What 50 Years of Experience Can Teach the Label Industry

Posted by Rock LaManna

5 decades of lessons learned

You don’t succeed in the label industry for 50 years without learning from your mistakes. Lori Campbell of The Label Printers shared five lessons based on the company’s successful past, and how they will lead to an even more promising future.

Anyone who has celebrated a 50 year anniversary has likely endured many ups and downs along the way.  The Label Printers, a company founded in 1967 and based in Aurora, Illinois, has definitely enjoyed many more ups than downs throughout the years.

As we discussed the company’s past with Chief of Operations Lori Campbell, what impressed us was their ability to apply lessons learned from five decades as a mid-sized label manufacturer.

Lori Campbell

50 Years of Chicago-Based Growth

The Label Printers was founded in 1967 by Gerry Chouinard, Don Tade and Ted Risch.  Bill Kane joined the partnership in 1970 and assumed the Chief Executive position in 1993.  They began in downtown Chicago with a 1,000 square foot manufacturing space, focusing on flexographic presses, silk screening, rotary letterpress and digital printing.

Today, the company is a top mid-sized label converter, distributing custom labels, packaging materials and packaging solutions, with flexo and digital printing capabilities.  Read about their complete history here.

They’ve played this game and played it well for over fifty years, with much of their growth fueled by long-term relationships with several prominent global organizations. Now they’re looking to build on their success through organic growth.

50 Years

5 Lessons From the Past That Will Lead to Future Growth

Lori Campbell has been with the company since 1982, working her way up the ranks to the role of Chief of Operations. The company has maintained a workforce of around 60 employees for the last 10 years, and looks to focus on continued organic growth in the future.

They did grow via acquisition in the past, acquiring two companies in 1996 and 2002. “We’ve remained interested in making additional acquisitions but are determined to wait for the ideal candidate; criteria for the ideal candidate for us is rather daunting,” Lori said.

So what lessons does a veteran company in the label industry take away after 50 years in the business?  Lori shared five items that really jumped out at us.

1. Niche Based on Your Past Strengths and Future Vision

Any business textbook would tell you to develop a niche to be successful.  But simply declaring a focus on an industry segment doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.  You need years of experience, dedication, and consistency to claim a niche.  

It takes more than declaring a niche.

Case in point is The Label Printers’ brand protection services.  “We have one of the longest-running brand protection programs ever,” Lori said. “It didn’t happen overnight. We’ve put many years and many resources into understanding the marketplace, creating solutions, and continuing to evolve our solutions and services to meet the changing needs.”

Working with a global customer, The Label Printers started on the ground floor partnering with their client to protect their client’s mark worldwide. Today they use multiples technologies to help clients incorporate brand protection with a label or package.

“It’s like building any custom label application but on steroids because there are so many other factors to consider besides the basic ‘form, fit, function’ of the label,” Campbell said.

Listen to Lori’s interview if you want to hear about expertise in brand protection.

Expert Interview

2. Benchmark to Numbers That Matter 

As a member of the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute (TMLI), The Label Printers engage in a program where they report to the association on their performance to 13 different financial metrics. TMLI then pools the metrics and shares the information with members.

Campbell and her team use the metrics -- which are weighted based on the size of your organization -- to compare their own financial ratios.  It allows the company to see how they stack up not only against their peers, but also those who are the best in the business.

Choose metrics useful to your company.

“It doesn’t mean because they are doing X, you need to do it too,” Campbell said.  

However, the report, which also breaks down numerics into ratings like “Good, Fair, Poor” gives a “non-financial” person like Lori a good understanding of where they need to focus their improvement efforts.

Reports like these may not inspire a big shift in your company, but benchmarking specific to your industry can yield a lot of small improvements that lead to a big win.  

Check out our previous post on RMA Data, and be sure to learn more about our own industry-specific PeerComps report.

3. Make Quality Control Measures Fit Your Organization

Campbell believes with the amount of varied, customized jobs they produce efforts to attain “six sigma” simply aren’t a good use of their company resources.  

Instead, Campbell said they like to take a more practical approach, looking to trim seconds and minutes off jobs. “We’ve been at this for 50 years; the big cost-saving opportunities have been identified long ago. Now, we’re down to finding those minutes and inches that add up,” she said.

TLMI Eugene Singer Awards

The Label Printers’ TMLI Eugene Singer awards.

The Label Printers maintain a quality control staff of four personnel, and their process includes multiple inspection points at key points and hand-offs.  

“But, our philosophy is that Quality is everyone’s job and we ask everyone to understand the inputs to their own process and the outputs they send on to the next,” Campbell said.

Quality is everyone's job.

I like how Lori toes the pragmatic line. Does it make sense when you’re slowing presses down to nail down perfection?  Every organization needs to find their own balance.

4. Convince the Millennials to Get Their Hands Dirty

A big concern Campbell and all companies have these days is the worker shortage.  With a rapidly aging baby boomer population, and millennials that are more partial to all things digital, Campbell is worried the younger workforce has misperceptions of the converting industry.

“We don’t do a good job of explaining the tremendous amount of opportunities in this industry,” she said.  She notes converting is one of the few industries that is a “beautiful marriage of art and science,” which can lead to a world of possibilities.

“Right now, we’re not on any young person’s radar -- especially with press operators,” Campbell said.  She also is looking at the generation behind the millennials. “The only way to do it is get out there and tell the story,” she said.

The youngre workforce should be eager to join.

I love Lori’s straight-up take on the younger generation.  We are an industry that’s taken for granted by people in all walks of life, yet the influence of labels is everywhere.  

Making programs like The Packaging School and their ridiculously-high 99% placement rate is the news we have to spread.

5. Be Ethical and Never Lay Someone Off

The number one lesson Lori Campbell stresses after 50 years of business?  Be ethical.  And what does that translate into?

“Always stand by your product,” she explained.  “When in doubt, err in the customer’s favor.  Pay your employees and vendors first -  always.”

She also noted that the company has always remained financially strong through the lean times.  They’ve experienced some slow times, sure, but they worked with employees to cause the least amount of suffering.  

Find ways to get through the tough times.

“We all agreed to work 4 days a week and ride out the storm together,” she said.  That’s the kind of attitude that helps you retain employees, a mission-critical goal in light of #4.

It’s People Who Make an Operation Grow

When I look at companies like The Label Printers, I think of the same type of commitment and harmony that have helped my own parents in their 60+ years of marriage.

It’s all about dedication, devotion, and believing in one another.  Lori Campbell talks of products, metrics, and quality control, but behind it all is a belief in the people who make an operation grow.  

If you want organic growth, you need people who are well-grounded.  Based on what we’ve learned from this 50-year-old, up-and-comer growth is on its way.

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Topics: Label Industry