Forward Thinking

Family-owned printing company inks bold plan for growth.
Since 1925, Fort Dearborn Co., Niles, Ill., has printed packaging labels for many of America’s best-known consumer product companies, from Unilever, Kraft and DelMonte to PepsiCo and Sherwin Williams. The company is also known for printing wrap-around shrink OPP and full-body shrink-sleeve labels for dairy industry manufacturers. The demand for this type of labeling has grown tremendously, Fort Dearborn reports, as manufacturers move into more convenient, single-serve and ready-to-drink dairy products such as protein drinks and shakes.
Now, as the company enters its ninth decade of business, it is taking on a new label of its own: “professionally managed.”  The impact of hiring outside, non-family executives, along with other structural shifts, is transforming the $190 million, 810-employee company to meet 21st century market demands.
“Our company has had more than its share of success since my grandfather founded the business,” says Richard Adler Jr., the company’s chief executive officer. “In fact, we’ve tripled in size in the past 10 years alone. In the life of every successful family-owned business, there comes a time when outside skills are needed. We believe that time is now.”
Richard Adler and brothers Nick and Matt, all Fort Dearborn senior executives, realized the need for change. Rapid growth had brought with it a need for financial discipline, new printing and computing technologies, and sophisticated personnel training and management. The company’s informal approach was no longer appropriate.
“Fort Dearborn has always believed in matching people’s roles with their talents. It became evident the talents and skills we required would have to come from outside professionals,” says Adler. “In Mike Anderson and Tim Trahey we’ve found two excellent leaders who can complement our existing strengths.”
Mike Anderson, the company’s new chief operating officer, was lured from printing and document services leader Relizon Co., where he was senior vice president of operations. Tim Trahey was vice president and chief financial officer of BOX USA, recently sold to International Paper. Both executives were impressed by Fort Dearborn’s strong reputation and desire for continued expansion.
“Before coming to Fort Dearborn Co., I called several of its corporate customers and found it was very well respected,” says Anderson.  “From its sales staff to its pressmen, Fort Dearborn employees understood customer needs very well. In a way, the company was a victim of its own success. It wasn’t executing up to its reputation. I felt I could help it do so, even as it continued to grow in size.”
Since the hiring of Anderson and Trahey, the company has also added senior vice presidents of both sales and operations. Personnel additions at the top, however, have been just the beginning.  “We’ve established four initiatives for renewal at Fort Dearborn: customer intimacy, organization, operational excellence and innovation,” says Adler. “Every one is important.  But customer intimacy is what drives all else.”
Led by Anderson and new senior vice president of sales Jeff Brezek, the company is reinforcing customer interaction through redeployment of resources and a deeper commitment to broad customer contact. “Some of our larger customers have 20 different individuals from various departments who directly interface with us,” Anderson says. “We’re making sure those individuals have counterparts at Fort Dearborn in virtually every discipline, from accounting to IT, who know them, know their needs, and with whom they can feel comfortable picking up the phone and talking.”
Adler and his team are also complementing new executive hires with a strength-based initiative that focuses on hiring people for roles that match their talents, and then leveraging those talents through ongoing development. “There’s a direct correlation between engaged associates and engaged customers, which in turn drives profitability,” says Adler. “Most of our work has been with managers, as it all starts at the workgroup level. We perform Employee Engagement surveys each year and the scores have been up over the past several years, a trend we want to extend.”
Adler says operational performance is being kicked up several notches through the implementation of lean manufacturing disciplines. “On-time/in-full, or OTIF, is a key operational metric for us. Not long ago, OTIF on customer orders was in the low 70 percent range. Today it’s over 97 percent — and we’re not stopping until it reaches 100 percent,” he says. “At the same time we’ve been able to significantly reduce cycle times and inventory levels which has improved our, and our customers, return on capital employed.”
Finally, Fort Dearborn’s devotion to innovation — a longtime strength — is leading the company to printing technologies and business solutions that provide customers with new marketing, production and cost management advantages. “We’re aggressively enhancing our digital printing capability, something that in the past has been used mostly for prototyping. Now it is available for low-volume SKUs,” says Anderson. “We’re also expanding our innovative HiColour 7-color process system which accurately reproduces virtually any color imaginable from a design standpoint.”
For all the improvements and changes, however, Fort Dearborn executives agree that outside managers need to understand a family-run business’ unique culture and character if they are to be effective  “As a newcomer, I have to appreciate what got Fort Dearborn to where it is today,” Anderson says. “This has always been a successful company, and now we’re pursuing ways to make it even more successful within its historical framework.  It’s an exciting time to be here.” — Fort Dearborn Co., 6035 Gross Point Road, Niles, Ill., 60714, phone: (773) 774-4321, fax: (773) 774-9105, Web site:
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