Stability and Service at Vulcan Information Packaging

by: Dianna Brodine

Since 1947, Vulcan Information Packaging has been a force in loose leaf binder and packaging industries. Beginning as Vulcan Binder & Cover (the name was changed in 1997), the company was christened for the 55-foot-tall statue of Vulcan – the Roman god of the forge – that stands tall at the top of Red Mountain in Birmingham. Its reputation as a premier provider of custom information packaging is only enhanced by a customer service department that boasts more than 30 staff members ready to ensure that every customer’s product goes out the door as ordered, on time.

“Having a parent company that supports us has been good for us and for our customers.”

Vulcan Information Packaging was the brainchild of Elton B. Stephens, who sold magazine subscriptions while he attended college. After his graduation from law school, Stephens determined that his career path led away from the legal field and started a company to produce clear magazine covers for medical waiting rooms. Sixty years later, Vulcan still produces more than 200,000 of the clear magazine covers each year.

Stephens continued to build upon his business success, diversifying into publishing, real estate, and manufacturing. Now Vulcan is a division of EBSCO (Elton B. Stephens Corporation) Industries, the largest privately held corporation in Alabama. Barry N. Franklin, general manager for Vulcan, believes that Vulcan’s position as an EBSCO subsidiary is a strong advantage when talking to customers. “We sell EBSCO when we talk to our customer base. It’s our financial stability, it’s the reason we have the facilities and updated equipment that we have,” said Franklin. “Having a parent company that supports us has been good for us and for our customers.”

Serving primarily commercial printers, Vulcan’s business mix is approximately 55 percent custom manufacturing of packaging systems and 45 percent ready-to-ship product. In addition to ring binders, Vulcan designs, manufactures, and imprints many types of information packaging, including custom packages like slipcases, boxes, marketing kits, and casemade binders. Binders may include index tabs, CD/DVD holders, or clear sleeves. Packaging for software, audio/video products, and CD/DVDs can be produced to order using customer-specific layouts.

Adding new equipment or updating existing equipment to improve production techniques and stay current with industry demands has led to recent purchases of an Emmeci casemaker; a Durst 4-color process digital printer for short-run printing on the company’s three main substrates (vinyl, poly, and casemade materials); and a Widmann tab machine, an index tab machine with 142 cycles per minute that prints on mylar, applies the mylar, and cuts it into collated sets as an in-line process for making tabs. The casemaker was brought in mainly to focus on a growing trend – green packaging.

“We hear every day from customers who want us to make products that are environmentally friendly.”

For many of Vulcan’s customers, identifying materials that can be labeled as environmentally friendly is a top priority, and the best way to do that is through paper packaging. “We hear every day from customers who want us to make products that are environmentally friendly,” said Franklin. “We brought in a high-speed Emmeci casemaker, manufactured in Italy, specifically to address that need.” Casemade products are naturally more environmentally friendly than vinyl. “We’re not in any way downplaying vinyl, but we are reacting to our customer. At the moment, we manufacture more vinyl products than casemade, but we think casemade is where the growth will be.”

Since its previous casemaking equipment had been purchased in the mid-1990s, Vulcan purchased the Emmeci casemaker with speed and ease of set-up in mind. “We wanted to remain highly efficient, and the speed on the old Crathern equipment just didn’t match up to the volume we needed to run,” Franklin continued.

Even if an entire project is not certified as green, Vulcan can work with a customer to ensure that the majority of elements in a project are environmentally friendly. “The board we use in both vinyl and casemade binders is recycled from corrugated boxes and newspapers,” explained Franklin. Vulcan also works with several companies that produce ecologically safe cover materials, including Ecological Fibers. Ecological Fibers has a process of producing forest-certified paper, coating it, and dying it in an environmentally friendly, water-based process. Vulcan also has run index tabs on a heavier craft paper that is “greener” than other materials. Franklin said, “What we try to do is educate our customers about the options. Definitely, most of what we produce here has loose leaf ring metals – it’s still the most versatile option for most packaging needs. But boxes and slip cases can be “green” as well, so there are always options for the customer who is environmentally conscious.”

“Being lean has helped us be a healthy company.”

Lean manufacturing, a process of reviewing facility practices to eliminate waste of human and material resources, was introduced at Vulcan Information Packaging five years ago. “We had the opportunity to obtain funding from the state of Alabama to implement lean manufacturing,” explained Franklin. Vulcan received a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, administered through Alabama’s Workforce Development Center, which paid for on-site lean manufacturing training for its employees. “It’s not inexpensive to hire consultants and put together a program like that,” said Franklin, “so the initial offer to have assistance from the state was one of the reasons for implementing lean.”

Using the lean principles, Vulcan has focused on getting more product out the door with fewer people, better communication, and better understanding between departments. Key to making it work is setting up work cells in a manner that reduces the steps necessary in every process. Is floor space utilized efficiently? Are people being deployed in a way that allows them to create more product? Have the right tools and the right equipment been provided at each step? “We document our process more than we did in the past,” said Franklin. “A lot of that is driven toward giving more information to the customers, but being lean has helped us be a healthy company.”

“We think our customer service department is a vital part of serving our customers and helping get products out the door on time and done right.”

Vulcan sets itself apart from the competition by providing high-quality, imaginatively designed products. With an in-house art department and a product development department, Vulcan is prepared to take a customer’s project from concept to completion. “Our product development department is critical, because our staff directly assists the salespeople in creating packaging for the customer, engineering a custom-designed product to fit their needs,” Franklin stated. “The customers bring products to us and say,” Give us some ideas.” Right now, we’re doing a project for a customer who has several different styles of cups, and we’ve created a display box. Our guys did that! Our product development department started on the product from the beginning, the art department worked with the salesperson to create the samples, and now we’re running the job.”

Art departments and graphic designers are standard tools in the custom loose leaf manufacturer’s toolbox, but the area where Vulcan stands above the crowd? Customer service. There are 31 people in the Vulcan Information Packaging building serving in telesales and customer service who can help get a project through the plant.

Vulcan employs field sales staff and telesales staff. The field sales team is supported by a nine-person service department that acts as the liaison to get orders logged into the plant and completed correctly. “The customer service staff keeps our customers and our outside salespeople informed,” Franklin explained. “They serve as more than just customer service – they watch the proper detailing of the products being made and inspect the quality of the product.” The telesales staff acts as its own customer service representatives. Telesales staff members walk around the plant to consult with the art department and visit the floor to see their products running.

“A lot of companies get rid of the customer service department,” Franklin said. “But we chose to stay with it, because we think it is a vital part of serving our customers and helping get products out the door on time and done right.”

“We’re set up to help printers complete projects for their customers.”

Vulcan Information Packaging recognizes that, as a custom manufacturer, the call for its services will slow during the current economic recession. “Anytime you have a recession, companies will start to cut back on their advertising dollars,” stated Franklin. “When that happens, it’s going to affect not just us, but all loose leaf manufacturers. At the same time, we are fortunate to have the financial stability of our parent company backing our efforts.”

When the economy begins to stabilize, Franklin thinks his company has an advantage to offer its printing customers – by providing options for loose leaf packaging that includes vinyl, poly, turned edge, and board, when many of Vulcan’s competitors focus on only one of those options. The company’s diverse capabilities also are a benefit. “We’re purposefully set up to help printers complete projects for their customers,” explained Franklin. “Quite often, purchasing managers in big companies want to go to one company to complete a project and, frankly, it’s not normally the binder company that makes the choice – it’s the printer. We designed our operations to make the choice easy for printers.” Vulcan becomes the behind-the-scenes partner for its printing customers, helping them to provide their customers with a completed project, using Vulcan as the packaging manufacturer.

With a strong parent company ready to invest in its future, and a staff ready to partner with its printing customers to create custom packaging solutions, Vulcan Information Packaging looks forward to many more years at the forefront of the loose lead binder and packaging industries.