Bill: (00:11) Glad to be here.
Diana: 00:12 Good! Well, I thought we would start by you telling me a little bit about Grand Rapids Label and the products that you provide.
Bill: (00:18) Sure. We are a 135-year-old family business, obviously. [The] fourth generation, so I represent the fourth generation to run the business. We are currently getting the fifth generation into the business. We do… we make labels for difficult applications; pressure sensitive labels, durable labels, is really what our business is. [We work with] the automotive industry, the appliance industry. Basically, if you want a label that is going to last a long, long time, or as we say it “last longer than the product that it’s applied to”, that’s what we do.
Diana: (00:46) Ok. Tell us a little bit about the history [of the business]. You said what year you were founded in?
Bill: (00:51) 1884 is when we were officially incorporated. That’s where we go [off from]. This year is 135 years. We tend to go off that. We can trace the history back farther, we have been located in Grand Rapids that entire time. So, we started out downtown Grand Rapids, we were just a small print shop. In fact, if you go to the [Grand Rapids] Public Museum in the 1900 streetscape, that’s very much what our print shop was like.
Diana: (01:16) Oh.
Bill: (01:17) In fact, some of the equipment that is there is stuff that was donated from our shop years ago.
Diana: (01:21) I never knew that.
Bill: (01:22) Yeah.
Diana: (01:22) That’s great.
Bill: (01:22) So, we did books, posters, train schedules, in fact, we have a replica of a poster that is in the library of congress that is of a poster for Harry Houdini coming to Grand Rapids. So, way back when we printed in the 1890s.
Diana: (01:37) Ok.
Bill: (01:37) Yeah! So, we can go back a little bit farther, but we really say it’s 1884, so 135 years.
Diana: (01:42) So obviously you have changed a lot over that time, let’s look even at the last 50 years with the advent of technology and different things that have happened; how have you changed both size wise and technology wise over the last 50 years?
Bill: (01:54) As we started doing the schedules for the trains, we started in the early 1900s doing labels, in a sense. They were glue-applied labels, or they were heat sealed labels for the insurance industry [or] for the automotive industry, [or] the furniture industry that was thriving in Grand Rapids. We then transitioned in the 1950s, so about 65 years ago, 67 years ago, into pressure sensitive labels. That was a big technological change within our industry where you could actually have peel and stick labels, that’s when that whole thing was invented. So, we started getting into that business back then and have been doing labels ever since.
Now, where I talk about the durable labels, what we focus on and what has been different for us, we look at it and say that anyone can print the top side of the label and make it look nice. We focus on the adhesive and the construction. So, that’s where the technology comes in. We do things that are different than the industry, we can focus on the adhesive, focus on the underside. So, there’s a lot of technological advances that we have made, a lot of patents that we have held over the years for different constructions and different things that we have been able to do. So, that’s where that has happened. Now, of course, in our industry in the last 30 years we have started to see some real advancements from where the industry is going from being more of an art form, which is what it has been over the years, it’s now much more of a science.
Diana: (03:18) Ok.
Bill: (03:19) So, the press technology is a lot different. The advent of Servos on the presses, the advent of digital printing. We have been in digital printing for over 20 years now, we are in fact one of the first, we are the second company in North America to get into digital printing. Which is very much more of a science than it is an art. That’s a big thing that we have done from the printing perspective, then the same thing on the adhesive side where we are much more developed in the formulation of adhesives for specific applications.
Diana: (03:48) Now, you mentioned automotive. Are you doing international business, or is most of your work here in the US?
Bill: (03:53) We do both.
Diana: (03:53) Ok.
Bill: (03:55) The nature of our product is that most people will do things locally, or closer to where they are. The interesting thing for us is that over 75% of our business is actually done outside the state of Michigan.
Diana: (04:06) Oh!
Bill: (04:07) And with that, actually for certain customers, we are shipping worldwide.
Diana: (04:11) Ok.
Bill: (04:12) So, as we are working with different clients in different areas, we have one automotive manufacturer in particular where we are shipping to over 50 locations. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, all the different countries that are all over the place, as well as South America, North America, every continent.
Diana: (04:31) Do you get to travel there?
Bill: (04:32) No.
Diana: (04:33) Ok. [Laughs] Do you want to travel there?
Bill: (04:36) It’d be fun! It isn’t exactly enough that we are worried about. We are talking about a couple of different automotive suppliers or automotive manufacturing locations over there, so it’s not like we are shipping a major portion of our business [internationally]. About 10% of what we ship is going internationally. So, it’s a small portion, but it’s kind of fun to be able to say it.
Diana: (04:54) But most of the printing is done here in Grand Rapids?
Bill: (04:57) All the printing is done in Grand Rapids.
Diana: (04:58) All the printing is done here in Grand Rapids, at that location.
Bill: (05:00) One location in Grand Rapids, and we have been like I said, we have been in Grand Rapids our entire existence, so we do all of our printing here and ship it.
Diana: (05:08) And how many employees?
Bill: (05:10) About 80 employees.
Diana: (05:11) Ok. And has that stayed pretty consistent, or has there been a lot of growth?
Bill: (05:15) Ups and downs. Like everyone else during the downturn in ’08 and ’09, we had to scale back the organization. We have become much more lean as we have gone forwards. We are down from our high of 110 employees back in the early 2000s and we have dropped down to about 70 employees, and we have actually doubled our size since the downturn and have only added about 10 employees.
Diana: (05:40) Ok.
Bill: (05:40) So, we have become much more efficient in how we are operating.
Diana: (05:43) Right! Right. Well, good. I want to switch gears a little bit because you come from an interesting family history. From what I understand, you grew up with three family businesses, Grand Rapids Label, Paragon D&E, and Cascade Engineering. Could you just tell us a brief history about these companies and how they fit into your family?
Bill: (06:01) Well, there is actually another family business in there as well, Crosby and Henry Insurance, I can’t leave that one out. Which [that] is 150+-year-old insurance, family insurance industry. It’d be easier if this was a video and we had a whiteboard and we could kind of diagram the whole thing out… [laughs]
Diana: (06:15) [Laughs]
Bill: (06:17) Just to keep it simple, my family, my mom, and dad when they got together was the bringing together of two families who had a fair amount of family business background in them. Grand Rapids Label was a company that was founded by my great-great-uncle, so my great-great-grandfathers brother founded the business and passed it down. My dad ran that business when I was growing up. Paragon next, Paragon was a company that was bought by my grandfather about 70 years ago, it’s actually now run by my brother.
Diana: (06:54) Was that on your mother’s side then?
Bill: (06:56) That was on my mother’s side.
Diana: (06:57) Ok.
Bill: (06:57) So, on my father’s side, his sister married Jim Crosby, which is Crosby and Henry Insurance, so my dad has two siblings, and the three of them are owners within Grand Rapids Label… if this is making sense so far.
Diana: (07:11) I need a diagram. [laughs]
Bill: (07:12) Yes! So then, on my mom’s side of the family, it is my mom and her brother is Fred Keller, who founded Cascade Engineering, so that’s a family business. That’s where Cascade Engineering comes in. Now, my family has no real correlation with Cascade Engineering, but yet, together, the Keller family and the Muir family own Paragon Die. The Allen’s and the Crosby’s and the Muir’s, the three families, then own Grand Rapids Label. Those three families don’t have any sort of affiliation with Paragon or Cascade if that makes sense.
Diana: (07:45) That does make sense, it does make sense. So, as you’re growing up, you’re 22 years old, you’re graduating from college… how did you make a decision on where to go? What were some of the discussions and how did you decide what path to take?
Bill: (07:58) Well, the interesting perspective, the first decisions isn’t really what company are you going to work for, it’s are you going to work for a family business, to begin with?
Diana: (08:06) Mhm.
Bill: (08:07) I think that’s the more important one, it was for me. I think it was not a matter of if I was going to go into business, I always knew growing up. I think it goes back to that growing up time, I saw all of my male role-models in my life all ran family businesses, for the most part. I saw business differently. I saw business as being able to work together with family, so I always was intrigued by what I saw. That’s really what made the decision for me to want to go into business in the first place. If that makes sense.
Diana: (08:36) When did you make that decision, at what age did you decide to come back and work for a family business?
Bill: (08:40) Well, I started working for the business right out of college. A little bit based upon the timing in terms of when I graduated from college, in the early ’90s it was not a great time to graduate from college, and there weren’t a lot of jobs available.
Diana: (08:53) I remember that well. [laughs]
Bill: (08:54) It was one of those things that I tried to look in other areas, and nothing seemed to fit, and it was at that point that I came back. I came back on a very short stint, I was going to work at the company for 2-3 years, get some experience, and go on from there to do something else. We still feel, I think within the family, that it is important to cut your teeth at other organizations and spend time elsewhere, but part of what happened is I came into the business into a training program and worked on different areas. It really allowed us to be able to go forward, and it made sense for me to stay within the business at that point.
Diana: (09:29) Can you tell us a little bit about your progress through the company? Where you started when you first came in and how you worked your way up?
Bill: (09:35) Sure. So, I started in a management training program, one of my cousins and I started together. So, we came into the business and we did a little bit of everything at that point. For me, it was usually 2-3 months at a time. Spend some time in the estimating area, customer service, accounting, manufacturing, operations, the lab. Working on special projects, we were very much in the lean stuff now, but I was doing a lot of those projects. We don’t really call it lean or the kaizen events that we do now, but we were doing a number of those types of things. Looking at different areas, looking at ways to streamline and making recommendations. All the while trying to figure out the pros and cons, what the strengths are that we had within the industry. From there, after three years, I then got into the sales area for the company. One of my stints was in the sales arena. So, I spent some time in sales.
I actually moved down, my wife and I when we first got married, we moved down to Atlanta and lived down there for six years selling for the business, for Grand Rapids Label. That was an important part for me. It really became that time that I could be away from the business, which was really important to do to be able to cut my teeth and be able to have the success that I was able to have down there while selling, before ultimately moving back to Grand Rapids and then getting onto the management ladder. From there, I got into some marketing, ultimately sales management area overseeing some accounts that I had had when I was in Atlanta, the people that had taken my place. Then, moving into operations and then was a rather quick from operations into the ultimate leadership of the organization when my father passed away back in 2008.
Diana: (11:15) So, I know that you have college-aged children. You have one, I believe in college-
Bill: (11:19) I do.
Diana: (11:19) -and one on the way.
Bill: (11:20) One almost there!
Diana: (11:21) And then one who’s a freshman?
Bill: (11:23) Freshman in high school, yep. So, a senior in high school and a freshman in high school.
Diana: (11:26) What kind of things are you doing to groom them for the family business? What resources are you using, what conversations are you having? How are you preparing them for making these decisions?
Bill: (11:34) So, we’ve been very conscious in terms of how we work with our family. It’s not just my family, it becomes the other two families in the business, the two ownership families, the Allen family and the Crosby family. As we work with that fifth generation, there’s three of us that work in the business now, so I have two cousins that I’m working with. It just happens to be that one from each family is involved in the business. Our perspective is that we are running the business for the fifth generation. We are not looking to capitalize on it and sell it and get rid of it, we are looking to work towards the next generation. We’ve had to become very conscious about how we bring up the next generation.
So, as we look at the fifth generation, there are fifteen members of the fifth generation. It really becomes the questions that we are starting to bring that next generation up. It works with my kids, but it also works with the others that are not my kids. We want to make sure that they want to come to the business. From that perspective, it’s not a matter of, “You have to work in the business” or “you have to come work for the business”. What’s interesting is I have a son and two daughters; my son is the oldest. I get the question a lot of “Oh, so is your son coming into the business?” or “What’s he going to do?”. I say, “I don’t know if he’s going to come into the business”. Right now, he is wanting to go into the medical field and wants to be a nurse. The question I always get, which is funny to me, is “Oh, are you ok with that? With him not going in the family business?” I look at him and say “Well, I have two daughters too”.
Diana: (12:55) [Laughs]
Bill: (12:57) So, it doesn’t have to be that my son is the one coming into the business!
Diana: (12:59) [There are] two other potential leaders.
Bill: (13:00) I have two other potential leaders! In fact, we have fifteen potential leaders in the next generation.
Diana: (13:05) Right.
Bill: (13:05) So, our perspective is that we want to make sure that we work with them so that they are interested in the business. We get together twice a year, we talk with the next generation about the business. We have learned a lot over the years from the Family Business Alliance. By attending the events, it’s been really helpful for us to be able to understand what are the best practices within the family. That is why we do the two meetings a year.
One of the things that we do is with all the financials and all of the board minutes and whatnot, we have the spouses that come into the family are included in that distribution. It’s not a matter of us trying to keep it secretive from the spouses. In the case of my kids, they are spending more time with my wife than they are with me, so if she has a better understanding of the business and a better perspective of the business, she is going to speak more favorably of the business as a positive thing.
Diana: (13:58) Mhm.
Bill: (13:59) If dad does have to travel, if dad is working late, they don’t look at the family business as negative and say “Oh, it just keeps dad away from the family”. My wife Cathy has a really good understanding of what’s going on. We do that with all of the spouses coming into the business from all of the shareholders. That’s one of the things that we do there.
Diana: (14:17) So, you do family council meetings then with all of the interested persons?
Bill: (14:20) They’re included in our board, and they are welcome to attend our board meetings if they want. They get the board packet that gets all of the information. Twice a year we’re getting together as a large group, those that can. Once at Christmas and once around our July board meeting to be able to talk about the business, but also just to talk and be together as a family. One of the things we’ve found, for us all growing up together, the cousin generation, we have had some things that have pared down the ownership over the years.
We truly are in a cousin generation. We all grew up with a family cottage out on Lake Michigan together, we all know each other very well, and yet what we have found out of the fifteen of the next generation, the ages are close to 30 down to 3. It’s a wide range of ages, a wide range of locations, anywhere from California to New York in terms of where they are located. We found out that because we knew each other, but they didn’t really know each other. When we first got together in 2012, one of the first things that we realized was, they have no idea who these other kids are that are here, even though they are related to them and they all have the common business that they are all a part of.
Diana: (15:27) And they may be running the business together in the future.
Bill: (15:28) And they may be running the business together in the future! But, for now, they just don’t know each other. We realized the first thing we had to do is actually get them to know each other. SO, family gatherings in the summer, family gatherings at Christmas for those who can make it. It has been really helpful to at least get them to at least know who each other is. We also have a plan that says if they want to work in the business, they can come [to] work in the business when they are old enough. But we also have a perspective too that when they do come work in the business they are going to do the grungiest, crappiest job we can find for them. Now, some people think that’s because I had the crappiest job or one of the crappiest jobs at the time!
Diana: (16:07) [Laughs] My husband did too!
Bill: (16:08) It’s always that way! It is. But that’s by design too. We want them. It’s interesting, we have an employee who has been with us for over 50 years. He works out in the plant and he remembers when I was out there getting dirty and grungy and everything else, so he looks at it and he will still remember and remind me of that. He knows that I am willing to get dirty, so it makes it a completely different when I am asking him to do something, or others to do something.
Diana: (16:36) Right.
Bill: (16:36) There’s that history of the long-term employees who see that. So, it is by design. It’s kind of funny, there are always these different perspectives and different things that will happen. There are always the stories I will get when I am on the platform and they’ll come up to me and say “So, your son…” and I’m like, “Oh no, what happened this time?” Or something like that. You get those stories. Which are great! I think that’s a good perspective to have those things happen. We realized back when we made this conscious effort that we needed to get them to know each other.
We started including the spouses in the information so that they know what’s going on with the business so there’s a better understanding there. We have done our board of directors in 2007 when I started to take over one of the things we did was change our board of directors. We went from, it was my dad and his sisters and spouses, that was the board. A good, great, because of the other family business involvement there was a lot of great insights on the board, but we have also brought in outside directors. That’s been a real big plus for us as well. We are taking a lot of things we have learned from FBA over the years to heart and it’s really made a big difference for us as an organization.
Diana: (17:47) Well, I love that. It’s very clear that the values are important to you and the work ethic is important to you.
Bill: (17:51) Yep.
Diana: (17:52) Getting rid of any entitlement, you’re going to earn your keep if you are coming back! So, I want to talk a little bit about FBA and thank you for the plug. So, you just stepped down as our chair.
Bill: (18:02) I did.
Diana: (18:03) We were very fortunate to have you for six years, which was wonderful. Can you tell us a little bit about why you got involved with the board of FBA, and some of your fondest things that have happened over the last couple of year, changed that have taken place?
Bill: (18:16) Sure! It really was an easy decision back when I was asked to join the board. I grew up in a family that has been involved in the community in various ways, the previous generation always set an example for us to be able to want to give back. We always view ourselves as being very fortunate for what we do have, and to be able to give back this was natural for me to be able to do that. I’m very passionate about family businesses. I think that family businesses are very critical to our economy and what we do. There is so much more that we do, I could go into stories, I know people who have sold their business and the experiences and the way that the employees are treated after the fact just aren’t the same as the way that they were beforehand.
So, I think that it’s an important part of it. We take that to heart at the company. We try to treat people very well and provide that family atmosphere. When they come in, I always say welcome to the family, because they are becoming part of the family. I think there’s a passion about family businesses and all of the positives that they can do. That is why I wanted to get involved when I was first asked to be on the board. Again, kind of the next step of stepping into the role of chair, I think it was a fun ride. It was great to be able to do, I really enjoyed it.
To me, it’s cool to be able to see and to have seen over the years the people that come to the events. What I always love is when you can invite someone to an event for the first time. They come, and you realize that we try to do things well, but we don’t do things perfect… nobody does. When you invite somebody, and they come to the meeting and walk away, they are just so enthused and so charged, it’s really cool to see. That’s something I have really enjoyed as a board member, but also just as a member of the FBA.
Diana: (20:00) Thank so much for joining us today-
Bill: (20:03) Your welcome!
Diana: (20:03) -and sharing your experiences. I learned a couple [of] new things that I didn’t know about! Very interesting history. I was interested when you talked about the employees being family because you mentioned someone who has been there for fifty years.
Bill: (20:14) Right.
Diana: (20:14) I think that that’s really exciting that you are in the fifth generation. Which, statistically, is very rare.
Bill: (20:20) Very rare, yep!
Diana: (20:20) I think they say about three or four percent or something.
Bill: (20:23) Yeah, it’s like one percent make it to the fourth generation.
Diana: (20:26) Yeah!
Bill: (20:26) It’s kind of funny, we have a thing in our business, they always talk about the life cycle of the family business. The first generation they found the business, the second generation comes in and they grow the business, there does become this entitlement that I think happens in some respects in the third generation, so the third generation tends to run it into the ground. Our joke with the third generation is that in the fourth generation we blame the third generation for what they did.
Diana: (20:50) [Laughs]
Bill: (20:51) But the good part for us, is that our third generation was very successful in what they did.
Diana: (20:56) Good.
Bill: (20:56) It allows us to be able to build upon it. The family is really what has kept us together for all this time.
Diana: (21:03) It’s a testament to the values of your family, it is a testament to what you find important. Getting the cousins to know each other, respecting the people as you go through. I think that shows through in the success of your company.
Bill: (21:14) Well, I appreciate that. It’s fun! It’s a challenge, as we also talk about in regards to family, like family, you don’t always get along all the time. There are times where you don’t necessarily agree on everything, and that’s ok. But that’s part of how we try to operate as a company and as a business and as a family. That’s what makes it important. It’s fun. We enjoy it. FBA has been a great organization too.
Diana: (21:41) Wonderful. Well thank you very much for joining us, it was fun talking with you.
Bill: (21:44) Thank you.