, but it has more than paid off with record-setting corporate revenues.
Berlin can partially thank its 30+ strategic acquisitions for its impressive growth rate. Some highlights include:
- Repli and Penta Packaging in 2020 are two Italian companies that expanded Berlin’s product portfolio in essential markets like specialty chemicals, industrial, food and beverage, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical.
- Le Parfait in 2022 strengthened Berlin’s position as a leading supplier of glass containers in the B2B market.
Berlin Packaging’s annual revenue in 2021 was $1.6 billion.
Uline SWOT Analysis
This SWOT analysis discusses Uline’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
- Extensive product portfolio
- Press coverage from companies like Forbes
- Active in multiple geographical regions
- Strong presence in the US
- Excellent distribution network
- A functional website with e-commerce capabilities
- Extensive acquisition history
- America’s leading distributor of shipping, packaging, and industrial supplies
- Financial stability thanks to solid revenue growth year-on-year
- Margins can be severely affected by the fluctuating cost of fuel for transportation
- Vulnerable to supply chain issues
- Relies on a catalog for marketing which is an outdated approach
- Lack of focus on sustainability
- Build a more robust European presence with more acquisitions
- Take advantage of new marketing techniques to boost brand awareness and acquire more customers
- Expand product range to meet the needs of more industries
- Focus on sustainability
- Take advantage of technological advancements to improve the efficiency of business
- Create a mobile app
- Build more strategic partnerships
- The global cost of fuel is rising, which puts extra pressure on businesses that provide distribution services
- Other companies focus on delivering sustainable products, which may make them more appealing compared to Uline
- Competition from other companies that are more tech-savvy
FAQs – Uline Competitors Analysis
Question: Which company is Uline’s biggest competitor?
Answer: Based on revenue, Veritiv poses the biggest threat to Uline; it generates $6.85 billion annually compared to Uline’s $5.8 billion. Berlin Packaging is the next biggest threat, with annual revenue of $1.6 billion.
Question: What is Uline’s biggest weakness?
Answer: Uline’s biggest weakness is its overreliance on outdated marketing methods like its catalog. In the wholesale supplies industry, it is understandable why some companies may wish to continue producing a catalog.
Still, Uline does so at the expense of other potentially lucrative marketing channels. In the eyes of customers, Uline may seem outdated.
Question: What is Uline’s mission?
Answer: Uline’s mission is to always exceed its partners’ expectations by delivering every order quickly and passionately.
We all love a success story, especially when it involves an underdog, and that’s how Uline started life back in 1980. Since then, it has built a financially strong and successful business, earning the title of the industry leader in the US.
This is great, but Uline’s rival companies are beginning to branch out by offering additional consulting services, which could ultimately give them the edge. It looks as if Uline likes playing it safe, sticking to its original offering, and standing by its enormous catalog, but this approach might end up detrimental.
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