Syracuse Label & Surround Printing

By Jack Kenny | March 30, 2009

A New York State converter moves beyond labels to offer pouches, cartons, and many other innovations.

Kathy Alaimo, president of Syracuse
Label & Surround Printing
Until last year, the name was Syracuse Label Company Inc. Something had to be done about that. "A lot of our customers just didn't know that we did more than labels," says Paul Roux, vice president of development, sales and marketing. "We would stop by to visit customers and drop off samples of cartons and pouches that we produce, and the next time we'd see them they would have forgotten. They wouldn't relate those other products with our name."

So the company's thinkers sat down and came up with something new – Syracuse Label & Surround Printing. "We are printers first and foremost," says Roux. "We print products that surround our customers' products, whether they are labels, pouches or cartons. The other side of it is how we surround the problems. If a customer calls us and needs labels tomorrow, we get together and figure out how to get the labels to them tomorrow. We have a can-do attitude and we surround the problems."

The new name has been making an impact on customers, he adds. "When they look at the name, the first thing they think is 'What is surround?', and usually they are reminded of surround sound," says Roux. "But they ask, and all we want is for them to ask. We get the customer to ask what we mean, and that gives the sales person the opportunity to say what it is, to give the 30-second commercial. It's been working well. Existing customers say 'What are you doing?', and we tell them what it means and they say, 'Oh, OK, I didn't know you could do that. Why don't you give me a quote on these packets,' or some other product. It's been working very well for us."

From letterpress to flexo

Syracuse Label, located in Liverpool, NY, right next to the city of Syracuse, got its start in 1965 when Roscoe Towne founded the operation in his garage with a two-color Mark Andy press. The company grew slowly over the years, until by the late 1980s it employed about 40 people. In 1987, Towne sold the company to Peter Rhodes and Daniel Herrmann. "We were mainly letterpress then, with a couple of small flexo machines. We had six or seven presses back then," recalls President Kathy Alaimo, who has been with the company for 28 years.

A Sanki letterpress
"After our first year, we started buying presses and expanding," says Rhodes. "We bought six Sanki letterpresses early on, and we continued to purchase those for the next seven or eight years. At that time, we had some Webtrons, but we were primarily a letterpress operation, because of the quality differential back in the late '80s and early '90s. We were a little bit late getting expertise in flexo, and the reason was that the letterpresses could do high quality work. Every time we had a tough job running on a flexo press we would move it to the letterpress, because we had the presses and we had the expertise.

"Back then we would have press operators in flexo, and as soon as they got good at what they were doing we would move them over to letterpress, so we always had rookies running the flexo presses," Rhodes adds. "We paid people more money to run a letterpress, less for flexo.

"We never challenged ourselves with flexo until the 1990s, when we finally understood that flexographic press quality could match letterpress. Eventually we started purchasing newer flexographic equipment. It took us a while to catch up, but now we are committed to it. Flexo is a more cost effective method of printing. It's a combination of the inks, the waste, the setup times, teardown times, and what have you. At one time we had eight letterpresses. Now we have five, on our way to three."

Another big change, Rhodes reports, was the switch to UV flexo inks about five years ago. "We actually converted our water based presses to UV flexo."

Dan Herrmann retired from the company in 2004, and Rhodes became the sole owner. He considered selling the company, "but instead he decided to sell it to the employees," says Alaimo. "We investigated that idea and we were able to create a leveraged ESOP (Employee Stock Option Plan), whereby we pay down on our loans and the company has value, so that when we retire we share in the value of the company." The ESOP process took about a year, she adds, and became effective in 2007.

Also in that year, Kathy Alaimo became president of the company. (Rhodes is now chairman of the board and devotes his attention to financial management.) When she graduated from college she couldn't find a job in journalism, her major, so she took a position at Syracuse Label performing bookkeeping and billing duties. Eventually she became office manager, then vice president of operations in 1996.

"I am a plant person," Alaimo says. "I used to do all the scheduling for the plant, and today I go to all the scheduling meetings. There are two a day and I go to them every day. That's the heartbeat of your company right there: How we are running things, how we are handling the work that's coming in, and making sure that we are making the best, most efficient decisions every day.

Inspection on a Rotoflex
"Every one of the people who work in the plant is what makes us successful, and I really, really do believe that. I can't run a press, so I look to them. We are also ISO 9001 certified, and when we have a problem or need a corrective action, I can't tell you why we did it wrong and how we can correct it a lot of times, so we go right out there to that operator or that inspector or whoever worked on that job and we discuss it and figure out why it happened, and how can we make sure it doesn't happen again. You have to get all your information from them, they're the experts at what they do. No matter whether they are a folder/gluer operator, an inspector, a press operator, whatever the job is that they do. I turn to them."

Broad market approach

Syracuse Label & Surround Printing employs 84 people today, in a plant that is composed of about nine connected buildings right near two interstate highways. The company prints on four Webtrons, three Roto Press machines, one Nilpeter, and five Sanki letterpresses. The Nilpeter, the most recent acquisition, is a 16" 10-color combination press. In the plate department is a DuPont FAST system with an Esko Spark digital imager. In addition to Paul Roux, the company has three other vice presidents: Mark Howard, VP graphics; Kevin Gagnon, VP production; and Kevin Ekbom, VP manufacturing, who has been with Syracuse Label since its beginning 44 years ago.

The company is not focused too deeply in any one or two label markets. "We will service anyone who needs labels," says Roux. "We have quite a distribution of customers: 16 percent are pharmaceutical, 16 percent are nutraceuticals and cosmetics. Food and beverage is a strong portion of it, as are household products, and we have our fair share of dairy customers. We have fairly small percentages of different industries, which really helps to keep us stable during ups and downs in different markets.

Printing on one of the company's Roto Press machines.
"We are actually seeing more activity in Canada in wines," he adds. "The wine customer is very selective. So much of the success of their product depends on their label. They are usually smaller clients, so they are very particular about quality and the actual design of the label. We've had some pretty good luck with the wineries lately. We are really competitive with delivery. One of the issues we run into with winery customers is that they tend to wait too long to order the labels. Our ability to turn the labels around and get them back to the wineries has been really helpful to us."

Lean advantage

Three years ago, Syracuse Label had been struggling to find new workers during a period of low unemployment. At the same time, the company began to implement Lean Manufacturing principles in the production department, and soon it found a solution to the labor issue. "When we went to Lean, we were able to eliminate a shift," says Roux. "We didn't eliminate people; we produced the same amount of work in two shifts instead of three. That was a huge improvement."

Part of the vast warehouse at Syracuse Label & Surround Printing
"We are actually doing more work in two shifts than we had done in three," adds Alaimo.
The president credits the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute for providing the inspiration and guidance to pursue Lean. "We got a lot of help from many people in TLMI," Alaimo says. The company also received a training grant from the state of New York.

"When we first pursued Lean, we moved every piece of equipment in this facility. That was huge," Alaimo recalls. "We were departmentalized: We had the press room, the inspection area, and we took things from here to there to everywhere. One of the first things we saw when we started to do the value stream mapping was how much walking, traveling, that we were doing. We said, 'These presses should really be facing this way, and we really need to put inspection machines on the other side where the rolls are coming off.'

"While this was happening, our new Nilpeter press was being delivered and we had nowhere to put it. The Nilpeter press went into the inspection room. We ended up scattering the inspection machines so that they were next to the presses – which is how you do Lean – and that meant we had to move the direction of the presses so that the rolls were all coming off in the right direction, with the least amount of handling, so that they could be expedited out the door. We reduced physical motion tremendously."

Alaimo takes part in every kaizen event that the company organizes. "First, it's really interesting. Second, if I'm not buying into it, why would anybody else? Management involvement empowers the cell leaders to keep things going. It's up to the cell to manage itself, to make sure that everybody's in the position they are supposed to be in, following the standard work the way we set it up, which is determined in the kaizen but can be continuously improved. We always listen to a new idea, a better way to do something, but we make sure it's better for everybody, not just for one particular job. And it has to be good quality, not skipping any steps. It's a constant effort to sustain it."

Syracuse Label's most recent press, a Nilpeter.
It's human nature to be apprehensive about change, but the Lean process sheds light on the benefits of change."People don't what to change the way they do things," Alaimo says. "They think that they already know the best way to do something. You have to convince them that there is a better way. One of the ways we do that is to share with them how we are doing as a company: how much we saved in waste, how much we saved in time (because time is money), and how much more productive they are. We constantly tell them that they are working smarter, not harder. Once they see that, it is amazing how many more suggestions they are willing to share with you. People who wouldn't have spoken up in the past now have a comment or suggestion to make about another process that they may know about."

Cross training is a big part of the education process at Syracuse Label & Surround Printing. "You cannot have a person who can do only one job," Alaimo adds. "You have to be able to float with it. If we are busy in one area, then we put people in that area. For example, we don't have someone who just does sheeted work. A lot of our press operators are cross trained and can run multiple presses and processes. As we cut down on the number of letterpresses we have, we are incorporating those operators into the flexo side. They come with a whole different mindset than the people who are there.

"In Lean, you try to get people involved in the kaizen who maybe aren't in that department. We have prepress people in there, and they might come up with an idea that the people who work there every day might not have thought of. I am really impressed with Lean. It has been a huge turnaround for us.

"It's easy to do, I believe, from the perspective that you see results," she says. "You don't just think that you are doing well in a particular area. You see the results."

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