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Avonlea Labels’ enviable journey

Australian converter Avonlea Labels has come a long way since its early days based in a garage

Australian converter Avonlea Labels has come a long way since its early days based in a garage

Burgeoning business start-ups that first see the light of day in a suburban garage are no longer considered the breathtaking rarity they might once have been regarded. Indeed, often this gestation is almost a guarantee of potential success.

However, when a labeling business can lay claim to its early years in two garages, its ultimate success might justifiably be considered as doubled.

The early 2000s witnessed such a double whammy, when the purchase of Avonlea Labels by the Sydney-based Ellis family from its previously garage-housed label printing proprietors saw it promptly moved into the Ellis suburban garage.

The move was a logical step for Mike Ellis, today’s Avonlea elder statesman based on his early pre-press background. It was this early graphic involvement which had motivated his move to self-employment as a rudimentary label printer in the garage of his Sydney suburban home, the infant undertaking’s early output confined to simple label products.

To overcome the limitations of its output capacity – and a far sighted bid to deal with the challenges of the looming digital era – motivated the purchase a mere six months later of a small HP2020, together with a digital die-cutter that the teenaged Matt Ellis and his sister helped operate after their day’s homework had been completed.

Just two years later, the pioneering team was impressing early customers with the benefits of ultra-short runs and fast deliveries.

Unstoppable growth

Another move in early 2009 meant enlarged premises, enlarged plant and enlarged product output.

Ultimately the seemingly unstoppable growth pattern produced the need for today’s larger Castle Hill factory and in Mike Ellis’ words, ‘putting our money where mouth is’. He replaced the firm’s first HP Indigo with a new WS6800 digital label and packaging press and invested in its first industrial scale machine – a refurbished 7-color HP Indigo 4500.

It opened up a second shift on Avonlea’s digital line to maintain its lead times and cope with the needs not only of existing – but importantly new – customers. It meant adding digital flexible packaging, pouches and sachets.

Meanwhile the burgeoning Avonlea team had grown to 15, headed by Mike Ellis’ son Matt who had joined the business in 2011. By the end of 2017 the company made the major generational move, with Mike Ellis taking a back seat and his son buying him out to occupy the managing director’s chair.

Looking back on a youthful background as a competitive team player in a spectrum of sports including representative soccer and baseball, Matt Ellis reminisces on competitive team participation sports as having played a major role in his personal development.

‘I was always into sport and already from a young age had a paid contract lined up which unfortunately was cut short by an early injury,’ he recalls. ‘The experience taught me discipline, how to fail, how to work with peopled with whom I would not necessarily get on, off the field.’

‘I don’t think I know if I would be the person I am today without having learned these skills at a young age,’ he admits, referring to those early years spent rounding out his skills in online marketing and mastering the new technologies delivered by the computer age. ‘When I was 17 I was selling Google Words to SMEs over the phone, which is really where my journey began.’

It comes down to such focused qualifications and career determination, specialist training and the ambition to impress his peers which provide the clues to the young MD’s vision for the future of his firm, driving the Avonlea owner along his successful corporate path today. This is demonstrated by such accolades as Avonlea’s presence for the past three years on the Australian Financial Review’s ‘Fast 100’ list, featuring the fastest-growing companies in Australia measured by year on year revenue growth, while Matt Ellis came away with a personal Western Sydney Business Excellence gong last year.

Opportunity

Quizzed as to whether in today’s market conditions Matt Ellis would establish a hypothetical new label printing operation, the confident MD is unequivocal: ‘Yes, absolutely – there is so much opportunity out there.’

‘If you know how to market your company and find your niche, you will win; however if you’re an operator who knows how to print but not how to market, you will struggle,’ he continues. ‘If social media is not part of your marketing strategy, you aren’t marketing – period.’

Ellis emphasizes the importance of ongoing training of staff. Avonlea’s in-house training is of utmost importance, to the extent that the firm employs Spectra Training to keep its apprenticeship program up to speed.

He foreshadows major changes within the Australian label printing sector over the next five years, citing far-reaching developments such as augmented reality and stricter application of recyclable and compostable materials. For end product needs, such applications as short run packaging, more label personalization, cloud-based solutions and more sophisticated packaging integrated with online marketing strategies are considered crucial.

Such a list prioritizes the importance of clients viewing his company as a partner rather than a printer. ‘To achieve that requires rock solid systems and technologies that drive transparency and constructive communication,’ says Ellis. ‘We want to establish the company as the standard in service and innovation in the label and print industry. I want other printing businesses to reference us when talking about what success looks like.’

Not to be outdone in his five year forecast of what’s in store in the overall label industry, the Avonlea MD comes closer to home with his corporate prognostication. Asked to name the five-year stepping stones for his company, he has little hesitation in listing such positive steps as a new rebrand, headed by a new website containing a wider range of free resources, and a cornucopia of new product offerings leveraging the latest technologies and materials.

Such initiatives for further growth as a bigger team, new machinery and yet another premises upgrade can be taken for granted. The more innovative components of his five-year plan show Matt Ellis’ breadth of thinking, demonstrated by the foresight in his citing ‘more complementary partnerships with other companies in the industry’.

Ultimately it can be summed up by what he considers it takes to create an award-winning label: the three-pronged need to understand the customer’s industry and its consumers, great design, and a great team to guide its vision to reality.

The Avonlea MD is convinced his formula is based on sound foundations: knowledge of where the market is headed and what today’s customer is looking for. He is determined that the team he now heads is structured on the right components and foundations. ‘We understand marketing and what’s next in our industry’, he emphasizes.

‘We’re not the print-and-go type of outfit; we stick around and listen to what our customers have to say because we know that’s the only way to give the best value to their business, regardless of their industry.’

‘Our amazing team is closely aligned with our vision. We are paranoid about not deviating from those directions and determined not to rest on our laurels.’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Henry Mendelson is Labels & Labeling's Oceania correspondent.

He covers labels and packaging printing developments in the Australasia region for the publication.

See author’s profile »