How Phipps Label is Building For the Future
After spending the day touring the Nilpeter manufacturing facility, viewing demo presses and testing out his company’s jobs, Greg Phipps had one lingering question:
“What are the big boys buying?”
Phipps, the owner of Sinking Spring, Pa.-based Phipps Label, was in the market for a new flexo press, and he needed one that would be a catalyst for his 15-employee business to expand beyond pressure-sensitive labels into new products like shrink sleeves and flexible packaging.
The answer Phipps received to his bold question was the new Nilpeter FA, a 17˝ press featuring an immense level of automation — so much so that the press is controlled by a mobile tablet, rather than traditional knobs and cranks.
Though the technology driving the FA was a revelation to Phipps, he could immediately tell the press had the potential to be the solution he was looking for. After all, he says, he was not looking for a machine to add capacity with the same capabilities he already had. He needed a press that could do something new.
“We have some real good customers who are national companies,” Phipps says. “If you want to keep those guys, they want to see that you’re invested in the future, so when they want to move on and do something really elaborate, they don’t have to go somewhere else. They know Phipps can do it.”
Before he took the plunge into the label industry, Phipps worked for a family-owned packaging supplier. When that company was acquired by a worldwide distributor, he took a bet on his future by leaving to set out on his own.
He says he made the move into labels considering their usage across several market segments. In 1989, he founded Phipps Label, outsourcing the manufacturing until 1993 when he acquired a tabletop label reroller and his first press in 1995.
That first Webtron 650 is still in use 23 years later, but Phipps explains it took a stroke of luck for the company to acquire it to begin with. His lease was initially rejected, but the owner eventually reconsidered, willing to take a bet on the fledgling company. With the new press on board, it was then that Phipps Label set up shop in a storage shed — hardly a glamorous starting point with no heat or hot water.
“I’d take the ink home with me in the wintertime so it wouldn’t freeze,” Phipps recalls.
For three years, Phipps ran that single press in the storage shed until he was able to move into a new facility, measuring between 6,000 and 7,000 square feet. At that point he bought another Webtron 650, and a year later acquired a Rotopress 3510. Finally, in 2003, Phipps Labels’ current 35,000 sq. ft. facility became available, and the growing company moved in.
However, despite its growth, ensuring the company’s success was a taxing endeavor. In addition to owning the company, Phipps served as its only pressman until 2009. Around 2010, he says he began hiring more people to share the load, but it was in 2012 that one hire in particular helped steer the company in new directions.
Matt Thierolf was newly out of college, and after a brief stint working in professional sports, had taken a job with a packaging company. Seeking a new opportunity, Thierolf reached out to Phipps, who he had known previously, and made the transition into the label world.
Thierolf says he started out at Phipps Label by sweeping floors and other manual tasks, taking on some sales on the side. But as he started to gain traction with a selection of customers and earning more responsibilities, he quickly rose through the ranks and became the company’s COO in January of 2015.
Thierolf explains that his experience from outside the industry inspired him to explore taking on new kinds of labels. As a lifelong athlete, Thierolf says he was immediately drawn toward the nutritional supplement market, which is renowned for its elaborate, highly
“It’s not something that’s just a couple color print and [then] throw it on the shelf,” Thierolf says. “[The label] really sells the product. That’s where I really first started doing more outside the box thinking as far as expanding on the different clientele we had.”
An Investment in the Future
Though Phipps considers himself to be among the ranks of the flexographic “craftsmen” that thrive in hands-on environments, he’s never been afraid to invest in the latest technology to ensure his company was in step with or ahead of the competition. When digital printing began to emerge, he brought a Colordyne digital press on board. And when flexographic printing began to veer toward becoming a highly automated process, Phipps acquired a Nilpeter FG series press — the company’s first step into automation.
Phipps explains that it’s essential to be in tune with evolving customer demands, such as short run lengths and increasingly complex label designs. If Phipps Label is not able to serve these needs, he says he runs the risk of losing customers to competitors who can.
“Either you’re going to do it or you’re going to start losing your customers,” Phipps says. “We’re like politicians. First we have to get elected. Then the next thing we want to do is stay there.”
Thierolf explains the investment in the FA is a key component to staying ahead of the curve on industry trends. As shrink sleeves continue their rise in popularity, and brands continue to explore various flexible packaging formats, he believes the FA will provide Phipps Label with the technology platform it needs to venture into these new markets.
“This is where we started expanding and seeing the growth and trying to move with the times,” Thierolf says. “I think shrink is the new big thing. That’s one thing that’s a positive with the FA — the ability to go to the shrink market.”
In addition to the new products Phipps Label will now be able to produce, Thierolf says the FA will also allow the company to improve on the labels it currently manufactures. For example, he explains that the company currently produces labels for private label water bottle brands, which will look even better with the FA’s UV printing capabilities.
However, just bringing the new press on board wasn’t the only move Phipps Label had to make to get the company on its desired path. It also had to find an operator with in-depth knowledge of flexographic printing and experience with an automated platform.
The company found their man in an experienced operator who ran a Nilpeter FB-3 press at his prior company. Once the FA arrived at Phipps Label, the new operator visited the plant to demonstrate he had the skills to run it and was brought on board. But beyond operating the press, Phipps will rely on his new operator’s knowledge of the industry and flexography to help train the company’s younger employees.
“It’s like bringing in a seasoned quarterback to mentor your younger players,” Phipps says.
Beyond a new press and a new operator, there is still additional equipment needed for a traditional label company to expand into new packaging formats like shrink sleeves and flexible packaging. Phipps explains that the company’s strong relationship with Nilpeter has helped introduce them to suppliers of the converting equipment they would need to produce these new products.
Specifically, Phipps says he is appreciative of the guidance he’s received from Bob Loescher, Nilpeter’s senior sales consultant for the Northeast region.
“He’s done more than sold us a piece of machinery,” Phipps says. “He’s bringing us guys to help us get that press up and running and make it profitable.”
Now with the new press on board, Thierolf explains the company has been hard at work getting the word out to both existing and prospective customers about the new opportunities the FA will open to them. In addition to providing a boost in print quality, Thierolf says another new advantage the FA provides to existing customers is its increased width over the 13˝ Nilpeter FG.
At 17˝, he says the FA will improve the efficiency of some existing jobs by allowing Phipps Label to print an additional image up.
“We have jobs now where we’re doing 5˝- or 5 ¼˝- wide labels,” Thierolf explains. “Even just going with a 17˝ [press] allows us to expand and get a whole other image up, so we’re basically increasing by 33%. We have some customers that run a large amount of those labels. To increase that 33% saves us a lot of time and money.”
While the company is enthusiastically pressing forward into a future where it will be able to offer products and services that could never have been imagined inside of an unheated storage shed, Phipps says he’s also thrilled for what this latest technological investment will mean internally for the company he built.
He explains that by investing in state-of-the-art technology, it fosters an understanding that the company is not going to sit idly as the industry around it evolves. Taking a proactive approach and being ahead of the curve, Phipps says, leads to an internal culture of working toward a successful future.
“The company enjoys seeing ownership bring in new machinery,” Phipps says. “It shows them that there’s stability here and we’re growing. We’re not just going to ride it out and see what happens. We’re building for the future.”