In the town that will soon commemorate the arrival of the Pilgrims 400 years ago, Flexo Concepts recently celebrated three decades of success as a leading global doctor blade manufacturer. The company treated its local business partners to a tour of its manufacturing facility followed by a sunset cruise on historic Plymouth Harbor aboard the… Mayflower? Nope – the Pilgrim Belle, with employees and their families.
Thirty years ago, Flexo Concepts was established to help design a doctor blade for box makers, a move that secured its longstanding place as a dominant player in the global UHMW corrugated blade market. Since then, the company has grown to serve the tag and label, flexible packaging and many other printing markets worldwide and earned a reputation as a top industry innovator. Its TruPoint Orange®, TruPoint Green® and TruPoint DuraPoint® doctor blades are among its most renowned products that have transformed the flexo printing market.
Flexo Concepts has achieved many milestones since being acquired in 2001 by Kevin McLaughlin, who added his longtime friend and industry colleague Greg Howell as partner shortly thereafter. They acquired the MicroClean anilox cleaning equipment business in 2006 and completed a much-needed move to a larger facility in 2010. The company undertook a complete rebranding and website redesign project in 2015 and finished installing a state-of-the-art Doctor Blade Innovation Lab in 2016. Earlier this year, Flexo Concepts received recognition for its commitment to exports, accepting 2 prestigious awards, one of which was at the national level.
“They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I agree,” began McLaughlin when asked about the proudest moment of his career. “It came recently, when a large corporate co-supplier in our industry asked if they could bring some folks to our office to learn how we ‘do’ sales and marketing. They were inspired enough to travel with a team of six all the way from Texas for the day to try to understand the key to our success. It was a big moment for me!” He continued to say, “I am honored that wherever I go in the industry, people tell me how impressed they are with us. And I think it goes beyond our bright orange shirts!” – referring to the company’s highly-visible and widely paraded corporate color, PMS151. He is delighted that the company is known as a pioneer in the non-metallic doctor blade market and a partner dedicated to helping its customers be successful. “Our brand personality is friendly, helpful, and fun and I think that resonates with people.”
“I would say I am most proud of the team we have at Flexo Concepts and the work they do,” said Howell. “Across all departments our employees are smart, hardworking, and enjoy taking on new challenges. So, we’ve got a lot to celebrate at our 30-year mark.” He attributes the company’s ability to attract and retain great people to a corporate culture that values individual contributions, collaboration, and a work environment that is meaningful and fun. Employees enjoy potluck lunches, annual bowling tournaments and Halloween parties, summer BBQs, holiday parties (with a very competitive Yankee Swap!), pedometer challenges, and even a rotating “bring your dog to work” day – all planned by the company’s Employee Involvement Committee which meets regularly. Employees embrace community service projects throughout the year to collect food, coats and holiday gifts for local disadvantaged residents.
Flexo Concepts invests heavily in workplace training and tuition reimbursement to help people develop their skills and professional interests. Many employees have been promoted or have opted to move to different departments to try something new. The company also offers a fully-paid sabbatical plus bonus after ten years of service where long-time employees are given the opportunity to pursue personal goals or indulge in favorite pastimes for a month – a benefit that’s unheard of in the industry. So far, four employees have achieved this milestone and enjoyed their time off!
The company’s brand personality resonates throughout its headquarters in Plymouth. In the lobby, a copy of a check written to Flexo Concepts for its first sale of a 100’ roll of UHMW harkens back to the early days. Alongside stands an easel displaying a symbol of how far the company has come – a framed prestigious national export award received this past May. A troop of employee 5-year plaques standing at attention nearby as symbols of how much the company values its team members, and a bottle of “Bee Sting” honey liqueur conveys the company’s collaborative spirit (pun intended). The privately-branded concoction was created at a local Plymouth distillery as part of an overseas trade show promotion by Flexo Concepts and its industry supply partners; the bottle labels were used to display the latest in flexo printing technology (and yes, the liqueur was a big hit with booth visitors!).
The office décor and layout reflect the company’s innovative nature and cool vibe with music playing everywhere, progressive meeting spaces like “the Cube” and “the Lounge”, and inspirational phrases taken from the company’s cultural value statement adorning the walls. The manufacturing space radiates order and efficiency (Kanban practices are a favorite of Manufacturing Manager Adam Yock), and there is evidence of 5S practices everywhere. The company’s commitment to sustainability is obvious – a solar renewable energy system powers the entire building, LED lights illuminate the indoor and outdoor space, and recycling programs are visible all through the office and manufacturing space.
Flexo Concepts is also passionate when it comes to the international arena. According to McLaughlin, “We think we have done a good job globalizing our entire company to which Bernat and Steve will attest!” He is referring to the company’s international sales rep in Barcelona and Asian key account manager in Taiwan who speak 10 languages between them and are intimately familiar with the local cultures and business practices in their territories. Flexo Concepts also has longstanding relationships with distribution partners on every (habitable) continent supported by translated versions of its sales and marketing materials, metric and imperial specs on its packaging, and recently-launched Spanish and Chinese versions of its website.
Flexo Concepts’ success hasn’t come without challenges, of course. “I think the issues we have met with along the way are similar to those faced by many business owners,” said Howell. “The company has experienced top-line growth for 29 straight years, and managing staffing levels, upgrading software systems, and undergoing multiple relocations to larger facilities have kept us busy.” He also acknowledged, “Expanding our business overseas has been another one of our biggest tests.” The company has grown exports from 17% in 1991 to over 40% today, selling its products in over 50 countries. “Logistics, shipping, exchange rates, foreign taxes and managing remote resellers and salespeople are only a few of the complexities we face when selling abroad.”
But the owners embrace their “uniqueness” and overwhelmingly agree that the ride has been worth the bumps. The company is known throughout the industry as an innovator of advanced doctor blade technology and at the same time a consultative sales partner to its customers, OEMs and co-suppliers. “You won’t find many manufacturing companies in Plymouth, Massachusetts, never mind printing supply manufacturers. But we like that.” said Howell. “We strive to set ourselves apart both in our industry and among companies in general and we embrace what makes us different.”
With regard to future plans for the company, McLaughlin commented, “We are always trying to create new products, make our existing products better and search for new opportunities as an organization. Right now, we are exploring applications for our blades outside of the printing industry.” The business partners credit the company’s success to a combination of its robust engineering team, comprehensive production facility and customer-focused “smarketing” (sales and marketing) culture, and they eagerly anticipate the next leg of their journey. In the meantime, they have pie day to look forward to on March 14th!