Keebar Enterprises

By Jack Kenny | March 15, 2010

A Pennsylvania converter celebrates three decades of reliable label production for distributors and the trade.

Steve Miller, president
Steve Miller has been in the label business for all of his working life. Thirty years ago his parents, Keeth and Barbara Miller, founded KeeBar Enterprises in West Chester, PA, USA, in the building where the company is still to be found today, in a tiny industrial park surrounded by an apple orchard in the hills of southern Pennsylvania. In the 1970s he worked, along with his parents, at Doring Labels in nearby Lionville.

"I was basically in the equipment end of it," Steve recalls. "We were a very large Label-Aire distributor, and also a distributor of Norwood Imprinters. My father had developed some imprinting systems, based upon hot stamp printers, to do consecutive numbers. He got involved with computer generated numbering and bar coding. We did that in the 1970s, and it was one of the first systems available."

After running Doring Labels for seven years, Keeth and Barbara decided to do something on their own, and started KeeBar. "We had one customer: Moore Business Forms, doing one job for Eastman Kodak," says Steve. "Apparently Kodak was making a lot of bad cameras at the time, because we were making a return address label for them for mailing the cameras back."

KeeBar developed, he says, "based on the idea that we were a service bureau to other manufacturers and distributors," and that's how the company can be described today.

In the early days, young Steve Miller continued his work with equipment, "because with Moore we were manufacturing piggy back labels and affixing them onto the forms. I built the equipment that we used to transport the forms, and with Label-Aire heads blow the labels on to the forms. Later we developed cold and hot glue for affixing labels and products like license plate decals."

Keeth Miller, his son recalls, "basically did more what was described as marketing, rather than sales. We have never had any sales people working for our company. We've always advertised and through word-of-mouth referral gained clients in the reseller market. A very high percentage of our business is through distributors or resellers." Barbara Miller ran the office and handled the billing, receivables, and most of the customer service.

In 1999, his parents retired, and Steve and his wife, Teresa, bought the business. Steve and Teresa were married for 29 years, and she had been employed at the company since the mid-1980s. Teresa died in November 2008.

Trade and distributors

KeeBar is not a household word among end users, but is well known in the trade. "Since we work with the trade, we are not really trying to put our name out to the end user, although we are found by end users at times, and have really no restriction about working with them. If we have no relationship established through a distributor, everyone is fair game. Our name was well known throughout Moore Business Forms, and then Wallace right through to the merger with R.R. Donnelly. Still today we will get calls, from first time customers for us, who had been old Wallace and Moore salespeople. They'll say, 'I remember your name from back in the day, and you took care of an account for someone in the office, and now I have a need'."

Steve recalls that many years ago the company had done a promotional mailing. "Years later we got a customer who had kept that mailing in his desk drawer for nine years. So never say never."

KeeBar works with several dozen distributors today. "Our distributor base has changed somewhat over the years due to mergers and acquisitions. Branch offices that used to be independent are now guided by home office. They have manufacturers that are primary suppliers, and some of their revenue is derived by rebates or discounts. We still can be selected by these companies because we do products that aren't readily available, such as our bar coding specialized numbering, retro reflective label stock, things that everyone doesn't have or convert.

"A large part of our customer base has always been other label manufacturers who choose to outsource some of their materials that they are not able to convert for various reasons. Or they might have expensive, complicated equipment that makes no sense to run on a short run job, or it has a narrow profit margin on it. They can wear out a lot of bearings and gears to run a one-color job on a 10-color press. Their schedules might be fairly full. They want to protect their customer by not letting them go out to another supplier. There are many reasons. So we step in and make blanks, or one color labels. It might be a bar code job where they don't have the capacity or the ability to print a million consecutive numbered bar code labels. We'll be selected to help them with that.

"I like to work with customers who want to work with me more so than need to work with me. I think that the relationship is better. We have had a lot of repeat business for many years."

One of six Allied Gear presses at KeeBar Enterprises


KeeBar Enterprises occupies a 7,000 square foot space, and operates six Allied Gear presses. "The good thing about Allied Gear presses, and the reason we selected them, is that their durability is unbelievable. Generally they will run for years without a significant breakdown," Steve says. "Parts still are pretty readily available. We keep a fair supply of parts on hand. I have parts purchased with a new press in 1985, and they are still in the box back in the shop, unopened."

KeeBar produces labels containing from zero to four colors, and doesn't produce process color work. "We never really had the idea that we'd run six presses at a time. It has happened, but the idea is that we can prep one machine while another is running. Some are suitable for certain types of work. One has a turnbar so we can do two-side printing. Others are tuned toward certain types of work. An operator can get a machine going on a long-run job and do some short run jobs on a second machine."

Most of the production is in thermal transfer, blanks, and color coded labels. "Some of our work is in electronics, some in health care. We do work with intricate diecuts, front and back, so the liner is a key feature of the label."

The company still is involved with bar coding, but Steve says that consecutive numbering has moved away. "Consecutive numbering seems to be slowed at this point. The end user is in the position to best do that work. In the past we did a lot of work with drug testing, sample tracking.

"Bar coding can be complicated. At one point years ago we were the only approved source for the drug testing label that was used by the FBI and the Secret Service. They came on-site and checked us, which gave us butterflies. We don't have Brinks security type doors, but they said our location made it look like we didn't need to have high security, so therefore we wouldn't be targeted. We thought 'Wow, if the FBI and the Secret Service are relying upon KeeBar Enterprises in an apple orchard in Pennsylvania for security on their drug testing forms, that's amazing.' It's a big world, but it's all run by little people."

The economic impact

The company today has a work force of seven employees. "We are down in size because of reduction in some types of work that we do. Recently we experienced our first layoffs. They were difficult. Our employees are part of the family here, and these were people with 18, 12 and five years at KeeBar. These were not recent hires."

This no-color Allied Gear press handles the sizeable amount of blank labels produced by KeeBar for distributors and the trade.
The economic downturn has been difficult for KeeBar, but it hasn't daunted the president. "I would say that this is the worst that I've seen. I started around 1973-74 in the label industry, and there have been quite a few upturns and downturns over the years. This one has been significant. Some of our customers don't exist any longer, and others have downsized. Their customers, the ultimate end users, have reduced the frequency or the size of their orders, or eliminated the product altogether. We are seeing jobs that had been very regular and established changing now. Some of the work lost over the past few years has been taken offshore. Our largest independent customer has been taken to Mexico. My customer lost a US Postal Service job due to a competitive situation. We were a minor player in the overall picture, but it meant a lot to us.

"Today I'm seeing very small bumps, followed by dips," Steve says. "On average it really hasn't gained or lost any more. But I'm not seeing a significant upturn trend. I don't think that the promised recovery has happened. The trickle down hasn't trickled down to the point that my customers are strong enough to buy from me the way they were before.

"Several years ago when some other converters were having difficulty, we were growing and achieved our highest sales. It goes around. It's the luck of the draw."

NELMA Expo: Coming April 22

Steve Miller and his late wife, along with several other staffers at KeeBar, have been active promoters over the years of the NELMA Expo, a small trade exhibition held each year in New Jersey for label converters in the region.

NELMA is the North East Label Manufacturers Association, a group formed about 15 years ago to provide education and networking opportunities for label manufacturers in the Northeastern United States. Early in its lifetime, NELMA members would meet monthly or bimonthly to hear industry speakers, but today the focus is mainly on the annual expo.

This year's event will take place April 22 from 1 pm to 7 pm in the Bridgewater Marriott Hotel in Bridgewater, NJ, USA. A high point of the event is a tabletop exhibition featuring 40 or more industry vendors who will meet one-on-one with converters and show or explain their products and services. A couple of educational sessions will be held.

Steve Miller is president of NELMA. "We are talking a lot about education this year," he says. "We are working with Millersville University (a nearby higher education institution) about establishing a printing program, and there's another school in Pennsylvania that might be interested. And we are trying to renew our relationship with the Bergen Technical School in New Jersey. This year at the NELMA Expo we are going to try to speak to students, to let them know what we have to offer them.

"Ultimately, I'd like to see a jobs fair."

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