24800 Sherwood Avenue, Center Line, MI USA 48015
The automotive industry has been woven into the fabric of the US, and George Shaieb Sr. helped build a thriving label converting business on that premise. Whitlam Group, an award-winning global label supplier, has helped deliver solutions that are encased in many of the vehicles we drive today. The company boasts a rich history, too.
Elmer Whitlam established the company in 1957, where he was initially making various food labels in his basement. When he approached retirement age, he began looking to sell the business. Shaieb Sr., an entrepreneur with an extensive automotive background, purchased Whitlam Group in 1973. The company came with a small storefront space, four employees and three printing presses. He utilized his connections in the automotive industry to branch out from food labels, and the company took off from that point.
Whitlam Group migrated to a 33,000 square-foot space in 1981, and ownership subsequently expanded further – moving to the company’s current location in Center Line, MI in 1989. The 120,000 square-foot facility serves as Whitlam’s headquarters, with another facility situated in Harlingen, TX. In 2000, Whitlam Group acquired three automotive-based companies, with the facility in Harlingen designed to better serve the Mexican automotive market.
“George was an entrepreneur, and he owned a number of small businesses,” says Michelle Shaieb, sales and marketing director at Whitlam Group. “He was an engineer for a major automotive company at the time, and he actually developed – and is on the patent of – the trailer hitch. After retiring from the automotive company, he decided that he wanted to establish a family business for himself and his eight children.”
The Shaiebs remain in control of the thriving Whitlam Group. George’s son, Richard, operates as CEO and continues to run the company, and his brothers Jim and John work as senior advisors. Meanwhile, Don Clifford, CFO, has imparted his knowledge on the company for the past 36 years.
“Don is the brains behind a lot of what we do here at Whitlam Group,” states Michelle. “Don started in IT when IT wasn’t even really a thing.”
“We were writing programs in the initial wave of bringing computers into the fold to help augment and bring efficiencies to Whitlam’s processes, including accounting, inventories, purchasing and data collection,” explains Clifford. “Through that and investigating how departments operated, it gave me a very thorough understanding of the company, which I continued to build on throughout the years.”
Whitlam Group boasts 125 employees, who have helped the company emerge as a preferred supplier to automotive OEMs and trickling down to Tier 1 and 2’s. The company specializes in delivering custom engineered labels, functional diecut components, protective films, and product and brand security solutions. Its customer base spans more than 1,000 clients across the globe, including over 400 automotive customers.
In order to better service its diverse range of customers, which includes global automotive suppliers to local food providers, Whitlam Group has been on the forefront of investing in new technology. The company has a fleet of flexo presses, working mostly with Mark Andy. The presses range from four to 12 colors and widths of 7-17".
The company purchased its first 6-color press in 1989, which included registration controls and a 40" unwind and UV curling system with four diecut stations. The press included 30" inline laminators and doctor blades at all print stations. In 1998, Whitlam Group continued to grow with the addition of two more Mark Andy presses.
In 2004, facing the looming uncertainty associated with the automotive market, Whitlam Group invested in an HP Indigo digital press. Then in 2009, ownership expanded with a Jetrion UV inkjet system to help meet the growing demand for short-run printing services. Digital printing has assisted Whitlam Group with prime food and beverage, and health and beauty labels, as well as an assortment of promotional products. The company has also partnered with Domino to help provide digitally-printed products.
“To complement our printing capabilities, we have a wide variety of finishing solutions that helps meet our customers’ needs, including ABG finishing equipment and Dorey converting systems,” notes Michelle. “For the automotive industry, we do a lot of non-printed pieces, as well. We also offer 100% camera inspection on all of our units, with help from AVT.”
While Whitlam Group still does a significant portion of its business in the automotive field, it has diversified its book of business. “We’re highly automotive still, but our other main markets include industrial and durable consumer products, which range from small kitchen appliances to industrial lawnmowers and car parts, and promotional products,” says Michelle. “These include loyalty programs and promotions such as coupons and scratch-off tickets.”
In the future, Whitlam Group is taking steps to automate its operations, becoming more sustainable and efficient. The company has retained the services of industrial engineers, who are identifying workflow challenges and areas for improvement.
“The engineers are taking our whole process, including every department, and analyzing it to develop a plan for all of our operations,” explains Michelle. “This endeavor looks at everything from running a job on the floor to how we manage converting, rewinding, inspection, and shipping and inventory. We’re looking to streamline our operations, including software and technology, so that everything talks to one another. We already do that now, but these steps will bring our systems to another level.”
Whitlam Group has also emphasized the value of being a pillar in the community, which it has done by donating to local charities, raising money for specific causes, and volunteering their time. The company has been actively involved with organizations like The Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation, the Adopt-A-Child Project, Suite Dreams Project, COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter) Detroit, among others. Whitlam Group has also sponsored events and fundraised with the Detroit Police Department and City of Center Line.
Managing the pandemic
As a provider of automotive solutions, Whitlam Group has had to manage the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the automotive space, companies are still slow to return to usual business due to supply chain issues. Some plants in this space have even closed for two weeks at a time because it has been hard to procure vehicle materials.
This, consequently, trickles down to producing automotive labels.
“There have been pushbacks on new vehicle launches and other assorted programs, so we definitely understand that the market is a bit insecure in terms of ordering patterns,” remarks Michelle. “That being said, some of our biggest customers are not automotive, so they have helped carry us through those difficult months in the automotive world.”
Whitlam Group has deftly pivoted during the pandemic, using the challenge as an opportunity to reinvest in its people. This endeavor has been a constant during the past year. “We took the time to evaluate everything that we do here at Whitlam Group,” says Michelle. “We partnered with a company to help us develop a solid executive strategy and game plan to help maneuver this pandemic and these uncharted waters we’re treading through. We have invested in our people and training. We went through sales training on how to navigate selling in these markets, and it was a pretty extensive program that lasted 12-15 weeks.”
The company also provided leadership training for executive management. This has helped to ensure all members of the team are on the same page and equipped to deal with the daily challenges associated with the pandemic.
“The most important thing through all of this has been our people,” states Michelle. “We care a lot about our employees, and we didn’t want to lay off people and put people out of work, so we tried our best to do what we could to keep our doors open. We just knew that we wanted to re-evaluate our operations and do what we could to invest in our people. That was, and still is, exciting. It wasn’t easy, and obviously we’re all still navigating the pandemic, but our diversity within markets has helped us tremendously.”
Whether it be in-house testing or in-depth training, Whitlam Group has always prided itself on delivering products with the utmost quality. Part of that commitment to its customers has also been recognized with a host of awards.
Throughout the years, Whitlam Group has notched multiple TLMI awards, a World Technical Label Award, and gained recognition from its customers. In 2019, Whitlam Group received awards for “Excellence in Performance,” as well as “Commodity Leader” from Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA). Whitlam Group was one of only 22 suppliers that were recognized for exceptional performance during that year and one of only six companies to receive two awards. Plus, General Motors recently acknowledged Whitlam Group with a “Supplier Quality Excellence Award.”
In order to meet the quality demand, Whitlam Group utilizes systems that are certified to stringent ISO/TS/IATF standards and are uniformly applied to all customers. In addition to being IATF 16949:2016 and ISO 14001:2015 registered, the company is CSA Certified, and an UL (Underwriters Laboratories) Authorized Label Supplier. Whitlam Group performs a wide range of in-house testing to ensure quality, including abrasion tests and barcode verification all the way to fluid immersion and heat aging and resistance testing.
“We have a quality lab in-house where we do most of our inspection and testing,” says Michelle. “The automotive industry requires some pretty rigorous testing, where there are requirements for the label to stand up to some challenging environments. That is key to the success we have within this market, especially since we’ve had these certifications for many years.”
The push for greater quality for its customers did not stop during the pandemic either. Whitlam Group, which is data driven, invested in a Net Promoter Score (NPS) to measure customer experience and predict business growth. This metric is used throughout the business world and provides core measurement for customer experience management programs.
“During these months of evaluating our executive plan, strategy and vision at Whitlam, we still prioritize customer service, and that’s been one of our key pillars,” explains Michelle. “The NPS survey is essentially determined by one question: How likely is it that you would recommend Whitlam to a friend or colleague? They identify promoters, pass-ups and detractors of your business, and we received great feedback. We scored 64.7, and for reference, the average score in printing is around a 40. We focus on quality service, and the survey provided us with a lot of insight.”
As part of the NPS, Whitlam Group was presented with an extensive amount of data for each client. For example, a Tier 1 automotive customer said, “Whitlam provides exceptional customer service and is always accommodating to running changes and timelines. From facility cleanliness to quality tests to the final product, they get the job done. It’s been a pleasure doing business with Whitlam for all our labeling needs.”
In order to further the customer experience, Whitlam Group has developed a Customer Portal. This service enables customers to log into the portal and place orders with ease. It will also enable them to manage their inventory and view their purchasing history.
Whitlam Group’s internal procedures include a focus on sustainability, too. While customers are increasingly requesting more environmentally-friendly procedures from label converters, Whitlam Group has committed to lowering its carbon footprint.
“For us, internally, we have an environmental management system and we are ISO certified,” states Michelle. “We have developed an environmental program, which includes a recycling program for waste liner generated in our facility. We also target the recycling of plastics, corrugated and other materials from our suppliers. We’re reducing our need for solvent-based inks, as well, which is obviously big in the automotive field to reduce VOC emissions.”
Whitlam Group has also taken part in programs that help its customers with their recycling needs. The company has helped these customers with recycling management, as well as with additional resources and contacts to handle the recycling of packaging materials like cores. Management has committed to continually improve in this area by reducing waste and preventing pollution.