As the American economy looks forward to a post-COVID future, it is tempting for businesses to return to their pre-pandemic operations. But companies across all sectors are now faced with an opportunity—to experiment with new practices to increase growth and retention in a very different world. In Plymouth, Michigan, Argent International and its strategic partner Argent Tape & Label are developing a closer working relationship while maintaining the autonomy to do what each company does best and working to advance women in leadership positions. The result is a symbiotic relationship that also benefits the industry as a whole.
Argent International has over forty years of history, having expanded from a single die-cutter to today’s team of 125 full-time employees. The company’s 100,000-square-foot facility can produce more than twenty million parts per month, and its long history has earned it a place with original equipment manufacturers and Tier One automotive clients such as Ford, GMC, BMW, and many others.
In addition to its mass production, the engineering team at Argent International works closely with clients large and small to design and fabricate custom parts. With its infrastructure able to provide just-in-time delivery, the company is in a prime position to supply the occasionally volatile automobile industry. Its track record, machinery, and history as a 3M Preferred Converter give Argent International the flexibility to weather industrial changes. When the automotive industry slowed to a crawl as a result of COVID-related health measures, the company switched to manufacturing face shields.
For its part, Argent Tape & Label provides environmentally-friendly labels and adhesives for a variety of industries. The company is celebrating over twenty-five years in business and a new lease on life after a narrow brush with insolvency in 2010. Argent Tape & Label offers flexographic and digital printing, as well as process and spot printing and thermal transfers. Like Argent International, the company is also well-versed in custom jobs and can accommodate any material, printing, or stock tag options for a client. This has allowed it to branch out to the food & beverage and medical & pharmaceutical sectors, showcasing its versatility.
Today, Argent International and Argent Tape & Label are working more closely than ever before, though the two are just unique enough to prevent a merger. ATL, having been woman-owned since 2010, remains an active member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), and closer to home, the Great Lakes Women’s Business Council (WBC). Argent International, newly woman-owned as of last year, hopes to be WBENC certified by the beginning of next year.
Lynn Perenic, Chief Executive Officer of Argent Tape & Label and President of Argent International, sees it as a chance for greater business representation for women, rather than just a growth opportunity. “I think that, frankly, there are not a lot of women in manufacturing, and there are even fewer women-owned businesses that are die-cutters.” She believes that this move will pave the way for more women-owned businesses in the automotive industry. “I think women tend to look at problems in a different way and solve problems in a different way than male leadership.”
The two companies’ recent cooperation and Argent Tape & Label’s continued prosperity, owe a great deal to Perenic. She recently took over leadership of the latter from its founder, her husband Fred Perenic, but her main objective remains Argent Tape & Label, which she formally took over in 2010. Though new to business, Perenic believed she had the right background for such an ambitious foray. “I’m a special [education] teacher, and I decided I could try to save this little label company,” she says. “So I took it on, and we turned it around.”
The early days were, predictably, an uphill battle; Perenic recalls that, on her first day as CEO, she was informed Argent Tape & Label owed $400,000 in receivables. “From the second the company started, it was underwater,” says Deborah Sellis, who Perenic brought on as Chief Operations Officer in 2016 and who has recently become COO and General Counsel to both companies. However, ten years later, just before COVID, Argent Tape & Label was on track to make $10 million in sales. “What we make costs customers fractions of pennies. That’s a lot of labels and a lot of work,” Sellis notes.
This extraordinary turnaround, which Perenic and Sellis are seeking to bring to Argent International, is a testament to Argent Tape & Label’s open-book management style. This approach focuses on clear communication and accountability across all company sectors, and provides employees with a stake in the game where they too share in the financial success that follows.
While the style is admittedly easier to implement at a smaller company like Argent Tape & Label, the company’s leadership is working to remodel Argent International to this system as well. As the company emerges from COVID restrictions, Sellis states that the company has already implemented open-book practices in daily operations. “It’s not unusual to have your floor-level operator in a meeting with myself or anybody else if it’s a problem that directly impacts them,” she says. “That was part of the culture before COVID, it’s part of the culture with COVID, and now, it’s part of the new normal.”
Indeed, this practice has helped the companies adapt to health restrictions and industrial shutdowns. Argent International and Argent Tape & Label at the height of the pandemic were able to shift from mostly automotive production to PPE and other healthcare equipment. As a vital supplier to an equally vital sector, the companies stayed on-mission for as long as possible, until shutdown orders arrived. “That’s all well and good unless you’re a key supplier and you can’t shut down,” Sellis says. “You have to have the skeleton crew and manage them that way.” But with open communication, remote work policies, and a stringent set of internal health practices, both companies managed to keep employees safe.
A hallmark of Open Book Management is the Mini-game, which is strategically implemented to encourage team-building, continual improvement, and desirable output or cost-saving results. Setting goals and having employees compete with themselves and each other are part of what leads to a robust system within the Argent families. The latest idea is to implement a Mini-game that “improves everybody’s production efficiencies over a certain period of time,” Sellis explains.
Moving forward, Argent International and Argent Tape & Label are continuing to press open-book management as a way of better retaining employees and gaining ideas from unexpected sources. “We have had several… press operators come to us with very viable ideas that, I think, in a closed culture, they would not have brought up,” Perenic says. She tells us how one employee, who also was a member of a band, was shopping for a new drum and noticed a new type of foam in a prospective purchase.
Noticing a sales opportunity, as drum packaging requires both foam and double-sided tape, he brought it to the attention of one of Argent’s sales professionals, who reached out to the drum manufacturer to begin a mutually beneficial partnership. Perenic believes that a typical manufacturing setting, lacking the collaboration between floor employees and sales staff, would not have seen this happen.
Due to such programs, employee retention is not an issue—a relative rarity in manufacturing jobs these days. Thanks to competitive wages, Argent International boasts turnover so low that the company gives prizes for ten, twenty, and thirty years of service. This is normally a trip to Hawaii, but with COVID, “we’re still working on that portion,” Perenic says with a chuckle. Work-life balance is also a large driver of company retention. She relates the story of one employee who left Argent International but returned after the birth of his second child to take advantage of the company’s working atmosphere.
As Argent International and Argent Tape & Label move forward, the companies have endured the crucible of the pandemic. “We had to really reinvent ourselves in a number of ways,” she admits. “We backslid but we’re right back in the game.” Comprehensive business plans will help the two avoid future troubles. Perenic jokes that she is “creatively paranoid,” and applies this to business plans. “I always like to pretend that thirty percent of our business is going to go away, and it did with the pandemic,” she says. Future safeguards, she believes, should help keep both companies running.
As Argent International and Argent Tape & Label move forward, the two companies demonstrate the alliance needed to move forward in automotive. The hybrid and electric vehicle market is still a growing sector for the companies, particularly Argent International’s solutions to deal with vehicle noise, vibration, and harshness. “When you have the quiet motor of an electric vehicle, all sorts of new sounds become audible since the over-riding noise of the combustion engine has been eliminated,” Perenic points out.
The two companies intend to attend Michigan’ Adhesives and Bonding Expo, planned as an in-person event as vaccinations have increased. After more than a year of virtual exhibitions, Argent’s leadership says it is the right time to return to live events. “People want to get back. They need to, we need to, and we want to,” Sellis remarks. “I think once it amps up—once a few people break the ice—then it’ll move pretty quickly.” As Argent leads the charge at such expositions, new business development is sure to follow.