The residents and businesses in Superior, Wis., a port city rich in nautical heritage, have weathered many storms-Alberta clippers and economic downturns alike-and know when to go full speed ahead…or drop the anchor. When the current economic storm made landfall a year ago, logic dictated that local blown film manufacturer Charter Films ought to join the masses of other companies in seeking safe harbor by freezing capital investments or downsizing.
Instead, the blown film extruder stayed its charted course of constant upgrades, proactive customer service, and consistent investment in new technologies and employees.
“I hear companies talking about how things are going to be when [the downturn] is over and I think that’s the wrong strategy,” says Chris Trapp, president and chief executive officer. “You need to understand how you need to be today and part of that is the investment in your business and your people. When times are tough, customers look for those qualities and that’s been part of our success.”
While many companies champion their commitment to investments, innovation and people, Charter’s first-class employee training program, proactive equipment upgrade program and entrance into the barrier film market all illustrate the company is speaking more than just platitudes.
GETTING UNDERWAY WITH ‘THE CHARTER WAY'When Charter Films was founded in 1998, its three managing partners, including Trapp and current executive vice president Dave Timm, knew which course they would have to take to successfully navigate the changing film extrusion market.
“Going back 11 or 12 years, there had been a lot of conglomeration, merger and acquisitions activity where smaller extruders or converters were being pulled together into a much, much larger one,” says Timm. “We felt we could fill a niche being a smaller, high-quality film house.” With regard to equipment, service and quality, Timm remembers a marketplace that was dominated by aging asset bases-an image that the budding film house did not want to become. “From day one, we certainly tried to put in the best that we could. Even today, we remain at that standard.”
Getting underway, Charter’s founding partners next turned to finding the right employees to operate the company’s first extrusion lines. In considering its first workers, Charter didn’t look for five, ten or any number of years of extrusion experience. Instead, the company considered a person’s aptitude, attitude and work ethic. The idea, explains Trapp, is that it would be more effective to foster good production fundamentals than to attempt correcting bad habits learned from former filmmaking operations.
“Our belief was that it’s really around the quality of the person, not necessarily their experience,” says Trapp. “In the early days, you can’t stumble. We had the tools we needed to train people and we were really hands-on, making sure that people saw the quality we brought.”
As evidenced by the scores of custom rollstock that zip across the production and warehouse floors at Charter’s plant, those operators hired in the company’s formative days have more than mastered the high-quality production processes. Today, Charter Films remains committed to keeping experienced operators current while providing new hires with the same comprehensive, hands-on training on which its early successes were built. To that end, the blown film producer created Charter University, an interactive information and training system covering all ends of Charter’s business, including extrusion lines, material handling and internal quality controls.
“Employees have access to the Charter University system at any time and get trained in their succession path,” says Trapp.
Trapp explains that extrusion is a skill that an individual must put his or her time into and not all of that can be learned simply by doing book work. Lesson modules in Charter University illustrate key production concepts and feature videos made with knowledgeable employees using the same lines on the manufacturing floor. At regular periods throughout the training, an employee takes online tests to demonstrate his or her knowledge before applying it on Charter’s film lines.
Just as Charter University keeps employees current, the company must work diligently to keep its training program current-an effort the company believes is not only worthwhile, but imperative.
“The growth and the upkeep of Charter University is significant, and with a lot of companies, that would be the first place they’d cut in times like these,” notes Trapp. “It’s actually the ideal time to do more of that.”
Charter University ultimately empowers an employee to work effectively, produce quality film and achieve “The Charter Way,” or the mind-set needed to proactively respond to a customer’s needs from initial film specifications through film analysis and improvements.
“Since the onset of the organization, The Charter Way has meant finding a way to service and to please the customer,” says Brian Beuning, director of sales and marketing. “I’ve been in organizations where it certainly seems like there are too many people spending time doing things that aren’t focused on the customer. But with Charter, we do everything we can to react quickly and remain flexible.”
Beuning remembers that fourth quarter 2008 was “like somebody turned a big light switch off.” In such rough economic seas, Beuning can see that as a time when many organizations would batten down the hatches and call the sales team below deck to develop reports and discuss what’s going on. Under The Charter Way, however, such conditions serve as a call to action.
“To me, that’s the time when you have sales people in front of customers, working with them, and saying, ‘What can we do to help?’” says Beuning.
“It’s amazingly basic what we do here: We do it the right way,” asserts Beuning. “But there’s a tremendous amount of effort from everyone at Charter Films. From the production floor, the technical group and the sales and customer service team, we’re very careful to make sure we’re taking care of the customer.”
ALWAYS INNOVATING, NEVER STAGNANTThe arrival of December 2009 gave Charter Films yet another opportunity to take care of its customer base and capitalize on the growing trend in barrier films. Armed with the technical competence required of barrier film production and driven by a commitment to total customer service, the blown film extruder’s entrance into the barrier market was never a question of if, but when.
“We’ve talked about adding barrier films for the last three and a half years, but the question was always, ‘Is it time?’” says Beuning. “It is a natural progression, and despite the fact that it’s a tough marketplace, a tough economy, it’s the ideal time to bring this asset on.”
Through its first 12 years, Charter’s bread and butter work of creating 3-layer coex materials for the marketplace was done exclusively on Windmoeller & Hoelscher blown film lines. Satisfied with its partnership with W&H, Charter marked its entry into barrier films with the addition of another W&H line. Primary applications for films produced on the new barrier line include packaging of meats and cheeses, seafood, crackers, cookies and nuts.
While the production and features of barrier film are inherently different from the monolayer and coextruded films that Charter produces, the company explains the addition of a barrier line will not only better position the company to partner those products for customers, but satisfies the company’s mission to constantly expand its “toolbox”.
“When our sales people go in front of a customer, they’re asked, ‘What’s new?’ remarks Beuning. “We want to be able to tell them the new story and we don’t want to be perceived as stagnant. And it sends a message to the marketplace: We’re going to keep our foot on the gas, we’re here to continue to grow this business and we’re here to service our customers.”
Attention to customer needs and requests was also at the heart of Charter Films’ line of new ECX films, released in June 2009. Available in four product grades, ECX film uses a thinner form of a standard, coextruded sealant web while retaining the durability, puncture resistance and other performance properties required in stand-up pouch applications. In turn, the material savings allows converters to meet sustainability objectives and realize cost benefits.
“One of the additional benefits of this ECX film is that it has been developed-without the need for laser scoring-to tear in a reliable fashion straight across the pouch for many consumers, depending on the way they tear the package,” says Timm.
Timm explains that the ECX film line serves something of a foundational role, giving the marketplace a springboard to a wealth of unique, customized solutions that Charter employees can create.
“From a development and an engineering standpoint, a customer can ask us, ‘Hey, I like this idea, but can you do this or that to it?’” says Timm. “That request is right up our wheelhouse.”
While Timm acknowledges that barrier films and ECX films are Charter’s latest iterations of innovation suited for a range of applications, some Charter customers are satisfied with the status quo-and that’s fine, too.
“We have way more capabilities than when we started in 1998 and from a marketing standpoint, our job is to say, ‘We’re here to make your products better,’” says Timm. “But customers take that differently. Some take advantage of it fairly fast, while for others there are complicated decisions in changing a proven, well-known package that’s performed well for years. But whenever they’re ready for these types of solutions, they will get that.”
ON COURSE FOR TOMORROWOn the brink of its 12th year, Charter Films clearly knows the ropes of the blown film extrusion business. As the dark, gloomy clouds of the economic storm dissipate, the filmmaker will surely keep every oar in the water. But which direction the company is steered really is a matter of where good business practices take Charter Films.
“We don’t go hide in the woods and talk about what we’re going to do in five and 10 years-you can’t,” says Trapp. “We certainly have the ability and the financial tools to expand more here in Superior if we desire. Should we buy more barrier lines with the success we plan to have there? Or should we upgrade some existing lines? It’s nice to have some of those choices, but we’ve got to consider the customers.”
In that consideration of its customers, Charter Films recently added key positions in its sales and engineering departments, the latter of which Timm believes is larger than most companies the size of Charter.
“Even in areas where other companies are contracting, we added to those departments with the idea that when the customer calls, that customer should get an engineer that has direct responsibility,” says Timm. “We have to be there when customers need us.”
“If you call here, you’ll get the person you need,” echoes Trapp.
Based on its history and successes, Charter’s current heading of commitment to the customer is certainly the right one and the management team leaves no reason to believe the company will ever stray from that course. But as Trapp suggests, the company remembers where it came from, and for that reason, it will also maintain its commitment to its employees.
“It’s easy to say that employees are part of our success, but our employees here share success.” Trapp explains the company is more than happy to share that success through a gain share program based on quality and customer satisfaction. Trapp clarifies that the program really isn’t a bonus program, nor is it an initiative. But it is a significant portion of an employee’s wages that is earned fair and square.
“Our challenge going forward is making the jobs as assured as we can make them,” says Timm. “You can’t treat [employees] like accordions and let 12 guys go. As managers, we’ve been practicing that as part of our commitment to them. No layoffs and nothing but growth going forward.”
Looking back on Charter’s early days, Timm remembers the time when only two or three cars sat in solitude in the company’s parking lot across the street.
“That parking lot is huge and I remember thinking then, ‘Why is the parking lot so big?’” says Timm. “Now, it’s full and that’s a nice thing.”
Windmoeller & Hoelscher