Enabling Essential Communication
The following article by Sujata Srinivasan originally appeared in the Hartford Courant under the title "Willington Nameplate Prepares For its Next 50 Years"
Mike Goepfert was 7 years old when his dad, Marcel, a son of German immigrants, resigned from his job at a nameplate company in Massachusetts, sold his house and car and launched Willington Nameplate Inc., a one-man start-up at a 3,000-square-foot facility in Willington.
Fifty years later, the company has a modern 40,000-square-foot plant at Stafford Springs, 85 employees with whom it shares its profits, five acquisitions under its belt, 1,500 active clients and revenue of $12 million.
In its anniversary year, the company has invested $1 million in capital equipment and is expanding capacity by 25 percent, while also committing an additional $500,000 to improve the etching of nameplates. There is also a new branding strategy that's changing the way the company that makes labels, decals and metal nameplates.
Willington Nameplate's products include simple paper printed labels that cost $1, as well as metal engraved nameplates used in extreme environments, such as on diesel engine blocks. It also makes identification nameplates to enable part traceability for its defense industry customers. The seat tags on the seats at Gillette Stadium were also made by Willington Nameplate.
"We used to think of what we made as a nuisance commodity," said Goepfert, the company president. "Customers come to us in the last minute for this nuisance item because they can't ship their million-dollar item without this $1 tag."
Willington Nameplate employee Adam Mesler works on an auto punch machine on Thursday morning. The 50-year-old company is in Stafford Springs. (Marc-Yves Regis I, Special to the / hc)
That perception changed when Goepfert hired Fathom LLC, a West Hartford-based brand strategy firm. "Now we look at ourselves as enabling essential communication," said Goepfert. Employees began to see more value in their work — for example, warning labels such as "Electrical Danger" could save a life.
Brent Robertson, a partner at Fathom, said the rebranding would help Willington Nameplate relate better to the marketplace. "They've opened up their offering to a much bigger space with this change in perception," he said.
The initiative was partly driven by the company's efforts to expand market share in a highly loyal and fragmented industry. "It's easy to hold on to your existing business but hard to acquire new business," said Goepfert.
Today, Willington Nameplate competes with more than 100 leading manufacturers in the U.S., including Texas Nameplate Co., U.S. Nameplate Co., and Roemer Industries, as well as hundreds of small local companies and importers.
Still, price is not the key difference. "We don't want to compete on price because China or Vietnam is going to win," said Goepfert. "We don't want to be the cheapest guys out there. I think a lot of companies are willing to pay for on-time delivery and quality systems." He found that out firsthand when nearly half of his customers who left for lower-cost offshore nameplate-makers in the mid-1990s came back because of quality and delivery problems.
Another thing that sets them apart, according to Brett Greene, general manager, is his company's capability as a single-source supplier.
"We support a lot of different needs — nameplates, labels, decals," said Greene. "So we're working with customers to consolidate all their orders with us."
Goepfert brought in Greene, formerly an accountant with United Technologies Corp., three years ago. Since then, the company has steadily invested in its plant technology to meet anticipated demand and new business planning software. This year Greene helped launch a tuition reimbursement program for employees.
Walking through the factory – half the workers on the shop floor are women — Greene points to a $20,000 banner machine used almost exclusively by employees for their children's birthday parties.
On average, employees have been with the company for 14 years and the technical talent team for about 25 years. Nancy Blanchard, 80, just retired after working for 42 years as a press operator and later a quality inspector. She recalled how a former employee, who'd left after she got married, would come by to visit carrying gifts for "little Lisa" — dresses that she'd crocheted for founder Marcel Goepfert's youngest daughter. "I always did feel like it was a family. I call them my work family," Blanchard said.
Different generations of employees work side by side. Thu Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, has been with the company for 18 years. "The company helped me to get jobs for my sons, my aunt, my brother and my wife," he said. "It's a happy place to work with my family members who do not speak English well."
The acquisition of three Massachusetts-based companies in the past five years helped Willington Nameplate expand in new directions, including the defense, automotive and industrial sectors. The companies had a combined revenue of $3 million before they were acquired.
The acquisitions also added to Willington Nameplate's quality systems and certifications, which is a competitive advantage, especially in aerospace. The next acquisition, Goepfert said, will be in the West. "We have a lot of competition that's not as good as us. Family-run businesses that don't have succession plans," he said. "We're looking at acquiring some of them."
Although the company is diversified across four sectors, the bulk of its sales, 60 percent, is from the industrial business. Customers include General Electric, Carrier, Honeywell, ABB and Siemens. Nearly half of the revenue comes from New England, the rest nationally, with a small portion from Mexico. Unlike several of its big-name competitors, including U.S. Nameplate, Willington Nameplate has no plans to compete in the export market. It's also not planning to expand its portfolio to include "Quick Response" bar codes, which competitor Roemer Industries and many others offer.
Willington Nameplate's "cost of goods sold,'' the direct cost of making its product, is between 60 and 80 percent, Greene said. That leaves room for a comfortable margin. Greene declined to specify a number.
That's a long way from the early days when Marcel, out of money, sent his friend, an expert salesman he'd hired, to convince a customer to part with cash upfront so they could buy the metal to make nameplates. Goepfert said Peter Paul Electronics of New Britain not only gave the money, it has stuck with Willington Nameplate ever since.