It’s no idle boast. The team has been finding rapid solutions for half a century, no mean feat in a world where loyalty is kicked to the kerb at the slightest rumour of a next big thing and average attention spans would have a goldfish rolling its eyes. PPM discovered that the secret to Clomark’s longevity is actually no secret, but something South Africans are known to have in bakkieloads – resilience, in this case made up of 50 years of intuition, innovation and responsiveness.
Picture it: Jeppestown, 1968, an abandoned nightclub looking for a purpose now that the twisting and shouting are more like the sounds of silence. Enter Gerry Cloete and five fellow entrepreneurs looking for a home for their new venture, Flex-o-screen, to fill a gap they had spotted in the automotive graphics trade. ‘In those early days, Flex-o-screen used flatbed screen printing and lithographic printing to produce automotive labels and vehicle graphics,’ recalls Gerry. ‘We also distributed masking and packaging tapes.’
Shyam Chirkoot joined Gerry in 2001. The two bonded like a matt wrap on a Beemer and soon Shyam, his potential as a successor clear, was on his way to managing directorship of the company. ‘Not all times in business are fun and some can test relationships to the max, but ours grew into an amazing friendship and we couldn’t be more like family if DNA had played a role,’ Shyam maintains.
Having pretty much chicaned the motor market with its protective door sealing systems for automotive assembly plants, vehicle graphics, warning labels and high-end labels for automotive components, Clomark installed its first flexo machine in 2004 to test the waters in beauty, food, pharmaceutical and fast-moving consumer goods.
By 2011, it had companies such as First National Battery, Bosal, USN, LeSel, Sunray Cosmetics and Trellidor sold on its services. Its marketing strategy had switched decidedly to pharmaceuticals and foods.
Winston Shippey, CEO of Winmark, has played his role in this evolution for 30 years and remains a major supplier. ‘Half a century is impressive, but Clomark’s dedication to development and keeping up with advances has always been inspiring,’ Winston maintains.
Gerry confirms that, as an automotive vendor, stringent quality assurance procedures also became second nature and what was learnt from niche sectors was applied later to the general self-adhesive label market.
‘We were always proud of our record for providing high-quality products and service to our customers, whatever their requirements, and were often called on to develop custom-made products and solutions,’ he asserts.
In 2014, Shyam led a successful management buyout, which afforded Clomark level one black economic empowerment status. The stage was set to expand even further technologically and capitalise on the diversified and expanding portfolio.
First on the shopping list was a litho printing business in KwaZulu-Natal, which it acquired and merged into its Midrand manufacturing plant. The result was a full house of printing capabilities.
To this day, Clomark remains one of the few South African printing companies to offer flexographic printing, rotary screen printing, hot and cold foiling, digital printing and lithographic printing to manufacture self-adhesive labels, shrink sleeves, flexible packaging, decals and cartons.
Shyam, with his scientific, technical and systems experience, keeps his eye on everything, particularly finance, system certification and research and development.
Operations director Dhiraj Chirkoot, having both science and design backgrounds, works with the production and maintenance managers to improve efficiencies, reduce turnaround times and maximise employee morale.
Jocelyn Munsami is national sales manager with a packaging technology qualification and the skills to advise on package design and guide customers on the most environmentally responsible options.
Lapping competitors in the automotive industry
From the outset, Clomark aligned itself with the exacting standards of leading automotive companies, applying the quality certification throttle when needed to stay out front. Intensive and robust quality systems were essential from the very beginning, Shyam reflects, to enable the company to gain the necessary inroads to fulfil its vision.
The company gathered a varied portfolio of certification to necessary quality and environmental systems, including ISO 9001, the environmental ISO 14001 standard and the automotive standard IATF 16949. As a result, it has maintained solid relationships with its original customers and later acquired the business of Mercedes Benz, General Motors, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Willard Batteries. It holds prestigious ‘preferred quality status Q1’ certification from Ford Motor Company, and has won many supplier of the year and stable production awards over the years.
‘Our certification has always set us apart from our competition,’ Shyam confirms. ‘We are now working on the ISO 45001 health and safety standard and FSSC 22000 food safety certification. Workplace safety is fundamentally important, thus we are HACCP compliant and currently refining these systems to better position ourselves with the value systems of our pharmaceutical and food customers.’
An in-house laboratory of two decades’ standing batch tests raw materials to ensure compliancy to Lapping competitors in the automotive industry internal or customer specifications prior to the valueadd process. Products such as those for engine compartments or freezer packs are put through their sub-zero temperature paces.
‘We work only with the best suppliers of raw materials and tooling,’ Dhiraj states. ‘Our quality department supports suppliers in quality system development and certification and we’re investing further to improve R&D initiatives.’
Technology driven by empowered employees
The shareholders acknowledged long ago that the most advanced technology in the world would not bring success without the hands, heads and hearts of those who operate it. Most of the current employees have earned their long-service badges, a testament to the value and importance the directors place on employee empowerment.
Investment in training is ongoing and all employees have benefitted from development over the years.
But that doesn’t tell the full story. Apart from assisting staff to acquire external qualifications, Clomark has in-house mentorship and training programmes that customise education to individual needs.
Among those who have soared through this approach are the costing clerk, who was originally a gardener, and a cleaner who is now Clomark’s health and safety practitioner.
‘I’ve worked at Clomark for 18 years and have risen from a general worker to an operator, and am now quality manager,’ comments Donny Nyakale. ‘I regard Clomark as a family, not a workplace, as we are united and work together in harmony.’
This is the intention, Dhiraj remarks: ‘Our dynamic people define us and drive our differentiation, more so than our leading technology. Accordingly, we provide an environment for them to grow and be happy.’ ‘Clomark is a learning space and it delivers what it promises, which is quality,’ specialist operator Deborah confirms.
Team member Lauren McDonald, who helps to keep tabs on the purse strings, counts herself privileged to work at a company that has been open for business for so long. ‘I’ve been here for the past eight years and am truly happy.’
Its inward focus, which includes assisting with the education of employees’ children, is complemented by a strong corporate social conscience. ‘We invest in organisations such as National Sea Rescue Institute and the SPCA, which are close to our hearts and face massive burdens on woefully inadequate budgets,’ Shyam states.
The circle economy of life
In a world in which plastic is deemed demonic, its important role in the current packaging mix should not be overlooked, says Shyam. That said, Clomark believes that change is needed and as a member of Packaging SA, is contributing to that effort. ‘Environmentalists and concerned bodies are currently waging war on plastic packaging, with some countries banning single-use plastics and introducing other tough restrictions. Large corporates are under pressure to make products more recyclable, reusable or compostable. However, the lack of suitable, economical green alternatives make plastic a necessary evil, at least for the foreseeable future.
‘Plastic packaging preserves and protects its contents, providing tamper evidence, all of which are crucial to consumers. It is much cheaper than other options, having high recycling rates in South Africa, and is a source of recoverable fuel and energy.
‘Radical change is needed in manufacturing, particularly in the packaging industry. Many countries have adopted the circular economy model, which mimics the biorhythms of nature. Waste is seen as having value and as a resource for another process. True economic circularity may resolve the problem and create other opportunities, but requires ownership by all players. The government recently adapted its National Waste Management Strategy by making the circular economy central to waste management and introducing the requirement for industry-managed waste plans. Clomark subscribes wholeheartedly to this development.’
The circular economy will stand or fall on packaging designers’ material choices,’ Jocelyn adds. ‘Reusability and local recyclability must be considered alongside functionality.
‘As far as possible, Clomark works directly with customers’ designers and brand owners to create product designs that are kind to the environment. Key factors are a reduction in packaging volume, cost benefits and the use of recyclable materials.’
The challenge is compounded by the proliferation of laminates combining normally recyclable plastic types with other plastics and metallised layers that are not recyclable. Clomark works closely with customers and raw material manufacturers to develop innovative packaging solutions, Shyam notes. ‘We’ve produced a two-layer laminate that has replaced more complex, unrecyclable and non-compostable laminates. This has been used to manufacture sachets for wet wipes with 80% alcohol content destined for European markets. We are continuing along this R&D path to replace other plastic packaging with greener solutions.’
Clomark encourages customers to re-examine their product formulations for complex packaging as, Jocelyn points out, modifying active ingredients may make a profound difference. For example, body scrub plastic microbeads – a growing contaminant of water – have been replaced by many customers with organic alternatives such as sugar, salt and wheat.
Clomark recognised the need for responsible environmental practices and a change of manufacturing processes to support environmental sustainability two decades ago, Shyam stresses, at about the time it earned its ISO 14001 certification. ‘We have become a frontrunner in adapting to the circular economy model,’ he explains. ‘Every environmental aspect and related impact are carefully considered, quantified and supported by action plans to reduce the impact on the environment.
‘We also have a “zero waste” policy and have introduced Bokashi composting bins in the workplace and in our homes. This encourages our employees to be mindful of their choice of products when shopping. More employees are showing interest in the initiative and separation at source is growing, not only by employees but by extended families and friends.’
A solar energy push continues and the sun now powers a sizeable part of the Clomark plant, reducing greenhouse gas production. ‘This is the best source of “free” energy and we aim to go off-grid as far as possible,’ Shyam concludes.
Tackling Covid positively
For Clomark and every other company, the acid test of resilience flew in with the Covid-19 virus. To make it through, the company turned to its tried and tested warhorses, adaptability and flexibility. ‘These virtues are ingrained in Clomark’s core team and filter through the organisation,’ Shyam explains.
When adversity knocks, opportunities are often not far behind, although they may seem elusive initially, he says. ‘Business leaders need to remain focused, optimistic and frugal in difficult times. In today’s world, new norms are rapidly replacing those of the very recent past. It is essential to uncover opportunities and adapt business strategy quickly but with clear thought.
‘When Covid arrived, we were careful not to remain fixated on manufacturing products that we were good at, because they were not necessarily the products the world needed. We tuned in, as we always do, to international business experiences to find inspiration on navigating challenges and to pre-empt future market trends. We focused on leapfrogging our technological capabilities into growing markets.
‘We had to close down our automotive division during the initial lockdown, but then printed packaging for essential items became an area of high demand. It took some 11th-hour negotiations to secure the supply chain.’
Appreciative comments for a committed team
Most Clomark customers sing a similar tune when asked about their experiences at the hands of Shyam and his fellow executives. Words prefaced by ‘high’, ‘excellent’ and ‘great’ are used liberally.
For Dabur South Africa, knowledge and turnaround seal every deal. ‘The team is extremely knowledgeable in the fields that matter to a customer,’ a spokesperson elaborates. ‘The delivery turnarounds are unmatched, even for the odd last-minute “Hail Mary” orders. Our association has been immensely beneficial and the team’s customer care and desire to add value to business are the reasons Clomark is still in the business after 50 years.’
The ability to meet tight deadlines is important, too, to HLS Industries. ‘Clomark is a great supplier and its people are always willing to go the extra distance,’ says a company executive. ‘Turnaround time is extremely quick and the quality of products consistently high.’
‘We sincerely appreciate your responsiveness and the way you conduct business,’ wrote Imvusa Trading in its congratulatory message. ‘We look forward to doing business with you for years to come.’
Supreme Spring has dealt with Clomark for the last decade and particularly values the quality of products and services delivered at favourable prices. ‘Clomark is our go-to supplier for all labelling and printing needs.’
First National Battery is happy to be a part of the Clomark success story. ‘We couldn’t ask for a better team to do business with,’ a spokesperson states.
Amka Products is equally satisfied, having contacted Clomark recently when it was unable to achieve the new label design for Revlon haircare elsewhere. ‘The project demanded ingenuity, as the label combined two different foils printed simultaneously,’ says Dhiraj. ‘Technology and innovative thought came to the fore and the US and local brand owners present for the signoff were delighted.’
Roses are red … and some even blue
Not even a global pandemic can stifle South African innovation and creativity. Tiger Brands recently revamped and extended its Rose’s cordial range to include blueberry and ginger, choosing Clomark to print just the right labels for the brand.
The brief specified striking design and vivid colour, and thanks to Clomark’s colour-mixing and colour-matching skills and technical expertise, a vibrant look was achieved.
‘Clomark was proud to have been selected as the printer of choice,’ says Jocelyn. ‘We adapted to workplace adjustments and were able to host Tiger’s brand manager and packaging technologists during this development to get the job done on schedule.’
The future is Superbrite
Covid-19 has changed the way business is done on many fronts, not least product development. It’s customary for corporate brand owners to be onsite during the first print production of new or revamped major brands. Product launch time is always tight, requiring customers to make changes to the off-tool print result until they are satisfied that it achieves the brand identity. With lockdown restrictions, Shoprite Checkers SuperBrite’s brand owners had to watch their revamped home care product portfolio take shape from a distance.
But it was no obstacle for Clomark, says Dhiraj, which called on its manipulation skills to communicate with the customer and its design house, Apple Grapple, particularly on colour hue, density and brightness. ‘Emailed photos of printed labels don’t show the true picture, with alterations in colour dependent on the camera and then the computer monitor. Our team had to think on their feet to transmit an accurate electronic image of the off-tool print and achieved this using electronic devices and specialised software. We fortunately have professional photography and lighting capabilities, which also facilitated the process.’
The right fit
Clomark’s relationship with FitChef dates back many years when its preservative-free ready meals were packed in foil trays with a self-adhesive label manually applied to the tray cover. The packaging design did little for the brand, Shyam admits.
‘Working together, we decided to replace the label with a board sleeve. I recall presenting our initial digitally printed mock-up samples, and the excitement in the room was palpable. After necessary modifications to the samples, the products were relaunched with the new packaging design.’
The work garners high praise from Craig Kaminsky, FitChef operations director, who says: ‘Wow, 50 years. Amazing! Clomark truly is not only the best supplier of premium-quality sleeves and labels, but it treats customers like friends and business partners. This, and extremely competitive pricing, builds long-term mutually beneficial relationships.’
With a legion of satisfied customers outside, it is perhaps fitting to leave the last words to a member of the bunch of happy Clomark campers inside. ‘I’ve been with the company for almost 21 years, and have been instrumental to the development of systems, including infrastructure and maintenance,’ maintenance manager, Frik Senekal shares proudly. ‘Our team has made us a benchmark company in the industry and I am glad to be a part of it.’
As with the iconic Hillbrow Tower, synonymous with the Johannesburg skyline and enduringly imposing at 269m above the horizon, Clomark clearly is standing just as tall at its half century.
They don’t, as the old adage goes, make ‘em like they used to.