Kenmore Envelope: Focusing on a Niche to Achieve Success
Kenmore Envelope got its start in 1969 as a paper company, but it didn’t take long for customers to start asking if they could provide pre-printed envelopes instead of just the paper stock. By 1975, the third-generation company had pivoted to the business model that it still focuses on today as a high-end envelope printer catering to corporations that require flat-sheet lithographic direct mail pieces.
Kristin Ogo, COO, notes that the Richmond, Va.-based company originally installed Jet envelope presses exclusively, and, in fact, still operates several of them today: two Halm 6˝ Super Jet offset presses, and three Halm 3˝ Jet offset presses. But in the early 1990s, the company added cut-sheet litho to its lineup, opening up the range of what it could produce with the introduction of four-color printing technology.
Today, those Jet presses are used for the applications that don’t need much coverage. Instead, the shop’s fleet of commercial sheetfed offset presses run the bulk of the work: a 40˝, six-color Komori Lithrone and a 40˝, five-color Komori Lithrone, both with aqueous coater and extended delivery; a 42˝, six-color Koenig & Bauer Rapida 106 with Mabeg reel sheeter, extended delivery, and a UV-LED drying system; and its latest acquisition, an Eagle Systems Eco-Eagle CFM 106-20K cold foil module.
“Quality starts becoming a part of what clients are looking for,” Ogo says. “People are looking for high-end pieces, and you can only do that with certain equipment.”
The 20,000 sheets/hr. Koenig & Bauer Rapida 106 press was installed last January, just before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged its way through the country. The biggest draw, beyond adding capacity, was the LED technology, Ogo notes, and the ability to add new textures that the other equipment couldn’t match. It was also about reducing turnaround times to just five to six days.
From the Press Directly to Finishing
To answer the demand for quick turnarounds, the Rapida 106 has a docking station at each printing unit for LED drying and the coating unit was designed to utilize either LED or traditional UV coatings. “Speed wins in our industry and the time to market continues to shrink,” Ogo says. “Being able to print, cut, and fold all in one day is amazing. Previously we’d have to wait for sheets to dry for 24 to 48 hours on our non-Koenig & Bauer presses before cutting and folding. Now, we can move right to the finishing steps and deliver faster.”
Kenmore Envelope prides itself on offering clientele the competitive edge of run length and substrate flexibility. Kenmore sees an average run of 35,000 sheets, but the firm can produce as much as 500,000-plus sheets for a customer’s job, or as short a run length of a few thousand sheets. To gain a high open rate for direct mail pieces, Kenmore offers a variety of specialty substrates, from 24-lb. uncoated to 9.3-pt. coated, as well as substrates such as metalized stock. To make its envelopes pop even further, Kenmore adds spot UV, embossing, soft touch, and glitter for special touches and textures.
New Opportunities from Cold Foil Module
An Eagle Systems cold foil system was also added this year to the Rapida 106, adding a “rainbow of colors” to the range of value-added options Kenmore Envelope offers. “I don’t know of any other envelope company that can do this in-house,” Ogo says. “The possibilities are endless for our design teams. They can get so intricate, and the text and imagery can be so small; we’re just starting out, but we’re really excited about what we can do with it.”
Adding cold foil capabilities, she points out, was actually a bit of a risk for the company, which usually doesn’t invest in new equipment until it already has the work lined up. “This is the first piece of equipment we’ve invested in that was not already sold out [with work]. When we install a press, we know we’re going to have the work; we just need more capacity. And even with hot foil, we were doing it a bit, but it was costly, and the turnaround time wasn’t suitable for direct mail. Cold foil was a shot in the dark. It looks amazing, and we know no one else is doing it, so it’s a challenge for us to go out and create a market for it.”
Already the efforts are paying off, she notes, with marketing campaigns on social media, talking to clients, and outputting test jobs to create customer interest in the possibilities of adding new, eye-catching elements to the envelopes themselves. There is a lot of excitement all around, and Ogo says they can’t wait to see what types of applications and creativity this new equipment will enable as they get more comfortable with it.
One thing missing from Kenmore Envelope’s equipment lineup: digital printing presses. “We have thought about adding digital capabilities,” Ogo reveals, “and have talked to clients, and seen that order sizes are getting smaller and more targeted. But [customers] are looking for more value-added options, which is what we’re investing in, as well as capacity so we can turn the jobs very quickly.”
Part of that, she contends, is that marketing agencies are waiting until the last minute to send their jobs to Kenmore for production, wanting to ensure the data is as up-to-date as possible, which makes a focus on quick turnarounds understandable. And they are looking for ways to stand out in the mailbox, which is why the company is investing in technologies like cold foil to present new ideas and ways of approaching the mail piece. But, she says, that while the inside pieces might be more targeted, and the runs might be shrinking, “it’s not quite there yet” for switching to digital. “But we are keeping our eyes open.”
The Right Approach for Kenmore
Sticking to a niche in the face of a pandemic, when many print shops were looking to add new verticals or applications, was a risky move — but one that paid off for Kenmore Envelope. Ogo notes that the first three months of the shutdowns in 2020 was a very stressful time for everyone.
“We did see a 20% to 30% decrease [in work] those first few months,” Ogo recalls. The executive team at Kenmore Envelope looked at the numbers, and the focus wasn’t on where to find new work, but on “how long we can go if the work stopped completely, and still pay everyone for their full hours.” In addition to taking measures to keep the shop safe for operators to come in and run the jobs coming through the door, the team also made sure to regularly communicate with staff so they knew exactly what was going on at all times.
“We did start sending some of the office staff home to work remotely,” she notes. “They sat really close together, and we couldn’t separate them. But we found that they didn’t want to be home — they wanted to be at the office. They wanted to be here, and that was so awesome to see. They didn’t want to be away from their team, so we started to figure out what we can do to bring them back.”
Fortunately for Kenmore Envelope, the worst of the pandemic started to abate just a few months after the shutdowns began, and work started to pick up again. “We knew it was going to turn around, and when it did, it would be fast. We needed to be ready for it,” according to Ogo. “So when the fish weren’t biting, we repaired the net — we focused on our people, giving them mental health days,” and doing what they could to help alleviate stress.
The result: Kenmore Envelope didn’t lay off or furlough a single staff member due to COVID-19, and, in fact, added people to its staff in the past year, going from a team of 146 in February 2020 to 169 people today. “We were able to pick up [qualified] people from companies that had furloughs,” she says.
People Are a Printer’s Most Valuable Asset
And they have taken the time to invest in those people, even partnering with a facilitator to ensure employees feel comfortable voicing any concerns or complaints, offering situational leadership training to team leaders, and looking for overall ways to help employees grow in both their job functions and as people. “The investment in people is really important,” Ogo stresses. “It’s not just about equipment, but rather how our employees are growing and doing better every day.”
The reason the company bounced back so quickly, aside from its workforce being ready and willing to go at full speed as soon as the work picked up, is that focus on its specific niche — envelopes and direct mail. “Marketers usually pull back when things are unsure,” Ogo points out,” but then shortly thereafter realize they need the marketing visibility.” That included a busy fall season with holiday mailings, as well as political direct mail pieces that needed to be produced.
“We started last year with a goal to hit prior to COVID,” according to Ogo. “We didn’t hit it in March-May; but by the end of the year, what we lost those three months, we gained back the following months. And this year we will grow again — as of closing June, we’re already ahead of our targets, so as long as that continues, we’ll be looking good come December.”
In fact, the company is now generating more than $30 million in annual sales, up from around $5 million in the early 2000s when, the now CEO, Scott Evans first joined the company.
Looking to the future, Ogo notes that Kenmore Envelope will continue to focus on what it does best, although she doesn’t rule out moving into a wider range of applications if customers begin to ask for it, and they have the technology and capacity to fill the requests. But she believes that finding a niche, and owning it, is what ultimately has allowed the company to thrive, even in a difficult year full of uncertainty and challenges.
“I know a lot of companies are seeking to diversify their offerings, and there are times to do that,” she says. “But when you own a niche and exploit it, and find things that others aren’t doing, you can really find some success there.”