Ottawa’s family-owned Snelling Paper & Sanitation acquired by global packaging giant

Snelling management
Snelling management

A family-owned firm that’s been a fixture of the Ottawa business community for more than a century has been sold to the Canadian arm of a global manufacturer of packaging and cleaning supplies.

Snelling Paper & Sanitation, which has been operating in the capital since 1915, was acquired earlier this month by Bunzl Canada, the companies announced this week. Bunzl is also acquiring Sur-Seal Packaging, a Winnipeg-based industrial packaging company that is wholly owned by Snelling.

Financial terms of the deal, which was finalized Dec. 8, were not disclosed.

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Bunzl Canada is a division of food distribution giant Bunzl Distribution USA. That company, in turn, is part of London-based Bunzl plc, a U.K.-based public enterprise that trades on the London Stock Exchange. 

So after 105 years of being an independent operation that called its own shots, Snelling will have to adjust to life as one segment of a multinational corporation that answers to legions of shareholders. 

‘Tremendous opportunity for growth’

But Snelling executive vice-president Pat Lahey, who was a part-owner of the company, isn’t losing any sleep over that. He says the deal gives the firm the financial backing it needs to expand its customer base along with the global reach to offer new opportunities to its 90 employees in Ottawa and Winnipeg.  

“Our staff has tremendous opportunity for growth, and that was of underlying importance for us,” says Lahey, who’s been with the company for 20 years.

Over its 10-plus decades, Snelling has evolved into a diverse business with customers of all sizes from an array of industries. 

In addition to providing janitorial and sanitation services to commercial clients ranging in size from Scotiabank Place to “mom-and-pop” stores, the company also provides packaging for major food retailers, including Ottawa’s own Farm Boy, as well as uniforms, linens and other products.

Six years ago, Snelling bought Sur-Seal Packaging, which makes custom-packing materials ​– think bubble wrap, crates and adhesives, for example ​– used to ship industrial items such as engine parts. Among its biggest customers is aviation giant Boeing.

President and former majority shareholder Randy Graham represented the third generation of his family to own a stake in the company. So when Bunzl Canada first approached the Snelling executive team about acquiring the firm 18 months ago, it wasn’t a slam-dunk, Lahey concedes.

Ultimately, however, they decided it was in the business’s best interest to hand over financial control to owners with deeper pockets.   

“We put a lot of long, hard hours and years into this company,” he says. “We wanted to take it to the next direction, but how were we going to do that? Between the both of us, we decided we needed to partner with somebody that has the same values and interests. They checked the boxes.”

Brand names retained

Lahey says Bunzl has pledged to retain the well-entrenched Snelling and Sur-Seal brands, and he and Graham will carry on in their current roles. 

“Nothing really changes at all,” he explains. “The Snelling trucks are still flowing out daily like they’ve always done.

“I think that’s what excites us, is that they’re allowing us to do what we’ve done for a lot of years. They buy successful companies with good leadership and good people, and that’s what they’ve done.”

Like many businesses in Ottawa and elsewhere, Snelling has taken its lumps during the pandemic as many of its customers, especially in the hospitality sector, were forced to shut down for months and saw their revenues plummet. 

But Lahey says with 2021 just around the corner, he’s starting to see signs of a resurgence.

“We didn’t have the (revenue) decline that we projected, which was great, but we did have decline,” he says, noting the company laid off about half a dozen employees early in the COVID crisis before hiring them back in June. 

“But we’re starting to see it creep back – not to where it was pre-COVID … but we’re going in the right direction, and I think that’s the most important thing.”

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