Innovative Labeling Solutions

By Steve Katz | January 15, 2010

Collaborating with brands as a strategic partner, ILS operates the game-changing technology that is digital print as a core business unit.

Jay Dollries and Kathy Popovich
Innovative. It's more than a name for Innovative Labeling Solutions (ILS), and this Hamilton, OH, USA, based company is so much more than a label converter. In fact, its president, Jay Dollries, says he prefers not to be referred to simply as a converter – and the reasons for this have everything to do with that word – innovation. The innovation that is digital printing has led to the business model of being a "solutions provider," where brands can truly grow in many ways, thanks to ILS's depth of capabilities. From conventional flexo printed labels, to flexible packaging, shrink sleeves, folding cartons and the latest in digital printing technology, ILS can truly do it all.

ILS positions itself to customers as a "digital packaging specialist," operating its digital capabilities as a core business unit, not just as a solution for short runs. The company was recognized at the 2009 HP Indigo Digital Label and Packaging Awards, taking home seven honors – the most given to any single printer worldwide. It has the resources, equipment, personnel, track record, and perhaps most importantly – the vision to be in a leadership position.

Jay Dollries tells people that he got into the printing business like everyone else. He says, "I used to build jet engines." And he's not kidding. Dollries has a background in engineering, and before he got into printing, he really did build jet engines. "I did that for a number of years, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the technology side of it," he says of his pre-printing days, and believes it is this love and interest in technology that has been paramount in positioning ILS as a pioneer in digital print.

Founded in 1996, ILS got its start like so many label companies – an idea, one press, and 8,000 square feet of space. Dollries' wife's family had been in the printing business, and he'd always wanted to do something on his own. So the idea of starting a label company became a reality. And although Dollries jokes that the idea was a "brief moment of insanity," you'd be hard-pressed to find a similarly positioned company, with as much capability as ILS.

In 1996, digital printing was hardly a blip on the label industry radar. ILS was a conventional label printer, using Comco and Mark Andy presses to convert labels primarily for the food and automotive industries. And the company was successful, growing steadily year over year. In fact, ILS was adding capacity, acquiring equipment and even doubling its size by adding a second 8,000 square foot building behind its original plant in West Chester, OH.

The Karlville shrink sleeve seamer and sheeter
Eric Knop, business development director, remembers the early years, and what proved to be a turning point for ILS. "The original markets that we served leaned heavily on industrial manufacturing. But four and half years ago we earned an opportunity on some olive oil business which would ultimately change our course. The contract filler was producing a private label product for grocery stores. They had numerous versions, each with high-end graphics. We sourced the original job out to a digital printer, but quickly began talking about HP Indigo digital print and the opportunities it presented. It was actually on our annual fishing trip where Jay and I wrote a strategic plan to create a whole new business unit for digital printing. We felt that the opportunity was big, and so revolutionary, that we didn't want to just buy a digital press to transfer small volume jobs from our flexo side, using it as another piece of equipment," recalls Knop.

ILS's unconventional approach to its digital printing equipment acquisitions is significant. Buying its first HP Indigo ws4500 was much more than just a machine purchase, albeit one that could turn an impressive ROI. The business plan Dollries and Knop wrote was not about how they could improve upon their current business, but rather the creation of something new altogether.

"We felt that if we could leverage digital printing technology, we could be successful in marketplaces that we were not able to target with conventional printing," Knop explains. "In the fall of 2005 the first Indigo arrived. The business was launched with a sales effort in the wine market. Since then, we have had a broad goal to educate the packaging market in general about the technology and all that it brings to the table – from gravure-like quality output and design latitude, to no plates and enhanced speed-to-market, as well as the environmentally-friendly production process allowing true JIT inventory management, and a reduction in make-ready and waste. This message resonates across all markets. And we've had a lot of success with it."

Dollries points out that the path ILS has taken does not necessarily fit the typical mold. "HP usually shows converters how much business they can transfer to the Indigo, but we didn't want to do that analysis. Our thinking was, 'Let's not just buy a press, let's create a division – a whole new business'," he says.

Prior to the Indigo purchases, ILS had moved from its original location in West Chester to a 55,000 square foot facility in Hamilton, just outside of Cincinnati. And in July 2008, an additional 10,000 square feet was added on, which has since become the gleaming, climate controlled showcase for the company's flexible packaging, folding carton, shrink sleeve machinery, and of course, the digital printing arsenal. Here is where ILS's latest press sits, an HP Indigo WS6000, alongside two ws4500s.
The company has also invested in some serious finishing equipment, providing customers with a wide range of possibilities including hot stamping, embossing, screen printing, and specialty varnishing. Housed in the new 10,000 square foot addition are two AB Graphic Digicons, an AB Graphic Digilam, and a Fleye Vision inspection/rewind unit. There's also a Karlville shrink sleeve seemer and a Karlville sheeter.

"We've always been very progressive in regard to the investments that we've made, and the same philosophy drove the acquisition of our finishing equipment. We are one of the only companies in the US offering such a broad capability of printing and finishing in-house, and that is by design," says Knop.

People and marketing

While having the right equipment is a big part of the new business unit, having the right personnel is paramount. The company employs 45 people and operates two shifts. In addition to Dollries and Knop, there's also Mike Thomas, flexo manager (and also an owner of the company along with Dollries), and General Manager Brian Smallwood. And the 2008 addition to the ILS team of Kathy Popovich as director of marketing and communications is testament to just how far ILS wants to go in differentiating itself. Popovich, while never having worked in the printing or packaging arena prior to ILS, is a marketing veteran, and her experience and insight are helping drive ILS to the next level.

"There aren't too many converters out there willing to invest in a director of marketing. I took all of the 20 years of strategic marketing principles experience I had and applied it to this business. Our focus is not on what anyone else is doing. Instead, we are blazing a new trail. We're talking to brands about using this technology as a vehicle to speak to the consumer and incorporating the package as a part of the marketing wheel. We're showing our customers this is a marketing opportunity, not just a print method," she says.

ILS's pristine, climate controlled 10,000 square foot addition houses its three HP Indigo label presses, two ws4500s and a WS6000.
Popovich recognizes where ILS comes from and where it wants to go. "Jay is an engineer by schooling, a thought leader, and a visionary. Once the team understood the full technology and how it opened the door to possibilities, they determined that they weren't just going to bring it in as just another piece of equipment, they were going to bring it in and market it to its fullest advantage."
For ILS, there is a sales team, and now a separate marketing department, which Dollries says is really starting to pay off. "We have direct salespeople and a wide network of distributors. But the marketing strategy is really starting to make a huge difference, and companies are recognizing who we are and what we're doing," he says.

One of the things ILS is doing is showcasing the possibilities at hand. Popovich points out that because there's so much more to ILS than standard PS labels, the approach they have with their customers has changed. "With digital, it's a more consultative sales approach. It's not about giving quotes on labels. Our customers share what their needs are, and we explore the possibilities with them. Whether it is a small company that wants to make a big impact, a private label that wants to create a brand-look as opposed to having just a shell label, or a worldwide brand that wants to maximize their marketing opportunity on shelf, we customize programs to meet their needs," Popovich says, adding that ILS has had a lot of success in a number of different categories including food and beverage, wine and spirits, household goods, personal care and nutraceuticals.

ILS has done something else unique. In order to communicate just what's possible with digital print, the company has created a fictitious brand to showcase their printing and finishing options. Named after their leader, the "J's Gourmet," "J's Select," and "J's at Home," branded items include prime labels, shrink sleeves, folding cartons, and pouches, all with high quality graphics and a variety of finishes and effects. "We're fortunate to have a very talented graphic designer in-house, and we've developed the line to showcase what we do so people can actually see the quality and available options, versus just talking about it. It's in a brand format, so they can envision what their own product line can look like, varying graphics for each version, using hot stamp, emboss, choosing a clear film, etc. It's all part of our strategic approach, providing our customers guidance from beginning to end," Popovich says.

Knop points out the significance of explaining how manufacturers can leverage the digital print technology. "We're having conversations with our customers in regard to where they want to go with their product lines, not necessarily where they are today, but what are the possibilities. When they can see their label or package printed on actual material before they launch, that really is a tremendous value. They can make sure they get just the right package that they want to communicate with their customers."

Having so much capability creates a challenge of communicating just what's possible to the customer. "That's why education is such a big deal from our standpoint. Most brand owners or marketing managers don't know the advantages digital technology brings them from a promotional or marketing perspective. So our sales effort is as much about education as anything else," Dollries says.


While ILS takes on the role of a strategic partner with its customers, partnering with supplier companies, organizations, and the industry itself is also an integral theme to the ILS story. Dollries is involved with DSCOOP – an HP Indigo user group – and is helping to coordinate a workshop titled "Expanding into new Applications" for DSCOOP 2010 in February. He also participates on IDPAC, a group of HP Indigo owners and users that meets a couple of times a year to keep dialogue flowing between HP and the converters.

Dollries firmly believes that working together with all members of the supply channel is helping to grow the market for digital print. Having been a part of multiple professional panels over the past year, both in the US and abroad, he has seen the interest and understanding of digital print grow. "Working together will all members of the supply channel, from equipment and software manufacturers, to material suppliers is the most impactful and efficient way to get the word out about digital," Dollries says.

From a digital standpoint, it's a huge market – and it's still in its infancy, Dollries says. He's also a believer in the mantra of Benny Landa, the founder of Indigo, who famously declared, "Everything that can become digital will become digital – and printing is no exception."

"And it's absolutely true," says Dollries.

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