Seven years ago, Dave Gaidousek and Kyle Drake, Drake Container salesmen, attended a Glen Buckner seminar about direct printing on corrugated. Buckner has been a long-time proponent of this process's growth opportunities.
"Between direct printing and litho label, there's a massive market," says Doug Morris, Drake's vice president of sales and marketing. He used to help Buckner run the seminars. But since 1998, he has been working at Houston-based Drake. "Glen stresses to attendees the importance of targeting that gap."
Gaidousek and Drake, son of owner Dan, knew the company had to shoot for that gap. When they returned from the seminar, Kyle told his dad and John Carrico, chief executive officer, that they too should attend Buckner's seminar. They did and the pursuit of opportunities in high-end direct printing on corrugated commenced.
After the Buckner seminar, Carrico and Dan Drake retained Morris' services. So once a month (between 1995 and 1998) Morris found himself on a plane from Indianapolis (where Buckner conducts his seminars) to Houston. He not only gave Drake management advice but trained its production people hands-on. In addition, he traveled with Drake salespeople on calls.
Drake is constantly testing point-of-purchase display designs.
"Always asking what you can do for your customers is the best way to stay on top," says Carrico. "We need to keep going forward; we can't let people pass us by.
"Thanks to Buckner's seminar, we avoided a lot of trial and error. It's more important to pick printing plates properly than spend money on sales brochures."
Follow The Map
"When I was working for Glen, we would tell seminar attendees that we had a map (to successful high-end direct printing)," states Morris. "Following the map could move you forward faster."
Once Morris started working for Drake, he found the toughest part of his job was getting customers to open their doors to what Drake could do for them.
"We have to get the first audience (with customers)," he says. "Once we do, we do very well. But you need persistence. The customers need to know that we understand their needs; we have the ability and persistence to stay with them."
But he stresses that just because a customer smiles, nods his or her head, and shakes your hand doesn't mean you can walk away with the warm feeling of a successful business call.
Jerry Rogers, vice president of manufacturing (left), and Abraham Nava, Ward Verigraphics operator, display a recent job off the press, which last April, had JB Machinery's drying and curing system installed
"The ball is in our court," he says. "When you visit a potential account, you can't be satisfied with, 'We'll call you when we have a need.'"
Since 1969, Drake Container has found Houston (the fourth largest city in the country) a great location for servicing consumer products companies. They include Minute Maid, Pennzoil-Quaker State and Compaq. Today, high-end direct printing and producing point-of-purchase displays makes up about 20 percent of the sheet plant's clientele. The rest is brown box business. Its top 12 customers provide 50 percent of its revenues.
"We try to give our customers what they can't get from others in Houston or Dallas," says Morris. "We're very proactive in design, helping our customers to understand every aspect of point-of-purchase displays, from printing to diecutting to retail store requirements. We can carry the customer through."
Drake's structural and design departments are equipped with 54-inch color printers and digital and video production equipment. It employs three graphic designers and four full-time structural designers, including two from a folding carton display company in New York City. Artios software is used for structural design.
Robert Simmons is the design department's project manager. He coordinates the status of every job that passes through the plant, which means he always knows if a particular job is in the design department or being produced on the plant floor. In addition, he buys all of the printing plates for Drake, which today employs 110 in a 145,000- square-foot facility.
"In the end, if you've done your homework, production should be an afterthought," he says.
I'll Stand by You
Doing your homework also applies to marketing. "A lot of marketing today is responding to the big retailers and brand marketers," says Carrico. "We work in parallel lines with our customers, providing them with estimates and helping them in the distribution and assembly of their displays. Today, we use e-mail to hit our marketing window opportunities, reacting to our customers quickly. So in tough times, they have stayed with us."
But no customer will stay with any box provider if it can't provide consistent quality. Drake's management team is acutely aware that as industry printing qualities rise, brown box business can get swallowed by high-end graphics. Having two standards of quality under one roof can be deadly and even more importantly, potentially confuse customers. That's where the plant's four-color, 66- by 113-inch Ward Verigraphics II press (with vacuum transfer), purchased in 1997, comes into play. A fifth print station was added last year so it can now print four-color process up to 120-line screen and UV coat inline.
Doug Morris (right), Drake's vice president of sales and marketing, checks a display design being worked on by Glenn Warneke, systems operator, creative services.
"We're doing more large format, high-quality printing, which fits the Ward well," says Morris. "The vacuum transfer and dryer (from JB Machinery) make it extremely efficient. Now we can avoid two passes and diecut inline."
JB Machinery installed its drying and curing system on the Ward last April. The installation includes four interstation flexo dryers between each color station, one final dryer after the last color station and a UV flexo curing system after the final flexo dryer and prior to the rotary diecutter. This has helped Drake to eliminate tracking, marking and smearing.
"I never saw anything like it," says Jerry Rogers, vice president of manufacturing. "The system cures instantly and helps us to diecut jobs in one pass." He adds that the persistence of JB Machinery's John Bird, president, was another factor in Drake's decision to go with this system.
"It's very space-friendly," he adds. "But you do need a lot of power. The only delay we had was due to work that needed to be done on top of our roof by Houston Light and Power."
Other key converting equipment includes a J&L specialty folder-gluer (which the plant regularly designs to) and a Bobst 1575 flatbed diecutter. These three pieces of machinery allow Drake to produce runs anywhere from 250 to 25,000 pieces. Finished jobs reach customers within a 500-mile radius of Houston. Shipping to a customer's multiple distribution centers is commonplace for Drake.
"Partnerships with our customers is what makes it work," Morris says when asked how he handles the day-to-day demands of just-in-time deliveries. He adds that by studying customers' historical box purchasing patterns, Drake can help them to handle their financial resources better by managing their inventories. These partnerships also result in customers gaining a better understanding of Drake's business.
But Carrico knows that customers aren't just satisfied with what you have done for them yesterday; they want to know what you're going to do even better for them tomorrow.
That's why Drake provides sales and marketing tools, including CDs and videotapes with setup instructions, all in an effort to get its customers into retail stores quickly and efficiently.
"I ask myself, 'Can doing this open more doors for me?'" says Carrico. "The cost/benefit ratio has to be weighed."
"We have a key account group that strategizes key accounts," adds Morris. "We'll work with our designers and ask ourselves, 'What does the customer need?' We'll also formulate plans with customers when problems arrive."
Drake regularly makes mock-up proofs of new brand designs that its customers need to market. The graphics department can print out a proof on its 54-inch printer, laminate it to corrugated board, cut it out on its Kongsberg samplemaker table, take a digital photo of it, and show the customer the new display over the computer. Costs have been calculated just as quickly. At this point, the customer can green light the project or make adjustments. All this is accomplished in hours.
It's this type of service that has made Drake a $22 million (in annual sales last year) operation. While other companies might be cutting back on their design departments because of the soft economy, Morris stresses that Drake looks at this department as critical to generating new business. This "stick to it" attitude surely originates with founder Dan Drake, who played quarterback for Rice University and is in its Hall of Fame. He's staying with what got him to where he is today.
"We tell potential customers, 'Here's our team'," says Morris. "We push our experience."