Ron Brown, on the other hand, has always thought about diverse product offerings, about verticality. At Shippers Supply, the company he launched in 1975, the sales people are fond of saying, "Yes, we also do that," and "Yes, we manufacture that, too."
His label division, Labelgraphics, is a product of that focus on diversity, born from the observation that the people who buy corrugated boxes from Shippers Supply also need to put labels on the products that will go inside them.
Brown's business is entirely in Canada. Headquarters is in Edmonton. Distribution centers--there are 10--are located throughout the country.
"I started off as a sales representative for Bostitch staplers. The distributor I worked for had carried a wide variety of related products, and I got an interest in the industry," Brown recalls. "I worked in all the departments, and after six years I knew the business well. When I got out into the sales field I really got to like it.
"I worked for that company nine years, and then they sold it. A few of us who worked there decided we'd form our own company, similar in focus. And we did it, sticking mainly to the stapler side of the business. It was growing, but I kept on seeing opportunities for other products in the packaging field. I mentioned it to my partners, telling them that corrugated boxes and similar products will allow us to offer more of a complete service.
"Well, they rejected that idea, so I started Shippers Supply." It is a company which now has annual sales, in Canadian money, of $30 million.
Brown went to Los Angeles, bought some equipment, learned how to run it, and moved it to Edmonton. "I was manufacturing boxes, and the product moved well. The trend was good, because at the time people had to go to major corrugated houses and buy large quantities. So I serviced the small and medium-range customers."
Not long afterward, Brown was at a trade show and saw a Sohn label maker. "My customers wanted a few labels from time to time, so I bought the Sohn and started to make labels." He quickly moved to a Mark Andy press "to keep us carrying on in that field. One thing led to another and we ended up with a graphics department.
"The reason we did all of this is that we listened to our customers," says Brown. "They told us nobody really had a graphics operation out where we are. It grew to the point where we ended up with four artists, and a nice complement of equipment. It has worked out very well."
Scope and activity
Brown and his team watch the national and international markets carefully. "We are members of all of the various food organizations, for example, and the packaging associations." Among other groups, Shippers Supply belongs to the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute, the Packaging Association of Canada, the Canadian Material Handling & Distribution Society, and the Quality Council of Alberta.
The entire manufacturing operation is under one roof. Besides Labelgraphics, divisions include general packaging and equipment (packaging products and warehouse equipment), corrugated box manufacturing, stretch film division (pallet wrap), and Redeman, the company's own brand of materials handling equipment. Labelgraphics represents close to 25 percent of total revenue.
All of this takes place under the roof of a 100,000 square foot building, a former Canada Dry bottle manufacturing plant that is divided into separate units for each division.
"From one side it has the appearance of being somewhat complex," Brown observes, "but we keep them as individual units with individual managers. We do have a common shipping department, receiving department, and accounting department."
Brown says that the various units make use of cross-over labor: If one unit is slow, the employees help out their co-workers in another.
"We have more than 25,000 accounts," says Brown. "And we have inside personnel who phone all accounts on a regular basis to tell them that we are interested in their livelihood.
"We have 34 sales reps out there, with company cars, with company logos on them. They have total cross-over knowledge, and can sell anything we manufacture.
Labelgraphics still has the Mark Andy press from the old days, plus two Aquaflex machines and two Siat tape presses. The company makes its own flexo printing plates.
"Flexo is serving us so well," says Brown. We have no problem with it and are producing great work." Digital printing is on the horizon, he says. "Direct to press would be a great application for us, to do short runs especially. The way things are going now, everyone wants faster, shorter runs, and cheaper and higher quality. We have been able to maximize that."
Shippers Supply's markets are regional, "and our main market is the food industry, followed by industrial applications for chemical identification."
Customers, he says, "are now making demands that they want their product faster, and want us to inventory for them in some cases. Price is under pressure in many cases. We still look to counteract that. Our approach is to be a problem solving company.
"The nice thing about this business is that we are offering solutions, and that keeps us so close to our accounts for their other needs. They start with labels and then realize that they have to put their product into a box. So we make them a box.
"Shippers Supply is a complete package. And we really mean it."
A Division of Shippers Supply
2305 84 Ave. NW
Edmonton, AB, Canada
Employees: 170 total
Annual sales: $30 million (Canadian) combined operations
President: Ron Brown
Presses: Mark Andy, Aquaflex, Siat