Narrow Web Profile: J.R. Cole Industries

By Jack Kenny | February 27, 2007

A full service printing, packaging and prepress company makes inroads into new technologies.

Bob Cole, the founder and president of J.R. Cole Industries, enjoys making light of a target cleanly missed in the early days of the company. "The company was formed in late 1979 to manufacture paperboard video sleeves by the flatbed silkscreen process. I had been in the industry since 1962 and had experience in both the roll label and folding carton segments. My target market was the Betamax video format, which illustrates the marketing wisdom that launched the company."

One of the MPS presses at J.R. Cole's label plant.
Cole, everybody who works with him and all of the company's customers can chuckle at that bit of history, because they know that the founder's business savvy has made J.R. Cole Industries what it is today: a highly successful, multi-faceted packaging manufacturer that is well known far beyond its Charlotte, NC, USA neighborhood.

Nearly 28 years ago, Cole launched his own company with financing from a second mortgage on his home. "These funds lasted only a few months," he recalls. "We moved into computer mini-disk envelopes out of desperation, which led us into the roll label business. We began producing the ID label kits that were sold, at the time, with each package of diskettes. We bought our first roll label press to manufacture and package these labels in 1982."

Today J.R. Cole Industries looks quite different. The company now is composed of three divisions: Southern Converters, which prints and converts cartons on sheetfed presses; Labeltec, the narrow web label division; and Carolina Platemakers, a full service prepress operation.

The company focuses on several markets, including personal care, pharmaceutical and healthcare, beverage, consumer electronics, and household products. According to Hollis Cobb, special projects manager, the company's work on pharmaceutical products includes both over-the-counter and ethical products. "We are heavily audited," he says. "Many companies have audited us, and we have passed all of them."

Hollis Cobb is typical of the people who enjoy working at J.R. Cole. He had worked with Bob Cole years back, in sales with a large converter. He retired, sort of, then came back to work on marketing and a variety of projects at J.R. Cole when Bob asked him to.

"Our company's philosophy, or mission statement as they say in business school, is to enhance the reputation of those who entrust us with their orders," Cole says. "What else is there?

A Mark Andy press with a great many print stations
"Our company is in its 27th year. Our average employee tenure is well in excess of 10 years, which I think says it all in today's world of the quick buck. Perhaps an observation of more significance is the fact that our original customers of 27 years ago are still doing business with us today. Our role in the community is to be good citizens and pay our taxes, and that is all. We maintain a low profile and have no plans to change this posture. We have very little contact with industry organizations. We do, however, attend trade shows and treasure our suppliers and their knowledge."

J.R. Cole employs 200 people and operates three shifts. Sales is handled entirely by an in-house team, headed by Joe Richards, vice president of sales and marketing. On the production side of the label division, the company has 10 presses, from Mark Andy, Nilpeter and MPS. Process capabilities include flexo, screen printing and rotary letterpress, along with hot stamping, embossing, cold foiling, and full UV curing.

Dave Harris, the technical director, says that the company acquired its first MPS press a few years ago. "When I first saw it, I thought it was the most exciting machine I'd ever seen," Harris says. "It's servo driven, has tension and register control, and you can slide a flexo unit out and slide a screen unit in in a matter of minutes. That's what got us going. When we went to the Netherlands, we had our production manager with us, and they asked him if he'd like to put a job on the press. He'd never seen the press before. He put a new roll of material on, and by the time the splice got from the unwind to the rewind it was in register. And if the color was correct you could sell the labels, so waste was very, very low. And it has job memory built into the computer."

Last year the company acquired its second MPS press.

An operator works on the shrink sleeve seaming machine.
The capabilities offered by such a machine, says Harris, led to a new development at J.R. Cole. Shrink film. "When we got the first servo press, we learned that it could set tension automatically, and we realized that we had the capability to run unsupported film. We went to Labelexpo in 2004 to see if we were really interested in it. And our interest has increased. That caused us to move into the shrink label business, which we did last year."

Another advantage coming from the new presses was the capability to excel at cold foil application. "Most of our foil was hot stamped. Until we got the servo presses we were not successful with cold foil. The main thing with cold foil is that you have to put down the adhesive, then nip it and UV cure it immediately. We never could get the right combination on any other machine until we got the servo machines. Now it works great."

Harris sees more new fields in the future. "We continue to monitor not only our needs but our customers' needs, and then what's in the marketplace. We try to attend all of the shows and the seminars, to stay abreast of what's happening. I see RFID in the future, I see anti-counterfeit measures being taken. We've been to those seminars and we're right in the midst of that."

Today the company is producing labels with microscopic type, for use as a security feature. One label, for example, features a thin rule around the outside of the image as a border. That, at least, is what appears to the naked eye. Under a loupe the thin rule turns out to be words. These, Harris notes with pride, are printed flexo. "It's probably the least expensive way to anti-counterfeit a product," he says.

"We put on seminars for customers and potential customers," Harris notes. "We bring them all in and show them what's coming and what's present, and what they can do."

As for RFID, Harris says the company sees little movement in the markets it serves. "I'm not very pleased with the progress. The last two years I've been to three seminars about RFID and we have yet to do our first project. We have two methods, either to make our own or to apply them as a sandwich behind a label. We are prepared to do those, but the next step is a customer who wants it. I read all the reports about what's happening, where there will be billions of RFID tags; it's coming, but right now it's like a snowball at the top of the mountain, still small."

J.R. Cole recently acquired a KOR rewnder
with an AVT 100 percent inspection system.
With years of experience in its management team and dedication among the staff people, J.R. Cole has developed its own brand of continuous improvement.

"We have QA and supervisors on 100 percent of jobs we run," Harris says. "Every job requires three signatures. They monitor on a daily basis the amount of time and waste, the amount of material that is issued to the press, and how much we actually ship. On a daily basis. We have shift meetings on a regular basis, to keep the people in the various departments abreast of what's happening. They are as interested in our customers as the managers are. They are very attentive to the quality that they put out."

Meeting the challenges

"I believe that anyone in the industry will tell you that the biggest challenge for all of us is the preservation of margins," says Bob Cole. "Fortunately, the entry level bar for the industry has been rising, which is good for all converters willing to invest heavily to produce an excellent product for our customers. Any investment, in my view, must return a reduction in waste and labor — the two robber barons of gross margin. We are located in a metropolitan southeastern location, but I think that any converter anywhere in the country would answer the same.

"Our vision for the future must also include our folding carton operation, which represents a substantial part of our company. We are finding that customer marketing plans increasingly include more correlation between the two, such as color match, pre-applied promotional labels, timely delivery of both elements, and the like. Having one supplier and one contact for both is becoming more of an asset to overworked purchasing folks. Many purchasing departments have been gutted by cost cutting.

"As far as the industry is concerned, I think more consolidation is inevitable. Digital is still a way off in the markets we serve due to the demanding graphics. RFID and the Wal-Mart initiatives are undoubtedly huge factors in the future for some converters, particularly those heavily involved with large consumer products companies. Then there is the global market, the environment, outsourcing, and all the rest. As a person who staked his hearth and home on the Betamax video format, I don't think my take on the future has a great deal of credibility — but thanks for asking."

J.R. Cole Industries
435 Minuet Lane
Charlotte NC 28217 USA
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