Narrow Web Profile: Macaran Printed Products

By Jack Kenny | November 2, 2007

Higher than average growth, a focus on continuous improvement and the environment, and technically oriented customer service are the hallmarks of this well established New York converter.

Cohoes is a small city about 10 miles north of Albany, the capital of the state of New York. Like most former mill towns in the quiet regions of the country, Cohoes could use some economic resuscitation. The community holds out hope these days for revival if plans for big nanotechnology developments come to fruition in the next year or two. But overall, it's a quiet place, and beautiful. Two mighty rivers, the Hudson and the Mohawk, have met at Cohoes for centuries.

Nick Van Alstine, president of Macaran Printed Products, at the company's headquarters in Cohoes, NY, on the bank of the Mohawk River
Macaran Printed Products, however, is not representative of the city of Cohoes, even though it has called the town home for many years. Macaran is a label converting business that has seen steady growth since its founding about 35 years ago, and today is growing at a pace higher than the average growth rate of label converters in North America. Its management is not satisfied with the status quo, and continues to explore new ideas and technologies to improve performance, quality, service, and the bottom line.

Macaran is the offspring of Van Alstine & Sons, a distributor of packaging materials and products founded in 1950 by William N. Van Alstine. His sons, William Jr. and Robert — Bill and Bob — took over after their father died in 1952. Bill, the president, brought his son Nick Van Alstine into the business in the 1970s, at a time when the company was taking a major turn. So he launched Macaran Printed Products, a flexo label print shop, and gave it his mother's maiden name.

"Dad had always wanted to get into manufacturing, because he found that whole prospect interesting," says Nick Van Alstine, now president and owner of both Macaran and Van Alstine & Sons. "Our first press was a Mark Andy 810, a three-color central impression press, and there were only three of us in the shop: Dad, me and Walter, the maintenance guy. In those days it was fun because I was young and didn't know any better. I remember we got a job from General Electric. It turned out to be kind of a complicated label. It was only three colors, but each of the colors had a vignette, a gradation from 100 percent down, which is still difficult today. And, oh man, did we struggle with that thing. My dad told them it would take us two weeks to get it out, and it took us three weeks. We had a tremendous amount of waste. But we did get it out and we did a good job."

Nick's father wanted him to understand the business from all aspects, he recalls. "I was printing and pricing jobs, and buying the materials. We were doing OK with three of us, but when it got to be a little too much we hired our first employee, Florence Brisee, to take on the pricing and materials purchasing. She is still with us and is a key member of our team."

Ed Wixted, the chief financial officer of Macaran and Van Alstine & Sons, describes Brisee as "probably the smartest person in this business."  Today she serves as the company's director of quality and R&D. "She really understands the business and the technology," Van Alstine adds. "She's all self-taught. This was her first job."

One of Macaran's two Gallus EM 280 presses
Soon afterward, Nick went out on the road to sell labels, the company acquired a Mark Andy 910, and two press operators were hired. "I sold for a number of years, then dad saw that running a printing business was a lot more work than he had anticipated it was going to be. So he decided to devote himself full time to the printing business and turned over the running of the distributorship to me. I did that from the late 1980s right up to the early 1990s. We took one of our Van Alstine sales people, Gary Riley, and promoted him to president of that organization, which he still is today."

Bill Van Alstine retired in the 1990s, Nick took over, and the company acquired a seven-acre parcel on the bank of the Mohawk right near downtown Cohoes. The property had a 55,000 square foot building formerly used to make hamburgers for sale at McDonald's.

Early label applications tended to be industrial rather than prime. "As the business started to really grow, we began to get into food applications," Van Alstine says. "Then we grew that into pharmaceutical and health and beauty. We have been producing pharmaceutical labels for over 20 years now, and we have established ourselves as a pharmaceutical label supplier. We have a full set of pharmaceutical SOPs, and we do a lot of prescription medicine labels. A lot of documentation and procedure is involved in producing them. And precision."

Production grew with the addition of two Mark Andy 4120s, then a 13" Propheteer. The two most recent are Gallus EM 280 presses, each nine-color combination machines.

"Each step in technology was a response to the way the market was evolving," says Wixted. "As we saw those markets change we keep stepping up to the next level of quality, and now we are into the Gallus 280, and that has been a great press for us."

Apart from the crowd

"We have really tried to differentiate ourselves through our capabilities, our services and the quality of our work," says Van Alstine. "These days a lot of people are producing really nice quality, and we feel that we are up there with the best of them. But to differentiate yourself, quality isn't the decision maker. The whole business experience is where we try to differentiate ourselves — through our responsiveness to customers. We find that that does set us apart."

Macaran's rewind/inspection area features cages that lock for finishing of pharmaceutical labels.
"We have a new label customer who recently placed an order and needed it today," notes Wixted. "In a business where your backlog can be two weeks, and when everyone needs everything right away, how do you do that? But we did that. From art on a disk they had their product shipped today. We do those things."

Van Alstine says, "When a customer calls and has technical questions, there are several people here who can answer those questions. We'll do testing for people, we solve problems for people. If there's an answer we don't know we will research it and test it and find it for them. These are all services outside of just producing their label.

"We are lucky because we have great people, and it's because we have great people we are able to do that. We have people who are willing and who understand the philosophy of going the extra mile for others. If we are going to make a difference, this is how we are going to do it besides just knowing our trade. We have a great team of people here who are all willing to go above and beyond.

"We take care of our people, and we let them know that we care about them, and I think they feel that that's true. People are welcome to express their ideas. As much as it's a business and we have to keep it running as a business, we understand that people have lives that sometimes intertwine or conflict with the business needs; if those things happen we sit down and try to work it out with them. We don't say 'That's not our problem; don't bring it to work'.

"We have a lot of fun here. We understand that it's work. But work doesn't have to be drudgery. That's the other reason people are enthusiastic about getting on board and doing what they have to do for the customer. They feel that there's an understanding and a caring. We want people to enjoy as much as they can coming to work."

Customer retention

Macaran Printed Products and Van Alstine & Sons together see annual revenue of more than $20 million a year, each tallying roughly half. The label converting side is one of the largest in the region, and is enjoying growth, Van Alstine says. "We have a profile that we give to our sales people that says an ideal Macaran customer looks like this, and we show them that profile so that we're not wasting time out there with companies that don't fit our profile. This year there were quite a few new additions that met our profile that we are pretty excited about. One of the strong points we try to sell is our retention. Our top five customers we have been doing business with for more than 15 years, some over 20. And we have seen a lot of expansion within those accounts.

Finishing a printed roll on the Rotoflex inspection rewinder
"We do a really good job. That's hard to sell because until people start doing business with you they don't know that. There really is something to the whole idea of the business experience. When a customer can call up and know that you are going to take care of something, they can hang that phone up when they're done with the conversation and know that they don't have to worry about it again. That does mean something to somebody. Or if they e-mail a question they know you're going to get back to them. When I go out and talk to customers or if I'm working with sales people, those are the things that I hear, and it always makes me kind of scratch my head, because there really are people that don't get back to people, a lot of them.

"It's startling to learn that. It's startling to me that that's an area that you can have an edge with. It's unbelievable to me. It was always really important, and I think it's even more important today because people's time is even more precious. There's so much more to do; people have so many more things on their plates. Businesses are running lean. So it's important to get what you want when you need it. That's what we really try to sell."

Continuous improvement

"We grow every year," Van Alstine declares. "For the past couple of years we have been outpacing the industry average. I'm looking at expanding right now. Not so much with an acquisition, although we do look at that from time to time, as a way to really grow the business. Primarily we find that we tend to grow by adding sales territories. That's how we expand."

The company currently runs two shifts, he says, and could increase capability by adding a third.

"Part of the reason we are seeing a lot of activity in the past couple of years, I think, is because we are becoming more visible. We are getting more referrals from people who have seen our work. This week I got two calls from people who were referred to us and said they were told to call us. That's great to have happen. When you are trying to improve and stay on top of the game you find yourself always moving ahead. You're looking at new technology and buying it if it's worthwhile.

"We have spent a good amount in technology over the past few years. We have added both of our Gallus presses, we have gone computer-to-plate (Esko imager, DuPont FAST processing), we have installed a Latran proofing system, and we have had our software systems custom written and designed to help us differentiate ourselves, to help us provide a higher level of service to our customers."

The storage area for Macaran's RotoMetrics dies
Macaran's custom designed print management software has been in place for two years, and Van Alstine calls it a home run. "Customers can be interactive. They can reorder, track orders, pretty much do whatever they want. A lot of companies are not that well run, so they are constantly having to check on things. With us there's a level of dependability, and we have systems in place so they don't have to make a phone call. If they want us to set up electronic notification systems, we'll do it. If they want access themselves we'll do it. We manage our inventory with this system. And scheduling. Everything."

The software played a role in a continuous improvement program adopted by Macaran over the past couple of years.

"When we wrote the software it caused us to take a look at some of our procedures, so we said if we're going to hard wire this stuff, let's look at how we're doing this and why,  and does it make sense, and how can we do it better," Van Alstine recalls. "We spent 14 months designing the system. We tore apart a lot of our operating procedures and streamlined them.

"We have worked on several Six Sigma type programs, and have had several kaizen events here in different areas that we identified as needing streamlining. We have seen the results in our workflows.

"We are not a huge organization, and we don't have a tremendous amount of resources available, so what we do is identify areas that we think need attention and that we can improve upon. We set a timeline, perhaps two or three months, and we'll meet three days a week. We have found that that works, because people can get back to their other responsibilities, and it's not exhausting.

"The first area was the press room. We broke down presses into actual work cells to improve throughput. we changed the organization of the press room, the actual press operators' work benches, and implemented the 5 S's. We've done it in our shipping department, we are currently doing it in prepress, and we have looked at a couple of areas in customer service as well."

Environmental action

Nick Van Alstine's awareness of improvements to the business environment extends beyond to the natural environment. He is a member the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and of a TLMI task force that is researching the creation of environmental best practice standards for certification of the institute's members. At Macaran, the leadership is at work today on a formal written policy that establishes the company's policies on energy, water and waste. "And, of course, we will look at all the ways that we are recycling," says Van Alstine. "We're looking at ways to turn our matrix waste to energy.

"We are very serious about that. The policy will include ways not only of self-auditing, but also of how we can certify with other people. Our intention is to share it with our customers, as well as with the TLMI task force.

"How are we going to do this? What are the best ways to do it? What are we really doing? In other words, how are we making things better? Customers are asking about sustainability. A lot of them are. And one of the things that is clear to me is how much education is needed. Customers are looking for green product choices for packaging. Some people are looking to make a claim and I think they really don't care how they make the claim as long as they can do it.

"If you want to be able to market sustainability, it is going to be more in the way of your practices than it is in some of the actual packaging that you are providing. There just aren't that many green choices in packaging, particularly in pressure sensitive labeling. At least not yet."


Macaran Printed Products
18 New Cortland Street
Cohoes, NY 12047 USA
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