Display work requires acute attention to detail and months of lead time for design concepts.
In an industry where differentiation can un-lock the doors to a sale, Smurfit-Stone's Display Group holds a master key.
This award-winning corrugated display and graphic packaging manufacturer continues to raise the bar in the areas of product quality and customer service. In addition, the size and scope of its operations places it in an enviable position in this very competitive business.
"Consumer products companies are looking for differentiating points," says Ted Gleis, design manager in the Display Group's Cincinnati complex. "There are a lot of good people out there who make displays and we happen to be one of them, but they want to know what differentiates us."
For the Display Group, differentiation takes place on every level, from concept to delivery of product. This detail has translated into more than 100 Point-of-Purchase Advertising International (POPAI) awards in the past five years.
The Display Group has offices and production facilities in the United States, Canada and Asia. The sales, design, manufacturing, assembly and PSC operations enjoy a synergy that, from a strategic standpoint, positions Smurfit-Stone Display Group as an industry leader in the temporary P-O-P display industry.
Having both display and brown box capabilities at the Cincinnati corrugated plant is a competitive advantage, say General Manager Richard Branson (left), and Plant Manager Thomas Wiechel.
Manufacturing plants are located in Cincinnati, Adams, Wis., Latta, S.C., Richmond, Va., and Toronto. Sales and design are also at those locations as well as Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Charlotte, N.C., and Clifton and Swedesboro, N.J. In addition, assembly operations are in Olive Branch, Miss., Cincinnati, Richmond, Chicago, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
The Display Group was formed within the last four years and required a great deal of planning and merging of operations.
"We recognized early on that we were competing against display companies that could be boutique or a multi-million supplier," explains Ritch Branson, general manager of the Cincinnati complex. "We try to locate close to our customers from a design and a customer service standpoint so we can give them all the service of a boutique. We then feed into our large display plant system to give them the advantages of the large scale, low cost manufacturing."
The location of the West Coast sales and design center in Burbank, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles, is critical for its relationship with the entertainment industry. Smurfit-Stone's Display Group produces many of the displays for video and DVD launches for the entertainment industry as well as promotional displays and graphics packaging for many well-known consumer products companies.
"Most of our Burbank employees came from the entertainment business and are very knowledgeable about graphic design. We service the movie industry locally and coordinate the orders from Cincinnati," Branson says.
"Everything is put together and we either manufacture it in Cincinnati or we send it out to one of our sister plants."
Ted Gleis (middle) is the design manager in Cincinnati. With him are Jim Betsch (left) and Phil Batsch.
This strategy has paid off. In the last three years, the Display Group averaged about 20 percent growth annually. "Merging four plants into one Display Group really jump-started that, along with the acquisition of
St. Laurent and the merger of Jefferson Smurfit and Stone Container," Branson says.
Boxes vs. Displays
About the only thing that boxes and displays have in common is their use of corrugated board. The two products are approached from very different perspectives. Display work requires acute attention to detail and months of lead time for design concepts. For example, Christmas displays were manufactured this past summer and the company began working on them more than a year ago.
"We can have as little as three days to run an order that we worked on from a design standpoint six to 10 months ago," Branson says.
The Display Group lives and dies by its promised ship dates. "That's a key differential between our business and a lot of others," Branson says.
Smurfit-Stone's Display Group has won more than 100 OMA (Outstanding Achievement in Merchandising) awards from Point-of-Purchase Advertising International. The awards are on display in the lobbies of various facilities.
"The biggest thing in this business is trust," he continues. "When a customer favors us with an order that's going to be shipped to Wal-Mart, the amount of trust that they have put in us, and the faith that we'll get it done, on time, is phenomenal."
As an example, Branson references the displays produced for the movies Ice Age and Star Wars. "Ice Age is a fantastic display we designed for 20th Century Fox," he says. "It involved a significant amount of mixed medium materials such as plastic to represent ice. There are probably 100 components, and it ran at the exact same time as Star Wars, which was another mega-movie. What we're most proud of is that we ran these two projects for Fox in a four-week period and met every street date."
"The Ice Age promotions, as are many of the entertainment industry releases, consisted of multiple units that didn't necessarily get sent to the same location," says Diana Campbell, Display Group marketing manager.
Some of the components were manufactured in Richmond and in Adams, and at a Smurfit-Stone sheet plant in Cincinnati.
A Team Approach
The ability to run a large number of display components simultaneously at different locations is an obvious advantage that gives the Display Group the ability to handle virtually any type of job, regardless of its size and scope. These bigger projects require massive coordination.
"In our industry, we're not trying to coordinate a box. We're trying to coordinate on average a display that could have five, six, 25 or even 60 new components that all have to be delivered at the same time in order to start co-packing," says Cindy Sleumer, customer program manager.
Sleumer works closely with account managers and their customers to set up a process map that is tailor-made for each customer's particular needs.
The process leaves nothing to chance and involves in-depth customer profiling to find out exactly what that customer needs from the Display Group and the specifics for the customer's customer.
"We'll create a specific form that starts in design, goes through the estimating process and becomes a formal estimate," Sleumer says. "The customer can review and input data, send that form back to us and we can use it for order entry, thus limiting the amount of typing and retyping and reordering. That has been a huge timesaver.
"Also by doing the process mapping the customer gets a real understanding of what it takes to execute a promotional display program," she continues. "When they see it down on paper, they realize how complex our industry is.
"There are a lot of companies that have high-tech project management systems. My philosophy is, it's all about the people," she says. "Our business is ever changing. No single project runs the same way every time, so you have to be flexible."
The 'Regular' Side
Promotional displays are an important product for the 300,000-square-foot Cincinnati corrugated plant, located in the suburb of Blue Ash. Container Corp. of America originally owned the plant before it was acquired by Jefferson Smurfit Corp. The 30-year-old facility actually houses two businesses - the brown box or "regular" side and display.
The Cincinnati operation has a ConPrinta preprint machine giving it a competitive advantage.
"Our brown box heritage is one of the characteristics that make us different from other 'pure play' display companies. We understand cost, and work extremely hard to eliminate waste from the operation," Branson says.
About 350 people work at the extended Cincinnati plant, which operates three shifts. Last year it shipped about one billion square feet.
Having both display and brown box capabilities in one plant is a competitive advantage as it evens out the production schedule and keeps all machines running consistently.
The Cincinnati operation also has several flexo printing presses.
Because the displays are labor intensive and costly, every detail is critical. "The overall cost of these items is expensive," Plant Manager Thomas Wiechel says. "A litho sheet could cost $8. That's significant because the corrugated itself may only be worth $1 to $2, but if you put an $8 printed sheet on it, all of a sudden you've got $10, meaning that attention to detail, waste control and quality are very important."
The diverse mix and volume requires a broad range of equipment. The Cincinnati plant has about 16 major pieces of equipment, including an 87-inch
corrugator. In October the plant installed its second Cuir press. The Mark II is a five-color flexographic press that can print up to 120 line screen with inline UV coating capabilities.
A New Market
While displays are the "heartbeat" or "headwaters" of the plant, the Display Group is gearing up to pursue a somewhat related market - higher-end graphics packaging.
"The new Cuir press is really targeted directly at the packaging market," Branson says.
Soon after the press was installed, instructors from Fox Valley Technical College visited the facility to train all employees, including the sales and marketing staff.
"It's a big cultural change," Branson says, adding that the Display Group is literally rebuilding the Cincinnati plant's focus. This requires changing the way inks and printing plates are produced, how account managers sell, and how the machines are run.
The Cincinnati plant has a new 18-head ink kitchen from Flint Ink.
In addition to the new Cuir Mark II, the Cincinnati plant installed an 18-head ink kitchen from Flint Ink, a second Automat labeler, a new Maren baler and waste removal system, and a Ringwood starch kitchen. It has upgraded the dryers on its Titan press to print coated stock, added new prefeeders on a Ward rotary diecutter and added a new custom-made stacker from
Systec on the back end of another Ward. The company also recently upgraded to next generation Macintosh computers for all of the graphic designers.
"The ink kitchen was critical to us in terms of being able to mix color at the location to be able to do both display and graphic packaging," Wiechel explains. "The other key element to that is to be able to do 120 plus line screen we have to be able to manufacture extremely flat board. One of the other key initiatives at our plant right now is directed at the corrugator."
The 87-inch corrugator has been upgraded with a new hot feed section and an Interfic conversion on the glue machine.
The Cincinnati plant also has preprint and rod coating capabilities. "In-house preprint and rod coating is an extremely competitive advantage for us," Branson says. "If we wanted to flood coat a piece of board, as opposed to printing those on our printing equipment, we'll run either preprint materials if it's graphic or we'll just run it as a tinted liner. We'll do that onsite and then put it on the corrugator. We'll combine it and then run it on one of seven diecutters. It's a competitive advantage with regard to speed to market, cost, and color consistency."
"This is probably the most preprint oriented corrugator in the country," Wiechel adds. "We routinely run 20 to 30 million feet of preprint on a monthly basis, most directed to display accounts."
In addition, this capability ensures color consistency no matter where the display is manufactured. "We can manufacture materials at every display plant at the same time if the situation warrants, and all the displays will be the exact same color," he adds. "We are the only competitor in the display industry with this capability."
Both Branson and Wiechel relish the opportunity to talk about capitalizing on the strategy the Display Group has developed to pursue growth markets.
"One of the most exciting things that's happened in my career is bringing the new Cuir press in here as well as all the other things that go along with it like upgrading the ink and printing plate technology, making sure you've got the substrates, and working with the crews to bring them up to a different standard of expectation on printing dots versus printing solids," Wiechel says. "So there's a major emphasis here in Cincinnati to penetrate the graphics packaging segment of the market."
For Branson, the Display Group is a classic success story.
"People used to think of us as a brown box company only, but we've actually received over 100 POPAI awards in the last five years alone. You don't win that many OMA's without having great design. Creative design is one of our core capabilities. It's something we do quite well.
"The real success story here is that we've been successful in combining award winning design with our people, systems, and low cost manufacturing to create real value for our customers," he says.