Hector DeJesus is a feeder operator at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Rex Corp. He's paid to print folding cartons, not proofread them. Yet earlier this year, he found a typo on an African-American hair care carton while reviewing a makeready sheet that had already been approved by the customer. The misspelled word was a doozy: Methylchloroisothiazolinone.
Last year, Rex produced 480 million folding cartons, which were diecut on four Bobst 104 ER diecutters.
"It's amazing that Hector caught it," says Y.E. Hall, Jr., president of Rex. "While taking the time to inspect a sheet against the proof is part of our job, catching a misspelled word is an unusual feat."
It's not the first time DeJesus has caught a typo and it's not a big deal.
"That's what we're taught here," he says. "It's my job."
Going beyond the defined job is the norm at Rex, which annually does $35 million in sales. Its management realizes that making and delivering beautifully-printed cartons simply isn't enough. It also knows that most dissatisfied customers don't pick up the phone or write letters; they just quietly go elsewhere. That's one of the reasons why Hall makes a point of visiting key customers on a quarterly basis. He knows the value of eyeball-to-eyeball conversations.
Can't Just Visit
But in the extremely competitive folding carton making market, visits alone don't keep customers happy forever. So early last year, Rex polled its 15 top customers about their experiences with the company to get a better grasp on its strengths and weaknesses. Extensive interviews were conducted over the phone. According to Michael Little, marketing manager, Rex learned that it was doing a lot of things right. But it also learned that customers don't want good order takers; they want partnerships.
Many of Rex's customers are in the food and beverage industries, but it also serves computer software and African-American hair color companies, as seen here.
"A match has to exist between customer and supplier," says John Gambardella, vice president, sales and marketing. "We need to learn what's really important to our new customers, whether it be proofing, printing or delivery. We insist that new customers visit us. A trip here is worth 20 sales calls by us; it smoothes the relationship."
Rex conducts account reviews with key customers on an ongoing basis. It wants to make certain it can continue to serve them and make a profit. For example, a year ago, Rex picked up a new account in the soap business. Gambardella worked closely with the customer as problems popped up.
For example, he stressed the importance and value of running color bars and going direct-to-plate wherever possible. But the customer argued that eliminating color bars saves money. Recently, Gambardella had a graphics conference with this client and explained why Rex does what it does. The end result? Rex lost a small portion of this customer's business because it wouldn't be able to make the quality cartons demanded within the current price structure. However, today this client's art and design people are better educated on the subtleties involved in printing pastel colors.
"At some point you have to draw the line and ask a customer, 'Can we afford to serve you and make a profit?'," he says. "Customers employ people who only have responsibility for one slice of the pie. When sales go down and manufacturing is off, they say, 'I'm getting graded on this,' and want to cut costs. But Rex isn't about saving money; it's about making money for the customer. This (soap) customer realized that they could try someone else, but sometimes it's worth paying a bit more."
Where's The Bacon?
Rex, which employs 187, will no longer quote on every new carton job looking for a printing press; it knows it pays to be particular about growth. A few years ago, bacon cartons were a high-volume item at the company's 185,000-square-foot facility; today, you won't see a single one in its office display cases.
Sam Silcox, Rex's graphics and technical services manager, shows how hard it is to tell the difference between a Rich SeaPak folding carton made on DuPont's Waterproof Color Versatility System and the same carton from a press run.
The first thing Rex does with a potential new customer is fill out a prospectus profile. It includes marketing, pricing, prepress, proofing, and industry growth issues. This helps eliminate problems and determine if the customer is the right fit. Today, close to half of the converter's customers are in the food and beverage industry. About 15 percent are in tobacco; 12 percent in health and beauty; and 8 percent in pharmaceutical. Most of these customers are located on the East Coast.
Although pharmaceutical is the smallest pie piece right now, Gambardella sees it as the slice with the most growth potential. Why? More drug prescriptions are bought over-the-counter. This leads to more drug launches. In addition, printed rules and regulations have to be clear and easy to read on the cartons.
With the quality of the carton more important than ever, a plant's prepress division must "stay on the cutting edge, not the bleeding edge," says Sam Silcox, graphics and technical service manager. The division uses prepress equipment from 3M, Barco, Crescent, and DuPont. Rex has been in a digital workflow since the late 1980s. So it wasn't a quantum leap for Silcox's staff of 10 when in 1998 management decided to go computer-to-plate.
"It was just another plug-in that has proven to be a major advantage for us," he says. He notes that as customers grow, Rex has kept them happy by making package changes in less than one day (versus three in the recent past). Examples of this include a cigar manufacturer and an African-American hair color company that used to serve only the United States and is now going international. This part of Rex's business has evolved into more varieties (new languages, regulations) of the same product.
Today, Rex can cut out steps and variables and get approvals in a few hours. The only time it uses film is to make carton proofs on its DuPont Waterproof Color Versatility (CV) System.
"I have yet to find a proofing media that represents press conditions as well as DuPont's," Silcox says. "You can produce virtually any PMS (Pantone Matching System) color, including metallic."
Have a Cigar
Thanks to this system, Rex has come to the rescue of numerous customers, including the aforementioned hair color and cigar manufacturers. Earlier this year, the cigar manufacturer needed sample cartons for a photo shoot. It had the opportunity to gain a lot of business from a national account, but didn't have the time for the traditional press proof. It used metallic colors from the art file and then, using the CV System, foil stamped and embossed the DuPont proofs for the photo shoot. This saved weeks.
It's all about helping customers get product to market quickly, stresses Silcox. If a customer wants its product in a carton display to a national store chain, it knows it can be done in days, and that it can work with Rex to determine specific colors.
"Our package designers are incorporating more and more blends and vignettes with special colors to add to designs," Silcox states. "It used to be that you would have a four-color press and make packages that made it look like it was a six- to eight-color press. Now we make packages that make our presses look like they have 10 to 12 colors. We tell our customers, 'We'll sell your product the first time (thanks to the package), then your product will have to sell to keep the consumer coming back.'"
Rex's prepress department often uses its Macintosh computers and DuPont's CV System (which works on all board substrates) to not only perfect spot colors but develop smooth color blends, avoiding that dreaded muddy look on a carton. For example, when one of Rex's confectionery customers scheduled an 11 a.m. visit to check on a carton proof, Robert Crouch, prepress Mac operator, found himself working on getting the color blends just right until 9:30 a.m. All the testing was done using the WCVS. The customer loved the end result.
"The marketing and design groups within high-end food and cosmetic packaging companies especially appreciate Rex's ability to experiment with color blends," Silcox says.
"We aligned ourselves with these groups from the beginning," he adds. "Before a product hits the shelf, you need TV spots, billboard ads, magazine spreads, all with the carton in them. Our customers are always asking us, 'What can you do for me?' Now it's easy to become a hero."