How does a company live to age 100 and beyond? At a time when the average lifespan of companies listed on the S&P 500 is only 15 years, what does it take to hit the century mark? One company, Better Packages, Inc. knows. The company, based in Ansonia, CT, develops and markets equipment to dispense water-activated packaging tape. During 2017, the company will be celebrating their century mark.
Philip L. White, Better Packages' CEO, shared some thoughts on corporate longevity that can help businesses of all sizes outlast their competitors:
What’s your big picture advice to companies that want to live to 100?
White: Hire and nurture people who are passionate about the customers, the products and the company. Stay close to your customers and learn from them. Study your industry and adapt to changes. Most important: be vigilant about maintaining the quality of your products.
Talk about the need to hire and nurture employees who are invested in the success of the company.
White: A successful company is built on the commitment of its employees to its long-term success. That means that management and employees have to know their customers’ needs and wants and how to satisfy them.
Managers at Better Packages contribute to our success by constantly scanning the environment for trends and changes. For example, about 20 years ago, our management team identified that ecommerce was going to become an economic force and that it could dramatically impact our business positively. We began positioning our company to maximize the perceived future opportunities. It was our belief, even then, that companies packaging and shipping goods directly to the customer would experience a greater need for productivity. And, while we can’t claim to have forecasted an Amazon-like company, we can say our managers foresaw the need for faster packing and sealing to get packages out the door. Given that our machines dispense the tape that seals those packages, we knew we had to design them for ease of operation and reliability.
For many years, our customers in the paper catalogue sector gave us a window into the future. Our managers learned from them about their search for increased productivity and ease of operation. Our management heard their needs and, we in turn, were able to develop products that were ahead of the curve when things moved beyond paper catalog sales to ecommerce.
We also listen carefully to our employees; the ones on the line who build our machines. This is a flat organization which gives us the ability to stay close to them. Every employee has access to anyone in the company. Employees have significant influence on the improvement of their work process and on the quality of the products during production. For example, any employee - even a temporary employee - has the ability to stop the production line if they see an issue. This is very empowering and fosters passion on all levels.
We’ve made significant product and process improvements based on employees’ input. In fact, we encourage it. We have an ongoing continuous improvement program in which we solicit employee ideas and update them on the implementation of their suggestions. We also reward individual employees when their suggestions result in an improvement.
The outcome is passionate employees who stay. We are proud of the continuity of our workforce. The average tenure of our employees is 16 years.
You also mentioned that by staying close to your customers you learn from their experience. Talk about that.
White: When you stay close to your customers you know what their needs are today and they’ll give you insights that can help you anticipate what they’ll need tomorrow. What they need tomorrow is likely a future need of the marketplace. If you want to achieve corporate longevity, you need to be responsive to that.
This is a matter of trust with your customers that develops over time. The longer you work with your customers, the better you understand their needs. A substantial number of our customers have been with us over 25 years and several have stayed with us over four decades. Smart businesses develop a partnership relationship with their long-term customers and learn from them. As your customers grow, so does your business.
For example, we have worked for over 40 years with one of the country’s oldest traditional catalog company that ships directly to customers. Over the years, they’ve given us terrific feedback that helped enhance the designs of our machines. In turn, these enhancements have helped them keep up with the increasing pace of their shipping needs in terms of productivity and product reliability. When they expanded into ecommerce, our machines were right there helping them again keep up with escalating shipping needs.
Similarly, as more and more companies have transitioned to ecommerce, the utilization of our machines has had to change. Before ecommerce, a customer would be happy being able to pack and seal 30 cartons an hour. Now, that same customer is packing 100 cartons per hour, some up to 24 hours a day. That changes the performance requirements of machines as they are being used constantly. Those machines never get to rest. That means they need to be well-engineered, made with parts from quality vendors that can keep up with evolving specs. And the machines need to be built by quality employees who put those components together. When all that comes together, you get a well-built product that meets the demands of the marketplace. That’s a recipe for success for any company. It allows you to flex to your customers’ needs.
You mentioned staying close to the customer. How do you do that?
White: It starts with the sales process. Ours is a solutions’-based sales process, rather than a sales-based sales process. We don’t go in to visit a customer to make a sale; we go in to help solve a problem. The sale is a by-product of what the customers’ needs are and whether we can we meet those needs. Sometimes we tell the customer we don’t have the right application for their needs. We believe that the best use of our resources is to serve the customers where we are the right fit.
After they become customers, the process doesn’t end. In fact, it’s just beginning. We stay close to them before, during and after the sale.
A few years ago, we made some changes that brought us closer to the customers. We changed our relationships with our distributors, giving us more direct communication with our end users. Before that change, our end users were talking to our distributors and providing them with information about how the machines were being used; what they liked about them and where they’d like to see improvements. The customers would share with the distributors, but that feedback didn’t always reach us. In the past, distributors acted like a layer of filtering. Going direct to the customer allows you to learn things that distributors might not see as interesting enough to pass along.
How has your relationship with your distributors evolved?
White: Distributors are now an extension of us for servicing. Instead of being “in-betweens” they are “go-betweens.” Instead of them being a wall they are now a bridge. Before they would sell and they would place orders with us and we would never know who the end user was.
We are now more involved in lead generation so that end users contact us directly and then we bring distributors into the sales process. We visit those prospects with the distributors. All three parties are now involved – the distributor, the prospect and someone from Better Packages. The relationship has changed for the better. We don’t rely solely on distributors for sales. We generate leads through our direct sales force and on-line lead generation which brings prospect to our website and into the sale process. Now, most of our business comes direct and we pull the distributors in with qualified leads. This has lead our distributor’s efforts to be significantly more productive. Everyone wins.
What would be the most important pieces of advice you could give to companies who want to live to 100?
White: Make sure that the customer gets what the customer wants.
That starts with a sound design and production of the product. Better Packages’ strong market position has always been based on the soundness of its designs, the products’ functionality, and the firm’s serious commitment to quality. The average age of our electric models in use today is over 16 years old and manual models average over 20 years in service. That’s a clear indication of a quality and durable product.
You must constantly recreate your products to meet the changing needs of the marketplace. This company has reinvented itself as a packaging security and systems company because security and a systems approach to packaging is what the market is looking for. As a result, we recently introduced a number of product innovations, including customized printing, automatic measuring devices and ultraviolet security codes. That’s because fears of terrorism and concern about pilferage and product-tampering are real for our customers. We listened and responded to these concerns.
Lastly, make sure everyone who works with and for you - from employees to vendors to distributors - is passionate about the product and what it does. Do what you need to support that effort.
With the right products, the right employees and the ability to learn from your customers, your business just might live to 100 and beyond.
About Better Packages
Better Packages, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Intertape Polymer Group (IPG), is the leading worldwide manufacturer of tabletop water-activated tape (WAT) dispensers used in carton sealing. In 2017, both Better Packages, Inc. and IPG’s Central® brand water-activated tape will be celebrating their 100-year anniversary. Better Packages’ product line includes auto-dispensing electric machines used in high volume fulfillment centers, as well as manual dispensers. For more information, see: www.betterpackages.com and www.itape.com
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