Napco: Changing the Game of Loose Leaf

by: Dianna Brodine

Customers seeking loose leaf products have moved beyond the vinyl three ring binder to demand custom turned edge binders and other specialty paperboard products and packaging for more powerful marketing impact. Whether it is geared toward internal corporate communications or the end user, rigid paperboard products and packaging provide the opportunity for complete end-to-end customization. With products encompassing everything from CD and DVD collector’s edition boxed sets to coin and photo albums to elaborately decorated two-piece setup boxes, ambitious companies are pushing the envelope in terms of product and packaging design, production, and finishing effects. For NAPCO, Inc., a rigid paperboard products and packaging provider in Sparta, N.C., it’s just a part of the game.

On the Playing Board

In 1977, after graduating from Appalachian State University, NAPCO Owner and President Rocky Proffit began manufacturing rigid boxes and point-of-purchase displays for Dr. Grabow smoking pipes. The company president, a friend of Proffit’s, was unsatisfied with the quality and delivery of products being produced by another supplier. Proffit, facing an out-of-state move with a job offer to work at Holly Farms, decided to set up shop in a 2,000-sq. ft. basement with his brother, Brady. The operation was bare bones – a guillotine knife, papersheeter, gluer, and cornering machine… and a determination to succeed in this new venture.

NAPCO (an abbreviation derived from National Advertising and Promotional Co.) soon expanded into making game boards. “In the early 1980s, when electronic games first came on the scene, a lot of them had game boards that were part of the package,” explained Proffit. “We started doing more game boards and then Trivial Pursuit came along in 1983. That made us and almost broke us in a short period of time.” NAPCO was one of the original producers of the Trivial Pursuit board game, which has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide and was named to the Games Hall of Fame in 1993. The intense popularity of the game pushed NAPCO to its production limits, but the company ultimately came out on top.

As a result of its success with Trivial Pursuit, NAPCO constructed a new building, bought additional equipment, and expanded into fresh markets. Over the years, NAPCO has grown to specialize in high-end rigid paperboard products and packaging, including complex projects and those with very high-quality specifications. The company moved into loose leaf packaging in the early 1990s, when it began producing custom ring binders, turned edge binders, slip cases, and packaging for software. NAPCO positioned itself as a provider of packaging for the music industry in the late 1990s, and then went after the entertainment packaging market in the early 2000s by pursuing direct relationships with the major home entertainment studios.

NAPCO also is the largest manufacturer of coin storage products, which it began manufacturing for Western Publishing (at that time, Western Publishing owned the Whitman Coin Line) at about the same time as Trivial Pursuit. Most recently, NAPCO has moved into cosmetics packaging. “We’ve just gotten into cosmetics and that’s where we’re seeing growth,” said Proffit, “but our older specialties are still important to us. We just signed a three-year contract with the U.S. Mint to create coin storage products. We feel like we’ve got some tremendous growth coming down in the next two or three years – good manageable growth.”

Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Shelli Kaiser added, “Of course, NAPCO produces a lot of binders for retail, B2B, promotional, and material sample applications.” With binder applications encompassing 40 percent of NAPCO’s overall product mix, the company takes the segment very seriously. NAPCO recently acquired one of the fastest web-fed casemaking lines in North America, capable of producing wrapped flat components like turned edge binder covers at ultra-fast speeds. NAPCO also received 28 awards for its work in 2009, including four from Binding Industries Association (BIA), two of which were Best of Category. These Product of Excellence awards were in the categories of Turned Edge Casebound for its Worship Tracks entry and Product Design for the Johnsonite 4 Drawer Cabinet.

Detailed Start-Up Changes the Game

A company doesn’t win more than two dozen awards in one year by compromising on quality. The key to NAPCO’s achievements is a comprehensive training program that orients workers with its procedures to ensure the company maintains its high-quality standards and customer requirements. “NAPCO has more than 100 full-time employees, with flex workers utilized during busy times,” stated Kaiser, “and we do a lot of business making highly complex products that involve many functions, including very precise diecutting, gluing, and assembly.”

Proffit continued, “We have extensive procedures, manuals, and set-ups that are examined before anyone is put on the production line.” At NAPCO, even the temporary employees are required to review all applicable safety and operational procedures. The next step in NAPCO’s quality control begins with new project development. Project managers meet with a cadre of internal NAPCO departments, including the design team, production, purchasing, and the production planning team. “They talk about materials, production issues, structural design, and budget, with the focus on getting the customer the most bang for the buck,” Proffit explained. “Then they come up with a physical structure – a white sample – that is sent to the customer.” That sample process typically goes through one or two additional prototypes before the structure is finalized. The customer then lays out the artwork to NAPCO-created templates before a final sample is made, complete with graphics, and that’s sent out for final signoff. Proffit emphasized the critical nature of NAPCO’s initial project development. “One thing we found is that the project is either made or lost at the front end. If you don’t build the quality in, then it won’t meet the expectations of the customer with the finished project.”

The dedication to quality continues when the project enters production. “Every job we do, since we’re a custom manufacturer, is different,” explained Proffit, “so we have a very detailed checklist that each employee must go through prior to start-up.” Once the employee has reviewed the checklist, a supervisor has to sign off. The written job orders are bar coded and any time spent on any job, whether machine time or hand work, is recorded in real-time. “We have quality audits based on quantity, quality, and the expectation of the customers,” stated Proffit. “The employees must do those audits, beginning with the incoming materials and every manufacturing operation until the project is complete.”

Proffit believes one of NAPCO’s greatest strengths is the length of service of its employees – dedication that translates into years of experience. “Expertise is dispersed throughout all levels in the plant and that’s what allows us to create the structural design and execute it effectively. Our employees have become experts in their respective fields.”

Strategizing for Sustainability

Printing Industries of America has recognized the impact of the sustainability movement on its members, supporting the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP). Sustainability, however, goes beyond printers to the binderies and packagers that transform the printed sheet into a final product. NAPCO identified the trend and quickly countered with sustainable packaging alternatives. “Creating eco-friendly products and packaging has been a key focus for many of our customers,” said Kaiser, “and we have responded with green options including being Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) chain-of-custody certified. We also are a Sony Green Partner.”

Rigid paperboard products and packaging are inherently eco-friendly since most start with a chip paperboard base that is made of 100 percent recycled paper, primarily from post-consumer sources. NAPCO then can provide printed components made with FSC-certified papers, papers with some recycled content, or even carbon-emission-neutral papers, all of which can be printed with soy-based inks and eco-friendly finishing options.

“Sustainability has certainly been gaining more traction in the news,” said Kaiser. “Consumers want to be more eco-friendly, and the customers that we work with are talking about it. The economy has been a little tough, so people haven’t been making big changes yet, but it’s important for us to be able to service those customers who want to use carbon-neutral papers or an FSC wrap.”

Made in the U.S.A.

NAPCO was founded in Sparta, and in Sparta it has stayed. Proffit is proud of running a company that keeps jobs in the U.S. and has seen one advantage of the recent poor economic conditions. “We see more packaging opportunities coming back from China due to less acceptance of long lead time, increasing quality demands and safety issues, and some neutralizing of price differences.”

Proffit further explained, saying, “In tough times, people start trying to predict sales volume, and they’re afraid to order too much too early. When your manufacturer requires a five-month lead time, a miscalculation on order quantity can really affect business.” He also pointed out that the price differential between product manufactured in the U.S. and that produced overseas isn’t as great as it once was. “People now realize there’s a lot more to consider than just unit cost. There’s also the lost opportunity cost, the obsolescence cost, problems with non-real-time communication, and the uncertainty of what you’re going to get.” Highly automated production lines also bring piece prices down, eliminating costly hand work.

“We put together a presentation about those costs,” said Kaiser, “and we included those things that may not be immediately obvious, including shipping, duties, damaged product from excessive handling and shipping requirements, container unpack and repack, expensive and lengthy travel requirements of executives, as well as many other associated costs.” In the end, said Proffit, it comes down to reliability. “If the product comes in after a long lead time and it’s not what you expect, what do you do?”

Playing to Win

With an unyielding attitude toward quality and an eye on the sustainability trend, NAPCO has maneuvered itself into a winning position and is ready to take on additional challenges. Currently occupying just under 80,000 square feet, the company plans to add 65,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space to accommodate its projected growth over the next two years. In addition, it will acquire four additional automated rigid box lines and upgrade its converting and die-cutting capabilities to allow for expansion into new markets.

“As we continue to diversify our business,” said Proffit, “we’ll still tackle the complex projects, getting them done efficiently and on time. When it comes to what we do, I think we’re one of the best.”