Politics and packaging may seem like an odd pairing, but when you have a Midas touch for both—like Toronto’s Ford brothers—it’s hard to picture a more gratifying and rewarding way to make a living.
From left: Deco Labels & Tags owner Randy Ford, president Doug Ford and vice-president of sales and marketing Leonard Rudner proudly show off some of the high-quality pressure-sensitive labels produced at the company’s ISO 9001-certified manufacturing facility in northwestern Toronto.
While most Toronto residents are by now quite familiar with Rob Ford as the city’s newly-elected mayor, and his brother Doug Ford as one of its 44 councillors, in broader packaging industry circles the siblings, along with their older brother Randy Ford, also enjoy a fairly high profile as senior executives of Deco Labels & Tags—a thriving, family-owned manufacturer of pressure-sensitive labels whose well-executed growth strategy and firm commitment to quality manufacturing in recent years have enabled it to grow into one of leading players in North America’s estimated $15-billion label market.
Founded 48 years ago by the family patriarch and former Ontario cabinet minister Douglas Ford Sr., the company today operates three strategically-located manufacturing locations in Toronto, Chicago and Pennsaulken, N.J., to serve the labeling needs of some of the continent’s leading manufacturers of food-and-beverage, pharmaceutical, personal-care and other everyday consumer products, with the start-up of another Deco manufacturing facility in southern U.S. also in the cards in the near future, according to Deco’s vice-president of sales and marketing Leonard Rudner.
“The fact that we have three manufacturing operations enables us to have a sales force that sells for all three plants, rather than the individual locations, which provides our sales people with a lot of flexibility,” says Rudner, a 35-year label industry veteran who could not be happier about coming out of semi-retirement to join the Deco sales team earlier this year.
“If you think of labels as something that helps to take your product from the store-shelf into your shopping cart,” he enthuses, “and if you could get every consumer to add just one more product to their carts based on the impulse buying purchase generated by the attractiveness of the product’s label, you are looking at thousands and thousands more sales of that particular product.
“In today’s economy, when you have fewer new products and line extensions coming into the market, consumers need to be lured into purchases with discounts and other promotional vehicles that you can feature on extended information labels, which ties very well into what we do at our Toronto location—producing large quantities of IRC (instantly redeemable coupons) and other types of promotional labels,” Rudner told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to Deco’s 50,000-square-foot production facility in northwestern Toronto, nearby the Pearson International Airport, which generates a half of the company’s annual revenues by producing a diverse range of high-quality pressure sensitive labels for leading food and pharmaceutical industry brand-owners and manufacturers.
Press operator Hafi z Ramzan making adjustments to the Mark Andy 2200 fl exographic narrow-web press, featuring advanced web tension management, self-aligning cassettes, and high-performance drying and curing systems.
Employing nearly 70 people over a busy, 24/7 production schedule throughout most of the year, the Toronto plant is now making a concerted effort to become one of the continent’s leading suppliers of extended-information labels, according to Rudner, which are manufactured under the company’s InfoMax brand name.
Boasting its own inhouse creative graphics staff, the Toronto operation is already well on its way to setting label industry benchmarks in term of quality, Rudner relates, citing the international ISO 9001:2000 quality management standard certification earned about five years ago, as well as the plant’s ongoing efforts to achieve the HACCP (Hazardous Analysis Control Points)-based PACsecure food safety certification of PAC – The Packaging Association by the year’s end or soon after—becoming the first Canadian self-adhesive label company to do so.
Rudner says the company has a clearly-defined set of strategic focus areas that it will concentrate on in coming years to further increase its market share and penetration.
“This includes strong customer focus, having the best team, and creating better shareholder value.
“There’s really no point in talking about timely deliveries and high product quality as competitive advantages these days,” Rudner asserts, “because these are the things that are taken for granted by customers—it’s the bare minimum to just staying in the business.
“What we have that’s going to make us different is our customer service capabilities,” Rudner says. “Our customer service department, which returns all phone call in two hours or less, is the intermediary between our salespeople and our plants: they probably speak with the customers more often than our sales reps do.
“When we make our sales presentations to clients, we do it as a team, comprised of the sales rep, the customer service rep, the prepress manager, plant manager and the vice-president of sales and marketing … we even give customers our cellphone numbers for them to call 24/7 if necessary.
“Three weeks for new orders and two weeks for repeat orders used to be the norm for deliveries, but today we’re aiming for two weeks for new orders and one week for repeats, which is considered to be excellent in this industry,” states Rudner, adding that operating three manufacturing facilities enables Deco to put the weight of real credibility behind its customer promises and assurances.
One of several top-quality finishing systems installed in recent years to handle Deco’s growing production output.
“If one of our plants was to blow up suddenly, God forbid, we could simply shift the work to another one of our sister plants,” he reasons, “and having three manufacturing operations also gives us the capability to handle very long runs.
“Moreover, these three plants also put us much closer to many of our customers’ manufacturing operations, where the actual packaging and labeling takes place,” he notes. “For example, our New Jersey plant is located right where a lot of our large consumer goods customers are; our Chicago plant is also well-placed to serve our consumer goods and promotional markets; and our Toronto plant is very strong in serving the labeling needs of food producers, food retailers and foodservice operators.”
Because of the food industry’s fairly recession-resilient nature, Rudner says the Toronto operation came through the recent recession in remarkably good shape—growing its production volumes and recently investing in three newly-installed finishing machines: 14- and a 17-inch CTC turret rewinders, and a 16-inch Rotoflex wide-web slitter/rewinder unit.
“We’re also looking at adding a couple of 18- and 20-inch printing presses to the Toronto plant next year,” says Rudner, adding the new equipment—purchased at the recently-held Labelexpo Americas exhibition in Chicago—will enable the plant to diversify some of its production into the lucrative flexible packaging markets, as well as support the new HD (high-density) printing processes currently being tested at the plant.
“It really helps when your employer is in financially sound health,” adds Rudner. “Deco fully owns its manufacturing facilities here, so there is no debt to hold back the capital investment for new equipment and technologies, which is very important in our business.
“We have grown our business by an average six to eight per cent in the last few years, which is quite amazing in this industry and in this economy,” Rudner states. “We had a plan to secure more business from our existing big clients in the food and food retailing sectors, and we have executed that plan just as we intended—using our industry reputation as a top-quality, reliable labeling supplier.
“We have learned almost as much about the food industry over the years as we had learned about own labeling industry,” he relates, “so it almost becomes like a combination consulting/selling service we provide, with the price being a little less important than the value-added that we bring to the table.”
Machine operator Quan Ngo monitoring the quality of self-adhesive labels being processed on one of Deco’s several high-speed slitter-rewinder systems.
This value-added proposition has also enabled Deco to make massive inroads in the U.S. markets in recent years, according to Deco president Doug Ford, who has just been voted in a few weeks ago to serve as Toronto’s city councillor for Ward 2 of Etobicoke North.
“We had to move to bigger facilities in Chicago four times since we first began manufacturing operations there eight years ago—not only to accommodate the growing volumes, but also to expand into complementary markets like narrow web flexible packaging, shrinksleeves, and even a little bit of folding-carton work.
“We have had a really good run there, and our New Jersey operation is also doing well,” says Ford, adding that the planned further expansion into the U.S. south will help position Deco as one of the leading label suppliers in a fiercely competitive and crowded marketplace south of the Canada-U.S. border by extending and expediting its geographic reach.
“Having multiple locations is key to succeeding in today’s business because it enables better customer service and allows for greater diversification of your product portfolio,” he states. “The food industry is a very time-sensitive business, so it is critical for us to be close to the customers to offer them the best service possible by meeting all their scheduling requirements.
“It also allows us to leverage the synergies between the different locations in areas such as procurement, marketing, research-and-development and sales,” says Ford, adding each of Deco’s locations is a fully-pledged practitioner of leading quality manufacturing and management principles such as Six Sigma, GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices), lean manufacturing and kaizen.
“Continuous improvement and lean manufacturing are essential to us, or any company for that matter,” Ford states. “To draw an analogy with a Formula 1 car race, which can be won or lost by the pit crew getting the best performance out of the race car, we use the same approach with our printing presses.
“The only way any label company makes money is when the presses are running, so it’s all about maximizing our uptime,” he expands. “That’s why we always measure the uptime of the presses, the efficiency of the operators, the throughput of the presses and the operators.
“You can’t manage or improve anything unless you measure it first,” he says, recalling how a recent inhouse kaizen seminar for press operators enabled them to reduce product changeover on one of the presses from 48 to 22 minutes through fairly simple process improvements and refined workplace habits.
“Our goal is to keep those presses turning around and around with minimum downtime,” Ford states, “and although we think we’re doing a good job of that, there are always ways to improve.”
One of two new CTC turret rewinders recently installed at the Deco facility in northwestern Toronto.
Like Rudner, Ford believes that product quality alone no longer provides labeling companies with an important competitive edge—especially in an industry comprised of more than 3,500 companies, according to his well-researched estimate.
“With the quality of the presses out there right now, if you can’t provide quality you don’t even get through the door—quality is a given,” he states. “What’s not a given is the added value, which we provide by servicing our clients’ labeling equipment that runs our labels at no extra cost, supply them with ribbons or other consumables they may need, helping them implement some of our own lean practices so they can change the roll of labels without stopping the press, suggest material substitution … things of that nature.”
Like all progressive packaging suppliers, Deco is keenly aware of the growing public and customer pressure to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, and Ford says it is taking serious steps to improve its environmental performance by installing sensor-activated lighting and water systems; implementing plant-wide recycling and other waste reduction programs; installing new technologies to reduce energy and water consumption; looking at using more renewable PLA (polylactic acid)-based substrate materials and vegetable inks; and utilizing more water-based coatings, adhesives and varnishes in the label converting process.
Next year, Deco will also launch an industry-first core and liner recovery program, Rudner adds, whereby it will retrieve roll cores and liners from customer sites—reusing the cores in its own production and returning liners to its raw material suppliers to be converted into other products such as outdoor decks and furniture.
Adds Ford: “Our ultimate goal is to make linerless labels, and we are working on that right now at our Chicago plant. “The reason that linerless labels have not yet been brought to life in a major way is because of technical limitations of the existing labeling equipment, but we’re working hard to overcome them and we will,” he says. “Linerless labels may not be something you would use for a cosmetic product, granted, but it would work perfectly well for a container of automotive fluid, for example.
“Not only will this reduce the environmental footprint for us and the brand-owner, but it will also reduce the cost of the product, and that’s always a good thing in any economy.”
Photography by Sandra Strangemore.