Author Archives: Kevin Kelly

Emails, Texting and Business

iphone_addiction_798185Recently I banished iPhones and PDA’s from company meetings.  Over time it had become increasingly common to see staff checking their phones while a colleague tried to bring their attention to an issue. Or worse, they’d begin texting.  Not only is such behavior rude, study after study has shown that you cannot divide your attention between your phone and a conversation and do justice to either.  “Not unless you are negotiating Middle East peace,” went the one caveat I offered for getting on the phone during a meeting.  Our confabs aren’t very long, and if someone is expecting a call they can always bow out or reschedule it.

I became alert to the issue when I noticed people glancing at their phones during customer visits. Doing so just communicates exactly what you don’t want in the first place.  If I’m the customer I take away that we aren’t terribly important.  It doesn’t matter if you check by looking down at a phone slightly obscured by a table.  You can’t hide downcast eyes, nor fingers working quickly on a message.  Everyone present knows exactly what’s going on.  More importantly, the customer knows we’re not paying attention.

I don’t think anyone at our company means to be rude.  We’re just part of a culture that has become addicted to our phones.  Surveys show, for instance, that over 50% of Stanford University students believe they’ve developed an iPhone “habit”.  An unbelievable 8% report feeling that their iPad is jealous of their iPhone (these kids are smart?).  Businesspeople obviously aren’t immune.  We’ve become accustomed to putting our phones in our pockets and on our desks or on conference tables just waiting for that tweet, text, email or call to come through that requires  seemingly immediate attention.  Meanwhile those around us suffer from the attention deficit of others.

Worse yet, I think, people generally, especially younger employees, refuse to phone about an issue.  Instead they’d rather email or text.  When they email the cc line gets so crammed full of names it seems like a birthday invitation.  Then everyone kicks back their comments with those on the cc line getting whipped through circuits of information they often don’t need.  A wonderful rule I heard one company adopt states that after the third round emailing about an issue employees had to pick up the phone. Hearing a voice also helps develop a personal relationship in a way a message does not.

Some object to calling because they desire a paper trail.  They want proof a supplier or customer agreed to something.  The alternative? Summarize the phone call in an email, or better yet, trust that an understanding has been reached like we did in days of old.  Where agreement needs documentation, say like on pricing or scheduling, a quick note following a conversation should suffice.  If we are so suspicious of each other that we need documentation of every exchange, then other problems exist, trust being the most obvious.

Digital communications can present other tripwires.  Even in my wise old age I misunderstand tone in emails.  I don’t know how many times I’ve taken umbrage at something written only to find out I got it wrong.  On the equal and opposite side I’ve seen emails from normally balanced individuals that libel the recipient.  If the person had walked down the hall to work through the dispute, or picked up the phone, they wouldn’t have raised their blood pressure and that of others.  Instead, whatever caused the issue to devolve would have gotten solved.

I know I am no saint when it comes to iPhone abuse.  Too often I forget to turn it off when I get to the office. Then it rings during a meeting.  I’ve written angry emails when I should have picked up the phone.  I’ve disciplined myself over the last year to put those aside to decide once I’ve calmed down whether to hit “Send”.  Usually I end up spiking them.  My one exception: Complaint emails to airlines.  I figure venting can’t hurt because no one reads them anyway.

The final frontier remains internet use.  Games, shopping, stock trading, and so on also clog working hours, often leading to longer less productive days.  My first boss in journalism was an exceptionally disciplined man.  He came at 9, left at 5, and  wrote more stories in a year than just about anyone else.  Our chief operating officer Pallavi Joyappa is much the same.  I’m not there yet, but I’ve started to wean from Google.

I hope our iPhone policy helps us have more productive meetings.  Undoubtedly the messages will wait for us. Unless its President Obama texting for advice on Syria.  Then company policy says make excuses, quickly step outside and answer.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

imagesI recall a lunch many years ago with two executives from Exxon Mobil.  They laughed at what they saw coming for the flexible packaging industry.  Resin prices would start rising soon and wouldn’t stop.  Exxon would mint profits while many converters, unable to pass through the increases, would die.  Their giddiness wasn’t simply sadistic.  Resin companies had seen their prices fall for years as customers played rivals against each other. But the worm had turned.  Resin producers had consolidated to three or four from more than 10, which meant market power had shifted to survivors like Exxon and Nova Chemicals.

The two laughing sales guys proved prophetic.  Over the last five years resin prices have quadrupled.  The margins of those companies like Exxon that control their feedstocks have skyrocketed as natural gas (the primary source for plastics in this country) prices have collapsed.  The producers also more closely match their production to demand, slashing capacity to keep margins high rather than increase inventories.  That’s why even with new poly production slatted for 2017, prices won’t decline.  Resin manufacturers will simply shut older plants as needed.  With only a few producers setting the market — and most following the lead of Exxon  — the resin industry has transmogrified into an oligopoly.

Rising resin costs have met their match in customers unwilling to accept increases.  After all the food companies most of us sell to in turn sell to grocers who have kicked, screamed, and scratched to fight-off price hikes.  It’s not hard to see why.  Grocery margins remain mired in the low single digits. Kroger boasts an operating margin of about 2.8%.  Mighty WalMart can only do slightly better at 3.4%  but its profits have flat-lined for several quarters.  There’s no room to raise prices because competition in the food aisle remains too stiff.  So like some Medieval torture victim, the flexible packaging industry finds itself pressed to death.

Worse yet resin pricing isn’t the only cost hitting us.  Trucking charges have zoomed thanks to diesel, health insurance continues its mad, mad double-digit march, and the price of white ink has edged up 20% over the last five years driven by pigment cost.  Workers wouldn’t mind a little help keeping up with inflation as well.  We’ve tried to outrun these by increasing productivity and holding the line where we can.  But you can’t outrun the law of diminishing returns forever.

In fact, the rush to boost productivity has likely hurt the industry.   Many of us have tried to cut costs by replacing old, less efficient capacity with new, faster machinery.  But recent vintage printing presses often produce nearly twice as much as the ones they replace.  If too many companies take this route — and they have in the packaging industry — overcapacity ensues.   So many new printing presses have been bought over the last few years, one executive from a large press manufacturer said he couldn’t fathom how the industry would ever make a return.  Many companies won’t.

Well the desperate do desperate things.  Not every packaging sector faces overcapacity — some have already consolidated — but where too many machines chase too few customers prices have fallen while costs climb.  Even in segments where consolidation has shrunk the field to just a handful, customers fight increases pointing to the pressure exerted by WalMart.  Eventually something has to give.  Maybe high prices will force down plastics use. Or consolidation will continue until flexible packaging companies have the market power to emulate their resin suppliers.  Even then it will take some courage to reflect increases.  My father’s quip sums up the industry’s historical mindset: “If there were only one converter, he’d still cut his own prices.”

Visiting Israel Just Before the Rockets

israel-city-pictures-133083This summer, the week before Israel and Gaza began flinging rockets at each other, I found myself looking at the Mediterranean Sea from my hotel balcony in Tel Aviv.  I had come to the Holy Land to visit Hewlett-Packard’s Indigo printing division, the company responsible for our new 30″ wide Indigo digital press. This extraordinary piece of technology transmits art work from a computer and prints it onto plastic without using printing plates.  Changeovers between jobs happen with the click of a mouse.  Digital has been around for many years, but this is the first press H-P has built specifically to print on plastic.  Lucky for us, we are the beta site for the new machine.  Which is why I was gazing at Tel Aviv’s beach.

I had flown to Israel to learn more about the machine prior its arrival.  I admit that a few days earlier I had equivocated about coming.  Israeli soldiers had flooded into the Palestinian cities of Hebron and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank looking for three Jewish teens who had disappeared.  They also took the opportunity to arrest members of Hamas, the Islamic movement opposed to the Occupation.  Palestinian youths reacted angrily to the arrests, and rioting broke out across the region.  I wrote one of my H-P contacts asking if we should still come.  Having covered the region as a journalist many years ago I knew how such moments could spin out of control so I worried about the safety of those traveling with me.  His reply chided me for even thinking about not coming and said that the streets of Tel Aviv were safer than Paris.

So off to Israel I went with our business partners and two senior colleagues.  The trip astounded me on many levels.  I have never been in a foreign city where I felt like I had never left home.  Tel Aviv must be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  Our meals seemed to encompass the globe, including one evening where we ate Cuban food.  Our hotel’s beach turned out to be where gay’s congregated to sun bathe, a group that would not show themselves in most of the Middle East.  English was widely spoken and news easy to come by.   Plus so many Israelis seemed connected to the United States.  Most of our H-P contacts had lived there for a few years or had family in the U.S. and perhaps even gone to school stateside.

But I caution colleagues I travel with not to assume the places we visit are like home.  If you do, you miss nuances that could later effect doing business, or simply end up missing the world’s diversity.  Israel proved no different.  An hour drive by car to Jerusalem transported you back into the beginning of time, with devout religious from the three major faith traditions jostling each other in the Old City’s alleys.  Islam’s second holiest mosque, the Dome of the Rock sits right above the wall of the Jewish second temple which is only a few minutes from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which stands on the ground legend says Jesus Christ died.  All the pilgrims offering their devotions reminded me more of the 16th century than the 21st century.  Tel Aviv seemed far longer than an hour away.

Later this summer my son and I saw a play in London entitled “Holy Warriors”.  The piece ponders how history might have been different if Richard the Lionheart of England had chosen to visit Jerusalem at the conclusion of the third crusade, when he forged a truce with the great Islamic chief Saladin that opened the city to Christian pilgrims and merchants.  Perhaps the two religions would have cemented a lasting peace.  Instead, Richard leaves for Europe, unwilling to enter a city still under Muslim administration.  Down through the years the play takes us to today, when Christians, Muslims and now Jews battle throughout the region, with much of the conflict centered in historic Palestine.

I saw hints of the conflict on the drive back to Tel Aviv.  New Jewish settlements dotted the hills around Jerusalem, encroaching on the eastern half of the city once controlled by Palestinians.  A high wall zig-zagged across the landscape, built by the Israeli government trying to protect its cities from suicide bombers.  One settlement I saw seemed completely surrounded by barbed wire.  Meanwhile, out of sight but not out of mind, a few miles to the east the IDF continued its search for the teens, which dominated the news during our visit.

The tensions ate at me.  As an Irish-American I know the history of my own people, their land stolen by the British, their religion and language banned.   My family arrived in the 1920s following a bloody War of Independence against British soldiers partly drawn from prisons.  I could not but feel some sympathy for the Palestinians on the other side of that long, snaking wall.  On the other hand, the murder of the three teens, found dead a few days after we left, drove home just how wide a gulf exists between the two sides.  What could be gained by such brutality?

I’m saddened Tel Aviv isn’t Paris after all.  I’m glad to have gone and happy to have left a week before the Hamas rocket attacks started.  I formed a much deeper appreciation for what H-P has achieved in digital printing.  The string of high-tech companies that surround the city point to a vibrant economy firmly planted in the 21st century.  But the wall, the occupation, the rockets, the clashes in the West Bank point to tensions inherited from a much earlier time.

The play Cormac and I saw concludes with Richard in Purgatory, having to witness the bloodshed spilled over the centuries in part thanks to his unwillingness to bury the hatchet.  Finally, he is given another chance.  He can enter Jerusalem, or not.  If he decides not to, the bloodshed goes on and he goes to Hell.  If he decides to set foot in the Old City, peace comes and he enters Heaven.  Of course he cannot bring himself to enter Jerusalem, leaving me to wonder if cosmopolitan Tel Aviv will ever find itself free from the troubles conjured by that ancient city.

tel aviv

Tel Aviv, Israel

My National Catholic Reporter Article on Immigration

NCROver the July 4 weekend the National Catholic Reporter, one of the most widely read newspapers among Catholics and other faiths, published my article about immigration on its front page.  The piece is a little bit more political than the blog I wrote on immigration because I point to the Republican Party as the main reason we will not get comprehensive immigration reform this year.

It is frustrating  that immigration reform has become such a political football.  Over 11 million people continue to live in this country without legal status while doing jobs other Americans largely do not want.  Hispanics toil in the fields of Salinas, for instance, bent over cutting iceberg lettuce using machetes, probably not too differently than Okies did in the 1930s.  There’s no line of Anglos waiting to take these jobs. In fact when one grower recruited welfare-to-work candidates in the 2000s they usually lasted a single day.

The left argues against immigration reform on the grounds that immigration depresses wages. This argument has been used against immigrants since the 1840s, when the Irish began coming in waves thanks to the potato famine.  But this position has been largely ignored by the Democrats for many reasons, including the hope that Hispanic voters would back the party.  But given the pro-life views of Hispanics there is no guarantee this would happen over the long-term.

Republicans simply seem hamstrung.  Speaker Boehner would like to move some sort of package through, but the Tea Party will not have it.  Their opposition stems from many beliefs, including worry that if those without status  became newly minted Americans they would end up on welfare or worse.  Instead, they argue for strengthening borders and deporting as many illegals as possible.  I heard Newt Gingrich talk once in a small group and he argued that those without status should return to their countries and apply to return.  But how would he deport 11 million people? I asked.  Rail cars?  Imagine that image.  He had no answer. Other manufacturers in the room asked him who would do the jobs those people performed. Again, no answer.

How ironic this article was published on Independence Day.  Today we celebrate the American spirit, which includes the acceptance of immigrants, those who typically drive the next generation of innovation and provide the labor that increases productivity.  It is not a day we celebrate closing our borders, disenfranchising and deporting 11 million people, a move which would wreck our history of welcoming those “yearning to breathe free” as the Statue of Liberty declares.

If you favor immigration reform please write or email your Congressperson.  Only by adding our voices will anything get done.  Since involvement in the political process is  something to be encouraged anyway, get involved if you don’t favor comprehensive reform.  But if you believe that, come up with a realistic plan to help those in our country who hide in the shadows.

Enjoy the article.

Published in National Catholic Reporter (http://ncronline.org)

 Immigration raids harm immigrants, employers

Kevin Kelly    |  Jul. 7, 2014   Immigration and the Church

As the current congressional session dwindles away, immigration reform looks dead. With the House Republican caucus in disarray following the electoral defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and the hardening anti-immigrant posture of the party, the Senate’s comprehensive reform package likely won’t get passed. This means any overhaul appears dead until after the presidential elections in 2016.

This is bad news for immigrants and terrible news for employers. Immigrants will continue to live in fear of deportation and companies will continue to be afraid of the “silent raids” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that have become so widespread under President Barack Obama.

About two years ago, our company, Emerald Packaging Inc., which manufactures plastic packaging for food, suffered a silent raid. ICE came to our Union City, Calif., headquarters without notice and hustled off copies of our I-9s, the forms employees must fill out detailing their right to work in the United States.

ICE checks social security numbers and work visa status. Anyone whose name does not match the declared social security number or whose work visa has lapsed must be terminated. Companies face stiff penalties for such technicalities as putting information in the wrong box on the form — a common error, since the I-9 is complicated. Owners can be charged with felonies if they knowingly hired those living in the U.S. illegally.

Our audit took three weeks but has left wounds that will never heal. We lost 18 people out of a staff of 200. They were some of our longest-tenured employees, the best machinists and operators. The result? Productivity fell and costs zoomed. Those affected lost well-paying jobs. Some suffered home foreclosures and battled depression and anxiety. I felt so helpless to protect them and so angry at the financial impact on our business that I sought grief counseling. It did not work.

We had no idea if we had on staff immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally. For many years, no system existed to check. The government now provides the E-Verify system, which matches social security numbers, but the law does not allow checking on current employees. Among our 180 factory employees, we have many immigrants. Many arrived years ago, bought homes, raised families, paid taxes and contributed mightily to our company.

Take Miguel Gonzales. He had worked with us for more than 20 years, maintaining and troubleshooting the toughest machines in our company. Miguel was a model employee, never missed a day, able to handle his machines without help from our overworked maintenance department. He was also a strong leader, willing to speak his mind when he felt employees weren’t being treated fairly or managers were playing favorites. He made more than $18 an hour plus full benefits, including medical coverage for his family.

Word of the raid spread through the factory. Within 48 hours, nine employees identified themselves as being in the country illegally. Because the law says we cannot knowingly employ such people, we had to let them go. Over the following weeks, a steady trickle confessed. By the time ICE came back and told us that 18 of our employees were not eligible to work, 17 had outed themselves, including Miguel. Fortunately, ICE found the company had done nothing wrong and we were not fined.

Without Miguel, bag department productivity fell, about 4 percent during the quarter after he left. Other departments suffered too. The head of our ink department, Sergio, who had worked with us for more than 15 years, ended up out the door despite living in the country since childhood. Sergio earned well over $20 an hour and was famous for finding unique ways to save money. The next quarter after we lost him our ink costs rose 10 percent. His replacement simply lacked his inventiveness. During the next two years, Sergio’s dismissal cost the company more than $600,000, money that could have been invested in equipment that would create jobs.

Fast-forward two years. Six of the 18 whom we had let go are back. They achieved legal status through various means. One received his work permit due to illness of a child. Another was already en route to a green card. Two achieved status through another family member.  Sergio, who promptly cut ink costs 10 percent upon his return, turned out to be a citizen whose status had been confused by the movement of his family back and forth across the border and improper record-keeping by our government. It took him two years to rectify the problem, during which he could have been deported anytime. His wife, overcome with anxiety, ended up on medication.

Most of the remainder, I think, found other jobs. I know two returned to Mexico, including Miguel. He simply decided he hated living in the United States. He told me he could not understand a country that persecuted hardworking, tax-paying individuals, a country that wanted Mexican labor but pretended otherwise. He was tired of looking over his shoulder. He took his family, including three American-born children, and left.

Why didn’t at least the six who gained status do so earlier? If you knew the immigration maze, you might understand. Many Hispanics do not trust the system. They are routinely gamed by lawyers who demand money up front and then never do anything. The client does not feel they can sue because they are without status. Then there is the system itself, which can take two identical cases and make completely opposite rulings, leading to a green card for one, and deportation for another. Cost is also a barrier. Getting status can cost more than $20,000.

Given my company’s experience, I wonder how many of the 11 million immigrants living in this country illegally have a path to legalization. Six of our 18 did, or 30 percent. It is a small sample pool, but what if 30 percent of such immigrants could gain status but are simply too afraid or confused? If so, more than 3 million people could be legalized today regardless of what Congress does.

I am the grandson of Irish immigrants who fled poverty and civil war during the 1920s. Undoubtedly, the door would have been closed to them under today’s system. Instead, my paternal grandfather, who had very little education, worked as a laborer and sent my father to college. He started a successful business and has contributed to society through extensive charitable activities. Clearly, our country would be poorer without his success and that of others like him, the sons and daughters of immigrants.

The irony is that silent raids have taken off under a Democratic president, one who says he favors immigration reform. Under the Obama administration, ICE I-9 audits have gone stratospheric. Since 2008, more than 12,000 raids have been conducted, with more than 300,000 people losing jobs. No other period in our history comes close.

Now the fate of immigrants waits on Congress. The Senate passed a good bill. It would provide a path toward citizenship for people like Miguel. Anything that keeps America productive cannot be so wrong. We need hard workers. Many Americans, especially in California, no longer want or have the skills for factory jobs, not even well-paying jobs like those we offer. Accepting this reality leads to only one answer: immigration reform. The House, especially Republican members, only cause pain to immigrants and harm to our economy the longer they refuse to act.

Kevin Kelly is CEO of Emerald Packaging in Union City, Calif., and a former reporter for Business Week.

 

 

 

Expansion, Worry and Tums

indexI remember exactly where I was when the insurer American International Group (AIG) collapsed in 2008–standing in Intercontinental Airport in Houston, waiting for a flight to Mexico. The news sent a shiver through me. I knew at that moment the long expansion of our economy had ended. I also concluded in an instant that we would not purchase the $4 million printing press that I had been on the verge of buying. Time to preserve cash, I figured. Get ready for reduced demand. Hunker down.

My mindset remained unchanged for the next five years. When we needed additional printing capacity to meet new demand thanks to competitors who had gone out of business we bought a used machine for $250,000. We upgraded our bag making equipment but that cost less than $300,000. One year we invested only $1 million, unheard of prior to the crash. During that time we did not touch our Wells Fargo line of credit, instead building a cash balance. I can’t say this didn’t frustrate them. After all, they make bucks when we borrow, not when we stockpile. Of course our strategy mimicked many companies. Paying down debt, holding onto earnings, avoiding investment became a wide practice. Given our anemic recovery, it remains the recipe.

This year has been radically different for us though. Rising demand has compelled us to buy a printing press,  additional finishing equipment including a laser system to perforate plastic so it breathes, a slitter to make small rolls from larger ones, a tandem laminator to produce multilayered packaging structures, and a pouch machine.  We’ve had to purchase a new building to make room for  these investments. So far we have ploughed over $14 million into our company, the largest amount in our company’s 51 year history. Most of this equipment is an extension of things we already do.

Not the pouch machine. It’ll be our first. It allows us to dive deeper into value-added packaging.  Retailers and grocers have embraced the stand-up pouch for good reasons.  They attract shoppers with dazzling graphics.  Pouches take up less space than the cans and glass containers they’re replacing. Their lighter weight allows more packages per truck, cutting carbon emissions.  Now we’ll be able to participate in this growing market leveraging the print quality of our ten and eight color printing presses.

If this isn’t enough we’ve become the beta site for a new print technology for flexible packaging called digital printing. We’re working arm and arm with Hewlett Packard  to launch their 30″ Indigo  printing press.  Our company is one of two in the country they’ve partnered with and the only one making flexible packaging.  It’s quite an honor HP chose us to help roll out this technology, which makes short run, customized or personalized packaging suddenly economic and at a quality unmatched by any other print technologies.  I know they picked us because we’re a thriving company and market leader in our industry.  But being a beta site rattles my nerves. We’ve never been the first to market with a disruptive technology before.

So the outlay of cash to move into the building along with the debt taken to buy the equipment has my teeth on edge. We’re investing while other manufacturers continue to hold back. I’m breaking my dictum that cash is king. Instead I’ve bet on the future. I’m betting customer demand will continue to grow, that all the new business we’ve accumulated will not disappear. As a pessimist — and who would dispute that economic fundamentals justify such an attitude — I worry. I worry hard. I don’t sleep.

But what saved us during the recession would kill us in the future. The failure to invest, to remain on the cutting edge of technology and have enough capacity to meet new demand, has undone many companies. I know that. I’ve seen it. So despite my anxiety our company has surged forward. I can’t claim to see the future as clearly as I did standing in Intercontinental Airport six years ago. But my gut tells me all will work out. I just need to keep a steady supply of Tums at my side. Ultimate Strength preferably.

Memorial Day Thoughts, 2014

cadet2 NC07Thirty years ago I never imagined being in formation, commemorating Memorial Day in formal ceremony, while dressed head-to-toe as a corporal in Union Army uniform. No, while marching in the streets of London protesting apartheid, the nuclear arms race and the bombing of Libya during graduate school I didn’t project myself standing here at requiem arms honoring the American dead of wars past and present, but specifically those who died between 1861 and 1865.

Briefly, I have my wife to thank for this. She found a wonderful group of Civil War re-enactors, men and women who encourage an interest in history by spending several weekends a year doing living history, dressing, living and fighting as those on the battlefield did 150 years ago.  This group of 70 or so re-enactors in particular, the 20th Maine Co. G based in northern California, has a program for children under 12 which teaches them about the period. The cadet corps, as it is called,  proved a perfect match for my son Cormac, then 7, who dove into history at a very young age, probably around four, and has never varied. Not many of his contemporaries in school shared his enthusiasm — in fact none did — but he found a home among kids who donned wool uniforms, learned how to hold a rifle circa 1861, learned the battlefield maneuvers and talked history late into the night around campfires. My wife found him a home, and I came along for the ride.  But over the last nine years it has become more than that to me. I look forward to the fellowship and the immersion into a different time.

These days I am the second-in-command of our group’s cadet unit, even though Cormac, 16, now takes the field with a black powder rifle to duel Confederates.  This day I hover nervously in back ranks, behind the 12 to 14 year olds, who have their heads lowered, replica rifles upside down, with muzzle on the toe of their boot and butt resting against their lowered forehead.  They are holding the position as a sign of respect for those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address. I’m looking for any signs of fainting or sickness which can happen if  the youngsters haven’t  taken enough water or lock their knees, which effects blood flow.  While I keep my eye on 10 cadets, I listen to the ceremony and peek around the parade ground watching the event along with a couple of dozen civilians.  I can’t help but admire the reverence of the 200 Confederate and Union re-enactors standing at requiem arms, our commander Dan dressed smartly standing straight at attention.

The service begins with some history.  The Confederate brigade commander walks through the evolution of the day, which actually started in the South in 1862 when the women of Savannah, Georgia decorated the graves of the war dead.  The Northern states adopted the tradition in 1868 declaring May 30 Decoration Day.  My imagination wanders to images of widows, in black, dressing the dirt covered bodies of their husbands, fathers and children.  Gradually the day expanded beyond a remembrance of the Civil War dead to include those fallen in World War I and World War II and so on.  The federal government officially christened May 30 Memorial Day in 1967.  A year later they moved it to the last Monday in May, thereby creating a three-day weekend.  Like many, I am sure, I did not know the roots of the holiday which  now is mainly known as the beginning of summer, reserved for barbecues, beer and 50% off sales.

Not everywhere though, certainly not here.  We progress through a flag raising to half mast, a 21 gun salute and a reading by a pretty good Lincoln impersonator of the Gettysburg address with its stirring final words recalling the many who sacrificed their lives “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”  Every time I read or hear those words I think they speak to us today.  I believe Lincoln constructed the speech talking to generations yet to come, challenging us to ensure that our government by the people should not perish.

The ceremony calls forward those veterans in attendance for recognition, and remembers the dead of more recent wars.  This is when my 25-year-old self returns.  Despite what these speakers say today, I can’t accept that those who fought and died in Vietnam and Iraq did so to ensure democracy not perish.  Those wars seem horribly misguided seen in the light of the Civil War, where the very existence of the nation hung in balance. In fact we know now that our leaders in the instance of Vietnam knew but did not tell us that the war was unwinnable, the cause not worth the cost.  Fighting these conflicts  chipped away at the republic Lincoln called us to preserve, instilling fear among us and diverting dollars that could have been used to build the nation he imagined.  As I stand behind the cadets I worry about whether they will be thrown into conflicts that lack the meaning of the Civil War or World War II, their lives lost in foreign lands where we don’t belong.

Thanks  to Civil War re-enacting, thanks to my wife, my son, I stand and ponder.  And catch the first of two 12 year olds that day before they faint.  May that be the worst to ever befalls them in uniform.  Unless it really is about preserving, as Lincoln said, “our nation conceived in liberty.”

Come out and join us some year.  We’re at Roaring Camp in Felton, California near Santa Cruz every Memorial Day.  Or visit the nearest military cemetery on that last Monday in May and read the Gettysburg address.  I promise you will not leave unchanged.

Entering the Digital Print World

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Today it was announced at the Interpack Tradeshow in Germany that Emerald Packaging is entering a brave new world: Digital Print.  We’ve been selected as a beta site by Hewlett-Packard for its new 30″ WS20000 digital printing press, the first of its kind able to print on traditional flexible packaging structures.

Digital printing is a revolution. It now becomes possible to run lot sizes as small as one, opening the world to personalization, customization and short run work that’s impossible on today’s printing presses.  That’s because digital does away with the printing plates, sending the image directly from computer to press.  Customers can play with color without messing from the safety of a computer keyboard.  This means you can easily create different designs, perfect for test marketing or creating regional or generational or event specific product.  For instance, if you want to print 30,000 packages for a specific football game digital printing makes such a short run possible.  Or say you want to put individual names on a your package, like a single serve meal that your child takes to school (reminding them to eat).  You can print one package with a name on it, or many packages with many different names. Coke did this last summer in Europe, employing several digital label presses to print names (they picked the top 150 names in several countries) on their bottles, forging an individual connection between person and brand.  Market share jumped three percentage points.

There’s nothing cooler than watching this press work.  You can literally changeover in a single image, moving from one label to another without any material waste.  Moreover, there is no ink trapping required. Registration is dead-on perfect. The print itself matches rotogravure, which means top quality.  You can also print several sku’s at one time since the press doesn’t need plates and the ink system can create different colors across a single web, or sheet of plastic.

This really opens the world to short runs.  Right now, most printers require minimums in order to cover set-up costs.  Then there’s the expense of plates which customers absorb.  Sometimes plates end up costing more than the job itself.  Forced to run minimums, customers end up carrying far more inventory than they want or need.  Digital gets rid of these issues.  There’s little set up time because the image sent from prepress is what prints. No plates.  Minimums go away which means no excessive inventory.

It’s the ultimate green machine. No waste plastic. No printing plates. Plus pollution free inks.  Welcome to the brave new world of printing.  The machine will be here in late June.  We’d love to have you check it out.

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