Driving through Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley, which encompasses the cities of Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh, it might be easy for tourists and road-weary travelers to overlook the region’s largest industry-and no, it’s not cheese.
The “paper valley” as locals and industry professionals tend to call it, is home to dozens of paper, packaging and printing companies and the support facilities that have sprung around them. Though many of these area companies have changed hands or switched specialties completely, Castle-Pierce, which started as a printing operation, has staying power. Celebrating 120 years in business this year, the company is thriving and investing in the future, with new equipment and new markets in tow.
TIES THAT BINDThese days it’s rare to find a family-run business to last 50 years, let alone 120. William Morgan Castle started Castle Printing in 1888 in Oshkosh, Wis., where the company did primarily commercial printing with a one-color press. Castle also worked with soapstone, woodtype and leadtype. The company became Castle-Pierce in 1900 when Castle made Harry Pierce, his pressroom supervisor, his partner. Castle-Pierce took on printing projects that included movie posters, tickets, booklets, brochures, calendars and signs, and grew quickly and successfully enough to keep making equipment upgrades.
It’s only been within the last 15 years that Castle-Pierce has been involved in flexographic printing. Prior to that they did almost exclusively commercial printing with offset, doing projects such as catalogs, prayer books, brochures, pamphlets, newsletters, direct mail items, coupons, corporate annual reports and many more.
Like other printers and converters in C-P’s part of Wisconsin, the surrounding support industries have helped the company excel and grow, which is what it did when it expanded into package printing. Having paper and film suppliers in the area help lower shipping costs, and being in a closer proximity to converters and plants that do finishing work can speed up the turnaround time for its customers.
“This area started with the paper industry 150 years ago, and has developed into a central hub for packaging, from Green Bay all the way down to Fond du Lac,” says Dan Baird, C-P’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Paper was used less as plastic came into the equation. Many people who were involved with paper packaging are right in this neighborhood, Bemis, Kimberly-Clark, Alcan and folks like that. A lot of pre-press houses up here that laminate paper and film grew out of that [the old paper] scene, and need to be close by the packaging areas. Being located in the middle of the country allows us to be competitive on a larger scale, especially considering the cost of freight-we can be competitive in both the east and west,” adds Baird.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKSMuch of Castle-Pierce’s success and longevity can be attributed to its ability to identify trends and opportunities in the marketplace.
“Castle-Pierce has re-invented themselves as a fifth generation company,” says Baird, “because of their ability to spot positive and negative trends.”
The rise of the internet and other media took business away from commercial printers such as C-P. For example, the company did a lot of business with companies that printed annual reports. Once annual reports became available online, that took away a big chunk of C-P’s printing business. To compensate, the company looked to new markets.
“Five years ago, 65% of our business was commercial printing,” says Baird. “Now, 65% to 70% of our business is package printing.” He adds that he is amazed at how much easier it is to turn a profit with package printing than commercial printing, factoring in the cost of machinery, inks and films, and the total weight of the product, compared to commercial printing. As such, he says that tapping the food packaging market is a wise move for Castle-Pierce.
And as films have started to replaced paper packaging, C-P has expanded its flexo printing capabilities and markets.
The company’s recent purchase of a Mark Andy Comco C2 10-color press will allow C-P to expand its label making and package printing operations. Baird says that with the help of the Comco, in addition to the other presses they have, he expects the company could double, if not triple, its sales in flexo.
Tom Castle, the fifth-generation Castle to work for the company, serves as chief operating officer. He says the company chose the Comco equipment because of C-P’s long relationship with Mark Andy (C-P has two other Mark Andy presses).
“The other thing that attracted us to it was the ability to do quick changeovers and faster set-ups,” says Castle. “The sleeve technology, the servo drives, all of those allowed us to get what we believe is better print quality at higher speeds to service customers who have mid- to short-run [jobs].”
C-P bought its first flexo press in 1992 and started printing pressure-sensitive labels. Almost immediately, it expanded into longer runs of paper and film labels. With its label business established and flourishing, the company needed to branch out again.
“More recently with the C2 purchase we have a greater opportunity to grow the other segment of our business, which is laminated films, food packaging, food flexible packaging, while still servicing our offset side,” says Castle. “C-P has built its business model on servicing the mid-run to smaller-run customers’ needs in not only in costs, but in service and turnaround time as well. People don’t want to wait 12 weeks for product. The Comco fits into our model, which is one we also have in offset. We want to use new equipment, and equipment we can change often so we can keep up with new technology for our customers and ourselves.”
Identifying the need to be able to offer customers more at once also drove C-P’s decision to purchase the C2. “The ability to laminate in-line with this particular piece of equipment helps,” says Pete Schwab, flexo manager at Castle-Pierce. “One of the areas we’ve been lacking is good, solid bond strength at high-speed laminating. The C2 gives us that ability now.”
Printers also need to keep an eye on trends while on the hunt for new opportunities. Schwab helps the company do this on the flexo side of the business. “The market has been such in the last eight to 10 years, that we’ve seen a lot of stand-up pouches in the marketplace,” says Schwab. “The decorative graphics are now there to meet offset quality. Higher line aniloxes allow us to print better. We’re competing with gravure printing more now than ever before.”
Castle-Pierce also targets private-label manufacturers because that market is ideal for the short runs Castle-Pierce prefers to do, as well as local and regional brands.
“Private-label work is a continuing focus for us. The C2 has allowed us to do more of that,” says Schwab.
Another successful though smaller market for printers that do short runs is the printing of sample products. For instance, if a customer is in the middle of launching a product and experimenting with packaging, printers like C-P can do a short run and print up as many as the customer needs for promotional purposes.
LOOKING AHEADA company doesn’t last 120 years without planning for and investing in the future. As long as Castle-Pierce continues to do what it’s been doing for over a century, its future should stay bright.
It’s been said a million times that family-run businesses often lead themselves to happier and employee-centric environments, but Castle-Pierce appears to fit the mold there as well. Castle reinforces that and stresses that management needs to be cognizant and mindful of the attitudes of its employees, which number 70 at C-P.
“The best thing I’ve seen, and I’ve been here for 13 years, is that Castle-Pierce has put together some darn good programs for its employees,” says Schwab. “There’s not much turnover. We’re hiring more, but we’re not a revolving door for our employees, because [the company] takes care of us. And in return, they get good work out of their employees.”
Part of a company’s investment in the future, of course, includes sustainability goals and programs. Castle-Pierce in part tackled this issue with the purchase of the C2, which has helped C-P cut down on make-ready waste and speeds up the required drying times. Schwab says that he’s already seen a 30% decrease in the cost of running the new gas drying system press versus the older press’ electric dryers. C-P is able to recycle 95% of its paper, film and ink wastes.
Baird says that C-P’s decision to use only water-based inks and laminations eliminates most safety and environmental concerns.
Running a successful plant is not without its challenges however. Castle says the company faces tough competition, especially as rising costs and a weak economy have the potential to erode profits.
“We’ve seen an increase in cost and in lead times. With the increases we’ve seen in raw materials, it’s hard not to pass that on to our customers,” says Castle. He adds that this is one of the reasons that investing in new equipment is so important. Newer equipment means more efficient and less wasteful runs.
Castle attributes the company’s current success to the family’s core values and management team. “I think it’s the way we run it, how we present ourselves to our employees. Whether it’s a company cookout, profit sharing or a 401k plan, we foster a good working environment.”