Narrow Web Profile: Mepco Label Systems

By Greg Hrinya, Associate Editor | September 7, 2016

This thriving converter’s rich history has set up an exciting future.

Mepco Label Systems
1313 S. Stockon Street, Lodi, CA, USA
6876 Pasadena Drive, Horn Lake, MS, USA

Mepco Label Systems was built on the American Dream. After enduring the ravages of World War II, Alfred Gassner emigrated from Germany in the 1950s in search of a better life. With just $5 in his pocket, this master engraver for the German mint was intent on opening his own business in the United States.

Gassner grew up the youngest of seven children, and his father died after contracting a fever during a business trip to Argentina. The family got by owning German properties, but they were subsequently destroyed during the war. “My dad went through a time where he had to go in the forest and forage for food, as his family didn’t have any food,” says Jennifer Tracy, daughter and current company president. “My dad’s perspective is a little tougher than most human beings. He experienced serious hardships, so he appreciates all he has accomplished. He worked really hard.”

In the early 1950s, Gassner boarded a boat and set sail for New York, NY. He moved in with his sister, who had already come to the US. While there, he met his future wife, Carol, at a bar owned by Jennifer’s grandfather that catered to foreigners of mostly German and Austrian descent. Gassner also memorized the DMV book, translating all the text in order to get his driver’s license.

Gassner set his sights on either California or Florida, and he and Carol opted for Stockton, CA. Gassner’s engraving background led him to Mepco, which was founded in 1912. He and his wife purchased the small engraving and sign company in 1963, when it had just one employee. Prior to moving to Lodi, CA, Mepco operated out of its facility in Stockton for 33 years.

Today, Mepco Label Systems has 92 employees, and the company recently expanded to a second location in Horn Lake, MS. Gassner first discovered flexography in the early 1970s when he purchased his first press, and the company has enjoyed tremendous growth since that time. The 174,000 square foot, 14-acre facility in Lodi houses 10 flexo presses and two digital presses.

Mepco prides itself on several core principles, including customer service, sustainable practices, and family. When Alfred and Carol Gassner retired, they passed the business along to their children. Jennifer Tracy now serves as president, while Karl Gassner functions as the executive vice president. Philip Tracy, Jennifer’s husband, is the vice president of business development, where he is responsible for estimating, purchasing, and spearheading any new projects going on in the plant. In addition, Michael Rodenborn serves as the vice president of sales and marketing, while Frank Griffin and Braulio Gomez act in supervisory roles.

Jennifer also works on the Avery Dennison Customer Council for Sustainability in one of its specialty wings. In addition, she serves as one of TLMI’s sustainability chairs. Since Jennifer took over as company president in 2009, Mepco has experienced steady, annual growth.

Mepco’s new facility in Mississippi will allow it to gain market share in more US regions. In less than a year, that facility has grown from two employees to six and is now running two shifts per day. “We’re trying to stretch out to the new plant in Mississippi and get more of a national presence,” says Jennifer. “Shipping to the East Coast is just entirely too expensive from the West Coast. By allowing us to be on the East Coast, it’s opening us up to all those national bids where we haven’t been as competitive in the past. Hopefully we’ll get more of a national presence and just keep growing.”

Mepco services a wide range of markets, taking advantage of both short and long runs due to its capacity in digital and flexo. The company’s target markets include food, wine, craft beer, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, direct mail and charitable organizations. According to Philip, Mepco is also looking at expansion into cosmetic and industrial labels. Capabilities extend to shrink sleeves, continuous bottle wraps, surface printing, flexible packaging, coupons and even laminated pouches.

The company is willing to take on any challenge, too. Mepco will conduct test runs until it finds the optimal solution for an individualized application. “We’re a guide for our customers,” explains Karl Gassner. “We’re their knowledge base. We try to find the right solution for them instead of just quoting an SKU. Most people I run up against are just quoting a box label. We go beyond that. We ask, ‘What is the problem? How can we solve it? We offer a full range of options that other people don’t, and most times the customer doesn’t even know the type of questions to ask the label company. So it’s our duty to guide them and ask the right questions.”

“It’s also our job to help save the customers money,” adds Jennifer. “Sometimes people are using materials that are just completely unnecessary for their application, and it’s just because they’ve done it for 10 years. For example, if we can save them money by saying there’s no reason to use this polyester label – you can get away with polypropylene and save 40% – we will help them test that out and make sure it works.”

With a strong focus on staying current with the newest technologies, Mepco highlights its total in-house production. In some cases, Mepco will look to help the customer consolidate 20 labels into two or three different sizes, saving them time, money, and optimizing their cost benefit. “We want them to not have to think about labels – that’s our job,” adds Karl. “We think about labels and guide them to a solution. We take more of a consultancy approach rather than a sales approach.”

Family Matters
Mepco Label Systems embodies the phrase “family atmosphere.” The tradition began with Alfred Gassner, who ran the company with his wife in the 1960s. When he first met her, she was working as a buyer for a New York City clothing company. After purchasing their first flexo press, Alfred asked Carol if she thought she could sell labels. “She went out and started selling, while my dad was printing labels with their one employee. All of a sudden the business got bigger, bigger and bigger,” Jennifer says. “Then one of my brothers came into the business in the early 1980s, and he was here for a while, and then left. I joined in 2000 and pretty much worked every position possible, from customer service to outside sales. Then I became president, and soon after that my brother Karl came on board – he’s now been with the business about six years.”

Philip Tracy worked in the company’s shipping department during his high school years, and following college, he returned. “Phil and I dated in high school, and my father said, ‘I just need a part time person in accounting for a couple weeks until I find someone’ – and he’s never left,” says Jennifer.

“And when you say it’s a family-owned business and family run, not only is that true with us but also with the employees,” adds Philip. “We’ve got fathers and sons working out there, we’ve got brothers.”

Mepco’s second shift digital press operator and his fiancée both work at the company, and the shift supervisor is married to the daytime digital press operator. Her brother also happens to be the equipment manager. “A lot of our people have been here a long time, and if someone is going to come to me and say, ‘My brother is a really hard worker, he needs a job,’ I’m going to give that person an opportunity because I trust what they say and they’ve worked for me for a long time,” explains Jennifer. “I think it has organically grown that way.”

According to Philip, the company is also willing to train employees who don’t have previous experience. “We’ll train them to be a press operator, and they’ll spend a year on press, training,” he says. “We’ll do that for them, and then they have the skills and a good job they can have for the rest of their life if they want to.”

“The people are good people. We have some employees that have been here a long time – I know their kids, I’ve been to graduations,” adds Jennifer. “My nighttime supervisor, I was the witness at his wedding. It is a family. They’ve seen my kids grow, I’ve seen their kids grow. It’s a neat way to be able to know people that long. I do think that the family aspect is something that’s a little bit different here. I even bring my dog to work sometimes.”

Press Capabilities
By moving to the larger facility in Lodi, Mepco has the proper space to house its extensive equipment assets. In addition to its 10 flexo presses and two digital presses, the company has two digital finishers, seven rewinders, a hot stamper, a finishing machine and a seamer for shrink sleeve applications.

Mepco’s capabilities run the gamut. For digital printing, the company relies on an HP Indigo WS6800 press and what the company refers to as its “workhorse, ” a Jetrion UV inkjet press. Gassner purchased the Jetrion 10 years ago after attending Labelexpo Americas in Chicago. “Actually, we still run the Jetrion every day for two shifts, and it produces good work and we get great sales off of it,” Philip says. “About a year ago, we added the HP Indigo WS6800, and it’s been good. We’re happy with it and we do a lot of digital shrink sleeves on it.”

For flexographic printing, Mepco utilizes three 16" Nilpeter presses,  a 13" Nilpeter, two 13" Mark Andy’s, two 10" Mark Andy’s and a 10" Rotopress. “We used to, at one point, have 16 flexo presses when we moved to Lodi, and then we consolidated our presses with 7" web widths.  We had like three or four 7" flexo presses, and then we started moving all the short run work to digital and anything that had volume we started running on the 16" machines in order to utilize the presses better. We were able to get more in sales and more in production with less people and less presses.”

Mepco also features a Karlville seamer for shrink sleeves and a CEI Boss finisher. The company’s CEI rewinders run up to 1,800 fpm. According to Jennifer, Mepco will continue to look to Nilpeter in the future. “Our last three new presses have all been Nilpeters,” she says. “Nilpeter is the route we will be taking in the future so long as their quality remains the same.”

Mepco provides its customers with the option to do custom coats, as well. “One of the things that we do that’s unique is we actually convert paper,” explains Karl. “We have a hot melt wide web converter, thus making us able to do custom coats competitively, which is a big advantage for us compared to most label companies. We can tailor an adhesive, a facestock and a release liner for the customer instead of trying to find something that’s necessarily a stock product or cost effective. This way we can get the actual products to be as cost effective and efficient as possible.”

Jennifer has recognized the shift toward digital printing, which led to the investment in the HP Indigo digital press. “There’s a big market right now where everybody’s trying to do minimal ordering, and they don’t want to be keeping inventory,” she says. “Customer quantities are not as big as they normally would be. We have a lot of people asking for specialty stocks like recycled papers and products that are somewhat unusual. Digital gives you the upper hand on smaller quantities. I have customers who were once ordering large quantities of labels, and now they’ve switched to where they’re just ordering a minimal amount.”

Philip points out that Northern California has been quicker to embrace the digital trend, saying the region accounts for nearly 40 Indigo presses. “Meanwhile,” he says, “Other regions have significantly less. We offer both inkjet and toner-based technology,” he adds. “The Jetrion’s footprint is 8 by 4 feet, where you can do those short runs quick and where you don’t have to worry about priming the paper. So there are definitely benefits to having both presses and being able to offer both to the customer. That’s something that I think a lot of converters in general don’t have.”

Sustainability is a trending topic in the label and packaging marketplace, and Mepco has embraced the idea of going green. Not only do customers request sustainable solutions, the state of California has stricter mandates on what companies can and cannot do.

“We have always led in sustainability because we’re in Northern California, and there’s that drive to be green,” explains Karl Gassner. “We’re one of the innovators and first users of water-based inks, and now we’re using soy inks. Our customers guide us. If they have a need, we find a solution for them, so we’re always questioning what they want to do sustainability-wise, and we find solutions for them.”

Mepco is located in the Air Pollution Control District, which means it is tested for VOC emissions. As part of a company initiative, Jennifer is working with waste management to find new ways to recycle waste as opposed to simply disposing of it. A new recycling plant could convert 50% of Mepco’s label waste into reusable items. She notes that Mepco is also exploring solar panels within a five-year plan. “We have very minimal waste as it is, but on top of that, we’re trying to find better ways to limit our footprint – at least 10% each year until we can get down to as minimal as possible,” she says.

Mepco has undertaken other sustainable steps, as well. In addition to printing with eco-friendly inks, the company offers its customers thinner facestocks and release liners. It also does mostly UV lamination.

“Almost all of our clear liner that we run is 92 gauge versus the 1.2 that a lot of people still run,” explains Philip. “We’ll go with the 1.6 mil film, if they’re interested in that. We’ll offer them the 50-pound paper instead of the 60-pound. We try to downgauge them if it still works for their specific application. If we do have ink waste, we don’t put anything down the drain,” Philip adds. “We have it taken out by a service and they take care of it. I know in some states it just goes down the drain, but we can’t do that here. Even though it’s allowed in Mississippi, we don’t do that there either. That’s a company practice – trying to be as green as we can.”