Executive Perspectives: John Shanley, president of Labels West Inc.
As part of Print+Promo’s ongoing feature, Executive Perspectives, we get to know leading professionals in the print and promotional industry. This month, we interviewed John Shanley, president of Labels West Inc., Woodinville, Wash. Here, he explains the importance of human connection, sheds light on his decision-making process and advocates for the purchase of high-end wine.
How did you get started in this industry, and what path did you take to land in your current role?
John Shanley: When I was growing up, my father ran a printing press for a small label printing company in Seattle. One evening, in 1978, he came home from work and said he’d had enough of working for someone else. He borrowed money from everyone we knew, mortgaged our home and purchased a few old, broken-down printing presses. At age 13, I began running one of those old presses. I [was] printing labels that went on film strip and motion picture film canisters. I was hooked on printing from the start. After two years running a press, I made the move to the prepress department, setting type and laying out artwork for plate production. At age 21, I joined our sales team. There were only two of us at the time, so my move doubled the size of the sales department. Sales came naturally to me, and I enjoyed it very much. As the company grew, I began expanding the sales team. After adding several sales reps, I assumed the position of sales manager. In 1996, my parents retired from the business, and I assumed the role of president. In 2008, I completed the purchase of the business from my parents and continue to be in charge of day-to-day operations.
How do you set goals for yourself? For your business?
JS: The way I like to set goals, personally and professionally, is very much the same. I set a primary goal with a timeline. I then set several incremental goals (or steps) that support the primary goal. I then sit down with my team members and discuss steps and timelines. With the help of the team, we decide on the “how” and “when” for each step. At that point, it becomes the team’s goal. That’s when I pretty much get out of the way and let the team members make it happen. I generally like to work on a “next three months,” “next year,” “next five years” timeline when developing goals.
How does the economy continue to affect the industry?
JS: Demand for print rises and falls with the health of the economy. This is especially true in the retail product packaging sector. This is even more important in the premium packaging space where most of our labels end up. We produce fancy, high-end packaging for premium retail products. When the economy is not doing as well, people tend to tighten their belts. An example would be someone purchasing wine. If the economy is humming along, the consumer might not think as much about the cost of that wine and may be more willing to purchase a premium brand (with a premium label). If the economy is doing poorly, the consumer is more likely to want to purchase wine at a lower price point. That less expensive wine will most likely have a less expensive label on the bottle. That decision affects my business. This is true for many other retail products.
What do you expect to be some of the biggest challenges the industry will face?
JS: One of the biggest challenges right now is hiring and retaining good, quality employees. Unemployment is very low especially here in the Pacific Northwest. Good-paying, entry-level positions are available everywhere. It’s hard to compete for employees. Older workers are retiring, and it’s becoming harder and harder to get younger workers interested in print as a career. We continue to automate as much as possible, but we believe the human side of our business will always be our primary competitive advantage. It will continue to be difficult to hire good employees.
What keeps you up at night?
JS: I worry about making good decisions. I have 60 employees and their families counting on me to make the right decisions. It’s stressful. What I have done is surrounded myself with people who are smarter than I am. I have to rely on them to help me make the proper decisions at the proper time. Having a good team helps me sleep at night.
What do you think is the most exciting, cutting-edge thing your company is doing right now? Why?
JS: We are always looking for ways to make our packaging solutions stand out on crowded store shelves. We have recently added in-line, silk-screen printing to [our] list of available embellishment processes. We are adding special visual and tactile coatings to the labels we produce. Anything we can do to make the consumer notice and want to touch the product increases the likelihood that the consumer will buy that product. It may sound a little old-fashioned, but we are making an effort to add a “human touch” as much as possible to any interaction with our customers and suppliers. A person answers our phone when it rings. Our reps get to know our customers on a personal level. Automation certainly has its place, especially in the production part of our business. We firmly believe that the human side of our business is our biggest competitive advantage. People still want to do business with people they like.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
JS: I love to camp and ride my mountain bike with my family in the summer. In the winter, if I’m not working, I’m snow skiing. I spend two weeks each winter helicopter skiing in Canada. Making labels supports my skiing habit!