Narrow Web Profile: Stratus Group

By Jack Kenny | May 11, 2006

Folding carton and label manufacturing take center stage at a growing, family owned converting company in Ohio.

The Gallus EM 410 label press
at Stratus has a 16" web width,
10 print stations and three unwinds.
The machine dominates one entire wall of the spacious and gleaming manufacturing plant. It has three unwinds and 10 print stations. Dies and other rollers are placed into the press via an overhead crane. It hums when it runs, and it runs fast. Next to the behemoth — a 16" Gallus EM 410 — is a smaller cousin, still being unwrapped: a Gallus EM 280, an 11" eight-color press. Both are equipped for UV curing and screen printing capability.

Above the larger press is a banner that reads BC1. "We name our presses," says Curt Curran, vice president of Stratus Group. "This one we named after my dad."

"My dad" is Bob Curran, president of the company, a label industry veteran, and lifelong hero of Curt, the youngest of his three sons. If ever two family members worked well together, it's these two.

Stratus Group is located in Hamilton, OH, USA, between Cincinnati and Dayton. Born in 1992, Stratus is composed of two divisions: Carton Master and Spectra Label. The former manufactures folding cartons using flexography and sheetfed offset, and the latter produces flexo labels. About 55 percent of Stratus' business is in folding carton. The company had revenues of $13 million in 2005, and expects to reach $15 million this year.

Stratus Group specializes in pharmaceutical, personal care and beverage market packaging, as well as in several specialty applications. A portion of the strong growth that the owners predict for 2006 is expected to come from "new applications that we have acquired through new customers and existing customers," says Curt. "We have five people on the road, so we should be able to grow our sales in at least double digits."

The story of Stratus goes back well before the 1990s. Bob Curran has always been a basketball player (the Currans tend to come in tall sizes), and even today, at age 71, he is active in a league that he founded for players between the ages of 50 and 80. Back in the 1960s he was shooting hoops with the owner of a company that distributed pressure sensitive tapes, and had a division that sold labels. The fellow offered him a job in sales, and he took it.

"The man had always promised him that he would sell dad the company," Curt says, "but when they were about to close the deal in 1974 he backed out. So Dad started his own tape distribution business." Bob Curran met a man named Kenny Sayer who owned a Mark Andy 810 press, and they began working together: Bob finding the print jobs, Sayer producing the finished products.

Curt was 11 years old in 1974. "I would go to work with my dad every day in the summer. I like equipment, working with my hands. Kenny Sayer had an old tabletop rewinder, and they didn't have anyone to rewind it, so I said I would. I started to run the machines, and worked with my dad every summer. Dad grew the business and I continued to work there, running all the equipment. I never had any other summer jobs."

An Arpeco flexo press prints and converts folding cartons.
By 1987, when Bob sold the company to CCL, it had about 60 people. Curt had earned a business degree in 1985, and stayed with the new owner until 1990, when he joined Fasson to market label materials. "It was a great experience. I learned so much there in two years. All the things I needed to round out my experience to do my own thing I was able to learn at Avery."

Curt knew, however, that what he wanted most to do was to work with his dad. Bob, meanwhile, could play only so much basketball. So they got together and started a company from scratch in 1992. They bought a flexo press from Allan Prittie at Arpeco to produce folding cartons.

"We didn't know folding cartons from a load of coal," Curt recalls. "But we bought the machine and called our business Carton Master. We got some brokers to sell for us, and it was slow going for the first two years, but we hooked up with a couple of good accounts and it took off." At that time, only a few companies were producing folding cartons on narrow web flexo machines. "It's such a narrow niche," Curt says. "You're really competing against the offset guys."

At the end of 1994, Curt and Bob decided to go back into the label business. Today Carton Master has three Arpecos, two of which run carton board, and a Komori sheetfed offset press.  Spectra, the label division, employs the third Arpeco and the two Gallus presses. All of the flexo presses are equipped with full UV curing, screen printing and hot foil capability.

The new Gallus EM 280 flexo press, still partially wrapped and in the process of installation.
"Most of our sales was handled through brokers until about 1998," says Curt. "Since then we have hired direct sales people." One of those is Curt's oldest brother, Chris, who handles larger accounts out of Orlando, FL. (The middle brother, Craig, works for Nosco in the Chicago area.)

Today the company operates out of two plants in Hamilton. Cartons are produced in a 23,000 square foot facility, and label production and warehousing from a 55,000 square foot building about two miles away. It runs three shifts, five days a week, and has about 90 employees.

Stratus Group has its own three-person technical maintenance staff, which handles all electrical work and a great deal of other machine needs. Plates are made in-house in the conventional manner using Kelleigh equipment. "On the offset side we use computer-to-plate technology with Fuji equipment," Curt says. "On the flexo side we are still analog, but we are seriously investigating CtP on that side."

The company utilizes an EFI print management system, that handles estimating, job tracking and many other functions, including inventory management. The company inventories finished goods for up to 90 days on pallets or in cases, depending on the customer's needs.


Curt and Bob Curran and their team have a philosophy about relationships that governs how they do business with customers and with employees.

The Komori sheetfed offset press for folding carton printing.
"We develop relationships and provide awesome service and responsiveness," Curt says. "We try very hard to be a responsive company — not manufacturing driven, but customer driven. We try to keep as much complexity as possible out of our manufacturing process, keep it simple and be able to respond to customers.

"There's no fancy formula here. We haven't conquered the world. We haven't done too much different from anyone else, except work as hard as we can, care as much as we can, and give people an opportunity to grow. It's one thing to grow a business, grow your sales, be profitable. It's another thing to help people be all they can be.

"Young people today, the generation that's coming up � it's a tough group. They haven't really been trained and taught and given the work ethic that the generation before received. One of the things we really try to do is bring people in, especially the younger group. When we have young people we try to help them learn the trade and be a good contributor to society and to an organization, to a good team.

"If all you're in business to do is to make a buck, does that make you happy? When you see somebody grow, and be something they never thought they could be, man, that's great."

Carton diecutting and finishing, along with some inventory and label rewinding, occupy this wing of the Stratus plant.
The focus on relationships by the Stratus leadership is clear when the subject turns to online bidding. The company has not bid on any work via internet auctions, and has no intention of doing so in the future.

"We have not participated, and we have not been pushed to do that," says Curt. "We have been requested and invited to participate, but we do not believe in them and we will not participate.

"I'm not sure you can drive an acceptable margin or an acceptable profitability out of being on an internet bid with how many other competitors and never having the ability to differentiate yourself, or understanding whether this is a good fit for both companies. One of the things that Dad has always taught is that it has to be a win-win for both. Typically you gravitate to those with good capability fits and compatible personalities. I don't know where the human element comes in with online bidding."

3865 Symmes Road, Hamilton OH 45015 USA