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A Southern Success Story

A focus on niche markets and capability in both offset and flexo printing are keys to success at Valdese Packaging & Label.

June 2012 By Chris Bauer
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It must have seemed unlikely back in 1993 that a new printing business with three employees in a 3,500 square foot building would, in less than two decades, boast a client list with some of the biggest names in retail, have a sales office in Honduras, hit $10 million in annual sales, and produce work that is shipped to 19 countries around the world.

But that is exactly the story that has been written at Valdese Packaging & Label Inc. (VP&L) in Valdese, N.C., a package printing powerhouse that now operates with 70 employees in three buildings totaling more than 100,000 square feet.

How did this company accomplish these feats after coming from such humble beginnings? CEO Darren Little says it is simple: the people make the difference. “While VP&L has the latest printing and packaging equipment available today, it takes total dedication and teamwork. This includes employees, customers, and vendors,” he notes.

Early start

Little’s involvement in the printing industry started when he was in just the second grade, spending time with his father in a family-run printing business. “My dad bought the first Mark Andy in North Carolina and his company had the ACC basketball tournament account,” he recalls. Little worked in and out of the printing business throughout his high school years, and started working full time in the industry after college.

About 19 years ago, he decided to go out on his own and start up a printing shop with his brother David. “We have worked hard, but we have also been blessed,” he says. “The only time we have been in the red is the first four months we were in business. We have all the bells and whistles that money can buy today, but without the folks that day-in and day-out utilize the equipment with dedication to Valdese Packaging, then all of that is worthless.”

VP&L works closely with retailers including Walmart, JCPenny, Kohl’s, and Target, as well as companies overseas that manufacture goods for American companies. It uses sheetfed offset and narrow-web flexographic presses to produce packaging, tags, wraps, and pressure-sensitive labels primarily for the retail apparel industry. The printing work, produced in North Carolina, is then shipped all over the globe.

Investing for growth

In the past year, VP&L, a long-time user of half-size sheetfed presses, added a new 6-color, 40˝ Mitsubishi Diamond 3000LX press with aqueous coater, a new Kodak Flexcel NX CTP system, and a Concept platemaking system. The company also added an all new Bobst finishing department that includes two 106 diecutters and two Fuego folder/gluers.

The new Mitsubishi press is the first 40˝ press for the company and replaced a 10-year-old 28˝ Mitsubishi 1F-15 that had churned out several hundred million impressions. A 6-color, 28˝ Diamond 1000LS installed in 2005 is still in operation.

The new 40˝ press allows the company to print on a wide array of substrates, from onion skin to 40-point board. It features high-speed plate changing, advanced electronics on the control console, and connectivity to digital prepress.

“For the life of me, I’ll never know how we were competing in packaging with 28˝ presses,” Little says with a laugh. The company is now looking to add another 40˝ press, he points out.

“The Diamond LX Presses are loaded with everything an offset packaging printer could want,” Little continues. “From the IPC (Intelligent Press Control) that works hand-in-hand with prep and the IntelliTrax scanning system for ink control, to Simulchange, which can completely change all six plates in under one minute—and the list goes on and on.”

In October, VP&L moved its flexo division into a 65,000 square-foot facility directly across the street from the sheetfed department, and the company is planning to add a large-format flexo press and support equipment before the end of the year. A new UV press is also expected to join the fold next year.

“We were bursting at the seams, jammed packed and in desperate need of [facilities] growth,” Little admits. “When the 65,000 square feet across the street became available, it was a no-brainer at that point.”

Little likes his company’s mix of offset and flexo offerings. “Labels, nine times out of 10, belong on a flexo machine,” he points out. “And the consumer boxes and packaging belong on sheetfed. They are basically brother/sister programs.”

Many of the company’s retail clients prefer a company that can offer both flexo and offset printing. “It is a big advantage, and most bigger companies require both capabilities,” he contends. “It’s a tremendous selling feature.”

Little is also proud of the company’s prepress department, which he refers to as one of VP&L’s Crown Jewels. “With complete turnkey prepress and design we enjoy the added benefit of following the packaging from the very point of inception,” he says. “Our prepress department boasts the most advanced technology and equipment on the market today. Prepress initiates the entire printing process from the proofing to plating.  Each workstation is equipped with state-of-the-art technology and the best production artists in the business.”

Little adds that all of the company’s equipment is digitally set up to communicate each phase of the proofing, plating, and printing processes. “This helps us to provide superior quality packaging with reduced set-up time and waste,” he contends. “This alone dramatically improves quality and reduces costs.”

Focus on niche markets

In July of last year, the company officially opened Valdese Packaging Caribbean, in Honduras, which houses sales and customer service offices. “We are doing a tremendous amount of textile packaging and shipping it down there,” Little reveals, noting that raw materials are more expensive in the region, so it is more economical to produce the printing work in the U.S. and ship it to locations south of the border.

“Everybody scratches their head until we prove it to them,” Little contends, noting that he sees a large amount of textile work moving from China to Latin America.

It is sticking to what the company does best and focusing on its niche markets that has helped make the company successful. “Every year we have grown, and with the niche market we are in, we basically missed the recession,” he says. “If you need a pair of socks or a pair of underwear you are going to buy that before you take everyone out to the most expensive steakhouse in town. A lot of the consumer items and the consumable packaging that we produce are things that people have to buy on a regular basis; they are not luxury items.”

Little maintains that this dedication to the packaging industry is attractive to the company’s large retail clients, and it has allowed VP&L to succeed against much larger printing companies in a very competitive market. “Most of the time, in our market, we run circles around the big boys,” he boasts.

Little concludes that there has never been anything flashy or fancy about his company. He only cares about one thing—results.

“I gave a tour the other day for a Fortune 500 company and I told them we put our money in our equipment and in our people,” Little says. “We don’t have mahogany doors and gold door handles. But everything inside is basically a diamond.” pP



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