Narrow Web Profile: Creative Labels of Vermont

By Jack Kenny | January 16, 2006

A family-run firm in the northern US grows through careful planning and a focus on human values.

Burlington is Vermont's largest city, and has a population of about 40,000. People have lived there, on the shores of Lake Champlain a few miles south of the US border with Canada, since 1773. One of Vermont's handful of label converters, Creative Labels of Vermont, has been conducting business in the Burlington area since 1983. Yet despite the rich history and the presence of universities and hospitals and other fine institutions, that part of Vermont is a lonely place. The nearest big city is Montreal, in another country.

From left: Dwane and Fred Wall.
"We're isolated," says Dwane Wall, president of Creative Labels of Vermont, which is situated in Winooski, just north of Burlington proper. "We are so geographically isolated that sales people don't want to come here. We aren't on anybody's radar as far as volume goes, and we're not in a place where someone would be driving by to go someplace else.

"So we had to learn a great deal on our own. We are a self-taught company. That's why we got into making our own plates here. Only one person in this building ever worked at a label company before coming here."

Despite the isolation, Vermont is an active state, rich in agricultural production and a magnet for tourists and winter sports enthusiasts. Many of the region's businesses are small, which means short runs. But Vermonters take pride in what they produce, which means quality labels.

"We are a jam-and-jelly kind of printer," says Dwane. "We are a food printer — food seems to be the bulk of our business. We rode the Vermont specialty food craze, and it rode us. It helped us grow, and we have expanded into other products. There are a lot of cows in Vermont, so there's milk, and in milk there's cheese, and we are labeling a lot of cheese."

Running a business in northern Vermont has meant adjusting to some economic realities. The company's first label press was a three color Vandenberg. When it came time to add a new machine, Creative Labels of Vermont looked north to Canada, to a new company called Aquaflex. "One of the reasons we chose Aquaflex is that it's only 90 miles from here," says Fred Wall, the semi-retired founder of the company who calls himself the second CEO. "If something happened to us we wouldn't have to wait for someone to come in from Boston or the Midwest. We knew how to get to Montreal, and we made a couple of trips up there to get parts. It's only an hour and a half away."

Lead Inspector Tenzing Dolma
Another adjustment must be made in relation to economic trends in the rest of the US. Creative Labels of Vermont does about $4 million in annual sales, but this year saw a dip in revenues. "It was a combination of causes," says Dwane, "and one of them is where we are. Vermont lags a little behind the national economy. If you look at the timing, everyone's talking about some sort of upturn. It takes a little longer to get here, and I'm wondering where it is. In the same way, when all of our competitors were suffering huge losses and the whole industry was declining, we were growing."

Two other factors contributed to the drop, he adds: One was a long-time customer's decision to take its products to a digital printer; the other a casualty of the dietary trend wars. "The low-carbohydrate diet craze was good for business, while it lasted. We had one or two customers making low-carb jellies. One year they bought $100,000 worth of labels. The next year they bought zero, because nobody bought their products."


From offset to flexo

Fred Wall spent his early years as an offset printer. He had a friend from Canada, Howard Grove, who owned Labels Inc. of Vermont, in the Burlington area. When Grove died in 1982, Fred ran the label shop for Mary Ellen Grove, Howard's widow, and bought it in 1983.

"I didn't have a clue what I was doing," he says. "I had been in offset printing all my life. The first time I ordered plates for the flexo press they asked me what the distortion factor was, and I didn't understand what language they were talking. I went to order paper, and they asked me how many MSI I wanted, and I said, 'What are you talking about?' They had to help me with that."

Fred had been an absentee label converter, but that had to change. In 1984 he leveraged everything, bought some offset equipment, and asked Dwane to join the business. Soon, with copy shops and offset companies appearing on every corner, he decided to abandon offset for good. "That's when we bought the Aquaflex, the first one sold in the United States," he recalls. "At that time it was called Mecanabec."

The Walls wanted a four-color, 7" press, a basic machine. "They wanted a press to take to Labelexpo, so they built us a five-color 10" press with all the bells and whistles for basically the same price," says Dwane. "They put it at the show with a for-sale sign on it, and delivered it here after the show." In 1993 the Aquaflex press was rebuilt and stretched to seven colors.

Bryan Brosseau, pressroom supervisor
Four Webtron presses share the production floor with the Aquaflex today: two eight-color 750s, a seven-color 750 and a four-color 650. Meanwhile, Dwane Wall knows what his next acquisition will be.

"We are always shopping, always looking, and it's a constant evolution. At one time we had plans in play to get another 10" press, but the market dictated a different machine. Then we planned on a 13" press, but the market didn't dictate that any more. It seems like each time I go to pull the trigger on a purchase, I'm either lucky or good or slow or bad, I'm not sure which. But each time we didn't do something, it turned out really good that we didn't.

"Last year I had papers drawn and we were ready to go, then we had a sagging year. It's the same with prepress: Do you go direct-to-plate or not? Get a new imagesetter or not? We have all the research done, so do we pull the trigger now or not? Should I wait for digital or not? Should I really upgrade the prepress department today when I know that in another six months it's not going to be the right technology? I'm abreast of all the technological advances," says Dwane. "I know what the marketplace is up to, and where it wants to go. It's just a matter of which bullet to put in the gun and pull at what time."

Within the past few months, however, he did pull the trigger. At the end of 2005, undergoing trials in the prepress department was a high-end HP digital inkjet printer and a digital diecutter from Allen Datagraph. The rollfed printer is slow, but the quality is high, "and we can let this run all night without supervision and have our really short run work ready in the morning," says Dwane. More investment in digital printing is a certainty, he adds.

The company has 30 employees and operates in a 15,000 square foot building that Fred Wall owns. Production space is compact, Dwane points out, which feeds into a joke about the company's expertise in Lean Manufacturing by default. When they're ready to expand, says Fred, space is available on land next to the existing structure.

Creative Labels of Vermont, says its president, has been implementing "Dwane Lean" since 1996. "At every TLMI event I've been to for the past two years I've been hearing Lean this, Lean that, get better, get smarter, get quicker. We've done all that," Dwane says, pointing to the value stream map on his office wall. "We're constantly trying to make our processes more effective and more efficient for three reasons: One, to maintain margins; two, to not increase prices to the marketplace, and three, to gain market share if I can do it better than the next guy."

Key people at Creative Labels of Vermont include Wayne LaBonte, director of operations; Lynn Chase, production manager; Lee LaChance, quality control manager; Richard Foerster, prepress supervisor; John Caron, director of sales and marketing; and Dale Loesch, accounting manager (and family member; she and Dwane are siblings). Dwane credits his mentor, Harvey Orens of Structured Management International, with providing significant guidance to the company over the past decade.


A better place

Fred and Dwane Wall have many goals for their small company. Making a profit, however, is not the first one on the list. Introduce the subject of people, and they open up.

"We invest in our people," says Dwane. "We invest in their educations, in their human relations skills, in anything that will help make them better people. We have a different purpose to our business, I believe, than maybe some others have. Yes, we want to make money, and we want to be profitable, and I want my children to go to school, and I really don't want to worry about where groceries are coming from next week. I'd like that sense of security. I don't really want an airplane, a Porsche, a big house. That's not what is important to me.

Senior Press Operator Mark Denton
"What's important to me — and I know this sounds grand — is helping make the world a better place one heart at a time. I'm not going to change this whole planet and make it this great and wonderful place that God intends it to be. But I can affect it one conversation and one person at a time. If we can get as many people to come and work here and do that, and become a little bit better and have a little bit different perspective of life, by having come here and moved on and done other things than they did before they got here, then we have achieved our objective."

"This is God's company," says Fred. "I make no bones about it and I'm proud to say it. He's here for all of us. My personal goal in life is for people to be better off knowing me than not knowing me. That's the way we run the company."

"We passionately care for people," Dwane says. "It is significantly easier to operate a business in a cold, calculated dollars-and-cents uncaring fashion. That is the easiest way to operate a business. We try to operate our business from the side of caring and compassion, being as understanding as possible, trying to help each individual grow and flourish and be all that they can be in life, and showing them that there is a plan for them. Each human being is given a set of gifts, and society and the world for some reason hide them and push them back inside the person. Life circumstance gets in the way of people being able to flourish. What we try to do here is create an environment for people to flourish in."

"Our bottom line would be a lot rosier if we didn't love as much, and care as much about people," Fred says. "I don't look at it that way. The way I look at it is that everything I have, everything I'm going to have, God gave me. So I just give it all away. This is what we are all about. Amongst all of that we run a business�"

"�and hope to do the right things, make the right decisions at the right time," adds Dwane. "We try to work as hard as possible and create a caring and compassionate organization that will instill care and compassion in people's work, and let that spill over into the world and in how they raise their children and how their children will raise their children. People first."


Creative Labels of Vermont
9 Tigan Street
Winooski, VT 05404

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