Customer service and timely process improvements are the keys to success for this small, New Jersey converter.
65 Chamber St.
Newark, NJ USA
United Label Corp. is perhaps the embodiment of democratic ideals. Founded by four independent self-starters who simply wanted to be their own bosses, decisions at the company were made as a team and based on the greater good. The company runs Lean, works hard, and attributes its success to its reputation.
Located in a 10,000 square-foot building on a residential street in Newark, NJ, USA, day-to-day operations at United Label Corp. are now primarily handled by the son of one of its founders, John O’Connor, who today holds the position of vice president.
“I’m surrounded by ghosts in here,” O’Connor says. He motions towards the empty desks in his office and explains that they used to belong to three of the four company founders, one of whom was his father.
“Our company was formed in 1965,” he says. “There were four partners originally, all who used to work for a company called Ever Ready Label in Belleville, NJ. They all left there and formed this company, which was originally in downtown Newark. They moved here in 1967 and we’ve been operating out of here ever since.
“They all wanted to start their own company. Three of them were in sales and one of them was in production,” he says. “Three of them, including my father, have passed away. There’s one original partner who’s still here. Joseph Cice, the president of our company, and he’ll turn 90 in April.”
O’Connor, who joined the company in 1996 as the sales manager, was enjoying a lucrative career and living in the Boston area when his father called to ask if he would join him at United. Surprising, given the founders’ pact: no family. With four men from four separate families, none of them wanted to create strife by bringing one of their own on board. As time went on and the men reached retirement age, things changed. O’Connor left Boston, joined United and the rest, as they say, is history.
The bulk of United Label’s work comes from
local customers like the Newark Star-Ledger.
Though the company runs very lean with only nine employees, O’Connor says there was a time when they had nearly 20. “They got a contract with American Family Publishers, all those sweepstakes magazines, and they did millions upon millions of labels for them back in the day. That’s when they really started to grow.”
Today, O’Connor says that 85-90 percent of United’s work is CMYK four-color process. Its customers include end user manufacturers, prime label products, and the pet, food and beverage, and chemical industries. “Our label specialty is custom printed pressure sensitive labels for commercial applications,” he says.
For now, the company is small and plans to stay that way. “I do sales,” O’Connor explains. “I have a production manager who does all the prepress work and plans the jobs. We’ve got two pressmen, quality control, a receptionist and a bookkeeper. We use two Mark Andy 6-color presses – one 10" and one 7". And we have little hot stamp machine that we don’t use all that much.”
The presses to which he refers are the 10" Mark Andy 4120 6-color machine with UV-coating, overlaminating, two rewind stations and three die stations; and the 7" Mark Andy 2100, a 6-color press with UV-coating, overlaminating, two rewind and two die stations. Both presses were purchased around 1980.
O’Connor says he has plans to purchase a digital press soon. “The demands in the marketplace have changed,” he says. “There’s more and more pressure on price, more and more pressure on turnaround time. Everybody wants things instantly – with high quality. And then there’s the increased demand for shorter runs. Label customers need their orders faster and they need it cheaper. That’s what we’re dealing with, and that’s why the move is towards digital now. Most of those things, not all of them necessarily, most of those things favor digital printing. I would foresee some sort of an investment in a digital press in the next year or year-and-a-half.”
His deciding factors when evaluating digital presses? “Cost. Functionality. My initial foray into it isn’t going to be to go out and buy a $400,000 press. We’re looking for something smaller,” O’Connor says.
A digital press, O’Connor feels, will allow the company to shift a lot of shorter runs that they’re currently producing on flexo to digital. “This will allow us more capacity for larger runs on flexo,” he says. “And the increased capacity may allow us to be more competitive in our price structure for the larger runs. Digital would allow us to be competitive in the test market, prototype and start-up production runs of less than 1,000 labels.”
Though O’Connor says United has been “chugging along” in recent years, 2011 was actually a big year for the company. “This past year we achieved GMI certification. We’re also now a packing printer for Target Corporation,” he says. “In 2011, we actually focused on improving the processes. We recently were approved as a printer for GE Healthcare – we had a quality systems audit with them.”
United label also recently instituted an ISO-equivalent quality control system. “I’m not ISO certified, but it’s ISO-equivalent. One of the things we had to do to get the certification from them was that they came in and audited us, and we actually had two audits. We bought some equipment that’s improved our process with color measurement, things of that nature. We bought a new spectrodensitometer, which improves our ability to measure color and in general improves our overall process.”
Despite being such a small company, United does make their own plates, a point of pride for O’Connor. “I know a lot of small companies do not make their own plates; they send the job out and have it done. We make our own plates. We’ve built our reputation on customer service and turnaround time, so by making our own plates, we have the flexibility to get things done,” he says.
United Label uses a Xante OpenRIP software system. “We use an Extrasetter to laser image our film and we have a Kelliegh platemaker. The photopolymer we use for our plates is supplied by Anderson & Vreeland,” O’Connor says.
According to O’Connor, it’s not just the plates that set United Label apart from its competitors. “Service, speed, turnaround time, quality, fair pricing,” he says. “We’ve maintained a lot of our clients for a long time. For example, our customer who is a vendor for Target, it’s an old customer that’s always been loyal to us. They’ve been coming to us for 40 years.”
In fact, many of the new clients that choose United over a competitor, O’Connor says, are recommended by their current clients. Despite scaling back their advertising presence over the last six or seven years, they’ve maintained a strong client base.
“We get good results on Google. We also advertise in Thomas Net and Super Pages,” he says. He adds that virtually all of United’s clients are located within the New York/New Jersey area, with a small few in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
The company’s location in the New York metropolitan area, O’Connor says, has distinct advantages and disadvantages. “One of the advantages is the sheer volume of businesses of all sizes as potential customers,” he explains. “In addition to large corporations having corporate offices in the area, there are a huge number of small to mid-level businesses and entrepreneurs within the metropolitan area. Serving these smaller businesses is our niche and most of them prefer doing business within a close geographic distance.”
Another advantage O’Connor points to is the large number of related businesses or industries in the region that lend support either in a process-related or customer-related way. “The challenges obviously are increased competition and the high cost of labor associated with operating a business in the area, as well as energy, taxes and rent prices.”
Despite the high costs of operating in the New York City area, and in light of the recent economic recession, O’Connor points out that the company has largely managed to prevent their customers from feeling the economic pinch. “We have more or less maintained our pricing levels with our customers. We don’t have contractual business, but we have repeat customers that repeat frequently. We try to maintain their pricing. While newer clients may see incremental increases, we try to moderate it as much as we can with process improvements.”
Another advantage to working with United Label, O’Connor says, is the personalized treatment you receive from a small company. “Phone calls are answered immediately by a friendly receptionist and then passed on to either myself or my production manager. Phone calls to the company almost never go to voicemail or automated menus during business hours,” he says.
“When clients come to our facility they are welcomed warmly and introduced to the office staff, and they are almost always walked or escorted out by me when they leave,” O’Connor adds. “If they need something done quickly, it is done without waiting for point-of-sale formalities. We will do artwork or design work with them when they are here, so they can see the results immediately.”