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ITCO stuck to a plan and built a new market in the process

06 September 2013

Bea Quirk, Charlotte Business Journal 

Seems that everywhere you turn today looking for business advice, the word “innovation” is front and center.

But for Robert (Bob) Bullard Sr., innovation isn’t a new buzzword. He has been innovating ever since he opened ITCO International in 1975.

Even today, at age 80 and in collaboration with his son, Robert Bullard Jr., he’s introducing new products and entering new markets in the pressure-sensitive tape industry. ITCO sells to customers ranging from the garment industry to department stores, electronics companies, CD/DVD manufacturers, wholesale packaging suppliers and pharmaceutical businesses.

Now, with its latest product, COOL Tape (for “country of origin labeling”), ITCO will manufacture its own goods for the first time. And retail consumers will finally see something the company sells.

But this isn’t Bob’s last hurrah. “I come into work every day — it keeps me young,” he says. “I own the company now, but it will end up with Robert when I go out. My retirement plan is sometimes called death.”

Father and son recently spoke with the Charlotte Business Journal about ITCO’s beginnings, its evolution and where it is heading.

Tell us about the company’s origins.

Bob: I worked as a regional sales manager covering the southwestern and southeastern U.S. for a large duct-tape manufacturer, but I knew I wanted to go into business for myself. My father always had his own business, like selling lumber or real estate. All my ancestors were farmers, so I guess you could say they were in business for themselves, too.

It’s not necessarily the road to fame and riches, but it brings a lot of satisfaction. It was greatly satisfying to bring my son into the business. And one of the biggest assets of having your own business is that you don’t have to retire at a prescribed age.

I started ITCO as a distributor for duct tape within a 100-mile radius of the Charlotte area. Then, one day when I called on a mirror company, I learned of a problem they were having with people getting hurt by mirrors shattering, and so we developed a polyethylene backing with a water-based adhesive that made the mirrors shatter-resistant.

Robert: As the years went on, we got into tape converting by printing on it, die-cutting it or adding coatings. That’s where the growth opportunities have always been. Last year, we bought hot-melt coating equipment so we could actually manufacture COOL Tape, which meant moving into manufacturing for the first time.

Why did you decide to make this big change?

Bob: We had known about this kind of tape for about 15 years, and companies had approached us about offering it. About three years ago, we looked at it again and found that the market had grown substantially. It had good profit margins and looked like the ideal market niche for us.

Just what is COOL Tape?

Bob: It’s used to bunch together stalky vegetables like green onions, asparagus and celery. The tape holds it together. But it’s also printed with a bar code, the country of origin and the name of the producer/grower. We usually work at the producer level, and most of our customers are in Mexico and California.

But we are now also making tape for all of Harris Teeter’s organic produce. Kroger (which is seeking to acquire Harris Teeter) may possibly use it in their stores. That’d be a great door-opener for us.

And we’re looking to sell it in Europe over the next few months. Japanese firms have owned the market. Some U.S. firms are turning to us because our tape is made here, and we can offer shorter lead times.

We’re the only American firm making it. I’m rather proud of the fact that we are taking business away from foreign companies — and not the other way around. American industry is not dead.

Robert: The adhesive is FDA-approved for direct food contact, and the European Union just approved it, too.

Sounds like it was a big investment as well as a big change.

Bob: The equipment cost more than half a million dollars, most of which we borrowed through a bank. We added three more employees, so we now have more than 10 people working here.

We’re beginning to see a nice return. Sales are limited by how fast we can get the tape out the door. We’ve been at our 6,000-square-foot building here outside Monroe for 22 years, but with this new product, we’ll either expand it or go into a new building within a year.

We sell millions of dollars worth of packaging tape, but it’s only used between the distribution center and the store. No one sees it. This will be the first time we have a product where the general public will see it. Now when I go shopping with my wife, I see the tape. That’s a pretty good feeling.

It sounds like innovation has been the hallmark of your business from the beginning.

Bob: From the start, I had to be innovative so I could compete with much larger companies. We were the first to offer the adhesive backing for mirrors, and we rode that horse for a long time until other companies got into it. Then we developed a product that’s used in CD and DVD manufacturing. We’re still strong in that niche — selling all over the U.S. and in Europe.

Robert: There’s a mesh material used to screen print graphics on CDs and DVDs, but it was prone to tearing. We developed a die-cut polyester that increases the life of the mesh by 25 times.

We have always looked for niche applications, special things that the other guys overlook.

Robert, how did you wind up with the company? How do you and your father share duties?

Robert: Before I was 10 — I’m 45 now — I got involved on the weekends making small rolls of duct tape from the larger ones for sale to hardware stores. I traveled with him, too. I always enjoyed it, and after I graduated from Montreat College, I knew that joining him was what I wanted to do. I’ve never worked anywhere else. I have two sisters, but I am the only one in the business.

Bob: We work well together and make decisions jointly. Although my duties are in administration and management, and Robert primarily handles sales, the boundaries are very liquid. Robert does some administering and managing, and I get involved in sales. Our primary duties are to work together on all of it.

Robert: I’ve only been married three years and don’t have any kids yet, but I do have a nephew who’s 12 and who is showing some interest in the company. I’m taking him under my wing.

What’s next?

Bob: COOL Tape has been the most interesting product since I began the business. We had to teach ourselves how to make the tape and learn everything about it, like chemistry and mechanical engineering. Now I am thinking about what will be the next big thing. I am looking for other applications.

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