"A Century of Perfecting Specialty Labeling"
by Jeff Bertrand
I am proud that my family has distinguished itself in two label niches since 1907- foil embossed labels and more recently, (1981) Copy Expansion Labeling.
My family started in the label business in 1907 with the founding of the F.E. Mason and Sons Seal Company. They made gummed foil embossed labels or “seals” as they were also called. This was the same year that Ray Stanton Avery “Avery Labels” was born who is considered the founder of the pressure sensitive label industry. Pressure sensitive labels as we know them today would not come for another 28 years.
F.E. Mason was my great great grandfather. He was a skilled craftsman in the art gun engraving and an accomplished painter. He was a stickler for detail. He gained his expertise from the Baker Gun Company in Batavia where F.E. Mason & Sons began.
F.E. ran the company with his sons, Roy and Max (nicknamed “The Chief” by our family). The labels were made from multi-level hand “carved” dies. The Mason factory would laminate foil and paper together and then send it through a gumming machine. Once the foil, paper and gum where combined, the completed “web” of paper was printed and embossed on Keiss and Garlach stamping presses. The foil used was 2 to 5 mils thick which was considered heavy gauge. The foil anniversary labels produced today are made on thin gauge foil which is about 1/3 mil thick.
The hand engraved dies allowed F.E. Mason to make very elaborate designs by pushing the material up (emboss) or down (deboss). Everything was created by hand including very tiny lettering. The hair on F.E.’s head is embossed! You could run your fingers across Mason labels and feel a significant depth to them. The thick foil felt very substantial and rigid almost like a thin metal plate. This kind of label craftsmanship was lost to history when die engravers stopped teaching their hand engraving techniques.
My Aunt, Allison Bertrand (John Bertrand Sr.’s daughter), remembers visiting the factory as a young girl. “I loved the smell of the factory...the smell of the ink...the sound of the presses. They were really rhythmic.” She remembered the big oak desks and the old fashioned Coke and candy machines. She said “It was a warm, wondrous feeling for a kid”. Her most favorite memory though was of the storage area where there were rolls and rolls of colored silver and gold foil material. “My dad would take me down to the storage area where he would cut some colored foil for me so I could do a project.”
My grandmother Constance Mason Bertrand remembered when her father “The Chief” took her down to the factory with her brother (Max Jr.) to wander around. “He would weigh us on the big old fashioned scales. He would let us get candy from the candy machine and gather foil samples. It was a Sunday pastime.”
Bob McMahon who sold for F.E. Mason between 1957 and 1971 and now works for JH Bertrand said that the company always gave him a nostalgic feeling. I loved the smell of the glues, the isopropyl alcohol and the inks. The sample room was like a sanctuary to him. “I would go up there [the second floor of the building] and study the samples. The quality was so magnificent. It was so peaceful.” McMahon enjoyed selling the product because his customers appreciated the seals so much.
F.E. died in the 1930’s. “The Chief” and Roy continued the company. "The Chief" was the head of the company while Roy was the gregarious sales manager and art director. Not only had F.E. taught his kids engraving, but to paint as well. Roy Mason used his painting skills to water color very detailed proofs for clients. The proof itself was literally a work of art.
"The Chief" was a very conservative businessman. Some would say he was painfully shy. While he wasn't readily open with his feelings, he was very generous to his employees. He would frequently reward his staff with gifts. Treating his employees with respect and care was very important to him. I am proud to say that we have the same philosophy at JH Bertrand. We frequently get compliments on our enthusiasm as a company. That comes from treating your employees well.
Later, Roy got so good at painting that he became an accomplished water- color artist. Roy's Paintings (a few listed here) featured hunting and fishing scenes in New York State. He painted for Reader’s Digest and Colliers magazine and had art exhibits at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. In 1987, Roy Mason was featured in Sport’s Afield in a cover article entitled “The forgotten Outdoor Artist” A book was written about Roy, Max and Nina (F.E.'s daughter) entitled the Mason’s of Batavia. It detailed the family’s talent in painting.
In the late 1930’s, my grandfather, John Bertrand Sr., met and married my grandmother Constance Mason Bertrand.
John Bertrand Sr. became a sales manager for F.E. Mason in the late 30’s. In 1941, Max Jr. was drafted and sent to New Guinea where he served as an army combat engineer. “The Chief” and John Sr. ran the business while Max Jr. was in the army. John Sr. helped the business survive through the 40’s by getting a contract with Bell Aircraft to engrave plates for the P39 Airacobra. The US government purchased all F.E. Mason’s foil and prohibited them from using foil until the war was over. The company continued making labels during the war without foil. They embossed paper and sprayed it with a finish that simulated the silver and gold foil look. Ironically, JH Bertrand is located on Lawrence Bell drive which is named after the founder of Bell Aircraft.
When Max Jr. returned from the war in 1945, he and John Sr. took over running the day to day for F.E. Mason. The “Chief” had a mild heart attack and began to scale back his time at the business. He died in the late 1950’s. Roy Mason was busy with his art career and phased himself out of the business.
Max Jr. and John Sr. ran the business through the 50’s and early 60's when Avery’s pressure sensitive label patents expired. They began offering pressure sensitive foil embossed labels and later bought heavy gauge silver and gold foil with a paper backing and a pressure sensitive adhesive.
One of Mason’s most notable clients was Hawaiian Tropic Corporation. Ron Rice, the founder, came to F.E. Mason when he was a life guard making lotion on the side. You can still see the same style antique embossed label on some of his the Hawaiian Tropic sun tan lotion bottles. (Note-In 2005, JH Bertrand started doing business with Hawaiian Tropic.)
By the mid 1960’s, F.E. Mason was the largest consumer of gold and silver foil in the US. At the same time, the pressure sensitive industry was going gangbusters. Competition from flexo presses was bearing down on F.E. Mason. By the end of the 1960’s, my uncle Jim and my father, John Jr., were running the business. Max Jr. and John Sr. were retired. Many of Mason’s customers began to consider the cost advantages of flexo printed pressure sensitive labels over an embossed pressure sensitive label. Sadly, F.E Mason was shut down in the 1970’s. Ironically, the quality that Mason was famous for became too expensive for the marketplace.
It was devastating to my father and my uncle to have F.E. Mason be shut down on their watch. Like many of my family, they are both excellent business people. My Uncle Jim went on to a distinguished career in electronics. My father worked on other business concepts. While he was thinking about his next business, he worked for a commercial printer as their VP of Sales. In 1981, he formed JH Bertrand as a printing brokerage. (Little did my father know that a simple booklet label product that he had developed for a local ag chem company would become the future focus of our company.) He bought and sold printing creating a good life for his family until 1986 when I joined him after college.
In the summer of 1985, I asked my dad what I could do for him to avoid working at McDonalds. Of course, I was kidding about McDonalds, but it did get a great conversation going. He said, "Why don't you sell for me"? That was one of those defining moments of my life. I thought it over and agreed. I took materials he had printed about his brokerage business, picked the largest building in downtown Buffalo and began to sell. I didn't know much, but apparently my customers didn't mind. At the end of the summer, I had gotten a few accounts including one that would bring my father's brokerage significant business. My father asked me to join the business in 1986 as a full partner. As of this writing, it is my 26th year running the business.
I came straight out of college to work with my dad. Ever the entrepreneur, my father worked on other ventures while I ran the brokerage business. While print brokering was a decent business, it wasn’t my dream. I wanted to offer something more unique. I wanted to sell nationally, manufacture and build a niche like Mason Seals had.
I remember breaking the news to my father on the 15th hole of Stafford Country Club. I told him I just wanted to make something unique. I thought we should specialize in helping the ag chemical industry with fitting regulatory copy on their products.
My father and I have a very close relationship. We consider ourselves very fortunate because many fathers and sons don't have the kind of relationship we have. We are good friends. He listened. We debated and decided to do it. We developed our first copy expansion product (Data-Necker) for FMC who is still a customer today. We decided that we were going to focus our energies on that niche.
As 1990 approached, we had added few more ag customers around the Eastern Seaboard. We had increased our product offering to both Data-Neckers and Data-Stickers which were pressure sensitive backed encapsulations that were fanfold in cartons. We counted Dupont, FMC and Monsanto to be some of our very best early customers. By 1994, my parents were traveling around the country visiting our customers while Bob McMahon and I made appointments. It was a great system. They took 2 months to canvass the United States visiting all the ag chem manufactures. They often made three to five calls a day. It wasn't unusual for them to travel 8 hours a day for weeks. At this point, we had added the laminated booklet label to our product offerings. Some of our biggest customers came during the early 90's.
In 1995, we had a huge break. The Zeneca Corporation (Syngenta today) was going through a major restructuring. We had a nice encapsulation contract there, but wasn't being considered for booklet labels. After a quick visit to the plant in Little Rock, we convinced them that we could help. Nobody was able at Zeneca corporate HQ to make decisions because they were so involved in downsizing. The plant went with us because they were afraid if they had waited, they would miss the growing season. Our sales with Zeneca alone went from $150,000 to over $1,000,000 in one year. That contract win really put us on the map. Zeneca was thrilled that we kept all its plants running smoothly which included Little Rock, Pasadena and Omaha supplied with Booklet Labels. We had learned early on that you never shut down a production line if humanly possible. Our sales grew briskly.
In 1998, JH Bertrand had quintupled its sales from the printing brokerage years. It was such a satisfying feeling to know that we did it from scratch focusing on Copy Expansion Labeling. Many of the dreams I had in 1986 were coming true.
Our sales weren't exclusively ag chem. We began to get many chemical and pharmaceutical customers. The internet popped on to our radar screen in 1998. We began buying "dot com" names that surrounded our industry. We didn't know exactly what that would do for us, but we had a gut feeling that it was the right thing to do.
Throughout the 90's, I had stuck to one very important principle. I felt it was important to have a pinpoint focus on our niche. I read a book called "Focus. The Future of Your Company Depends On It" by Al Reis that explained how American Corporations were constantly increasing their product lines beyond their core strengths. This weakened their "brands" and allowed more focused competitors to steal business. I didn't want that to happen to J H Bertrand so I kept the business tightly focused. Our job was to be the best manufacturer and distributor of Booklet Label and related copy expansion products nationally. We still have that same goal today.
By 2003, JH Bertrand had a solid national reputation in the chemical, consumer products and pharmaceutical fields for expertise in our field. We had gone through a lengthy upgrade of our facility to handle cGMP manufacturing and developed a special short run Booklet Label press. We had developed an excellent website and controlled all the dot com names that defined our industry including the term bookletlabel.com. Our sales were coming from both large distributors and direct customers.
In 2005, we added new Booklet Label equipment and expanded our facility again. Our new, custom designed equipment allowed us to make some very unusual and creative Booklet Label constructions. Our sales were up 10% with no debt. Our belief is to add equipment only when we can pay for it with cash.
In 2008 through 2010, JH Bertrand's sales were flat due to the severe economic recession. It was a pretty scary time, but we were much more fortunate than others whose sales were down anywhere from 20% to 50%. With stable sales, we decided to bite the bullet and continue to upgrade our capability so we could come out of the economic recession strong. We did just that adding more presses and specialty equipment. I am happy to report that 2011 was our best year ever with a 24% increase in sales. We were absolutely thrilled with the performance of the company and our excellent staff.
It continues to be my goal to make JH Bertrand the premier manufacturer and distributor of Booklet Labels. We continue to build our national reputation and brand and to be known as the most focused and knowledgeable player in the Booklet Label field. There is a lot more to know about this niche, however. Everyone here at JH Bertrand is excited to continue to learn. JHB spent a significant amount of money in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011 on R&D and will continue to spend heavily in the coming years because innovating is the way to keep a company healthy and growing. We learned that lesson from the loss of F.E Mason & Sons.
F.E. Mason's most lasting influence on JH Bertrand was its commitment to quality. I can feel that commitment in my bones. JH Bertrand is a very precise company. We do a lot of intricate and detailed medical, chemical work and consumer product's work. Doing things right is very important to us. I am very thankful that my family taught me the value of quality and detail. As the 5th generation entrepreneur in my family, I am absolutely dedicated to maintaining the tradition of quality and creativity in the label business.
As we enter 2012, I am so proud that our family businesses from F.E. Mason & Sons to JH Bertrand have specialized in making very high quality specialty labels for over one century.
Thank you for reading our family history. We look forward to having you be part of our adventure.
CEO and owner
Ps. As a business owner, I am always wondering if any of my kids will want to be a part of the business in the future. I recently asked my son (Jack 13) if he would ever consider it. His response to me was that he thought labels were boring, and he could never see himself as a "labelman" as he called it. I laughed at his response, and he returned back to his XBox with a tongue and cheek look on his face. I have two wonderful twin girls (Julia and Ashley) who are both 9. They seem to have the same sentiments, but you never know. I love our industry and feel such a passion for our niche. I hope someday they will too.