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President Kurt Walker reviews his first 12 months in office and sets out future expectations for FINAT

Kurt Walker A year after taking over as president of FINAT, the world-wide association representing the interest of the self-adhesive labelling industry, Kurt Walker discusses current and future strategy as well as milestones and collaborations with other leading associations.

FINAT’s developing strategy

FINAT’s initial four-year strategy was built on four pillars: raising the profile of FINAT and ensuring a healthy growth; further strengthening FINAT as the European umbrella organisation; offering more room for international business development and networking; and, finally, planting seeds in Asia.

And fairly quickly we achieved the 600 member benchmark we had set ourselves and established The Label Printers Forum and the Young Managers Club and both helped increase membership interest in entrepreneurial and management issues.

This success was followed by the agreement of four defined strategic intentions that were later extended to include the fifth:

1. Enhance the global associations network as FINAT and its members go worldwide

2. Improve our service to members by using new media technology

3. Increase the synergies between the Board and committees

4. Re-assess FINAT’s scope as a self-adhesive association

5. A clear agenda to promote sustainability and recycling.

Relationship success

Our relationship with national and international associations is central to our ethos and over the past ten years there has been tremendous evolution. Many national associations, especially in Europe have moved from a purely volunteer-driven force to a more professional structure helping strengthen our operational ties.

Learning from broad industry conversations

Pan-European conversations with key decision makers about their perceptions and expectations regarding FINAT as their European umbrella has helped us to create a better mutual understanding. As I understand it, past discussions tended to focus on our differences but we are now concentrating our energy on subjects where we have a common interest such as recycling, industry statistics, best practice, and education.

Putting into practice

We are now seeing the first tangible results. Thanks to a concerted effort, we have made a real impact in lobbying the European Commission. On the initiative of the Swedish association, the national associations have joined forces to commission AWA to develop and monitor industry-specific raw materials indices. The German association has kindly offered to upgrade their Occupational Health and Safety Best Practice Guide to European level, and an English translation is currently under review by the different associations. The Italian association is sharing their legal terms and conditions of sale and other (technical) industry guidelines. The German and French associations collaborated with FINAT on the first-ever ‘Operators’ Day’ at Labelexpo. The UK association adopted our FINAT Liner Recycling Brochure and proposed the creation of a European good manufacturing practice guide for food labels. By pooling resources and sharing know-how and expertise, we can be stronger than the sum of our individual parts.

The importance of L9

L9 started as an informal get-together of global label associations at Labelexpo Asia in Shanghai at the end of 2009, at the invitation of Roger Pellow from Tarsus. Eight associations from across the globe met to exchange experiences, discuss common problems, and explore the possibilities for closer future interaction. Obviously, many topics addressed within these associations were of a local nature but, as we talked, we found out that we also share several challenges in common.

First of all, it’s a fact that many of the suppliers offering materials and technology to the label and narrow web industry are now global. A growing proportion of our members' customers are also operating on a global scale. In response to all this our members are now reaching out on a global scale to adopt global standards, share best practices, establish global partnerships, expand their B2B network, and promote the versatility of our products to the world’s markets in a consistent manner.

And last but not least, all the associations share the same corporate responsibility towards our planet and the people who live in it. It seemed only logical that our associations would follow up on this global trail we had defined, and it was therefore decided to meet on a more regular basis. One of the participants came up with the idea to use the name L8 for our informal platform. In the meantime, a ninth association has joined, and we soon expect to welcome our tenth member.

FINAT’s global growth

While FINAT has its roots in Europe, we maintain a strong global outlook. One fifth of our membership is from outside Europe - Asia in particular - and we have a long tradition of managing international diversity. FINAT members have a natural interest in international communication, information exchange, networking, and understanding different business cultures and practices outside their own locale.

We believe international collaboration does not stop at the borders of Europe. It is for this reason we have been a strong supporter of the L9 initiative. In our opinion, there is considerable benefit for our members in gaining a better mutual understanding of the comparative strengths, weaknesses and commonalities around the globe. It is a wonderful and enriching experience to find that label printers across the globe share the same values and interests, and to be able to develop business friendships. At the same time, FINAT member companies also have an interest in addressing certain matters on a global scale, but a platform for leading this activity was lacking. The L9 is therefore definitely fulfilling a need for FINAT members.

L9’s future industry influence

L9 represents a group of associations from regions that are at different stages of the development cycle. On the one hand, there are the organisations from the mature regions in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia/New Zealand. On the other hand, there are the associations in the rapidly-emerging regions like India, China, Brazil and Mexico. The developed regions have an established knowledge base and a rich history. The emerging regions have a short history, but a huge, unexplored market territory and an entrepreneurial mindset dedicated to uncovering that potential.   We therefore have a lot to offer each other, and the benefit of the L9 lies in linking these two strengths for the common benefit of the entire sector.

Improving member service

The internet as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and information is vital in today’s connected world.  It is also a valuable tool for reducing the distance between FINAT and its members and, finally, for enabling a virtual network between members. The new FINAT website and member community has just gone through its second development phase with more interactive features, and will soon even be supported by an iPhone App. FINAT is no longer just for the CEO and owners of the member companies and thanks to this new platform many other levels of a company will be able to enjoy the benefits of FINAT membership.

Member development is a key target for 2013 so we are also appointing a Community Manager, to drive this new area of communication activity and help increase member engagement. With the marketing committee, we are also running an internet member survey across the whole membership and are looking forward to seeing the results. Initial response has been strong, which demonstrates our members’ engagement with FINAT.

But we are also looking outside the association, since we are convinced that the biggest potential lies in the emerging countries in eastern Europe where FINAT is currently under-represented. We are conscious that most of the markets there come from a different association background, and are at a different stage of their economic and business lifecycle, but there is definitely value for them in FINAT membership. That is why we are planning a roadshow.  We have the support of two major suppliers on the membership committee and hope that we will be able to use their leverage in addressing converters in the region.

Redefined mission and leadership structures

When the Board set the strategy for the future, it was concluded that a certain degree of streamlining of committee work was necessary. With the growth of the association, the number of committees, sub-committees, task forces and forums had been growing and was becoming more and more difficult to manage. The distance between board and committee members became too great and, sometimes, committee members were asking themselves what, in fact, they were expected to do; what was the association’s strategy that they were supposed to execute; and what their personal contribution should be. Other members who were not themselves serving on a committee were asking what were the requirements for becoming a committee member. And finally, clear guidelines were lacking on committee members’ duties and accountability.  We therefore drafted guidelines to put some structure in place. For the last two years, most committee meetings have taken place back-to-back with board meetings, which has certainly facilitated a better ‘workflow’ and has strengthened the personal contacts between volunteers serving in the different bodies in FINAT.

The first committee to implement the new guidelines was the Technical Committee; and although it appeared that there was still a strong need for additional clarification, I think we have now installed an effective framework, which is now also being implemented by the Marketing Committee. The main challenge now is to broaden the engagement of label converters in the work of FINAT.

Recycling and sustainability in the self-adhesive labeling industry

A number of recycling initiatives have been developed and are being deployed. However, it is crucial to keep the momentum and create critical mass. To date, only a minor fraction of spent release liner materials in Europe is collected for recycling, and this is not sufficient to establish a sustainable business proposition for companies interested in using the materials generated by our customers. Technically the solutions are there, but awareness is lacking, and the logistics requirements still suffer from a lack of economies of scale. FINAT has identified recycling and sustainability as key to the continued success of the self-adhesive label industry, and this is exactly why we have re-established the FINAT recycling committee, and why the L9 meeting dedicated an entire session to this topic. Although collection and recycling are typically local activities and circumstances may vary across countries and even regions, there is still a benefit in joining forces internationally, if only to spark new ideas and innovations and to share knowledge and experiences.

Identifying industry drivers behind the recycling and sustainability

In many countries, firm legislation is now in place that limits or even eliminates the possibility of landfill as an option to dispose of waste. However, the increased focus on recycling of spent liner materials and matrix waste is not just driven by legislation. Technological and commercial drivers are gaining importance. Higher landfill disposal costs favour the development and implementation of commercially-viable recycling programmes, provided the logistical challenges are properly addressed. Raw material price inflation has increased the comparative value of recovered materials for recycling, but also favours the development and use of thinner materials. And, finally, pressure from customers, either ‘missionary’ (i.e. as part of their corporate social responsibility requirements) or ‘monetary’ (as part of their intention to cut costs from the system) is pushing the label industry to embrace programmes and processes that are more environmentally sustainable.

The digital future

As stated, we are currently expecting the results of the member survey, and this should offer us interesting leads and insights for our future strategy, for which we have set up separate meetings this summer and autumn.   At our National Associations Board meeting held at the end of May, we also asked for feedback from that sector of the industry.   For sure we will also continue our ongoing internal discussions on the scope of our FINAT: should we widen our remit, and embrace narrow-web converting as a full part of our territory as TLMI and VskE have done? Or should we retain our focus on self-adhesive, with an open eye to alternative decoration and conversion methods relevant to our core members?

I know that, some time ago, we discussed whether we should embrace digital print - but the reality has overtaken the debate, and digital label printing is now fully part of our remit.

Another thing that I would like to see is a continued effort to strengthen the corporate culture of the label industry by offering management education programmes that transcend national borders. Our recent L9 visit to Japan, and the opportunity we had to experience ‘Kaizen’, gave us new inspiration - and this should be back on our agenda next year.