Far beyond labels, companies now use the entire package of the products we use to convey advertising messages with words, images and graphics, in an array of bright designs and appealing colors.
Packaging, printing, and product branding have become multi-billion-dollar, multi-faceted industries that support each other. The North American flexible packaging industry is growing at a rate of six percent per year, largely based on population growth. According to industry analyst Smithers Pira, the global flexible packaging industry is set to reach $231 billion by 2018.
Within the mammoth printing industry is Charlotte’s own FLXON, an innovative consultative sales, marketing and distribution company that, for the past 20 years, has serviced flexographic and rotogravure printers of consumer product packaging.
Rotogravure (roto or gravure for short) is a type of printing process, which involves engraving the image onto an image carrier. In gravure printing, the image is engraved onto a cylinder because, like offset printing and flexography, it uses a rotary printing press.
Flexography (often abbreviated to flexo) is a form of printing process which utilizes a flexible relief plate. It is essentially a modern version of letterpress which can be used for printing on almost any type of substrate, including plastic, metallic films, cellophane and paper.
The rotogravure method has been in use since the 1850s. The newer flexographic method is applied to flexible substrates such as potato chip bags, frozen foods, and cartons for yogurt. Both methods are used for large runs.
Wielding the Doctor Blade
“When you go into a supermarket or retail store, almost everything you see that is printed is printed by either the flexographic or rotogravure methods,” says Paul Sharkey, president and CEO of FLXON, Inc.
“Our business philosophy is deeply rooted in a commitment to establish relationships with printers and converters based on improving their process and their bottom line,” Sharkey continues.
“FLXON’s mission is to partner with them to drive waste from their process, thereby helping them to be more precise in their quality, improve sustainability, remain price competitive, and earn greater profits. Savings on waste can go to their bottom line or in next year’s price negotiations between the printer and their clients.
“Waste in printing consists of process-related print defects such as streaks, hazing or shifts in color that their customers would reject,” explains Sharkey. “Waste can also mean loss of production time resulting from stopping a press mid-run to replace the ink metering blade, also known as the ‘doctor blade.’
“The doctor blade is at the heart of the printing unit, controlling the ink volume to be transferred. It is used to remove excess ink from the roller transferring ink to the substrate, which may be of a variety of materials from coated paper stock to film.”
This is where FLXON’s innovation and vision has helped to move the industry forward. Sharkey says he started his business by introducing a superior, high-performance, steel printing metering blade called SWEDCUT to North America, Canada and Latin America.
“The SWEDCUT blade, manufactured by Swedish Development Company in Munkfors, Sweden, is made of super refined steel that lasts longer with less negative impact on the printing press, particularly to the anilox roll or ink transfer roller, an integral part of the press,” Sharkey explains. “FLXON is the exclusive distributor of SWEDCUT blades within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) area.
“FLXON’s more than 500 customers are spread out over Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. Our customers print wine and beverage labels, health and beauty packaging, food-related flexible packaging, folding cartons for cereal and ice cream and more. The list includes everything seen in a supermarket or retail store plus pharmaceuticals, tobacco, gift wrap, envelopes, wall and floor coverings and magazines.”
Printers include companies such as Bemis Flexible Packaging, Sealed Air, Sonoco, Printpack, Bryce, Rock-Tenn, Georgia Pacific, CCL Labels, Multicolor, and Mac Papers.
“There are plus or minus 6,000 flexographic and rotogravure printers in our coverage area,” remarks Sharkey. “We consider our target audience to be wide or narrow web flexible packaging printers and high quality label printers who understand the value of our proposition.
“Printing is a precise, detailed and very technical industry which operates with expensive equipment. Our customers know that the smallest detail can affect a buyer’s choice. You go into the supermarket and reach for the product you want. But, if you’re not sure, the packaging begins to assist you in your decision, and you might pick the one that has a higher quality printing and color appeal.”
Some industries, such as tobacco, have a zero tolerance for printing defects. Others, like the fast-food industry, are less concerned about absolute perfection in their packaging. “This is because with fast food, the product is already sold to the end-customer before they become engaged with the packaging,” explains Sharkey.
Engagement with potential customers begins with trained FLXON staff sitting down with printers and converters to determine if there is a problem with waste through defects, frequent press stops, press speeds, or repetitive wear to individual parts of the equipment. “We’re very selective with our time. We want to make sure we are connecting with the people we need to be working with,” says Sharkey.
Addressing the Marketplace
FLXON is fully staffed with 14 employees. “We are in growth mode and very proactive,” Sharkey says. “This past year we’ve hired a full-time marketing manager and two customer satisfaction staff members. We get high marks on service. Calling on them before they are calling you helps us both.”
“But we don’t want our sales team doing that work. Rather, we want them to focus solely on generating business.” The company divides its business into six geographic territories, each one with a business development manager to build the business. Most employees live in and travel from Charlotte; one covering the Northeast lives in Pennsylvania.
More than half of FLXON’s employees are fluent in Spanish.
“Mexico offers our greatest potential for growth,” explains Sharkey. “Many U.S. and Canadian companies have moved production there. It is extremely valuable to us to have staff that are bilingual in English and Spanish.
“The Mexican market is the big opportunity for us. Factories there are bigger and newer; there is more investment there than in the U.S. at this point. Some of the factories have eight to 10 printing presses, whereas here there are usually one or two. Many Canadian companies shut down factories in Canada and opened up more in Mexico. European companies are also investing in Mexico.”
Also vital to FLXON’s growth is the state of Wisconsin. “It is the most significant state for us,” says Sharkey. “They have so much printing and packaging because of the amount of food processed there—dairy, cheese, potatoes, and cranberries.”
FLXON maintains a warehouse and assembly plant for technical support and new product development in Appleton where customers can send used metering blades for detailed analysis and feedback about how they performed on press.
“This process helps us to develop new customized press components that perform better in a particular or unique application. These products include peristaltic pumps to transfer ink more efficiently, high capacity ink filters, and a variety of blade holders,” says Sharkey. “Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Texas also offer good market potential; they are all big food producing states.”
Sharkey is satisfied that his company is located in the best place possible: “Many people don’t know that Charlotte is one of the major centers for flexo and rotogravure printing technology,” he says. “Many support companies, including Flint Group, Sun Chemicals, Harper Corporation of America, ARC, Ceramco, INX, Tesa Tape, and others, are making anilox rolls, ink and graphics operating here in support of the rest of the country.
“Part of the reason for this concentration,” he points out, “is that the manufacture of anilox rolls is very similar to the manufacture of rotary screens that were used in the textile industry.”
FLXON expects future growth to be around 20 percent in 2015 and anticipates doubling current levels within the next five years, according to Sharkey. “We have a clear path; we know where we’re going to go to get it. There is already enough in the pipeline to carry us far,” shares Sharkey.
Their Competitive Edge
FLXON contracts with Specialized Warehouse Service for warehousing and distribution services. Large container-sized shipments arrive by sea every other month. The company also places spot orders for materials to arrive by air. “They have three people dedicated to FLXON,” says Sharkey. “Using contract services allows our team to concentrate efforts on customer service and support.”
FLXON’s relationship with Swedish Development Company is critical to its mission. The specialty steelmaking company is a single-sourced company that manufactures precise products such as the doctor blade. It’s made of strip steel as are razor blades. None of this is manufactured in North America, according to Sharkey.
“Our competitors are buying strip steel—long and flat—but they are buying in a marketplace where they don’t always know where the steel is coming from. Lots of manufacturers are making steel without knowing what the final use will be—Venetian blinds to razor blades,” explains Sharkey.
“Our product is always coming from one source. We know the origin completely and our product is always manufactured to become a doctor blade. The microstructure of the steel has a lot to do with the performance of the product and we’re the only doctor blade provider that speaks about the steel itself.”
Sharkey started FLXON in July of 1995, having spent 19 years serving the flexographic printing industry in the U.S. and Canada. “It was a period of great technical advancements that remarkably improved the printing process,” says Sharkey.
“As the vice president of sales and marketing for an anilox roll manufacturer here in Charlotte, I had the opportunity to work with major printing and packaging companies to help them upgrade their process.”
Sharkey traveled extensively, increasing his exposure in the industry. It was during this time that he discovered the steel ink metering blade being manufactured in Sweden and used by printers in Europe but not yet in North America.
Sharkey is originally from Long Island, N.Y., and met his wife, Carol, who is from Charlotte, while attending college. He first worked in the D.C. area in sales, marketing and advertising for the General Electric Corporation. Then, he moved with his wife to Charlotte to work with Ron Harper & Associates. Following that he worked with Consolidated Graving and then Anilox Rolls Company.
“I realized that I had done all that I could as an employee and that I really did want to start a business,” he says frankly.
Running a successful, growth-oriented business comes with a few challenges. Among them is constantly monitoring and adapting to the foreign exchange rate. FLXON buys bulk container-load quantities and pays in Swedish Krona (SEK). “After a long period of the dollar being down against the SEK, it’s starting to rebound,” acknowledges Sharkey.
The most significant challenge the company has faced is getting through the 2008-2009 recession. “In 2008, six of our top 10 customers closed their doors. In all, we lost 30 percent of our business as a result of closures and reductions in our customers’ business. We didn’t have any layoffs but were not able to fill vacancies.”
The industry went through a major consolidation over the following few years. Says Sharkey, “While it should have been an ideal time for us to gain new business based on our ability to help reduce waste and costs, it was not because customers were faced with layoffs, overworked employees and overall uncertainty.”
“It took us until 2012 to regain the same revenue levels we had achieved in 2008. However, in the process we have increased our customer base, largely by gaining business with higher quality printers who were focused on improved productivity. Making it through has made us a more focused company.”
Sharkey does not see the need for additional locations in the foreseeable future: “We can distribute out of Charlotte to anywhere. We can ship faster out of Charlotte to Guadalajara than if we had a facility in New Mexico.”
Although Sharkey is nearing retirement age, he has no plans to retire anytime soon. But he admits to putting in too many hours and wanting to have a transition plan for his son, Ryan, to take over the business. Ryan currently serves as the company’s area business manager.
Sharkey’s stellar career puts him in a good position to give advice: “People often fail in the first year of business because they are not prepared to start a business.”
He urges entrepreneurs and others who want to go into business for themselves to save up the necessary start-up money and practice due diligence with research, “beyond what you want to do or sell, there is a business side of things.”