Minding My Own Business

An era worth celebrating

October 8, 2008

I recently experienced the frustrating but all too familiar you're-a-number-not-a-person treatment at the hands of one of our nation's wonderful telephone/television/web access monoliths. In the process of planning a move, I attempted to get out in front of potential problems by lining up the transfer of the aforementioned services to the new location in advance. A friendly and helpful customer service rep took down all of the information I provided, which specified not only the equipment and services, but also – and very specifically – the date of the desired transfer. A week prior to the move, the company's technician arrived on time (shocking, I know) to install the equipment at the new location.

Simultaneously, our service at the old location was instantly terminated – despite the fact that the entire process was predicated on not transferring the service for another week. It took more than 48 hours – I swear! – just to get the appropriate customer service rep back on the telephone (using my cell phone, in this case, since I no longer had any phone service at either location), and then I was told that the switch was irreversible, unless I was prepared to wait two weeks for another appointment to come turn on the service at the old location.

As personally cathartic as it is to relate this Orwellian nightmare, the episode also happens to segue perfectly into a discussion of the remarkable contributions of the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute, TLMI, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

To most observers, TLMI's role, like that of just about every other trade organization, is to serve as the voice and promoter of the narrow web printing and converting industry. TLMI does excel in this area, utilizing its position to produce reports and conferences that disseminate the many kinds of data and information that are critical to industry participants. The TLMI Ratio Study, Wage and Labor Study, Quarterly Trend Reports, and the North American Label Study have all become mandatory deskside references for both converters and industry suppliers alike. The TLMI management conferences at its two annual meetings, as well as its biennial Technical Conference and Conference at Labelexpo, are highlighted events on the calendars of forward thinking executives industrywide. In addition, TLMI monitors the political landscape in both Washington and at the state levels on behalf of its membership, and serves as the initial point of contact for all governmental agencies which have cause to interact with the industry.

More recently, TLMI has helped spearhead the industry's pursuit of environmentally responsible behavior, and is currently hard at work developing across-the-board standards for "green" manufacturing that can be used by converters to better focus their efforts.

To be sure, TLMI is not a perfect organization. In an increasingly global economy, today's converters are confronting the reality of borderless markets. TLMI's lack of a significant international focus leaves the organization's quiver a serious arrow short, but it is something the institute is addressing. In addition, TLMI converter membership, while accounting for somewhere in the area of 75 percent of all pressure sensitive labels produced in the US, includes only 10 percent or so of the total number of converters in that market, which indicates the organization's inability to effectively develop and communicate the benefits of membership.

And then there is the decades-old reputation that TLMI is "an old boys club" that is unwelcoming to newcomers, a perception that, based on my own experiences and firsthand knowledge, is patently inaccurate. It is certainly true that there is a clubbishness within the organization, but it is one based on joint activity and efforts. TLMI leadership has, for as long as I've been involved in the industry, embraced any converter or supplier willing to contribute time, energy, brainpower, and expertise.

TLMI, at 75 years young, is a strong organization because it makes no distinction between companies based on size. TLMI doesn't care what your dollar volume is or how many people you employ. TLMI doesn't care whether you use state-of-the-art spanking new presses or 30 year old rusty boat anchors that still crank out a credible three color label at a whopping 60 feet per minute. This attitude, in conjunction with the aforementioned eagerness for an involved membership, enables TLMI to be as open and welcoming as any trade organization you will ever find.

But all of this misses the true value of TLMI, which can only be tapped on a much more individual basis. I opened this column by sharing a personal experience when I was so shabbily treated by a company to whom I was merely another numbered account. This type of incident serves only to reinforce what we all know to be true, that regardless of the business, good companies understand that their customers are actual people behind the orders, using and not just ordering their products and services. In the narrow web industry, TLMI provides a truly unusual opportunity for converters and suppliers alike to develop and enhance relationships that yield long term mutual benefits.

For industry suppliers, the appeal is obvious. TLMI provides access to useful industry data and trends, and its meetings and committees provide opportunities to meet and interact with prospects and customers in a non-sales atmosphere. In these informal settings, vendors learn a great deal about their customers – their goals, their people, their markets, what drives their businesses, and the challenges and issues they face on an ongoing basis.

For converters, the benefits of becoming active in TLMI can be even greater, beginning with the critical benchmarking information provided by the Ratio and Wage Study and the Labor Study. A second extremely significant, if oft overlooked, feature of converter membership is the ease of relationship building with the upper management of supplier members.

My grandfather long ago schooled me that in business you make money two ways: buying and selling. And if you understand that selling is not just about price, you'd better similarly understand that purchasing is not just about price. For converters in the narrow web industry, however tempting it is to view vendors as interchangeable based on the similarity of products and services offered, don't ever mistake a supplier of a commodity item for a commodity. Different vendors may sell similar or even identical product, but make no mistake about it – the vendors are vastly different.

Consider the myriad of components that comprise your purchasing experience. For starters, there is the product or service you are purchasing and the pricing offered. Then comes customer service, which can include everything from turnaround times, post-transaction support, and ongoing R&D to flexibility with payment terms and methods and even assistance to your own sales force in the form of time, personnel, or marketing materials. Most of all, what differentiates vendors of even the most generic products is the "sleep at night" factor, the confidence level you as a customer have in the reliability and honesty of your vendor. And that, I'm sure you'll agree, is certainly not a commodity.

You can sum up the organization's mutual benefits for converters and suppliers as follows: As much as TLMI enhances the selling dynamic for industry suppliers, it offers an even greater potential to alter the purchasing dynamic for converters. By providing a balanced platform which encourages owners and senior managers of label manufacturers and their vendors to engage their counterparts on a one on one level, TLMI enables them to understand each others' needs and business drivers.

But perhaps TLMI's greatest value to converters is the peer to peer networking that is the hallmark of the organization. It's difficult to imagine competitors in a mature industry forging long term friendships, but such is the case within TLMI, as dozens of converters can attest. These relationships are rare in business, and TLMI converters take great pride in their eagerness to offer advice to TLMI colleagues on common business issues. It's been well over two years since I sold my company, and yet the friendships I developed through TLMI with other converters and even suppliers remain as strong as ever.

Membership in TLMI is an investment of a relatively small amount of money. But don't be fooled. To reap huge returns from TLMI membership requires an investment of even greater significance: time. Trade organizations rarely survive for 25 years, let alone 50. TLMI has reached the age of 75 because it is truly driven by its membership. And we can all learn something from that.

Elisha Tropper is president and CEO of T3 Associates, a New York based strategic consulting firm, and the former president of Prestige Label, a North Carolina converter. He can be reached at et@t3associates.net.
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