Much like a skilled carpenter with a diverse set of tools, Charlie Eitel, CEO of WS Packaging Group, says his company’s wide array of printing technologies and packaging capabilities, along with a highly knowledgeable sales staff, allows it to handle nearly any job that comes its way.
With 17 facilities across North America, WS Packaging is the nation’s second-largest pressure-sensitive label printer and is within the top six for overall consumer packaged label production. Despite its size however, Eitel explains that one of the company’s strongest attributes is its ability to maintain consistent, high quality on any job, no matter what location is producing it.
“Having all of these locations combined with the skill of our associates and sales force and the breadth and scope of our products gives us a competitive edge,” Eitel says. “It’s like we have a big tool box and if you have the relationships and you have the service and quality, you’re going to grow the company, and we are growing organically.”
WS Packaging Group, which is based in Green Bay, Wis., operates 16 locations in the United States and one in Mexico. The company is responsible for producing labels for some of the most recognizable brands in North America. Because of the size and scope of some of the brands WS Packaging serves, Eitel explains a press being down or a lack of capacity cannot be an excuse for an interruption in production.
To help streamline its operations across all of its facilities, Eitel says the company has implemented a custom computer system called Vision, which allows for work to be seamlessly transferred between facilities and reduce any potential interruptions that may have otherwise caused a bottleneck of output. Having this ability to transfer work between locations, Eitel says, makes WS Packaging a good partner for large brands.
“Some of the sizable companies we serve, like Dean Foods or A.O. Smith, would not feel as confident with a small regional type player,” Eitel explains. “Dean Foods would be a great example. We have the vast majority of their business. They know if we had an issue at one of our plants, we could switch that business to another plant. You can’t just shut down [an account like] Dean Foods or A.O. Smith.”
Part of the idea behind the Vision system was to maintain the ideals that WS Packaging’s founders set forth for the company, says COO Dean Wimer. Wimer explains that WS Packaging was founded on the concept that all of the company’s activities would be based around the customer’s needs.
So, as WS Packaging continued to grow through acquisition, each company that came on board was immediately wrapped into the established company system, which included synergizing workflows, production processes and equipment.
“Most companies that grow through acquisition, have multiple workflows, multiple processes and multiple ERP systems,” Wimer says. “The discipline that the owners and founding family instilled to standardize processes and workflows when they acquired a new business has been a significant part of the company’s success.”
No Technological Stone Left Unturned
While the largest segment of WS Packaging’s business is its pressure-sensitive label production, the company also produces just about every other type of label, along with shrink sleeves, flexible packaging and folding cartons.
Taking on such a vast array of capabilities requires several technological platforms, and WS Packaging has sought to provide a solution to any print challenge that comes its way.
A fleet of 21 Mark Andy Performance Series flexo presses, along with a state of the art digital platform, handles a large portion of the company’s mass production label output. On the conventional end, WS Packaging also maintains sheetfed-offset capabilities for some of its high-end label jobs and its folding carton production.
Despite its status as one of the largest converters in the country, producing a massive yield of 45 billion labels annually, WS Packaging has not been immune to the growing need for digital printing in packaging production. The company operates nine HP Indigo WS6800 digital presses, which Wimer says have been essential in helping the company meet the growing demand for short runs that still adhere to the strictest brand standards.
While the digital assets have been beneficial in handling short-run work, Wimer says one of the key challenges has been ensuring the print quality between the HP Indigo presses and WS Packaging’s conventional presses is indistinguishable.
“Whether we run digital or flexo, the colors have to match,” Wimer says. “When you see a SKU on the shelf, you don’t want to be able to tell if one was printed digital or one was printed flexo. You want them to all look the same. The idea was to create two partners so you can go back and forth [between digital and conventional] whether the client wants 3,000 pieces or 300,000 pieces.”
Blazing the Hybrid Trail
Among the many notable industry trends that have surfaced this year, the growth of hybrid printing technology has been at the forefront of the label segment, with several new solutions on display at drupa and Labelexpo that combine inkjet and flexographic capabilities.
WS Packaging has been among the first to adopt this technology as a beta site for the Mark Andy Digital Series, a fully integrated platform with inkjet, flexo and in-line converting, all in a single-pass. The press is installed in the company’s Dallas facility. Wimer explains that the company became interested in hybrid technology as a means to accompany its current flexographic assets with an innovative platform.
“We have a long-term strategy to be an innovative company and leader in the industry,” Wimer says. “With a breadth of flexo capabilities and an HP digital platform, the next logical step was to introduce hybrid technologies into our product offering. The decision to beta test with Mark Andy provided the opportunity to introduce hybrid technologies that complemented flexo, since this technology is built from the Mark Andy Performance Series platform.”
One aspect of the technology that Wimer has been impressed with is with label jobs in which the shape of the label remains consistent but there is variation in the imagery.
“When the architecture of the product is the same but you have a lot of different SKUs, production needs to be extraordinarily efficient,” he says.
Additionally, Wimer explains that with a hybrid solution, WS Packaging has been able to boost its digital capabilities but with a technology that is closely related and provides quality consistent with flexography.
“We now have two similar technologies, allowing us to refine our digital offering while staying consistent with our current platform,” Wimer says.
Now that the Digital Series press is out of beta and continues performing well, Eitel says the company has been very impressed with both the quality and efficiency it provides. In fact, he explains that in October, the company placed an order for a second Digital Series hybrid press to be installed in the Dallas facility.
“Thought leadership and innovation don’t come from standing still,” Eitel says. “At WS we are always looking for the next best solution that makes our customers better. The strategies we are executing, including hybrid, are doing just that.”
In-House Art Advantages
Even with several locations nationwide, Eitel explains that WS Packaging prides itself on its ability to provide a personal touch to its top-notch print quality and innovative packaging designs. The company maintains a group of more than 100 artists on staff, and a segment of that team specializes in a service called DesignMax, which WS Packaging developed. With the advances in printing technology, it’s difficult for the brand designers to keep pace.
The DesignMax tool, Eitel says, allows staff artists to work directly with clients to provide them with suggestions and technological enhancements to their art to help improve the brand’s appearance on the shelf.
“Our purpose in this business is to give brands life,” Eitel explains. “Rather than our customers giving us labels and saying, ‘print this,’ what we are now doing is saying, ‘If we can take a shot at something a little different and propose it to you, would you consider that?’ We’re actually taking much more of a leadership role with our larger customers and we are now being asked to sit on their innovation teams.”
A strong example of how WS Packaging can give a label new life, Eitel explains, was evident in its Best of Show winning entry in the 2015 TLMI Label Awards. The label, which was produced for Meguiar’s Paint Protect, incorporated multiple print processes and a holographic substrate.
Oftentimes, Eitel explains, a customer will have an idea in mind for a label but will not be aware of the breadth of WS Packaging’s technological capabilities. So, he says that working with an artist on staff helps to steer the customer in a direction they may not have known was possible.
“Our customers know they want a label, but don’t know the flexibility of our internal abilities, so we have to point that out to them and say, ‘We know this is what you want, but this is something we can do that you probably don’t know we can do, and it could give you more shelf term in your product,’” Eitel says. “The more we can be original designers versus just responding to what [customers] think they want, the more it helps our relationship.”
New Leaders and New Direction
Even the most experienced organizations require a leadership change to help steer it toward a successful future. Both Eitel and Wimer are new to WS Packaging, with Eitel taking over as CEO in March of 2015, after serving on the company’s board of directors since May of 2014. Wimer was named COO in July of this year.
Eitel explains that so far, the pair have made an effective team due to Eitel’s experience in instilling fresh leadership and culture in various businesses, and Wimer’s deep understanding of the printing industry, having spent much of his career with Innovairre Communications and Quad/Graphics.
Before joining WS Packaging, Eitel worked outside the industry as CEO of The Simmons Bedding Co., and Interface Inc., a global carpet manufacturer.
While the company has always been a leader in technology and quality packaging, Eitel says he has taken it upon himself to help improve the culture at WS Packaging Group and is particularly proud of the “WS CARES” initiative, which is an acronym for Creative, Accountable, Respectful, Effective and Supportive. The program has been embraced throughout the organization, he says, and as the company incorporates WS CARES in its interactions with customers, suppliers and employees, the company culture has improved immensely.
“What’s the most different today is this is how we treat our associates internally and it’s also how we treat our customers,” Eitel says. “It’s really resonated with our suppliers and that’s why we decided to print it on the back of our business cards. Those words really describe the standards we’ve set.”