Companies To Watch: Superior Tape & Label
For Superior Tape & Label (STL), their innovations have led to high voltage improvements in their customers’ industries.
Oregon-based Superior Tape & Label has found success by partnering with suppliers that provide reliability and product consistency.
Think of innovation and you may imagine a thunderbolt of inspiration.
For Superior Tape & Label (STL), yes, their innovations have led to high voltage improvements in their customers’ industries. On a day-to-day basis, innovation is more of a continuous light. It’s about helping customers benefit from better product engineering and performance.
The Gresham, OR company flies under the radar in the specialty label and secure card industry. The largest card manufacturers in the world, however, know the name Superior Tape & Label. Over the years, STL has helped customers gain significant improvements in workflow, materials, coatings, adhesives and more.
Superior Tape & Label started in 1992 as a family operation with Dwayne Brandon, president and CEO, and his brother, Kevin. From its humble beginnings, Superior Tape & Label is now a multi-sector manufacturing, engineering and innovations company.
Although Dwayne and his wife, Jenny, bought Kevin out in 2003, STL continues today as a family business. Dwayne’s sister, Lucia Willis, is general manager. Five of Dwayne’s six sons – including Derek Brandon, production supervisor, and Dallas Brandon, procurement – have worked in the company, along with 60 long-term employees.
Dwayne and Lucia have built Superior Tape & Label, plus a complementary company called PrinTrayce Systems, with the help of the vast talent within the company. STL management has worked hard to ensure non-family members have opportunities for advancement.
Key employees include Alec Doede, sales and sales development; Cris Silivasan, product development and technical customer support; Dustin Fisher, quality control and new product development; and Luis Ayala, logistics and scheduling. Of special note is Nancy Brink, controller, who handles strategic and problem-solving duties with Dwayne and Lucia.
STL started in a business park, in a 1,100 square-foot bay. They gradually took over the building until, in 2005, they took over the entire space at 121 Northeast Victory. Today, STL’s total square footage is approximately 30,000 square feet, with a third of that dedicated to the production plant.
Before launching STL, Dwayne had been a label manufacturing equipment operator and did label sales. When he got into sales for his own company, he focused on a solutions-based approach. He learned and shared all he could about the complexities of label constructions.
The brothers started with a 10", 6-color Aquaflex press. They were attracted to its self plate-cleaning technology.
“We started as a traditional printing company and purchased the Aquaflex, used, from a packaging company in Sackville, New Brunswick,” says Dwayne. “I remember that trip like it was yesterday. We also purchased a brand new Rotoflex rewinder, and we had an old Mark Andy tape press used for printing on paper water-activated packaging tape.”
The brothers had a small machine shop for ripping apart equipment and reassembling it in new ways. They experimented and repurposed. It was fun, but they wanted to get away from doing prime label work. They had the engineering itch.
About 10 years into the business, Dwayne and Lucia were exploring secure card manufacturing as a way to expand. The two went to a trade show (which later became Cartes) in New Orleans. The gift card industry was in its infancy – phone cards mostly – and it was plagued by technical issues, both in the US and internationally.
Dwayne and Lucia had some ideas they thought could shake up the industry. “Over a seven-year period, we introduced many of the innovations now used by the scratch-off and secure card industries,” remembers Dwayne. “We did a tremendous amount of work with outside suppliers to develop products that solve common issues of pin theft, which is when thieves steal pin numbers without purchasing or activating the card.”
STL’s experience in the phone card world opened doors and led to more product advancements.
“Providers who can control materials and quality have an advantage,” Dwayne says. “We do business with nearly every card manufacturer in the country. Because we focus on direct relationships with the biggest brands and their card programs, when a piece of the business moves from one card manufacturer to another, STL is very often able to retain our role throughout these transitions.”
STL chooses suppliers based on reliability and product consistency, and is always looking for proficient suppliers that have a technical interest in adhesives, coatings and materials.
Internally, STL researches and tests how coatings and adhesives perform, how they bond to their application surface or release, and how they age under various conditions. This is especially important for specialized constructions where there are stacked tolerances to manage.
“Does the same coating work under multiple conditions?” says Dwayne. “We need to know.”
Because scratch-off is a technical product that the narrow web coatings industry still does not understand well, STL has had to “invent and teach ourselves.”
“My sister, Lucia, is brilliant at quality control. She and our team have developed, documented and continually perfected our quality assurance processes for each of our unique products,” says Dwayne.
Many of STL’s customers do further custom or personalized processes before a card is mailed or distributed, so the cards must be durable and also remain secure during processing.
“We have an entire lab with traceability programs,” explains Dwayne. “We’ve invested in our accelerated aging ovens and humidity testing ovens. We’re constantly using them, not just on new products but also on existing items to make sure we’re holding to our tolerances.”
STL is also involved in helping customers differentiate themselves through unique offerings. “We’re known for our irreversible color-changing Chameleon line of products, which many of our customers use for security applications,” says Dwayne. “We also have unique breakaway coatings and specialty fracture-able laminations used for security or special processes.”
The company has a wide range of specialty-release coatings, abrasion-resistant coatings, holographic and colored scratch-off coatings, and specialty scratch-off constructions for paper and plastic cards.
Continued success in the card industry led STL to a new innovation in 2015 on behalf of Borton Fruit Company, a long-standing customer in the apple packing industry.
Borton was constructing a state-of-the-art packing facility in Union Gap, near Yakima, WA. They called STL to brainstorm on new ways to apply labels that would be both attractive and easy to remove for the end user, without the perception of sticky residue. Borton wanted a label application process that was quick, clean and very efficient for non-stop production, similar to what card manufacturers can achieve.
“As a result of their inquiry, we invented our PrinTrayce System,” explains Dwayne. “We then built a company around it.”
Dwayne and his team wanted to bring linerless technology into pre-existing label application sectors. The team conceived a print-on-demand thin-film label that could be pattern-coated and was linerless. Each roll would be traverse wound and built into a package of 350,000 labels. Along with the special high-capacity roll, they designed and built the tray applicator equipment. This would allow the user to efficiently apply the label using one supply roll and one thermal printer. With each solution came another place where new efficiencies and engineering could make the next improvement.
STL has gone on to install 60 machines at Borton’s new plant, currently the largest fresh fruit packing line in the world.
In addition to the Chameleon irreversible color-changing films, which STL exclusively provides to certain markets, Dwayne personally owns several patents for the PrinTrayce Systems label and equipment product line. He has developed proprietary diecutting practices with custom adhesives using ultra-thin films, as well as breakaway coatings that facilitate a dry peel label or a dry peel or scratch construction.
For the card manufacturing industry, Dwayne developed Spool-Mate. This technology allows card manufacturers to use STL’s traverse-wound, high-capacity supply rolls (up to one million labels) and feed them through a closed-loop tension system into pre-existing label applicators. Customers are able to maintain manufacturing momentum and better control quality versus using flat rolls.
“When outside companies try to understand our business, we tell them we specialize wherever there is a demand for a functional label,” says Dwayne. “In reality, our competitors are innovation companies, not traditional label convertors.”
Dwayne says STL stays tuned into innovation in a multitude of other industries in addition to manufacturing.
“If we get complacent, we will lose to companies we don’t even know about. Any label manufacturer capable of making the products we do is also changing and evolving like we are. Like us, they do not see themselves as pigeon-holed into one traditional area.” He adds, “It keeps us on our toes because opportunity knocks softly and is easily overlooked.”
Dwayne’s years as an innovator have left invaluable lessons. On being an owner, Dwayne sees himself as strategian and visionary, supporting the development of new products and managing long-term value for customers. Even though Dwayne works remotely and has for years, he mixes hands-off management with being an inspirational force.
Hiring, for example, starts with commitment and a process. “Personnel development takes a couple of years,” says Dwayne. “We need to get new people through year one, then year three and then year five. If they stay the first year, maybe we have a pretty good fit. This person demonstrates that they do not mind the work. After three years, a person who stays shows their ability to grow through adversity. By year five, we probably have promoted them, and they’ve had additional training.”
STL incorporates sales training and management education classes along with cross-training, important for the team dynamic. For the marketing side, STL uses online advertising, word of mouth, and traditional prospecting. Salespeople and technical reps focus on existing customers and their manufacturing sites.
“We have three customer service people who play offense, calling customers monthly to get projections and sell stock from our growing stock products program,” explains Dwayne. “We’ve adjusted our compensation model recently to allow each team player to be the most effective in their area.”
Dwayne believes sustainability – and the end user’s perception of sustainability – will drive advancements in materials, adhesives and coatings.
“Innovation requires so much more than creativity,” observes Dwayne. “It requires patient discipline and honesty, self-awareness, tight controls, systematic business advancement – both planned and funded – and a company-wide belief in continuous improvement, not just internally but for the benefit of the customer.”
Dwayne recognizes the role and contributions of his family and all the employees.
“I am so proud of our entire team,” says Dwayne. “Proud of my sister and all of our sons. Grateful to my wife for her wisdom and supportive involvement. With each step forward we prove to ourselves we can really do it on our own terms and bring our ideas to light.”
Superior Tape & Label may be located at the far end of the continent, but it’s at the center of their customers’ success.