by Lara Copeland, assistant editor, PostPress
The Foil & Specialty Effects Association (FSEA), announced Mike Graf of Letterhead Press, Inc. (LPI), New Berlin, Wisconsin, as the recipient of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award. Upon receiving his award at the FSEA National Conference in April, Graf attributed much of his company’s growth to the people who have stood by his side at one point or another in its journey of 30 plus years. Graf disclosed, “Our people were our key to success over all these years.” Graf has advanced his leadership in the industry by maintaining a commitment to his customers, employees and high-quality production.
Graf enters the industry
When his partner at the time, Mark Mulvaney, first talked him into the foil stamping business, Graf was an auditor traveling the country representing the asset-based lending division of the bank for which he worked. It was his duty to look into the books, equipment and inventories and evaluate the direction a company was headed. Essentially, this two-year experience in assessing risky companies afforded him the opportunity to learn how business was conducted.
He took this knowledge to the farm fields of Wisconsin in 1984 and started a small company specializing in business communication. Thanks to Graf, who proclaimed “never say never” as his business motto, LPI now consists of more than 60 pieces of equipment providing foil stamping up to 50 inches, diecutting and mounting up to 80 inches, perfect binding, gluing, folding, stitching, box making, puzzles and game manufacturing, as well as a wide variety of hand-assembled processes. It produces over 5,000 jobs annually ranging from a handful of pieces to tens of millions. Grafs initial $9,000 investment has grown to include $15 million of equipment today, and this growth is something Graf said he did not do by himself. “I’m just a risk-taker and the organizer here,” he suggested, crediting his partners and employees with much of the success LPI has enjoyed. “I didn’t do this by myself by any means, and it’s the people who work for me who are the ones who made this happen.”
National Geographic changes the game
Graf understands the crucial role risk-taking plays in developing a company, as demonstrated in the mid-eighties when he received a game-changing phone call. National Geographic was searching for a company to stamp a hologram project – more specifically a skull hologram on its magazine cover. Admittedly, Graf reasoned, “We didn’t even know what a hologram was – I was only 25 years old.” At the time, American Banknote was the sole company that controlled the foil, owned the register systems, put the register systems on the foil stamping machine and ran the jobs. So, when Graf and his partner were asked to take on such a significant assignment, the duo realized the potential of this opportunity and accepted the job. Shortly thereafter, Graf received one register device, set up the press and proceeded to create the first successfully produced commercial hologram in the world, working with several industry partners. Considering the accomplishment of his first major project, Graf said, “It got us into decoration on cartons, security and so many different things.”
At the conclusion of the National Geographic job, a gentleman by the name of Augie Presty explained that he was going to start his own company building register systems for holograms. When presented with the opportunity to buy some of these register systems, Graf jumped at the chance. Recognizing the significance of this move, he reflected, “First, we took a risk by taking on this big project that we had no business taking. And second, we said we’d buy three register systems and that was a big financial risk. But boy, did the business come.”
Kellogg’s adds to infrastructure
Through the latter half of the 1980s, Graf built on his success that came not only with the National Geographic cover, but also through purchasing the register systems. The company was doing more magazine covers and catalogs when, in 1988, Kellogg’s called with an offer that would prove to be difficult to turn down. “Kellogg’s said they were bringing in American Banknote to make some holograms and they wanted us to come in and talk about stamping holograms on their cereal boxes,” Graf explained. He and his partner decided to meet with Kellogg’s to discuss the proposal – a job requiring production of 1,000,000 cartons a week for three months straight. Knowing they did not have the means to complete such a task, the team decided to take it on anyway. As they left the meeting, Graf turned to his partner and confessed, “There’s no way we can produce a million a week; we’ll have to build a whole new plant.” Instead of succumbing to defeat, the man who never says never found a way to make this job happen. He agreed to work with American Banknote and designed an environment that would accommodate such a job.
Without enough machines or square footage to undertake such a monumental job, Graf organized his resources to advance the company and enable it to fulfill the request. As a response to the new demands, LPI redesigned a business plan by building enough money into the price of the Kellogg’s job to pay for a new infrastructure. To successfully tackle the requirements set forth by Kellogg’s, Graf built a 20,000-square-foot plant, found new and old Kluges and register systems to stamp the holograms, set up the space with air conditioning and electricity, purchased fork trucks and put QC procedures in place now that LPI was working with food products for the first time. To this day, he says that the Kellogg’s project was one of his favorites because “we had to build the whole plant in three months. To see that whole thing come to fruition and to walk around and see all the equipment running all those cereal boxes – that was “WOW!” That was something nobody has ever done before.” Moreover, the business continued to flourish following the Kellogg’s job.
Holograms prove successful
From magazine covers, catalog covers and advertising pieces, to Polish stamps, Russian bonds and Finlandia Vodka advertising – Graf stayed busy supplying other companies with holograms well into the 1990s. “Customers would come to us and ask if we could do other things, like very high-end foil stamping,” Graf recalled. Upper Deck was one such customer, asking for a foil-embossed trading card. LPI took trading cards a step further by incorporating memorabilia into the cards. “We did some with rubber tires or lug nuts from racing cars and incorporated them into trading cards. Seats from Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth’s bat and Tiger Woods’ shirt – we’d take all these things in, in full-form, and condense them down to wafer-thin pieces of material and incorporate them into trading cards,” he explained. Being on the leading edge of this industry provided millions of dollars of revenue throughout the ’90s when entertainment cards were all the rage. Comic book company Marvel Comics Group also asked LPI to incorporate holograms into its products. Graf says the company foil stamped, embossed and used holographic foil on several comic book covers during this decade.
As business continued to evolve, other food companies looked to LPI not only for stamping food product cartons, but also for other types of foils and embossing. General Mills, Post Foods, LLC and Kraft Food Group, Inc. turned to LPI for hologram stamping on their food products as well. “We were foil stamping, embossing and decorating cartons, and this is what really led us into shelf visibility. These sophisticated customers are all about increasing sales by putting these decorations on their products,” said Graf. Knowing something remarkable was happening, Graf wanted to explore how foil stamping was affecting visibility and the likelihood of somebody buying a product that had foil on it. LPI decided to invest tens of thousands of dollars to conduct a grocery store study that did just that. Graf confided, “We didn’t want to be somebody who just says ‘Stick foil on here for us.’ We wanted to know there was a reason and we wanted to make the products more successful.” This idea, one of creating the most successful product, was the angle LPI took well into the 2000s.
Graf and Reindl make a perfect team
Graf is astounded at the growth the company has experienced in the last several years. Commenting on the difference between LPI today as opposed to the year 2000, he exclaimed, “It’s mind-blowing. There’s so many different processes we do now,” and he attributed much of the transformation to the people he works with – especially his vice president.
In his speech at the FSEA National Conference, Graf acknowledged several of the people and companies who played a role in getting the business up and running in the early days, while also noting those who have stayed by his side throughout his career. Referring to him as the “creative juices,” Graf described one such person, Dick Reindl, as the one who “is very instrumental in getting us in the doors and getting projects in here that we wouldn’t have unless we had somebody who truly understood what I’m talking about.”
Reindl is known for his strong technical background. With his sales and manufacturing experience and Graf’s understanding of business, the two complement each other quite well, or as Reindl said, “Mike grounds things and makes sure that we’re on track from a financial and manufacturing perspective while I’m out there hunting down as many projects as I can on a day-to-day basis.” He continued, saying that he focuses on speaking the language of marketing, in turn creating a trust between the customer and LPI to get the job done right. Instead of talking about foil stamping and embossing, Reindl discusses impact, tactile sensation, marketing messages and visibility with clients. This trust is built because “we are a world-class manufacturing company. We do what we say and we say what we do and it works out pretty well,” Reindl proclaimed. It’s that can-do attitude that compelled LPI to move forward and continuously improve its manufacturing practices.
LPI continues to improve
About 10 years ago, Graf changed the company’s culture and, therefore, its manufacturing techniques. Originally intended to help the business become more efficient in areas such as electrical usage, what developed is something Graf called a “lean journey” that spread throughout many areas of the plant. Reindl and Graf both noted the biggest culture change to come out of the lean journey was getting into Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification.
SQF is a management system that monitors and regulates food quality, and Graf wanted this certification in order to handle food packaging processes. This all-encompassing program assures buyers and customers that food has been handled according to the highest standards. As a company always on the forefront of improvement, Graf appreciated the opportunity to better his business. Preparing to become SQF certified and meet the requirements for cleanliness, equipment maintenance and much more took about a year for the company. When audited last year, LPI received a score of 98 out of 100 in attaining level two SQF certification. Graf said the companys success is due to the employees accepting this culture change. Jokingly he added, “Do you know how difficult it is to get a bunch of guys from Wisconsin – guys who are hunters and fishermen – to wear hair nets? But, they’re accepting of it.”
The idea of continuously improving the company has spurred on other initiatives especially those that made LPI an environmentally friendly company. Reindl said he and Graf spend a lot of time improving manufacturing and credited Graf with implementing green company programs – like installing solar panels and decreasing waste.
By adding solar panels, LPI has worked hard to cut its electrical consumption. Utilizing the 10th largest array of solar panels in the state of Wisconsin, LPI receives annually about 25 percent of its electricity from this source. Graf also instituted a waste handling program for the plastics and paper that enter the building. Much of the waste produced now is taken by vacuum tubes from all the different pieces of equipment and is transported to the recycling and bailing area. Graf reported, “We calculate that between 98 to 99 percent of the stuff that comes through our doors leaves LPI either as finished product or recycled material.” This generates a large amount of dollars in recyclable revenue. The company cited over 4.2 million pounds of recycling last year and is on track to recycle 5.5 million pounds of material this year. The lean management technique has been beneficial for LPI as Graf pointed out, “We’ve cut our electrical usage in half the past six years while experiencing double-digit growth over the same period of time.” These lean practices also are what helped save the company during the recession that began in the last decade.
Accomplishments and giving back
Graf cited making it out of the last recession as his proudest business accomplishment. Like many companies, LPI lost money due to the collapsing economy. Industry peers and trusted individuals attempted to convince Graf to file bankruptcy, but he refused. “You beg and borrow, you do what you’ve got to do and you come out a lot stronger,” Graf asserted, and that’s exactly what he did. At a tremendous cost, he kept the bulk of his team together while other companies did not fare so well, and LPI still is standing today. Reindl remarked on Graf’s leadership saying, “Mike’s been a great leader, and he inspires us to keep moving forward and keep taking opportunities. I think businesses have to have a guy like that.”
While he celebrated his employees for making the company what it is today, Graf also noted that having a family has been his biggest accomplishment, personally. He recognized the role his family has played in his success and acknowledged, “I have a very nice family – my wonderful wife, Linda, my two great kids and my three excellent golden retrievers.” Graf’s caring and appreciative nature spilled over into his work, too.
For the past 15 years, he has been giving back to the community by donating food at Thanksgiving and, more recently, at Easter. The recipient of Graf’s generosity is a local charity called House of Peace in Milwaukee. It is a Catholic organization that serves the poorest of the population, and Graf admired its community-based formula. Helping families celebrate the holidays by providing boxes full of food is a tradition LPI employees participate in, too. “My wife and I, and some people from the company, will pack and then unload a truck full of 500 to 600 boxes – about 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of food,” said Graf. Feeding between 100 to 200 families is something Graf took on because he simply wanted to “help some people out.”
Growing from a small company with a few employees and one Kluge into what LPI is today, Graf recognized the valuable opportunities he has been given over the years. He credited the National Geographic project with affording the company its big break. “So many people from the hot stamping industry are known in their city or state, but, from an early period of time, we were known for being one of the premier foil stamping companies in the country, if not the world,” he said.
Winning the FSEA Lifetime Achievement Award is the culmination of decades worth of work. For 32 years, Mike Graf and LPI have embraced a variety of challenges but have never wavered from core beliefs – intense devotion to people, the open embrace of change and innovation, a dedication to continuous improvement and always pursuing a solution to the customer’s need.
Reindl stressed his respect for Graf. “It’s interesting to see how people grow,” he said. “Some people hit a plateau and level off and other people just keep on growing. Mike’s one of those guys who continues to challenge himself and the people around him, and I think that’s helped us continue to grow in our business.”