If the psychologist B.F. Skinner were alive today, he’d be proud to see Ingleside, IL, USA-based label manufacturer Identco at work. As one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Skinner’s work helped to popularize the concept of positive reinforcement, which is alive and well at Identco.
Founded in 1986 by Scott Lucas, who is the company’s CEO, Identco prides itself on the way its employees are treated and the value that it places on training. Take a stroll through the company’s headquarters in suburban Illinois and you’re likely to see several signs that read “Together Everyone Achieves More.” On the press floor, there are detailed charts with department names, goals and outcomes, employee performance indicators, and individual goals and achievements. Teamwork is a major focus here, as is accountability at every level. Every employee - including upper management - has a quarterly review.
According to Lucas, the company was started in 1986 as a specialty distributor of identification products. Today, the company’s offerings include high-performance thermal transfer labels and custom printed and diecut labels. Its biggest markets are electronics, industrial and automotive.
Not long after Identco was established, though, Lucas realized he needed to act fast in order to stay successful. “Around 1989,” he says, “We realized we really needed to be doing some of our own manufacturing to meet the customer requirements and turnaround times.” Lucas got the ball rolling on Identco’s manufacturing presence that year and hasn’t looked back.
A global presence
Identco has rapidly expanded around the world over the last decade. According to Pat Geraghty, vice president of sales and marketing, “We are where we are today because of our customer base and how they grew. We expanded with our customers as the world moved from being US-based and moved to Mexico, to China and so on.”
Twelve years ago, Identco Mexico was opened. Today the company has two locations there: Monterrey, which has both manufacturing and distribution capabilities; and Guadalajara, which has a sales office and distribution facilities.
“Where we’re located in Monterrey, it’s a great location,” says Victor Holbein, chief operating officer. “It’s only an hour and a half drive over the border from Laredo (Texas). It’s a very technical city. It’s one of the largest cities in Mexico with several million people, and the technical quality and the skills are there. So, we had the ability to find some good people locally.”
He adds, “It’s a great location to get distribution to anywhere within Mexico. Our facility in Guadalajara is more for our just-in-time delivery program, which we have set up with some major customers in that region.”
Just eight years after opening Identco Mexico, Identco Europe was established in Frankfurt, Germany. “We had sales and distribution there,” Holbein says. “We were manufacturing, at that point, here in the US, and we had only sales and distribution in Germany. Because our customer base has expanded, our sales have expanded. We’ve now created a manufacturing plant in Europe – we started manufacturing in Germany in January 2012.
“We have a good, solid team and they’re doing a great job there. We run a shared services model here at Identco where we have people at this location (in Illinois) that have responsibility for our processes, departments or people and various business units. We spend our time supporting those business units either here or traveling there to do that. It’s gone well. Our goal is to become ISO 9001 and TS 16949 certified within 12 months of manufacturing there. That will be a significant milestone for us.”
Just three years ago, Identco expanded into Asia. As of right now, the company’s Hong Kong location has sales and distribution capabilities, though plans for manufacturing are in the early stages.
Upgrades at home
More recently, in 2010, Identco’s headquarters in Illinois underwent a big expansion. Holbein says, “In August 2010, Scott made the commitment to us that we would double the size of this facility. There was a major investment into the building as well as the equipment. We underwent a major facility upgrade and capital equipment upgrades as well.
“The biggest change was on the flexo side. We spent a number of months working with three of largest press manufacturers in the world, and we decided on Nilpeter. We put in an 8-color, 13" Nilpeter press which was customized a lot to suit our labeling needs and the ways in which we produce labels,” Holbein says.
Though the customization options were a factor in their decision, Holbein says that his company carefully evaluated the entire press-buying process before making a decision. “It was the performance of the press, the design, engineering, and after-sales service. Nilpeter is just very, very good in the service department and it was a pleasure working with the engineers to propose ideas about design changes. They would very quickly have a solution to show us.”
The company also invested in 100% video inspection equipment and a new screenprinting line. “Again, we spent a lot of time looking at the best in class in the industry. We decided on a Sakurai, from Japan. It takes its engineering and design from offset and incorporates it into a screenprinting press. The benefits of that are accuracy and speed. It’s all UV, high-speed, high-quality, and has very tight tolerances.”
The push behind all of this global expansion and an expansion of capabilities at Identco’s Illinois location is, of course, to meet customer need. But according to Geraghty, Identco’s philosophy has not historically been to respond to market needs, but to proactively interpret them.
“We were experts in the electronics field and it spread out. It went to Mexico, to Europe and to Asia. Vendor consolidation was the buzzword and it still is today. We needed to expand our product lines beyond just blank labels, and that’s how we moved into more customized labels. These electronics companies are doing high-end graphic overlays with their products. That was our value – to add to more product lines, so they had fewer vendors and could work with us on a global basis. We can service them from across the globe.”
In the spirit of the company’s proactive approach to business, its employees do not wait for customers to knock on their door. Geraghty says that they “selectively target customers that fit our ideal profile.” Specifically, he says, that means they look for customers who see the value in what they do.
“Our focus is more on film labels, so its labels that have some value to them,” he says. “They need durability, heat resistance, and high-quality print. Because of these high-performance requirements, we usually get involved in the design stage, rather than at the end when people want to bid it out to everyone. We’re problem solvers and customer service caregivers.”
Holbein explains that the main difference in the labels that Identco produces compared to a cosmetic or a prime label, is that they are not disposable items. “They’re there to serve a purpose, whether it be a branded label, informational, etc. They are there to serve a purpose. They have to last as long as that item is intended to last. Something in the cosmetic industry probably has a shelf life of two months. Some of our labels need to last ten years. They need to be very durable, chemical and abrasion-resistant, offer lightfastness, heat tolerance, etc. It’s all about the performance of that label.”
Identco spends a lot of time working with Underwriters Laboratory and the Canadian Standards Association, which is a global standard. The customers that Identco sells to, Holbein adds, know those certifications very well.
In order to maintain those standards, particularly ISO standard 14001, Identco conducts a customer survey every year or every two years. Typically, its been done through Survey Monkey, an online program that allows companies to create and publish their own surveys. This year, however, management made the decision to utilize an outside firm to go more in depth with their customers. The results were, according to Geraghty, fantastic. “The guy who did the survey said that he has not seen scores this high in some categories ever.”
Holbein adds that maintaining UL, ISO and other certifications is a significant investment of both time and money. And, it’s ongoing. “We audit our quality management system twice a year – top to bottom. Then we get audited by UL every year. So, we’re always on our toes. The big thing with the quality system is that if you document a way in which you do something, if you say you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it the way you say you will.”
Identco has serious ambitions in regard to sustainability, including one day becoming a facility that doesn’t produce any landfill waste. “That’s a goal and it takes a lot to get there,” Holbein says. The company has a liner from a supplier that has 30% post-consumer waste, and also has some products that are Forest Stewardship Council-approved and certified. “Because some of our major global customers have strict codes of conducts or goals, they’re constantly raising the bar for us and it makes us a better company.”
The hard work has been paying off. Recently, Identco competed to become a supplier for a large toy manufacturer. The company was one of 47 converters in competition. “It took two years,” Lucas says. “We were trying to come up with really high-quality labels for toys that are safe and FDA approved, because they could end up going into children’s mouths. We literally had to have our new press reconfigured to accommodate water-based and solvent-based inks. All of the labels are water-based. We created a clean room especially for this. Five years ago, if you asked me if I would ever be making toys for labels, I would have said no.”
Geraghty adds, “When most people think labels, they think paper. That’s totally not us. We’re film-based labels that have quality requirements and follow a quality system that may need UL or CSA (Canadian Standards Association) certification. Those are big differentiators from about 95% of label converters out there. The global footprint, the importance that we put on people in training, and the investment we’ve made in our training facility – those are all the major differences compared to the average company. Our attitude, our philosophy is simple: “Whatever it takes.”