By Khalida Sarwari
At one time or another, you may have wandered through the condiment aisle at Wegmans and, staring at a sea of sauces dressed in brightly colored labels, found yourself mesmerized by barbecue marinades bearing descriptions such as sweet, hot, and smoky.
Or, maybe at your favorite brewery you’ve found yourself reaching for a cold one from Cider Hill Cellars or Clown Shoes Beer and catching a glimpse of the whimsical artwork on the labels before taking that first refreshing sip.
What you probably don’t know is that the labels for many of New England’s recognizable food and beverage brands are mass-produced inside a 65,000-square-foot facility in Andover, Massachusetts. There, at the end of a winding, tree-lined road, is the headquarters of New England Label: a pharmaceutical lab-turned-industrial warehouse that holds half a dozen printing presses, both of the digital and analog varieties. Throughout the day, the machines churn out labels, in addition to booklets, decals, and manuals, continuously and by the stackloads amid the distinct crackle of the radio and gentle hum of fans.
“It’s a sticky business,” says a smiling Ryan Dunlevy, a Northeastern graduate who is in line with his sister, Kara, to take over the reins of the business from their father.
At New England Label, labels of all kinds are processed, printed, and, in some cases, designed and prototyped. There are labels for baby food, soaps, embalming fluid, vitamins, protein powders, medicine, and industrial products. Some labels are simple, and others require more time and effort to design.
From start to finish, the production process can take hours, or in some cases, up to a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the job. It involves selecting the proper material for the label, approving a proof, printing, die cutting it, stripping away the waste, and laminating it. Then inspectors must count, weigh, and shrink-wrap rolls of the labels before sending them on their way to various corners of New England, and sometimes as far away as India and China.
“People don’t realize there’s a lot more that goes into a label than you think,” says Dunlevy. “It’s usually unfortunately one of the last things people think of.”
As the sales and marketing manager of New England Label, Dunlevy handles the company’s business development, a role he has embraced since stepping into it five years ago after a brief career in technology. His sister, the company’s general manager, helps him run day-to-day operations.
Dunlevy, who graduated from Northeastern in 2009 with an international business degree, sees himself in a position to help take the 26-year-old family business to the next level. But he’s quickly learning that adapting to the modern world isn’t without its challenges. As he and his sister work to grow the multi-million dollar company and broaden their customer base beyond New England, they must compete against business Goliaths and global brands such as Amazon.
“The way they operate has completely changed the way that every consumer expects things to happen,” says Dunlevy. “You can order anything on Amazon and get it the next day. And I think that a lot of people, especially in the 35-and-below category, are just so used to getting anything they want, whenever they want it, immediately like instant gratification, and that’s hard to explain to people when there is a manufacturing process that goes through it.”
Dunlevy appears to be up for the challenge. Keeping up with Amazon, he says, means companies such as New England Label will need to be “quicker, faster, and smarter.” That means spending two or three weeks on a single job is no longer viable; now they have to be able to deliver results as soon as possible.
Keeping pace also requires a certain level of honesty with customers, says Dunlevy. He’s discovered that working with clients to set expectations early in the production process is the key to maintaining their trust and loyalty.
Dunlevy doesn’t regret the major career pivot he made five years ago to join the family business; his Northeastern education prepared him well for making the transition, he says, by providing him access to a wide network and opportunity to develop a broad skill set from working various co-op jobs.
“Northeastern made me a more competitive and scrappy person, which has translated to how I run my day- to-day business,” he says.
He finds the variety of the job and the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of his clients’ companies to be particularly rewarding.
“It’s a weird business, but it’s a fun business, and there’s a lot going on every day,” he says. “You’ll never think of labels [the same way] again after you come through here.”