Keeping up with new technology
Over its more than 100 years of operation Winston Packaging, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been helmed by three very different men, each the right leader for his time: an entrepreneur, a scientist and a marketer.
Alexander Gray (A.G.) Gordon worked as a journeyman bookbinder before founding Winston Printing Company in 1911. In its early years, the company used hot-type letterpresses and lithographic limestone. “As you can imagine, it was a very tedious process,” says A.G.’s grandson, president/CEO James Gordon, 57.
Most of Winston’s business came from R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company. Although it was risky to rely extensively on one customer, the relationship enabled Winston to survive the Great Depression, says James.
A.G., who died in 1951, never completed high school but used his practical experience to get things done. When the company began construction on a new facility in 1942, there wasn’t enough wire to provide power to the whole building because of wartime shortages. A.G. solved the problem by salvaging wire from an abandoned factory.
A.G.’s son, John, had a master’s degree in engineering and gained electronics experience through service in World War II and the Korean conflict. John introduced modern management and engineering approaches. He replaced the letterpress equipment with sheetfed offset presses and made improvements to the building.
John’s son, James, studied engineering and management in college. “More and more you have to understand marketing, brand imaging, knowing how to better position your company so that you have future growth opportunities,” James says.
In 1984, John semi-retired and James became president. James was named chairman and CEO in the early ’90s. John died in 2001.
During the ’80s, Winston Printing Company began producing export packaging for Reynolds. Recognizing growth opportunity in that field, the company separated its commercial and packaging divisions in the ’90s and rebranded itself as Winston Packaging. The family closed the commercial division in 2005. But their commercial printing experience “gave us an advantage because we were doing things like furniture catalogs and art prints, where the color was critical,” says James’s wife, Susan, 55, who serves as Winston’s marketing services manager.
In 1993, Reynolds moved all its printing and packaging in-house. Although by then Winston’s sales to the tobacco giant comprised less than half of its annual revenues, the move still stung, James says.
“After the initial panic wore off, we recognized that we had some advantages,” James says. “We took the competencies that we developed doing the packaging for Reynolds and sought out smaller tobacco companies.” Winston still does a lot of work in the tobacco segment in addition to serving a wide range of other industries.
In 2012, Winston invested in a computer-to-plate system and a new die cutter and press. Customers can log in to a password-protected site to review order status as well as view and manipulate 3D images. “I think this helps speed up the time to market as the design stage,” Susan says.
James says his father “could set the business up and it could run five to ten years without major overhauls. But I never had the luxury of putting it on cruise control.” Today’s technology demands reevaluation every one to three years, James notes.
“I think for us, as a small to midsize manufacturer, there will be a great importance on custom jobs and jobs that have variable specifications,” says James and Susan’s son, Russell, 28, Winston Packaging’s account manager.
The single-plant operation has about 46 full-time employees. James’s brother, John Gordon Jr., 62, works at Winston on the production floor.
The business is a round-the-clock passion for the family. “We never put it on the back burner,” Susan says. “We’re very dedicated to making sure it’s successful.”
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
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