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Wilen Group: Big Data, Bigger Profits

June 2013 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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When it comes to his company's product and service portfolio, Darrin Wilen is certain of one thing. In five years, if his company is still doing business as it did in 2013, then the prospects for the future are rather bleak.

OK, maybe that is giving in to hyperbole, but Wilen—president of the Wilen Group, parent company of direct mail printer Wilen Direct—has been down this road before, many times, in fact. The company has reinvented itself more times than Madonna and, like the Material Girl, remains at the top of its game.

"We pride ourselves on being agile and nimble, being responsive to client needs and acting fast," Wilen says. "We're always accessible. We realize our clients can go elsewhere, so we have to work that much harder to make them happier and to keep them from wanting to go anywhere else.

"As business changes, we've constantly had to reinvent ourselves," he adds. "Change is really embedded in our DNA and our culture. We're different from who we were five to seven years ago. That nimbleness and agility is something that other commercial legacy printers can't match, because we're always evolving and investing in new equipment."

A True, Full-Service MSP

Though the Wilen Group may have one eye constantly peeled on the future, the other (from a printing point of view) is focused on the world of direct mail. The overall organization acts as a full-scale marketing services provider, from concept to delivery, and cringes at being pigeon-holed as a printer, mailer or ad agency.

The front end, conceptual agency magic begins at Wilen New York, a full-service, direct marketing agency that services Fortune 500 companies. Located in Farmingdale on Long Island, it is run by Darrin Wilen. Kevin Wilen, Darrin's brother, quarterbacks Wilen Direct in Deerfield Beach, FL, which is in the process of nearly doubling its manufacturing space to the 170,000-square-foot range. The addition is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2014.

Wilen Direct specializes in manufacturing direct mail for the retail, financial and telecom sectors, to name a few. Four-color, variable data digital printing has been virtually raised to an art form as marketers have grown their databases and learned to harness the power of "big data," as Darrin Wilen terms it. This enables more targeted, personalized mailings as marketers look to get more and more out of their campaigns while using fewer stamps, so to speak.

"We find different opportunities in delivering creative solutions for our clients, always coming up with new strategies and products and, along the way, finding more efficient ways to produce work for them," Kevin Wilen states.

A key driver of Wilen Direct's ability to translate big data into solid returns for its clients came courtesy of Kodak, which recently equipped the printer with a Prosper 5000XL digital four-color web press, as well as Prosper S-Series imprinting systems, which were installed on Wilen Direct's fleet of web offset presses. Kevin Wilen points out that his company's longstanding relationship with Kodak, coupled with a level of quality that exceeds customer expectations, were keys to selecting the Prosper technology.

Future equipment acquisitions are expected to support the Prosper gear, particularly additions on the finishing end, according to Kevin Wilen. "Four-color variable technology, from a press standpoint, is far more advanced than what's available on the finishing side," he says. "During the next 18 months, we'll be implementing a lot of different finishing technologies."

Founded as a publishing firm in his basement by Richard Wilen in 1972, the company has endured repeated paradigm shifts. The firm acted as a publisher for the cable television industry and had the distinction of producing the first HBO guide in 1973, topping the 12 million booklet mark at its apex. In the 1980s, Wilen produced programming booklets during the height of the pay-per-view phenomenon.

Printers weren't crazy about the Wilens' innovative ideas about multi-color printing on lightweight stock and soon abandoned them as partners. Thus, in the mid-1990s, Wilen brought prepress work in-house, then bought a press and a building. Programming guides went away, but the Wilens have dedicated themselves to keeping two steps ahead of changing markets.

A relative mailing newcomer with but 10 years under its belt, Wilen Direct is using the big data movement and the benefits of investing in technologies such as those Kodak brought aboard to stay relevant, even within the nuanced shifts in the direct mail market.

Mass Personalization

"When we were getting started, marketers weren't getting their value out of the 'spray and pray' printing methodology," Darrin Wilen says of broadcast mailings. "Today, it's all about maximizing effectiveness through relevant messaging and mass personalization. All of the investments we've made during the years are geared toward doing a better job for our clients and giving them the proper return on marketing investment."

Research and development is another critical aspect of the Wilen value proposition, and here the company relies on its dedicated R&D arm, WILopEN Products, to provide specialty products that support marketing and business communications. Its cornerstone offering is the GiftE System—plastic gift cards geared toward mobile redemption. Other WILopEN offerings include mobile payments, point-of-sale (POS) payments and integrated payments accounting.

Kevin Wilen firmly believes one of the biggest reasons behind his company's success is the dedicated, talented personnel throughout the organization—the backbone of Wilen Direct. "Our people truly deserve the recognition for what we are today," he says. "We are very fortunate to have in place a management group that empowers people to excel and individually make a difference. Our executive vice president of sales, Paul Caravello, and vice president of manufacturing, Jeff Obermiller, have consistently communicated the importance of teamwork, attitude and, most importantly, the need to not become complacent. These values have helped keep our company focus on target with our clients' goals."

Helping customers with their current needs and helping them plan for the future is another aspect of that value proposition, even if the changing tides dictate that Wilen Direct needs to change its focus or equipment dossier. That contrasts with most printers, notes Kevin Wilen, who are focused on keeping their presses running and dealing with capacity issues.

"Our size allows us to focus and invest in technology around what our clients' needs are now, as well as in the future," Darrin Wilen remarks. "Unlike some companies, we're not bogged down by years of legacy equipment investments and acquisitions of other printing companies, with all of their obsolete equipment."

Darrin Wilen is enthusiastic about the future of direct mail, and not only from the big data standpoint. Mobile devices—bolstered through exciting engagement platforms ranging from QR codes and Augmented Reality to image recognition—are harbingers for personalized print; but it's only scratching the surface. Wilen Direct is focusing much of its R&D energies in this area, and Darrin Wilen is confident that digital mobile devices are giving mass personalized print "a whole new opportunity to be relevant."

For the Wilens, managing the future is all about managing the inevitable change. They've felt the apprehension that comes with risks, but they also appreciate the consequences that inaction brings. "The difference between us and our competitors is that our capabilities are going to continue to stay relevant by changing and adapting to the future landscape," Darrin Wilen adds.

"Like our father would say, you can't have fear to do the things you need to do." PI


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