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FLAG Member - Niagara Label Case Study

Labels Are What They Do

Niagara Label is nestled within the picturesque village of Akron, NY, just on the outskirts of Buffalo. For over 28 years, this family-owned enterprise has thrived. The story of Niagara Label begins in 1985 when Mike and Margie Whitmarsh, fueled by a desire to forge their own path, decided to start their own label printing company.

Niagara Label was the embodiment of Mike Whitmarsh’s relentless dedication. Spending his mornings nurturing customer relationships and securing orders, the hum of the Webtron 650 press would fill the afternoons producing labels that Mike would meticulously rewind, pack, and often hand-deliver to his customers.

Within a month, Niagara Label welcomed its first employee and after transitioning its modest 600-square-foot rented space into multiple larger locations, the company found its permanent residence in 1993, in a sprawling 30,000-square-foot facility.

Niagara Label Company Facility

A Plan for Growth

Growth has always been a part of the plan. The Whitmarsh family has continually looked to the future, strategically investing in more space, new equipment, and the right people to drive growth.

While Niagara provides labels for a wide variety of vertical markets, in 2008 they made a very conscious decision to target the wine and spirits market and have invested heavily in equipment that will allow them to do the embellishments expected for labels in that industry. Currently, almost 60% of their business comes from wine and spirits.

Niagara Label Company Facility

Today their facility boasts nine presses, including three HP Indigos, with AB Graphic finishing units to support them. Knowing that highest-definition decoration is key in the wine industry, they invested in state-of-the-art digital and finishing systems, arming them with the capabilities to do just about any decoration standard a vineyard could dream up for a label, including hot and cold foiling, high build, screen/tactile print laydown, UV, matte, high gloss, and everything in between.

A (Multiple) Family Affair

As Mike Whitmarsh was building his business, he recognized a leader in Keith Hatswell. Keith came to Niagara in 1994 looking for a summer job. He started sweeping floors, packing cartons, and eventually running the rewind/inspection systems. He left for a construction job but soon found himself back at Niagara. He discovered that he had a flair for graphic arts and honed-in on the platemaking process. Under Keith’s direction, Niagara Label now has a state-of-the-art prepress department where they are making their own plates, including certified HD Flexo plates. Mike took Keith under his wing and began to teach him the business, encouraging him to learn all aspects of the company.

Mike’s son Chris had always worked at Niagara Label during the summers. After high school, realizing the opportunity the company held for him, he threw himself into the business, learning all aspects of the company and taking the time to learn every job function. Chris would soon realize, however, that he wanted the opportunity to experience something else. With the encouragement of his parents, he left Niagara and headed to New York City. He was never far from the business and continued to review monthly reports and have strategy discussions with his father. Eventually, he realized that Niagara was his home, and returned to the company in 2001.

Niagara Label Owners

Shortly after Chris returned to Niagara, Keith Hatswell’s sister, Michele Vanderlinden, found herself drawn to the company when her brother encouraged her to leave an unfulfilling job and join him. She took ownership of customer service, HR, and other administrative duties, bringing a new level of professionalism. Like her brother, Michele jumped in with both feet and was eager to learn the business.

Recognizing that they had a pair of superstars in Keith and Michele, and already feeling like they were members of the family, the Whitmarshes invited them to become vested in Niagara by making them minority partners in the business. Today, both Keith and Michele’s sons are full-time employees, and they have many other relatives working alongside them at the plant, keeping the close family atmosphere alive and well.

An Award Winning Culture

At the heart of Niagara's culture is an understanding that its employees are more than just workers. The company goes beyond traditional employer-employee relationships and emphasizes the personal and professional lives of its staff. They know that their work is not solely about printing labels; it's about the people who make it all happen. Michele shared, “We acknowledge the time, effort, and energy that our employees spend here, and we want them to know that we appreciate that.”

By consistently reminding their workforce of the 'Why,” the company ensures that everyone understands their collective purpose and the positive impact they have on the lives of others. They highlight that their efforts directly contribute to more than 50 people and include putting employees’ children through school, covering mortgages, and meeting other essential needs.

Niagara Label breaks away from traditional corporate hierarchy by operating as a cohesive team rather than a collection of job titles. This collaborative mindset creates a sense of unity, where everyone pitches in to keep operations running smoothly. This flat structure fosters a culture of respect, where every individual's contributions are valued, irrespective of their position.

While the team feels like they have a unique culture and Niagara is a great place to work, this has been recognized outside of the company as well. They were awarded the Buffalo Niagara Business Ethics Award in 2020, an achievement that recognizes ethics, respect, honesty, and integrity in business. The company was also one of Buffalo’s Best Places to Work in 2022.

According to Keith, “At the end of the day, it's not the awards that matter, but the fact that when people walk through our facility they see more than 50 people, employees who are genuinely happy to be here. These people are the reason that we do what we do. It’s why we exist and why we are able to thrive."

Niagara Label Owners
Chris Whitmarsh (Niagara Label) & JC McKay (FLAG)

FLAG Membership

After meeting John and JC McKay at Labelexpo seven years ago, the Niagara Label team was immediately drawn to their high energy. It made sense to join FLAG because several of their current vendors were Vendor Partners and they saw the cost savings benefits of the group right away.

Chris shared, “We joined FLAG and have never actually written them a check. From day one our dues were covered by the quarterly rebates we receive.” While cost savings was the number one draw, it quickly became apparent that FLAG offered so much more. The connections between the converter Members are invaluable according to Whitmarsh, the group has essentially become an executive roundtable where Members can reach out to bounce ideas off one another or ask for help to solve a particular challenge.

The team is thrilled to be hosting the FLAG Annual meeting this year and is especially looking forward to showing off their new spaces. Their old office space has been converted to accommodate new presses and equipment and a state-of-the-art 3,000-square-foot space is being built to house their growing team, including offices, bathrooms, and a lunchroom.

When asked what they are most looking forward to in hosting the event, Keith said, “We are looking forward to having the FLAG Member companies come to our facility and for our employees to be able to show off what they do.

Hear what Chris Whitmarsh has to say about his experience with FLAG!

Interested in learning more about Niagara Label?

Be sure to register and attend the FLAG Annual Meeting taking place June 11th - 13th in Buffalo, NY.

A highlight of the meeting will be a tour of Niagara Label Company!

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