Looking back to when I began writing this column, I am at once amused and galled by my presumptuousness in believing that I had anything to offer the lifelong managers and skilled craftspeople in this industry. After all, I was a babe in this industry, writing my first column only four years after purchasing a label converting operation. What in the world was I thinking? I was a Northeastern ivy league graduate with an MBA and Fortune 500 experience, breaking my teeth trying to turn around a small, 16 person shop in a prefab metal building on the outskirts of Burgaw, North Carolina. Regardless, I have enjoyed sharing my views, and after a dozen or so years puttering through label printing, I have noticed several distinct themes which I think worthy of bringing to your attention in this, my final column.
The first of these themes is the critical importance of learning from others, and the consistent emergence of friends and industry associates from whom I could draw knowledge, wisdom, and perspective. From the managers and employees of Prestige Label, who smiled (most of the time) as they put up with a boss whose abilities with flexography started and ended with his ability to spell it, to our base of suppliers, whose salespeople hauled their asses all the way out to Burgaw only to learn that they'd have to return when the guy up in New York was in town, I can honestly say that it took a village when it came to my industry education.
But perhaps my most important influences have been the owners and managers of other label converting companies. In most industries, they would be called competitors. In the label industry, thanks in large part to TLMI, which in my experience is the premier industry trade organization anywhere, I call these "competitors" by other names: peers, associates, contacts, resources, and perhaps most significantly, friends.
Over the years, whenever I considered purchasing anything new – equipment, software, supplies – I was, without exception, welcomed into a "competitor's" plant to see it in action. As a result, I've been in over 60 label plants across the country, and in just about every case the owners treated me, a "competitor," like a valued guest. And I did my best to reciprocate, hosting dozens of different converters at our plant as they conducted the due diligence on production, prepress, or any other technology or vendor they were considering adding to their operations. In retrospect, I can't even calculate the value of those visits or the lasting friendships that continue to this day. I can tell you with complete candor that there were many times when I or one of my managers dialed up a "competitor" with a question about a technique, material spec, or even a vendor or customer. And we certainly received a like number of phone calls from "competitors" in return.
The second theme I'd like to highlight is that of technology. The advances in label converting capabilities have done more to dramatically transform the landscape of the industry in the past decade than in the 30 years prior. From high definition flexography – made possible through a combination of digital software, prepress equipment, and servo driven presses – to digital label printing and in the near future, laser diecutting, today's flexo shops can produce work that rivals or even surpasses offset and gravure. And the democratization of the technology has been rapid and incredible, as the competitiveness of the vendors has enabled converters of just about any size to legitimately compete within their chosen niche.
Technology has also broadened the scope of narrow web flexo. Label printing today can include everything from traditional pressure sensitive labels and tags to shrink sleeves, folding cartons, and flexible packaging. When I entered the industry, narrow web meant 16" inches or less. Today, plenty of narrow web converters run webs of 22", 26", and even 30", and to quote my friend and longtime industry sage John Bankson of Label Technology, "Narrow web is defined as up to the widest press that my company runs!"
With these two themes in mind, I'd like to reference the Michael Porter model, which in my opinion remains the premier tool for understanding the fundamentals of any company or industry, and which I continue to use in developing and implementing business strategies. Using what can best be described as outside-in perspective, Porter famously modeled the five competitive forces of an industry's structure as follows:
- The threat of new entrants into the market, or the barriers to entry for competitors;
- The threat of subsitutes for the products or services being supplied;
- The strength of the buyers and their bargaining power;
- The strength of the suppliers and their bargaining power;
- The level of competition among the rivals in the industry.
For any converter seeking long term success in the label industry, the importance of understanding your company's position within its competitive space, and how it is impacted by these five forces, has never been more critical. Of course, this entire model is just the outside-in perspective. Managers need to also take an inside-out look at their positioning, taking their competitive strengths (such as technologies, cost structures, financial soundness, skilled personnel, proprietary processes, and brand equity) into account when deciding upon which strategic direction to focus.
As I bring this column to a close, I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all of those who assisted me through the years, contributing their ideas, wisdom, and support. I hope you know who you are. I'd also like to express my appreciation to the many readers who at one time or another let me know either in person, over the phone, or through emails that they enjoyed (or in some cases, disagreed) with particular columns. I can't imagine writing a column for eight and a half years without the feedback.
Finally, I'd like to thank Kathleen Scully, the dynamic publisher of this fine magazine, and Jack Kenny, its supremely talented editor, for their patience with me through the years as I pushed deadlines and in some cases, the envelope of good taste and political correctness. They are an outstanding duo, and have made a real impact in my life. I will greatly miss working with them on such a regular basis.
I can think of no better way to sign off this column than with perhaps the most succinctly accurate bit of wisdom, an observation by comedian Steven Wright, about being in business that I've ever heard: There is a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.
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