Boxing Match

Ideal, one of the largest independent corrugated box companies in the United States, looks a lot different today than it did just five years ago. There are still huge corrugators turning two-ton rolls of paper into boxes. There are still huge drums of pigments. There are still huge die cutters ready to cut tens of thousands of boxes daily.

Where Ideal has changed is in how it presents itself to a customer base that is a veritable “who’s who” in consumer packaged goods, from hot new products like 5-Hour Energy to established brands like Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Hallmark. Today, Ideal is winning new business and retaining current customers with more than just its manufacturing prowess; it is growing as a result of its investment in branding and design expertise.

Go to Where They Ain’t

A little before Ideal was founded in the 1920s, Hall of Fame baseball player Wee Willie Keeler was asked the secret to his hitting success. His answer? “Keep your eye clear, and hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

That was the goal of a just-completed five-year strategic plan launched by brothers Scott and Yale Eisen, fourth-generation co-managers of this almost 90-year old family business. Operating a stone’s throw from Midway Airport on Chicago’s southwest side, the Eisen brothers saw the writing on the wall when they joined the family business after years in the dynamic world of dot-com entrepreneurship.

“Shrinking margins happen to everyone eventually, and the way to combat them is to offer your customers something no one else can provide,” said Yale Eisen, who oversees operations for Ideal. “We took a close look at our customers and their operations, and it was clear that if we brought design and branding expertise in-house, we could make their lives easier, lowering costs while speeding time to market.”

Repositioning Works

The Eisens believe the repositioning has been successful because it is based on real substance, not marketing-speak. Instead of simply rolling out a new tagline or website, they first recruited a team of top-flight graphic designers and structural engineers to staff an internal branding agency whose services are offered to customers at no additional charge.

 The lessons from this experience are not lost on the Eisens, and they feel other companies could benefit from an openness to focus on what the customer wants, versus what the company is prepared to deliver.

“Pulling focus away from our plant was no easy decision, as we take immense pride in our manufacturing prowess,” says Scott, Ideal’s president. “But, right or wrong, customers consider it a given that a company can produce what it says it produces. Our internal branding and design agency allows us to get their attention and deliver unique, innovative and powerful in-store displays faster and cheaper than they ever could before.”

Founded on Crates

Ideal originally was a manufacturer of wood and wire crates for customers as diverse as Al Capone and the U.S. military. It has a history of making big investments to meet changing customer demands.

Just as Dustin Hoffman was famously told the future was “plastics” in “The Graduate,” the Eisens’ grandfather knew that the single word describing the future of packaging was “corrugated.” It was where the customers were going, whether they knew it yet or not, so he acquired a corrugated box company, bought a corrugator and a new Ideal was born.

Ultimately, for manufacturers who are tackling declining margins or other internal or external threats to their businesses, Scott Eisen suggests looking outside for the answers, not inside. “We are always looking for ways to run our business more efficiently, but in the end, what drives long-term success for any business is its ability to create a better experience for its customers – whether that means faster or cheaper or more creative,” he says.

Yale Eisen is COO of Ideal, an independent designer and manufacturer of in-store point-of-purchase displays for consumer brands. For more information, visit www.idealpop.com.

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