Narrow Web Profile: Spear

By Leah Genuario | July 20, 2005

A look into one successful company that's not afraid to think differently.

Spear calls it the toy box. It's a collection of spectacular labels that are meant to tempt the most grown-up of brand marketers. There's a label that looks and feels like tree bark. Another that mimics the texture of a football field. And still others that change color, glitter, gleam, and deliver that extra punch.

While most of these labels will not make it to the supermarket shelves, they serve the purpose of encouraging customers to think outside of the box. It is something that this label converting company has been doing for years.

Spear specializes in film pressure sensitive labels for the beverage industry. The company estimates that about 90 percent of its business is beverage-focused. "We are very targeted," says Dan Muenzer, director of marketing. "We don't try to be all things to all people."

But they do try to be all things to their people: the beverage market. It is this quest that has driven Spear to unusual endeavors. From manufacturing its own presses, to opening up a label application division, to acquiring a wide web gravure plant, Spear does what it takes to meet the needs of its customers.

The effort has paid off. The seemingly endless client roster includes such names as Bacardi, Diageo, Pepsi, Coke, Cadbury and Anheuser-Busch. More impressive is the company's market share for clear PS labels. In the US, Spear captures 86 percent of the non-alcoholic beverage sector, 99 percent in beer, 98 percent in the flavored alcoholic beverage sector, and 50 percent in spirits. Its market share in Europe also is in the double digits, according to company data. Spear now operates in four plants on two continents.

Spear is interested in gaining share through innovation. "We're out talking to customers and developing concepts with customers," says Rick Spear, CEO. "Our interest is in creating new opportunities instead of capturing business from competitors."
A 16" GMC press. Never heard of a GMC press?
There's a reason for it.

Spear currently employs more than 350 people. Annual sales are between $90 and $100 million, and the company possesses 30 printing presses across three facilities. (This figure changes after the official acquistion of a Sonoco plant in Fulton, NY.) Today, Spear is a large-sized printer with a wealth of capabilities, but even this powerhouse came from humble beginnings.

Spear's roots go back to 1972, when a pressure sensitive division was started at a sheetfed offset printer. Ten years later, Charlie Spear purchased the assets of the division and Spear was born.

The company's first location was in downtown Cincinnati. In 1990, Spear moved to a bigger facility at its current headquarters just north of the city in Mason, OH.
It was around this same time that Spear homed in on the beverage industry. The company had started off servicing pharmaceutical and personal care companies, and one of its major accomplishments was creating a clear PS film prime label for Prell shampoo in 1985 — Muenzer says it was the first label of its kind.

In 1991, beverage brand Clearly Canadian also made the jump to clear labels. This successful project sparked a new direction for Spear, and the company set its eyes specifically on PS film beverage labels.

With this focus in mind, Spear continued its expansion in 1999 with the acquisition of Gar-Doc in Milford, NH, and the start-up of SpearEurope in Cwmbran, Wales.

A joint venture was formed with cut-and-stack label manufacturer Illochroma Labelling Group in late 2003, called IlloSpear. IlloSpear services the global beer industry for both returnable and non-returnable markets.

Also in late 2003, Spear announced its intention to purchase one of Sonoco's gravure plants, in Fulton, NY. Spear has possessed an operating lease for the plant since January 1 of this year, and the acquisition was expected to be complete in April. The plant prints wide web gravure.

"It's a small facility," says Muenzer, "But from a throughput standpoint, it adds 30 to 40 percent to our capacity."

Stop the presses
The company has a broad range of printing capabilities — flat bed and rotary screen, letterpress, offset, UV flexo, gravure, and hot stamping. The presses used in production reads like a Who's Who of the press manufacturing industry: Kamman, Arsoma, Gallus, Mark Andy, and Comco. And then there are 11 presses that bear the name GMC, which are only in Spear plants.

Before and after Spear: A group shot depicting
the evolution of various beverage labels.

When Spear acquired Gar-Doc in 1999, the company also acquired the GMC press technology, which was named for the people in New Hampshire who developed the machines. The press is engineered specifically for clear pressure sensitive labels. "It's the fastest screen printing press in the world," says Muenzer, who adds that it is capable of running 250 feet per minute.

The capabilities do not end there. The platform press is a combination rotary screen, UV flexo and hot stamp printer, and the stations are fully interchangeable. The GMC presses print up to 10 colors, and most are 16" in width.

These presses have accommodated customers in more ways than one. The lead time to build a GMC — from concept to up-and-running on a shop floor — is 14 weeks. If demand for a product increases at epidemic speeds, Spear's manufacturing team can quickly ramp up its capacity to better service the customer.

That was the case when flavored alcoholic beverage Smirnoff Ice entered the marketplace. Introduced by Diageo in late '99, the product went from zero to 30 million cases in 12 months. "Spear provided every one of those labels, and part of the reason we were able to do this was our ability to build the GMC press," says Muenzer.

A vertical approach
Building its own presses is not the only thing that differentiates the converter. Spear has taken a vertical approach in reaching out to its customers. "We focus on a system beyond just labels," says Muenzer.

This philosophy has lead Spear to form SpearDesign, a creative design department. SpearDesign is not the converter's prepress department, but rather a separate group focused on brand awareness. There are two teams: one based in North America, and one in Europe.

In addition to conducting test markets and focus groups, SpearDesign employees "are creative designers that have intimate knowledge of our printing process, yet can work with brand owners to redesign their brand products," says Muenzer.

Spear also has a label application division, called Spear Application Systems. The division is located in Ohio on paper, but the equipment is manufactured by Kosme in Italy and shipped from there with a Spear name plate.

Formed in the late 1980s, "it was born out of necessity," says Muenzer. "When we first developed clear pressure sensitive, we had great looking labels, but no equipment that would be able to put it on the bottles."

A Spear press operator running a job on a Kamman flat bed screen press.

Besides manufacturing and selling the label applicators, Spear Application Systems also services application equipment made by other label application equipment manufacturers.

And if end users are not sure how the label will fare through the bottling or pasteurization process, they needn't fear: Spear can help there too. The company claims to have developed the world's first label capable of withstanding pre-fill labeling, showers, pasteurization, hot-fill, retort, and in-line labeling.

Spear also has the capability to test labels under various conditions. To put beer labels through the testing rigors, the company has beer pasteurizers at three locations.

Future paths
"We are not regionally focused; we are end-use focused. For instance, we have a marketing team that is just focused on the beer industry. The dynamics of the beer industry are different from the dynamics of the wine or spirit industries," says Muenzer. "We spend a lot of time studying the global market place."

While many converters are focused on expanding into new markets, Spear is focusing its efforts on expanding into new territories. Muenzer says the company is looking to purchase a plant in continental Europe in the near future. Spear says the company is also looking at ventures in Asia. And the recent acquisition of the Sonoco plant enables the company to accommodate long runs for large customers. These endeavors fit Spear's vision for the next five years:

"I envision us as a premier supplier to the beverage industry on a global basis — reaching into South America, into Europe, doing more business in Asia," says Spear. "If you look at the last 24 months, these are the steps we've been taking."

5510 Courseview Drive
Mason OH 45040 USA
Phone: 513-459-1100
Website: www.spearsystem.com