With a proven track record for strengthening businesses and organizations, Aladdin Label's Tom Cobery is Package Printing's TLMI Converter of the Year.

Bean Town Business Builder
from Package Printing article;

Tom Cobery says that it was "almost comical" how he got into the label printing industry back in the early 1980s. His contributions, though, to both the industry in general, and the TLMI in particular, are no laughing matter. His leadership in guiding two companies and the TLMI down a path of solid growth has earned him this year's selection as the TLMI Converter of the Year.

An accountant by training, Cobery received a degree from Bentley College in 1972 and proceeded to work in public accounting. His call into the label printing industry came in a roundabout way when his high-tech company outside of Boston was sold in early 1982. As a courtesy to one of its board members, Cobery met with Len Peterson, founder and owner of Label Art, and Bill Flynn, newly hired as CEO. Discussions worked out, and he has been making his mark in the label industry ever since.

Label Art at the time had sales of less than $5 million, and specialized in short-run, pressure-sensitive label printing. With his financial background, Cobery initially reported to Flynn as chief financial officer, moved to chief operating officer in 1986, and became its president and CEO upon Flynn's departure in 1987.

During the 18 years he was in senior management positions at Label Art, the company grew from $5 million in sales to more than $50 million. From one manufacturing operation when he came on board in 1982, the company peaked at six plants before settling in at four in 2000.

The value of teamwork is an important element in Cobery's management style. One of his favorite quotes is from Althea Gibson, the first black athlete to play and eventually win championships at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the 1950s. The quote is simple, "No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helps you."

He credits much of his success at Label Art to the management team during his years at the helm, and is quick to mention Terry Flaherty, current president at Label Art; Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales for the WS Group; and Andy Farquharson, president of Dow Industries.

By 2000, however, it was time for Cobery to move on. Leveraging his knowledge of the label printing industry and his financial background, he put together a team of investors with the intent of acquiring label-printing businesses. This plan went as far as opening discussions with Aladdin Label's owner and former TLMI Converter of the Year, Dick Schwartz. It was Schwartz, however, who was able to convince Cobery to take over the reigns at Aladdin Label as president and CEO.

Cobery had his reservations about starting back all over again with a small company, but they were quickly dispelled. "The job rejuvenated me," he says. "It's been a blast." He relishes the challenge of building a business and "growing a management team--working together to accomplish something positive." His family ties and love of the Boston area has him hopping a plane each week for his commute to Wisconsin.

Under Cobery's direction, Aladdin Label has experienced significant success, with the addition of a second plant in Wisconsin to support the growth in its base business of 265 percent. Cobery's strategy for growth is based on diversification and innovation. When he took over at Aladdin Label, its base businesses included pressure-sensitive labeling and promotional marketing inserts for the food industry--mainly in cheese.

Diversification has led the company down a path of taking on new challenges, including new packaging lines and the printing of flexible packaging materials. Aladdin Label won a major three-year contract from American Greetings to produce kids' stickers that you will find in major retail chains such as Wal-Mart. To win this contract, though, it had to branch out into a one-stop-shop, printing and packaging the stickers for ready-for-the-shelf delivery to its customers.

Printing flexible substrates on its narrow-web presses was the latest undertaking driven by Cobery. To support these new endeavors, Aladdin Label has added one press, three packaging lines, and completely revamped its prepress operation, converting to direct-to-plate.

Aladdin Label's recent successes track the advice Cobery would give to any converter/printer of pressure-sensitive labels. "The pressure-sensitive label market is a mature business; guys doing just pressure sensitive are going down a tough road. Printers need to look at diversifying and need to become innovative in what they do."

In keeping with his strong team concept, Cobery credits others on his management team for the successes at Aladdin: Dirk Derse, operations manager and Ed Kools, sales manager.

TLMI leadership

In much the same way he has positioned his companies for growth, Cobery has been a major contributor to the TLMI. John Bankson, TLMI president and president/CEO of Label Technology, credits him with making the TLMI into a professional organization during his time in leadership roles on the board of directors and as president. "Tom is a major player in TLMI and the industry as a whole," says Bankson. "His opinions are always highly regarded."

One of his greatest sources of pride in his work at TLMI is revitalizing the organization with a new generation of active members. "I saw myself as a bridge between generations," he says. "I wanted to bring in the next generation of leaders to assure that the TLMI would continue to move forward." He actively recruited people to get involved in leadership positions--people such as Suzanne Zaccone, president of Graphic Solutions; Mike Dowling, president of CL&D Graphics; and Scott Pillsbury, president of Rose City Label.

To get the TLMI organization more centrally located, the headquarters was moved from Iowa City to Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, during his tenure as president. In addition, he recruited and hired Frank Sablone to run the TLMI as executive director.

Bankson lists Cobery's work to strengthen the relationship with Labelexpo as a major accomplishment for the TLMI. He renegotiated the contract with Tarsus that will keep the TLMI as a co-sponsor of Labelexpo through 2012.

Cobery's involvement with the TLMI has been mutually beneficial. "The TLMI gives you a better understanding of the industry," he observes. "Networking allows you to see what others are doing and where the industry is going."

Away from it all

Cobery and his wife Betty have three children. Outside of his business-building activities, he enjoys golfing and playing with his two grandchildren, who reside in the Boston area (another reason for his weekly commute to Wisconsin).

One of the highlights on his golfing agenda is the Cheese Head/Lobster Head golf "classic" that he organized soon after he started working in Wisconsin. This annual event (no parts of which will ever be seen on SportsCenter Highlights) pits Cobery and his East Coast Lobster Heads against the Wisconsin Cheese Heads. Cobery proudly boasts a victory for the Lobster Heads in this year's classic, after dropping the first two.

And, yes, they do wear hats.

by Tom Polischuk