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Carton Factory Has A Single Customer

When that buyer is Colgate-Palmolive, one is quite enough.  

By Mark Davis, Staff Writer

(The Kansas City Star, November 18, 1995)

After seven years in business, Les Davis has one customer for his company -- the only customer he wants.

Focus Packaging, Inc, which Davis and his wife jointly own, makes soap boxes for Colgate-Palmolive Company. Each shiny cardboard carton becomes home to a bar of Irish Spring or other soap coming out of Colgate's plant in Kansas City, Kansas.

The 21 workers and one high-speed press at Focus turn out 18 different cartons for Colgate. Nothing else. Focus Packaging is a focused factory." I'll never have a plant with more than three customers" Davis said. "You're always sacrificing one for the other."

Davis found the focused factory concept in a 1974 report by The Harvard Business Review. Show a little interest, and he'll produce a stapled photocopy.

The report outlines a U.S. response to foreign competition. Focus a plant on a few products, Wickham Skinner wrote, and it will "out produce, undersell and quickly gain competitive advantage" over any that divides its attention.

Twenty years later, Davis offers Focus Packaging as proof to Skinner's theory.

The Kansas City, KS plant will generate between $5.5 million and $6 million in revenue this year. Business has grown enough that Focus hired its own accountant last year and adds a print manager to the payroll today. A third shift is being formed.

Davis counts many advantages to serving one customer.

Crews don't need retraining because they do the same thing, for the same customer, all of the time. A typical large shop might run a customer's order every two months. Meanwhile, workers have shifted their focus to another customer's tastes and demands. "So the guy's going through a learning curve every time you do a job," Davis said.

The folding and gluing machine at Focus packaging handles only one size box, so it never has to be reset.  The press stops only to install a new roll of the thin cardboard on which it prints.

Close attention to Colgate's needs helped Davis wrest its business away from his former employer, a company in Richmond, VA for which he had been a sales manager for 15 years.

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Focused Factory Example

Jeff War then (from left), Richard Williams and Dennis Mueller work on a press at Focus Packaging, which is printing Irish Spring soap boxes at the rate of 150,000 per hour.

Colgate had begun shifting all of its North American bar soap production to Kansas City, KS. And, by Davis' account, kept asking its Virginia supplier to consider moving production westward.

"They'd done that actually three years in a row," Davis said. "It became obvious Colgate was dead serious about that."

Les and Claudia Davis funneled their life savings into Focus Packaging. The plant was running by June, 1988.

Today, Focus supplies 90 percent of the soap boxes Colgate needs, and Davis is pushing for 100 percent.

He is also scouting for another large customer. But, said Davis, a second customer will mean a second focused factory.

(Epilogue: Les & Claudia Davis recently sold their company after many years of success. Twenty years after this story was first printed, Colgate closed their Kansas City, KS facility and this illustrates one of the downsides of a highly customer-focused plant.)

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