Featured In Issue: CLT.biz Insights 16.10.08
Charlotte City Council approved a $900,000 expenditure of airport funds for a consultant study as Charlotte Douglas International Airport creates a new master plan to guide future development on the land surrounding the airport. The purpose of the study is…Read More »
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Trans Pacific Partnership
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According to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people, or one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of water scarcity. It’s a problem that affects every continent and is expected to be an issue for many societies in coming decades.
Water as an Economic Driver
Catawba-Wateree Water Management
Water Supply Master Plan
The Water/Energy Nexus
It Takes a Region
“In business, the greatest rewards come to those who can adapt to the changing dynamics of a global economy without losing sight of their core values. These are the ethical entrepreneurs—innovators and leaders who understand that maximizing profits and maintaining integrity aren’t mutually exclusive,” maintains Dr. Anthony Negbenebor, dean of one of North Carolina’s rising star schools and insightful thought leader.
A Strong Foundation
Igniting the Mind
Courses of Study
iUndergraduate is the larger school. “For undergraduates, we have what is called the DCP program—degree completion program. It is designed for evening adult students to return to school and finish their degree. Also, for those from community college and working.
Gardner-Webb offers the following undergraduate Bachelor of Science degrees from the Godbold School of Business: Accounting, Business Administration, Computer Information Systems, Economics and Finance, International Business, Marketing and Healthcare Management. They also have various undergraduate offerings through the Broyhill School of Management.
“Hospitality and Tourism Management started this past summer, geared for those individuals who would like to manage hotels and hospitality institutions, those who aspire to be directors of tourism, or those who would like to work in reservation, housing development, and so forth.
“Our Sport Management major, offered jointly by the School of Business and the Department of Physical Education, Wellness, and Sport Studies, has become one of our most popular areas of study. The Sport Management major prepares students for employment by professional athletic organizations and by public or private athletic facilities as coaches, club professionals, or in running athletic facilities.”
A Well-Rounded Education
“You may choose to complete an internship with one of the companies in our area, to study or travel abroad through the university, or to take advantage of our Campus New York program,” describes Negbenebor. “You may also want to pursue a leadership position in student organizations such as Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) or the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) Program.
“A variety of organizations and classes take advantage of Gardner-Webb’s Broyhill Adventure Course, allowing student s to learn and stretch their skills and confidence through climbing and other team-building exercises. All of these opportunities help students develop themselves into the type of individual that is attractive to prospective employers.”
Negbenebor is not one to rest on laurels, however. He believes strongly, “A good liberal education is not just about learning to write well or to think critically, or any other specific outcome or competency. It is about putting students into contexts in which they are exposed to new ideas, asked to think about them, and to talk or write about them. One hopes that students will be engaged and questioning—and even thrilled—by what they learn.
“In addition to mastering the basic competencies, we as educators need to ensure that students will have the intellectual experiences that apply directly to real life experience. And that they are well equipped to make ethical choices and act with integrity.
Celebrating 20 years in the linguistic services business, Choice Translating founders Michelle and Vernon Menard look back as witnesses to a technology revolution that has certainly changed the fundamental ways in which they do business. Yet what has been most critical to them has been to maintain their extreme dedication to accuracy, precision and localized style—something that has been appreciated by the organizations they serve.
Transition to Translating
Vernon invested in Choice Translating. In 1999, Vernon and Michelle moved the firm into the Ben Craig Center, a business incubator now known as PORTAL (Partnership, Outreach, and Research to Accelerate Learning) at UNC Charlotte. The same year they hired their first employee, and Vernon sold his business in 2000.
In the incubator, the couple learned quickly. “They taught us how to get government contracts,” Michelle says. “They taught us how to grow, but not too fast, and about human resources issues and hiring the right people.”
When the pair emerged from the incubator, they’d simplified the name to Choice Translating and adopted a gyroscope logo because, Michelle says, “It is used for navigation and represents stability in motion.”
The business has grown consistently in annual sales and is now the Carolinas’ largest locally-owned linguistics agency. The company is in the top 50 such firms in the United States, out of several thousand.
Michelle smiles as she remembers her original goal of attaining an annual sales number that “required two commas.”
Translating the Difference
Blum has been conceiving, developing and building brilliantly functional and ergonomic home storage solutions for over 60 years. Amazingly smooth, superbly damped motion for doors, pull-outs and lift systems combined with outstanding use of storage space is the Blum hallmark.
Blum-ing in Charlotte
“We began as a two-man team in Hickory during 1978, but by 1979, we moved to the Charlotte area,” Rudisser explains. “Initially, we brought the products in from Austria, warehoused them here, and then started selling. Although the furniture market was strong in the Hickory area, after careful thought, that really wasn’t our target industry. As we expanded, both in the United States and abroad, our eye was on serving kitchen designers and manufacturers as well as cabinetry professionals, with advanced concealed hinges, drawer systems, and seamless lift systems.”
Apprenticeship 2000 A Game Changer
A Win-Win Situation
Just last year, France’s largest privately owned design firm opened a U.S. headquarters in Charlotte. Team Créatif USA, located uptown in the Carillon Building at 227 W. Trade Street, brings with it a powerhouse of branding and package design from working with some of the world’s leading brands.
Growing Into Charlotte
Everything is Possible
The Charlotte Team
Engineering and marketing may not seem the logical combination, but when it comes to mixing things up Michael Cooney does just that.
His company, EngNet, with North American headquarters in Charlotte, is a small powerhouse that provides a range of digital marketing services to the engineering and industrial sectors across North America and the globe through focused strategies that take advantage of minimal costs.
“I received my training as an electrical engineer in South Africa,” explains EngNet CEO Cooney, who graduated in 1994 from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), a world-class research university in Johannesburg, studying in the fields of Electrical Engineering and Heavy Current Electrical.
“Very quickly in starting my career, I realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t really what I want to do. I prefer the marketing side of engineering,’” he remembers.
By that time, he had built up a number of contacts in the industrial and engineering communities. At the same time, the Internet was becoming mainstream. He describes it as a seminal moment.
“‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘This is going to make my job easier. I can just go online and find all the information for these suppliers.’ However, it was still early days for the Web. I knew I could build into this space, but Yahoo! was still just a simple directory.
“So, I created EngNet as a categorized engineering directory to help customers find companies based on the equipment that our clients sold and manufactured.”
Creating an Engineering Network
Cooney decided to pursue EngNet, a portmanteau of ‘engineering’ and ‘network,’ full-time in 1998. But he had to overcome some resistance. The Internet was not as developed in non-Western countries at the time, and many industrial clients were reluctant to get involved. As a result, Cooney decided to take his operation outside of Johannesburg and aim for larger markets in the United Kingdom.
“I was in the U.K. for about six years, and I was getting U.K. clients, but at the same time, I was getting more and more companies from the United States that wanted to reach our audience,” he describes. “They liked our positioning with Google, and we recognized the opportunity provided by North American companies and decided to expand operations to the U.S.
“We chose Charlotte because we already had many companies as clients in the Charlotte region, including automation companies. And you simply can’t beat the weather here. In addition, the educational institutions are amazing.”
Unfortunately, while Cooney was starting up and running the U.K. division of EngNet, the South African office began to see declines. The company as a whole had good revenue with virtually zero costs, but it had hit a plateau in terms of bringing in new clients or continuing growth based on its directory subscription services.
Cooney’s solution: “About 2004, my brother joined me. He is a mechanical engineer, and he came on as a partner. Now my brother and I are equal partners in the South African office. He’s taken the reins and grown the revenue 20 times since coming on.”
While the business directory is still one of its strongest selling points across all three offices, Cooney found that competition within the North American market was stronger than any he had faced before. As a result, he decided that a “pivot” in strategy was required.
“The goal of the company remained the same: matching clients with customers in the engineering and industrial markets,” Cooney explains, “but as Google was becoming the 800-pound gorilla in the room, change was needed.
“Google traffic eventually rose to the top of referrals, so we had to contend with that. We work with hundreds of companies, and it’s always Google at number one when it comes to incoming referrals. So, if you do any type of directory advertising, you’ll see Google is number one, if you do AdWords, that’s number two, then Yahoo! and Bing. Then, down around number seven or eight, you’ll start to see directories come in,” he laments.
As a result of this trend, Cooney and EngNet began to put more emphasis on offering customers other solutions outside of the directory, eventually breaking the company into two additional parts: EngNet Design Group and Industry Tap.
“So, to pivot, we had to be SEO AdWords specialists. We were doing that already for our sites, but our clients were seeking Google traction. We began getting more and more requests asking if we could do that for them or do their web design.”
Adding Digital Marketing and Industry News
Today, in addition to maintaining an extensive directory for engineering professionals, EngNet offers a digital marketing division as well as an industry news site that incorporates social media. The company created Industry Tap out of a need for social media engagement, and the effort has brought in tens of thousands of “likes” and over a hundred thousand new followers.
However, EngNet was not as successful in gaining a social media following. Cooney explains, “What we tried is working with our large email database though our EngNet network, about 150,000 email addresses.
“By mistake, we included an article that took a different approach. Instead of talking about a product, we talked about how the product solved a problem. We wrote on that and we got three times the engagement compared to any other posts. So, we began to realize, if we write engaging stuff in a story format, we’re going to get much better results.”
After focusing on more premium content through the company’s newsletters, with an even split on advertising and content, EngNet saw engagement grow three to five times higher. As a result, Cooney decided to create and implement Industry Tap in order to tackle the social media world.
Today, Industry Tap is an EngNet property that concentrates on providing useful, entertaining and educational news to the engineering and industrial industries, currently boasting over 100,000 followers on social media.
“At different times of the year, I’m focusing on different things depending on the client,” describes Cooney. “Once we reach a certain level, we need to think about where we need to go next.
“A big thing that I’m involved with recently is tracking. We have a client that was getting 20 to 30 leads a month and they are now getting 280 to 300 leads a month as a result.”
Indeed, tracking is one of the things that has made EngNet as successful as it is in Charlotte and around the world. Cooney is so focused on providing results that he has taken to tracking not only hits on a website, but also tracking phone calls based on AdWord campaigns and beyond.
From there, he analyzes which leads really mean anything and which ones fall away. As a result, he and EngNet are able to offer meaningful statistics that display for clients exactly where return on investment is located.
Cooney grins, “These days, EngNet is focused more on lead generation, but more specifically, we’re concerned with quality lead generation, not just quantity. The company still respects Google’s ranking system, but we realize that Google is not the be-all and end-all of search engine marketing when it comes to bringing in new leads.”
He continues, “A big part of my passion is derived from the fact that I come from an engineering background. But mainly it’s connected with assisting people in finding the products and services they need. I love seeing the results, both for our clients and for their customers.
“I know that so many industrial clients have been burned, and it’s not because of the marketing agencies they use, but because those agencies don’t understand the industry. I do, and my experience and expertise allows EngNet to get the results our clients need and deserve.”
While EngNet faces larger competitors, Cooney feels that the company’s small size allows it to be more flexible with the rules and more nimble in adjusting to changing tides. The company’s directory is designed to be easy to navigate, and Cooney states that he is focused on building personal relationships with each client, whether they need EngNet’s directory, EngNet Design, or Industry Tap. Additionally, EngNet’s social media following is currently the largest when compared to larger engineering directories, and it’s growing each day.
EngNet 2.0 Content Marketing
“In the past, you’d promote yourself,” Cooney says, “but now we’re more focused on building brand loyalty through providing engaging and interesting content that matters to those in the industry. It’s all about solid content marketing, and that keeps clients interested and coming back. Our target clients are global, and while we focus on North America here in Charlotte, we offer the ability to geo-target across the globe. We try to reach everyone.”
While it’s Cooney’s view that Google will continue to dominate the search marketplace, he also believes that things are more streamlined now. In the past, it almost seemed as though the Internet was the Wild West of digital real estate; low costs and an abundant supply. Today, however, online marketers are finding that digital real estate is in short supply and costs continue to rise, all while competition is a larger issue. While this may present a problem to many online marketers, Cooney is confident.
“I think SEO remains important. Also, having real, quality content—having real, quality user engagement—is going to win the day. The times of winging it on your content are over. The guys who really put money into content, long-term, those guys are going to win,” says Cooney.
“Social media and e-commerce are growing tremendously as well, and user flow, making things totally streamlined…that’s what’s on the horizon. Every website, the easier you can make it, the more engaging it is, those are the things to focus on right now across every industry that has an online presence. There is going to be a lot of time spent analyzing in order to give a better user experience, and the companies that invest in that are the ones that are going to win.”
Adding to that, Cooney also feels that online tools will play a major role in changing the way online marketing works. Today, a large number of tools exists that offer users the ability to access very narrow parts of data, and these tools operate very effectively and efficiently.
“There are so many tools available today for checking backlinks or for putting in a simple URL and seeing who links to you and the power of those links. I find it interesting, but not all companies are using such tools, and they are only as good as how you use them,” continues Cooney.
“The cloud is also important as it is opening up communication across a wide variety of marketing channels in different industries. And this applies to small and enterprise businesses as small businesses today now have access to enterprise-level tools.”
However, the potential for problems in technology exists as Cooney mentions the plateau effect, a situation through which a client may become conditioned to seeing consistent growth through digital means.
“Clients can become accustomed to growth in positions and traffic,” he says, “but we want to be measured by leads and sales, not gimmicks. We want to be measured by amount of dollars we bring through the door.
“I see us growing, and what we do isn’t going to change: we’re connecting industrial and engineering suppliers with customers. However, what is going to change is how we do that.
“We’re using more premium content. We’re also taking a look at breaking into specialized fields,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re going to make the process clearer so that clients can see the benefit that is being received from our services, and as time goes on, we expect to provide clients with technologies that are even more transparent, assisting in growth not only to EngNet, but also to those who rely on our team.”
Civil engineers don’t stand out at a construction site. They usually play a supporting role to the architects and general contractors designing the project. However, one Charlotte civil engineering firm is breaking that stereotype: Carlton Burton is a hands-on problem solver who assumes an active leadership role in his firm’s projects.
“Site work is the largest variable cost in a project,” says Burton, president and founder of Burton Engineering Associates located in the SouthPark area. “Construction project managers can calculate the costs of the building and land acquisition pretty accurately.
“What is unknown is the cost of preparing the site,” he continues. “Preparing the subsurface conditions and storm water drainage—all the earthwork—it varies from location to location.”
Having a Passion
Burton Engineering Associates is the “problem solver” for clients’ construction projects according to Greg Welsh, a civil engineer who joined the firm last year. He explains that when prospects are considering sites, the two largest unknowns are the site development costs and the potential tax incentives. So from that perspective, each project has at least two essential players: a civil engineer and an attorney.
“When a client is considering various sites,” describes Burton, “we can quickly and accurately prepare building and site layout scenarios, preliminary grading, and infrastructure concepts which are then used for pricing. We look at what our clients want and figure out how to create something out of nothing.”
He recalls a recent meeting with a client who asked him how he would envision a site development. He says he grabbed a marker and sheet of paper and sketched out his site plans.
“Our client was surprised that I could draw it out for him—model it and show him in real terms what it would look like,” he says, noting that a good civil engineer has to be able to show what a plan will look like and why it is relevant and economical to build.
“He was amazed that when the project was completed, it looked like my drawing and was within less than a foot of my dimensions,” Burton laughs.
“When we join the team, it becomes as much our project—and we take ownership of it. We have a passion for what we do,” he says earnestly.
“Our role is pretty integral to the project,” confirms Welsh. “We go beyond the project specifications. We want to understand our client’s business model.”
The business had a humble start in 1992. Burton, a civil engineering graduate of UNC Charlotte, had worked for a few firms and “got the itch” to start his own company and do better work. He started working out of his home. When his wife nixed the idea of getting a copier delivered to the home, he decided to sublet a 10 foot by 10 foot space, or as Burton describes, an “old break room with orange shag carpet.”
“I started with one big client in commercial development and began working my contacts in the community,” he remembers, reaching out to developers and architects. “I began building up my project lists and never looked back.”
Today, Burton Engineering Associates has a history of partnering on some of the largest projects in Charlotte. Work has expanded into the Piedmont, to South Carolina and Virginia. Burton and his team of 18 employees provide expert advice to their clients.
Welsh, who leads Burton Engineering Associates’ business development, helps direct its 30-plus ongoing projects which include retail centers and standalone; office buildings and office parks; industrial warehouse, distribution and manufacturing; health care facilities; single and multi-family residential developments; and K-12 education.
One common core component in a company’s decision to locate to the Carolinas is how long it will take to get the business up and running, says Welsh. Burton Engineering Associates partners with developers and contractors using a design-build, rather than a design-bid-build project delivery model.
Comments Burton, “Most general contractors now want to get a project constructed in six to eight months, rather than the typical 12-month time frame, and we understand scheduling to the point where we can get that done.”
Civil engineering includes the permitting process, which can be very lengthy, says Welsh; the sooner the firm can get involved with the project, the better. Burton Engineering Associate’s clients rely on the firm’s experience and established relationships with state and local officials and economic development offices to help them navigate the permitting process.
Burton cites his firm’s knowledge of “site readiness” as an additional benefit for clients.
“We’ve been working around this area long enough that we know most of the available sites,” Burton acknowledges, adding he has a library of data on different sites. “We can advise clients about site features like wetlands and clay deposits, and help them locate sites that can be cleared and graded quickly.”
“When we start the civil engineering on a prospective site, we like to get a jump on the project,” he continues. “We can do a preliminary site evaluation, pull grading permits early, and find a way to work around the time constraints and meet the schedule.”
Additionally, Burton believes in continuing to participate throughout the project.
“We understand the cost implications of different design decisions and constructability that is often overlooked,” he remarks. “We like to work as a team with our contractors. We might suggest a second look at plans to see if the design could be altered to help in the flow of construction.”
Another way Burton Engineering Associates works faster on jobs is by using its own in-house surveying, Foresite Surveying, something added about 10 years ago to the firm’s capabilities.
Burton Engineering Associates has been an integral partner in one of Charlotte’s well-known office parks, Whitehall Corporate Center, a 700-acre community on Arrowood Road. Burton partnered with American Asset Corporation on five of the six mid-rise office buildings, including the standout 25-foot sculpture Metalmorphosis that debuted in 2007. Burton Engineering Associates did the site design for Buildings II through VI.
Called one of the “seven wonders of Charlotte” by local media sources, Metalmorphosis is a 14-ton stainless steel motorized head created by Czech artist David Cerný. It sits in a reflecting pool and different sections of the head rotate, forming clusters of new shapes. When all the facial features line up, the sculpture spits out water.
“That piece set all the parameters for the project,” recalls Burton. “The actual artwork was top secret—not to be viewed in any form until the unveiling. All we knew was the size of the artwork and that it would be set in water.
“We had to figure out how to prepare the site to accommodate this ‘unknown’ addition, including all the preliminary work down to the design of the building.
“A steel frame was built around the project site and kept it covered,” says Burton. “When the big reveal happened as part of the opening of the office park, it was complete with an Oktoberfest party with bands, dancing girls, and lots of German beer.”
Another well-known office project is the Microsoft Corporate Center in Charlotte. Completed in 1998, it includes two four-story buildings housing Microsoft’s East Coast call center, totaling 430,000 square feet of office space, and two parking garages. Burton Engineering Associates provided the site planning and engineering.
A Can-Do Attitude
Business was booming for Burton Engineering from the 1990s to the mid-2000 years. Its 50-plus office buildings and parks included Edgewater Corporate Center, a 90-acre office park, and the HSBC Eastern U.S. headquarters, both in Lancaster, S.C.
With 60-plus industrial, warehouse and manufacturing projects, work included the Clearwater Paper Company in Shelby, the Saddlecreek Distribution Center in Harrisburg, Dixon Valve’s Phase 1 and II in the Gaston Technology Park and the Lenovo Distribution Facility in Greensboro.
A major expansion project for an ER addition at Spartanburg Hospital in S.C. included the establishment of a branch office there to serve the multi-year project. Add to that another 90-plus single and multi-family residential developments and 30-plus K-12 education projects.
“It was the great boom in Charlotte and certain sectors overbuilt,” admits Burton. “They did it because they could; it happens in every economic cycle.”
But then the great recession hit. Business slowed dramatically. Burton Engineering Associates concentrated on standalone retail projects, including more than 30 Family Dollar stores in three states.
Gradually, business started to turn around.
“The current forecast for Charlotte is tremendous,” says Welsh. “In mid-2014 there was an accelerated business pick-up in Charlotte, and where’s there’s growth there’s a need for civil engineers.”
Recent Burton Engineering Associates projects include White Oak Crossing, a 710,000-square-foot retail center located at Interstate 40 and Highway 70 in Garner, N.C., that includes BJ’s Wholesale Club, Kohl’s Department Store, Pet Smart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Pier 1 Imports, Rack Room Shoes, Target, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Party City, Staples and Michael’s.
Burton Engineering Associates is also doing site design and permitting services for the FedEx Smart Post 300,000-square-foot distribution facility located in Concord, along with new public roads and improvements to International Drive that is scheduled for completion midyear.
Agility Systems, a Rowan County, 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility accelerated project is on track for completion in the next few months.
The recently announced Movement Mortgage Headquarters in Lancaster County is currently in design as well.
“There’s so much business to be had in our area,” says Burton, who expects to continue to concentrate on projects in the Piedmont region. “It’s measured, healthy growth—there’s a sustained market for projects, including spec buildings, which we haven’t seen in several years.”
With the economic cycle set to boom, Burton Engineering Associates is continuing to expand.
“We’ve been growing with good-quality people,” says Burton. “I had to bet on the future—and I knew that during the last economic upturn (early 2000s), it was hard to find good qualified people.”
“We continue to look for new, bright engineers who can communicate well. We’re no longer the engineers that sit in the corner and design. Now we’re out with the clients, going to meetings and being constantly involved in the project design,” acknowledges Welsh.
“We have a great energy level at the firm,” he adds. “We’re the small firm with the can-do attitude.”
Expect Burton Engineering Associates to continue to play a leading role.
“I’ve managed to keep my hands in engineering throughout my career,” says Carlton. “I enjoy the conceptual piece of my work. Every job is different and I want to be involved from the start to the finish.”
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.”