32 Park Drive East, Branford CT USA
Edward A. Pepe has worked at one place for his entire career. He graduated from the University of New Haven, not far from his Connecticut home, with a degree in business, and his first job – his only job – was at Robinson Tape & Label Inc., located back then in the town of Hamden. The company was only six months old, so Pepe got in on the ground floor. He never left. Sometime in the 1970s he bought part of the company and became a partner, and in the 1990s he acquired the whole business, and since then has served as its president.
Robinson Tape & Label Inc., based today in Branford, CT, USA, is a flexo label manufacturer as well as a supplier of shipping products such as tapes, envelopes, stretch wrap, and many of the other products required for secure shipments. Since its beginning the company has been a partner of Better Packages, a manufacturer of water-activated tape dispensers and carton sealing systems. The label converting business, in fact, grew out of the shipping supply business.
Edward A. Pepe
According to its president, the company has nurtured traditions over the years and has reaped rewards, the most significant of those being the loyalty of employees and customers. Ed Pepe is a family man, believes in the strength of family, and relies on the longevity of his company to earn the loyalty and respect of his customers. And like other label converters in the Northeast US, he's acutely aware of what it's like to do business in a constantly changing business environment.
"In the Northeast, manufacturing has taken a real hit," Pepe says, noting that a good portion of Robinson's business over the years has been for manufacturers. "Probably half the customers are around since the '70s, when I started. The workforce is down; it was 300,000 back then in Connecticut, and it's 165,000 now. It's the same in Massachusetts. The majority of our business is in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but we are connected with some large companies, and we have customers outside of New England, and in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. But we still get in the car and drive to the customer. They see the application, we solve their problems. I believe in that."
The company will achieve nearly $5 million in sales this year, an effort accomplished mostly by the company's own sales force. "We have four people including myself," Pepe says. " I still maintain a sales territory, which I enjoy. About 10 percent of our business comes through brokers, a few business form guys and offset printers we do work for, but mostly we use our own direct sales force. There seems to be a trend among customers to swing back to people who make the product. My set of manufacturers want to deal direct. They want our advice – they look at us as consultants. We have been here a long time, everybody here. My vice president has 36 years here, my production manager is in his 40s and has been here since he was a 16 year old kid. Nobody leaves, nobody leaves.
Pepe enjoys the low-key image of Robinson Tape & Label, which is built on more than quality, price and delivery. "Our sales people are experienced," he says. "They know what our limitations are, and what we are good at. We don't portray ourselves to be more or less than what we are very focused on and really good at."
Traditional values are accompanied, of course, by awareness of and participation in the technological advances of the day. The company has an online ordering system that has brought in new customers, and though it's no longer possible to pay a personal visit to every customer, "it's a new day," says Pepe, "and I roll with it. Some customers have tons of SKUs and that system has made their lives easier. We are doing the things that business wants us to do. We pride ourselves on being problem solvers."
As in all businesses, the recession gave Robinson Tape & Label a tough time, but the company pulled through well. "Customers started to get prices from other companies, and some of them we lost, but then when they lived with their new suppliers for a while they came back. Everybody got nervous, watched the news, their brother-in-law lost his job, that place was closing up, the manufacturing workforce was going down, stuff was being outsourced overseas�
"So we gathered the troops, and I told them: 'We're just going to have to suck it up. We're going to have to be even better than before. The expectations that are going to be thrust upon us are going to be borderline unreasonable. We're going to try to meet them. We're not going to compromise our quality, we're not going to compromise our delivery. We're going to look to our vendors to work with us as much as they can. And we're going to go out there and get more business in a bad time'."
Every year since 2008, Pepe observes, the company has registered growth. And every year for 40 years, the company has given raises and bonuses, recession notwithstanding. "Failure is not an option here," he says. "We go out and shake the bushes. We have wonderful customers that we have had for years. People complain about loyalty, but when you have become so important to their day-to-day operation they stay with you. You have to be good at what you do, though. If you're not good at what you do, the flaws will jump up and bite you. And they don't have time for bad quality, bad delivery, bad pricing. They don't have patience for any of that."
The technology question
Robinson Tape & Label Inc. takes a conservative approach to adding technology, but the company's managers keep their eyes on trends and act when it's felt to be necessary. Today it operates one shift plus overtime, but Pepe says they are feeling that a new level of production might be on its way. At present Robinson has about 15,000 square feet of space, but it is considering acquiring more in the same building.
"You have to be able to afford technology. You can't buy the technology at the end," Pepe says. "You have to take a leap of faith, have some vision about where the marketplace might be going. We did that. We're a small company so those dollars were a lot to us, but you either grow or die. A long time ago I decided we were going to buy the technology before the world started screaming for it, so when they needed it, it was in place. We've been doing four color for many years now."
The company acquired an Anderson & Vreeland laser engraving system for its photopolymer plates. "We embraced that, and sure enough the trend was toward that technology, screens going up, finer type. We win so much business because the competitor's quality is not up to snuff. Those are the people who didn't stay ahead of it technologically, or couldn't afford to stay ahead of it technologically."
Who can resist the pull of digital label printing in this day and age? Robinson has taken a step, a small but significant one, to test the digital waters.
"We have committed to buying an Allen Datagraph digital printing and converting system," Pepe says, "and we are going to figure out how it interacts with the business that we have, to get a dose of digital printing." The Allen Datagraph iTech Axxis system is a tabletop printer with accompanying finishing unit that cuts shapes with a plotter, plus laminates, strips and rewinds labels. "We're keeping our eye on where we think the market is going, and what's out there for us, the whole digital thing. We wait till the stresses are constant before we make a move, because you can make one bad move and you can be out of business today."
Feedback from production personnel is important, says Pepe. "Every day we say OK, we could have put this job on a digital printer, and tomorrow we say we can put these three jobs on it, and the next day we say maybe these four jobs. So more and more I'm hearing 'We could have used it on this job,' so let's buy it and start using it, and see where it goes. At some point perhaps one of those big digital machines will be sitting on the floor here."
Robinson Tape & Label Inc. is a UL authorized label manufacturer, and has been so since 1974. "There aren't many of those left any more, because they couldn't abide by whatever the regulations were, or they couldn't pay the money," Pepe surmises. "We have had so many UL people migrate to us because of our quality and because of our system. UL audits us every quarter, and we get report cards from big companies: our on-time delivery, our quality, this and that. We kind of chuckle at it. We know we're good at what we do, that's just the way we do business. When a large medical group came in here, they told us, 'Chances are you're not going to be approved.' They came in and spent a week, inspecting everything. At the end they were kind of flabbergasted, and gave us conditional approval. The only thing I had to do was build a chart of our work flow. Everything they wanted us to do we were already doing, but we just didn't have it documented. So we did that.
"I don't look at customers in the medical field any differently than I do the food people. Everything we do, we do the same way. Consistency, consistency, consistency. You do it right the first time. We raise the bar for ourselves all the time."
Ed Pepe is amused by the ubiquity of the word "green" these days. "We were environmentally responsible from Day One, before they called it green," he says. "I remember seeing an Anderson & Vreeland water washout system at a plant in Massachusetts, and we bought the same system. I use Tide to wash out my plates – no solvents. I don't have to worry about anyone sticking their hands in any chemicals. We use Water Ink Technologies (now Actega WIT) water based inks. We were responsible right from the beginning. I've looked into having our waste picked up to make into pellets. That's just the right way to live and to work. I didn't want to – for a dollar – subject anybody here to anything that is bad for them. We keep the place bright and clean and air conditioned."
At work on a Mark Andy 2200 press at Robinson Tape & Label Inc.
The traditions at Robinson Tape & Label Inc. extend to the community at large. For more than 25 years, the company has had special needs children from two local high schools come to the plant to share the workplace with the employees. "They do whatever they are physically or mentally capable of doing," Pepe says. "It's very grounding to have those children in here every day."
The company also funds a wellness program for employees. "I can't control their personal lives, but here they can get their blood pressure checked and get nutrition information, because I care about these people, and we care about each other," the president says.
"A week doesn't go by that I don't get one or two people who want to buy this place," he muses. "This place will continue to run with me and my family. I could never sell this out from under all these people. If you ask me to help me with a project I help you with the project; I don't assign a dollar value to it. I've always felt that if we do all the good, responsible stuff, inside and outside, then those other things which are called revenue and success will come.
"This place isn't going anywhere, and we're not going to fail. It's not an option. I've expressed that to the people: 'Go buy a house, send your kids to college. We'll be here.' There's no substitute for hard work. When I speak to groups, I tell people that there are three secret ingredients to running a successful business: Common sense, hard work, and do the right thing."