9000 Henri-Bourassa Ouest
St-Laurent (Québec) H4S 1L5, Canada
Identification Multi Solutions Inc, aka IMS, based in Quebec, Canada, has come a long way since its humblest of beginnings in 1958. In fact, at the time it was founded, it didn’t even have a staff or a place to call home. The business model started by founder Gilles Baillargeon was in the distribution of marking products, such as stencils, which he did up until 1978 when he purchased his first label press, a 7" Mark Andy. With no place to put it, Baillargeon asked another label printer to operate it in its facility. After a couple of years, the right personnel came on board and the press was moved into space rented by IMS.
“It was the beginning of a long journey,” says Jean Éthier, IMS owner and CEO. Éthier began working for IMS in 1990 as general manager and in 2007 purchased the company from Baillargeon. He recalls, “The technology that emerged in the 80s really fueled our growth – microcomputers made it possible for manufacturers to print their own labels and bar coding became a standard,” he says.
During this period of growth, IMS was not only manufacturing labels, but also providing labeling solutions to its customers due to its technical expertise in microcomputers and thermal transfer printers. By the end of the 80s, and with only 10 employees, IMS had become an industry leader in that field. Over the next decade, growth came fast. Éthier explains: “In the 90s, the demand for bar coding and labeling solutions was very high, but we also added a lot of complementary products around bar coding and labeling, such as label applicators, print and apply systems and bar code readers – we’d established ourselves as a one-stop-shop for our customers.”
In increasing numbers, the IMS business base began to consist of more and more pressure sensitive label customers. “The self-adhesive side of the business was taking off,” Éthier says. “So throughout the 90s, we acquired many flexo presses – 7", 10", 13" and 16" wide machines, varying from three to seven colors. We were producing self-adhesive labels, cartons and synthetic tags, some blanks, but also products with many colors, as well as prime labels.”
In 2000, IMS revenue was around $12 million, but since the thermal transfer label market was getting mature and more competitive, in 2005 the company decided to acquire a competitor based in Montréal, Source ID, a printer that specialized in apparel tags.
Growth by shrink and a Canada first
By the turn of the century, IMS was focused on finding the next generation of products to offer its customers and were looking for something that would, in particular, fuel current growth as well as growth into the future. “The shrink sleeve market was the answer for us,” Éthier states.
IMS acquired the equipment to produce shrink sleeves and actively promoted it within its sales efforts. “It was a real challenge,” Éthier recalls. “We had so much to learn and master. It did not start to pick up until 2011 and 2012, which was when we acquired a Mark Andy Performance Series P7, 13", 9-color press. Last year, in 2016, we added another P7, but this time with a 20" web width to meet the evolving demands of our shrink sleeve customers.
“Shrink was a perfect fit,” Ethier says. “It forced us to acquire another layer of expertise – printing on film, understanding the technology to apply and shrink the sleeve, and dealing with the third dimension when the sleeve is applied to the container.”
IMS has the distinction of being the first Canadian company to acquire a Mark Andy P7 Performance Series press. However, when IMS decided to add the second P7 for shrink sleeves, the vendor landscape had changed. “There were many alternatives that we had to look at since we wanted to get a press with a 20" web width. We did exhaustive research and reviewed all of our vendors’ offers.
“We had a very positive response from Mark Andy and Canflexo, their sales representative in Canada,” Éthier says. “They answered all of our questions, explained their technologies and listened to us. The proposal was excellent, and we anticipated a lot of productivity gains to come. The press was delivered at our facility just before Christmas. The installation and training were conducted in January and the press is now running and producing quite a large volume of shrink sleeves already. Not only has our quality improved, but we are running at three times the speed, thus opening up more capacity for new customers and new orders.”
IMS has since become specialists in the shrink segment of the product decoration market, and the company takes a consultative approach. “With shrink sleeves, we help our customers enhance their product’s image. Our technical expertise is also contributing a lot to our success. With shrink, the finished product is not within the hands of the printer,” Éthier says. “Since the end user will apply it on the product and use a tunnel to shrink it, the shrink sleeve can be perfectly printed – but the application result at the customer’s facility could be totally inadequate! Many of our clients could not figure this out when they started, and our expertise was extremely valuable for them.”
In total, IMS has 10 flexo presses at its 33,000 square foot manufacturing facility, which employs 70 people working two shifts. Among the press portfolio is that first 7" Mark Andy from 1978. Overall, the fleet includes a total of six Mark Andy’s, two Aquaflex presses, and two machines from ETI Converting. “The two P7 units are 9-color UV-presses and are dedicated to shrink sleeves. The other presses are used to produce labels and tags in paper, cardboard, polyester, vinyl and more,” Éthier says. “We have our own graphic designer, but the plates are sub-contracted. As our sales continue to grow in the shrink sleeve business, plate-making may be an area of investment to consider.”
As is the nature of the shrink sleeve market, it makes sense that beverage and food lead the way for IMS. Annual revenue is now over $15,000,000, and the company’s shrink sleeve business is on its way to exceeding in revenue all other product categories.
As Éthier says, the IMS business strategy is based on expertise and product integration. “So we have to sell directly to the end user,” he adds. “In order for us to understand our customers’ needs, and provide them with optimal solutions, we need to be in direct contact with them. We have six sales reps ‘on the road’ covering mainly Quebec and Ontario, but also working within the US market. We also have two internal sales reps and two customer service agents,” Éthier explains, adding that additional business is generated through trade shows, web searches and word-of-mouth.
“Over the last three years, our sales growth has been around 10% annually,” Éthier says. “This comes, obviously, with a lot of new customers. Our traditional customer base was concentrated in Quebec and Ontario. However, the shrink sleeve market has had our customer base expand to Western Canada and the United States, where most of our growth is coming from.”
‘Complete Label Solutions’
There are several aspects to IMS that set it apart as being “more than just a label manufacturer,” as Éthier emphasizes. The IMS tagline is “Complete Label Solutions,” and it’s expressed in the comprehensive breadth of its product portfolio. IMS offers labeling software, bar code printers, automatic labeling systems, applicators, print and apply units, technical services and a complete range of retail labeling products.
“Our customers run the gamut – we have major brands, manufacturing companies, service-oriented businesses and customers in retail and distribution,” Éthier says. “We’ve created solutions to automate, products that are resistant to harsh environments, labels that comply to UL and CSA standards and more. We are now even selling inkjet color label printers and have become a leader in Canada for that type of product.”
The concept of providing a “labeling solution” is what drove IMS into the shrink sleeve market. “There was a time when our labeling solutions were basically meant to enhance customer efficiency in using or applying labels. But, today, our reputation as labeling experts is also contributing to a lot of our success,” Éthier says.
Compared to other B2B businesses, IMS was early to get involved in marketing itself through social media channels. “We started in 2010 to use social media to promote the company and our products. And we have used content marketing for many years – publishing blogs on our site and broadcasting them on the Web. Our website was totally redesigned twice over the last 10 years to make it more in line with our strategic goals and to also make it more optimized for the rapidly evolving search engine technology. Our marketing strategy has been extremely productive,” says Éthier.
Quality in Quebec
Throughout its history, IMS has prided itself on its reputation for high-quality products. “We implemented ISO 9000 in the mid-90s and I believe we were the first label company to be ISO-certified in Quebec,” Éthier says.
He emphasizes that while price is always under pressure in the label industry, competition is everywhere. Éthier adds, “Quality has a price but it is taken for granted by today’s customers. So we have to be competitive not only in price but also delivery time, which is increasingly more challenging when the company is growing rapidly. But we are up to the challenges and are meeting customer needs – they can count on us for reliable delivery and quality to enhance their label or shrink sleeve application process. Our job is to make their life easier with regard to their product identification needs.”
Éthier believes that having the right technology is a crucial component when it comes to remaining competitive in the future. “However,” he says, “Technology is useless if we do not have the right people to learn it, operate it, and be creative with it. Our human resources department is steeped in core values that all IMS employees share in daily – team work, creativity and a hunger to learn. These values are part our company culture and they are communicated regularly through activities designed to promote behaviors in line with these values. We also take sustainability seriously. We have put in place an environmental program in the last three years to reduce both our energy consumption and landfill waste.”
Taking a broad look at the label industry today and into the future, Éthier sees a diversified market in the types of products made, and different technologies and technical skills used to make them. “Market segments are also a big difference in terms of service expectation from customers,” he says, “For example, the food industry requires quicker response time; pharmaceuticals will put more emphasis on production quality and traceability. The technology used to print and convert labels is also very broad – from offset to flexo, from digital to direct printing. Finally, labeling is now seen more and more as part of the packaging industry, and the impact is that some products are replacing labels, like what we’re doing with shrink sleeves.
“Where is the industry going? It’s hard to say,” Éthier concludes, “but one thing is for sure, it is offering so many opportunities.”