Narrow Web Profile: Label King
Always striving to learn and improve, this San Diego converter keeps growing.
By Steve Katz, Editor
Published April 15, 2014
9555 Distribution Ave, Suite 103
San Diego, CA USA
Robert Parker is the Label King, and his San Diego, CA-based company’s progression is the result of an idea he had, followed by education, planning, hard work, networking, and a sense of humor. Visit Label King’s website, and you’ll find a series of videos designed to educate and inform label customers on the company’s converting capabilities, product portfolio and green endeavors. But with slapstick humor and Parker decked out in a cloak, crown and scepter, these videos will also make you laugh.
Parker wasn’t always the Label King. Twelve years ago he was an established packaging salesman, working for a company whose products run the gamut – industrial packaging, corrugated, foam, etc., and also pressure sensitive labels. It was the labels part that fueled a vision he’d been having.
“I had this crazy idea that I wanted to start my own business,” Parker says. “But I had no idea what to do. I knew I could sell, and I had a good name within the packaging world, with contacts at a bunch of different companies. I thought, I could sell to this industry, I could sell to the trade.”
With the seed planted, Parker was drawn to labels. During his packaging sales career, he’d experienced some difficulty and a lack of support when working with label suppliers. “I didn’t think they were doing as good a job as possible, and I thought it was an area where I could do better,” he says.
Parker felt he was on to something, and the soon-to-be Label King launched an investigation. “I went to all the label companies I could and started talking to people, but I went through the backdoor. When you walk in the front, everyone says they’re busy – you’re not getting the full truth. But if you go to the back, and talk to the people working the machinery, you get the real story. And all of the companies I visited seemed to be very busy,” he says.
It was around 2001 when Parker embarked on this label industry fact-finding mission. The economy at the time wasn’t particularly great. “But most of these label shops seemed to be doing well,” he recalls.
Parker decided to take the next step and commit to starting a business, so he went back to school. Fullerton College is about an hour and a half north of San Diego, and the school offered a class on flexo printing. He went to class twice a week, making the long commute around his work schedule, thus solidifying his commitment. “I figured if I am going to start a company, I should know something about the business, like how to print labels. I knew I needed to be intelligent when I talk to people about running a press,” he says.
An enthusiastic, eager flexo student, Parker wanted to learn everything he could about the label business. One of his flexo teachers did consulting work, and Parker hired him. With the consultant’s help, he came up with a clear strategy to launch his company. “I figured I needed three things to start the business: first, a Webtron 650. I didn’t have a huge amount of resources, and I wanted a workhorse machine. I also needed someone to run it – I didn’t want to be ‘Mom and Pop’ shop where I was running the press – I knew my strength was in sales. And third, I needed cutting dies. Selling to the trade, if I’m quoting against another trade shop, and they have dies that I don’t, I won’t get the order if I have to charge for a die,” he says.
As fate would have it, a good-sized label company in LA went out of business, and all of its assets went up for public auction. While most of the shop’s pressroom equipment was in disrepair, there were more than 20 pallets of dies that were in good shape. Parker brought along his consultant to inspect the pallets and they targeted the ones they wanted, mostly versatile, round corner rectangles. He put in a bid on what he wanted, won, and took home nine pallets of dies.
“All of a sudden I had a die inventory,” he says. At the auction, Parker gained more than the dies. There, he struck up a conversation with the owner of a small San Diego label company, who happened to be looking to sell his business. The two negotiated and agreed on a price for an asset-only purchase. And the machinery Parker acquired in the deal? He had found his four-color Webtron 650 press along with an Aztec diecutter rewinder.
The press operator of the defunct company Parker bought the Webtron from was now looking for work, and he had the right skills and experience, so naturally he became Label King’s first employee. With that, Parker had filled out his checklist. So, in 2003, almost two years from his entrepreneurial epiphany, Parker set up the machinery at a 1,500 square foot facility in San Diego, called his company Label King, and opened the doors for business.
The kingdom grows
Like most new businesses, Label King started small. It was a two-man operation, one pressman, with Parker selling. “We started off slow, and bit-by-bit, the orders came in. It was exciting,” Parker recalls.
Incrementally, capacity required the need for more people and more machinery. By the end of 2004, Label King acquired its second press, another Webtron 650, this one with five-colors. In 2007, the company added a third Webtron and expanded to 3000 square feet.
Despite the recession that came at the end of 2008, Label King’s business remained strong. So much so that keeping up with demand became difficult. In 2010 the company added its first Mark Andy 2200, an 8-color press, and expanded its facility to 4500 square feet. “At the time, we were literally bursting at the seams, so we needed to take the next step in order to get to the next level. And we felt a bigger facility would help us reach our expansion goals,” Parker says.
Label King moved its operations to what is now its current home, an 8,300 square foot space in San Diego, across the street from the Miramar Air Station (the setting for the movie Top Gun. In fact, you can hear the fighter Jets flying overhead from inside the plant). Parker invested in the building. With a sparkling epoxy floor, Label King’s facility shows well, and its cleanliness is a point of pride for the company.
Today Label King has 17 employees, and runs two shifts with four flexo presses – two Webtrons and two Mark Andy’s – along with an Aztec diecutter rewinder for blank label production. The redundancy of having two of essentially the same press provides print consistency for the customers.
Label King’s most recent press acquisition came in December 2013 when it added its second Mark Andy, a 10-inch wide, 6-color press. The company has more capability and capacity than ever, having also recently added cold foil to its offering.
The King connects
Robert Parker is passionate about his business, and also a few other things. So when he’s not talking about his family or his beloved San Diego State Aztecs, he’s all about gathering information that will help improve his company.
Label King’s success can be attributed in large part to Parker’s willingness to learn the label industry. Since coming upon the idea to start the business, Parker has been the consummate student, eager to speak with successful industry veterans and absorbing as much information and label business tips as he can.
Three years ago, Label King became a TLMI member, and Parker finds the association to have tremendous value, particularly as a forum to network and learn from his peers. When he goes to TLMI meetings, he sets goals for what he’d like to come away with.
Label King’s aforementioned second Mark Andy 2200 came about all-of-a-sudden, and it was borne from conversations Parker had with his industry peers. Prior to the TLMI Annual Meeting in October 2013, he had made up his mind that he needed to bring platemaking in-house. This is what he wanted to talk with fellow converters about. While discussing workflow with a fellow printer, he learned about the success this printer was having with an additional press, and a light bulb went off. “I knew I wanted to do something to improve my shop. But we were having capacity issues, running two shifts on the Mark Andy – we had bottlenecks. So I’m looking to add platemaking, as that would make us more profitable, but I need to take care of my customers first. With my distribution background, I know that you do whatever it takes to help your customers. It just hit me – I am out of my mind to worry about platemaking when we can’t keep up with capacity!”
So Parker called an audible, shifted gears, and two months later installed a pre-owned Mark Andy. “I still want platemaking,” he says, “but it’s a step-by-step process.”
In addition to pressroom operations, Parker has also learned a great deal about managing his company’s most important assets, the people that work for him. Customer service is another point of pride at Label King, and its “customer-first” philosophy trickles down to every department within the organization. His staff is dedicated, and their loyalty to Label King is appreciated.
“I’ve always taken a very conservative approach to hiring. I’ll wait until we run a lot of overtime before taking on someone new, because I never want to be in the position of having to lay someone off for lack of work. Once I hire someone, I want to give them 40 hours a week,” Parker says, adding that Label King pays 100% of its employees’ health insurance, has a 401K matching program and awards incentive-based bonuses.
Selling to the trade
Label King’s business model stems from Parker’s previous experience working with trade shops. While the company has recently done work directly for customers, working with brokers remains the backbone of the business plan, and it’s a plan that works, resulting in double digit growth year-over-year since Label King’s inception.
Discussing the advantages of selling to the trade, Parker explains, “There are a lot of people who don’t use a lot of labels. They’ll spend maybe $5,000 per year in labels, and they’re going to buy from someone they know and like – someone they have a relationship with. These companies are buying all kinds of packaging from this one person, labels included. More often than not, that buyer doesn’t care where his labels are coming from.
“Working the trade, it’s the brokers that are going out and getting the business. With our trade business, we may have a total of a dozen customers, who in turn may have hundreds or even thousands of customers to sell labels to. That’s the beauty of it,” Parker says.
Leading the way
The Label King doubles as a sort of “Pied Piper.” One of the more notable ways Label King differentiates itself is through its release liner recycling program. Parker works closely with the label industry’s environmental and recycling maven Calvin Frost, president of Channeled Resources and the chairman of the TLMI environmental committee, and they’re working together to encourage the practice of release liner recycling.
“As a converter, 40% of what I sell is trash – it’s insane,” Parker says. “So, I have a very eco-conscious customer, and I offered to take his liner. Basically, they have a Gaylord container that they fill up with liner, and when it’s full we come and pick it up and take it to a liner recycling facility. It costs us money, but it also sets us apart from others. And it also presents an opportunity for us to get in the door and get more business.”
Label King now has three customers that participate in the liner recycling program, which, Parker says, “is probably three more than most label companies have.”
He adds, “If I’m selling someone a high volume of labels, then I’ll gladly pick up their liner. It’s something we want to do more of.”