The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman talk with Trish Kempkes, the Director of Global Communications and Marketing at BW Papersystems, about how to effectively combine brands during mergers and acquisitions, and how it’s sometimes better to just rip off the Band-Aid.
Managing Branding & Marketing During Manufacturing Mergers Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to the Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie, and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to the Kula Ring. My name is Jeff White. Joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how’s it going?
Carman Pirie: It is going fantastic, Jeff. For our listeners, you should know, here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, it doesn’t really matter what season we’re in, our power grid is always a bit suspect.
So, we’re coming to you today from a Halifax that is under siege from power outages. So hopefully, we’ll be able to continue along for this entire conversation. Jeff, great to be chatting.
Jeff White: Yeah, indeed, and really pleased to have Trish Kempkes with us today from BW Papersystems. Hi Trish, how are you?
Trish Kempkes: I’m great, thanks. It’s great to be here.
Jeff White: And Trish is the Director of Global Communications and Marketing, and one of the really interesting things about BW Papersystems, is that they have been expanding significantly via acquisition, as well as organic growth, and it’s meant some very interesting challenges from a marketing perspective, eh?
Trish Kempkes: Yes.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, it’s the understatement of the podcast. So folks, what we’re gonna hope to cover off today is really, let’s kind of try to unpack the dynamics of brand management, marketing management, in an environment that is growing rapidly through merger, and acquisition.
It is something that is very common amongst manufacturing marketers, that they find themselves, I guess they’re being served up an acquisition, or a merger that they have to deal with, or figure out, figure their way through.
I think Trish is going to have lots of guidance for our listeners today on that, including even when marketing ought to get involved with that. So, it’s not a surprise. So Trish, welcome to the Kula Ring. Please give our listeners a bit of an introduction to yourself before we get underway.
Trish Kempkes: Sure. I’m really happy to be here and talk about branding. It’s something that I work with in my job every day since I have started. I’m Trish. I’m the Director of Global Communications and Marketing for BW Papersystems.
The BW in BW papersystems stands for Barry-Wehmiller. We are actually owned by a larger parent company called Barry-Wehmiller that’s based out of St. Louis in the United States. Barry-Wehmiller has four platforms. Papersystems is one of those platforms, and it’s the largest one.
BW Papersystems is a B2B company. We sell capital equipment to other companies that manufacture paper goods, so that’s why we are called Papersystems. We build machines that convert paper into corrugated sheets, corrugated boxes, into folding cartons that are like, cereal boxes, and beer boxes, and soda boxes.
We also manufacture equipment that takes large rolls of paper and cuts it into sheets of paper, the most common being copier paper that goes into your copy machine.
We also manufacture machines that make notebooks, passports, and also, using RFID technology tickets, and clothing tags. So, the reason that those product lines are so diverse is because we do have a business philosophy of acquiring companies that share our same industries, share our same customer base, and share the same technology through some of those machines.
We’re a global company. We manufacture in four different places in the United States. Several of them are in Wisconsin and in Maryland. We also manufacture in Europe, in Germany, in Hungary and Italy, and most recently, we had an acquisition that allows us to now manufacturer in China and Taiwan. We’ve sold equipment into 132 different countries, and so each of those regions of the world provide a unique marketing strategy from us.
Carman Pirie: Wow, that’s an impressive introduction, Trish, and this M&A activity has been fast and furious. You joined the company, if my memory serves in 2007, how many acquisitions have happened since then?
Trish Kempkes: So, in 2007 they had taken three companies, and there were three originally as MarquipWardUnited, and then I joined the company in 2007, and we have acquired 13 more companies or brands since then.
Sometimes it is one per year, other times, it’s been multiple acquisitions in a year. Some of them are very small, it can be five people maybe that join our team, along with technology that adds into our equipment, or it can be a whole new product line for the company, with hundreds of new team members.
Carman Pirie: Wow, let’s kind of dive into that then. I guess first things first, and I kind of tipped the hat to this just a bit earlier, take us through your thinking, and your experience at BW Papersystems, about when marketing ought to get involved in a merger and acquisition.
I guess into the extent of, you know, has that always been the case, I guess the level of involvement you have now in your marketing role after thirteen of them, has that evolved as the number of acquisitions in your experience with it has progressed?
Trish Kempkes: Sure. After this many acquisitions, the thing that I asked for from the leadership team, is to be involved before the acquisition is signed and delivered.
During the due diligence period, it’s great for the marketing leader to be involved, because you get a sense of the history of the marketing of the company, and also in a lot of cases when you are changing the brand of the company name, knowing what the legal name will be, which happens when they sign on the dotted line, can make a really big difference later on when you have to communicate about a legal name and about a brand name in multiple countries around the world. It gets really complicated.
So, that’s probably the biggest reason you want to be involved before everything is signed, so you can have some thoughtful conversations about how that’s going to work.
Carman Pirie: Now, have you had to elbow your way into those conversations, or have you been involved from the start from acquisition number one?
Trish Kempkes: I had to do a little bit of elbowing into my conversations, I’ll say, because the way that branding initially worked when I first started at BW Papersystems, is that every time a company would be acquired, they would just tack that name on to the end of the company name, and so when I first started, the company name was MarquipWardUnited.
If marketing hadn’t gotten involved in the next 13 acquisitions, I would have to say that I work for MarquipWardUnitedWillPemcoBielomatikKuglerWomakoZerandJAGSYNCHROWrapmaticSHMQuestecCurioniVortXKNH and Apollo, and that’s really hard to spell in an email signature.
Jeff White: It’s a URL too.
Trish Kempkes: And it’s a big URL.
Jeff White: It’s not particularly scaleable.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, I’m really impressed that you were able to string those all together once, let alone on a consistent basis.
Trish Kempkes: So, when the name just became too long, the conversation was easier to have. We can not continue on with our current branding strategy, of tacking on the names to these companies. We need to come up with something that our customers can understand, that our team members can understand, and that all of the stakeholders that work with our company can understand.
Carman Pirie: It’s so funny, because it’s been said that you should change your logo not when the marketer gets bored with it, but when the accountant does—but I haven’t heard “start considering changing the name once it gets too long and unruly”.
Trish Kempkes: So, it was about four years ago when we had acquired a significant number of companies that we decided to create the name BW Papersystems, because that was the common theme through our acquisitions, is that it will be an equipment manufacturer that does something to paper, and that has held well for the last four years, and I think it really lends itself to allow us to continue to grow through organic growth and acquisitions.
That we can bring new companies under that BW Papersystems umbrella, and really create the brand around that, and then we still maintain the traditional brand names at a machine level, to have that connection that customers can recognize and understand.
Carman Pirie: Have you maintained those in each of the thirteen cases?
Trish Kempkes: Yes, and there are two levels to it. One is at a machine level, and if we continue to build machines under that brand name, we will continue to use it on the machine. In some cases, we don’t build the machines under that brand name name anymore, and then it moves down to we’ll still maintain that brand name in an aftermarket strategy.
Part of our business is selling upgrades, and parts to machines. There will still be machines with those old brand names in the field that are still operational, and in service, and we want to make sure those customers know who we are, and could find us to upgrade and buy parts for their machines. So, at some level, we have to maintain those brand names indefinitely, as long as the machines are in the field.
Jeff White: As you bring on a new entity, and you’re kind of coming in before that acquisition actually gets signed, what are the things that you’re looking at in terms of the brand that you’re acquiring, and how you’re going to put that to use, or kind of, put that in a bit of a backseat, or, what are the things that you’re considering at that time.
Trish Kempkes: Sure. First thing we start to look at is the history of sales. How many sales have they had last year? How many sales have they had in the last five years? How many sales have they had in the last 10 years?
These companies could be, you know, 10 years old, or they could be 100 years old, they could be 125 years old, and so knowing when the peak of the sales happened can be really important in knowing where we are with that brand name recognition.
It’s also important to know how many active machines are still in the field, so that we know how many current customers we have that are still operating those machines on a daily basis. From there, we go into their CRM systems. How many accounts do they have? How many accounts are active, how many people have they contacted in the last couple of years, so that we get an idea of how many times that brand has been used with a customer.
And then, we review their marketing strategy, and that can be done, you know, online looking at their website, looking at their social media presence, looking at what trade shows they’ve been at, have they actively been trying to promote, you know, their brand, and their name in the last five years, or have they been really hanging on tight and focusing on other things.
And then of course, we get feedback from customers through conversations with them, through surveys with them, to gain a better understanding of how well-known that brand is in the industry.
Carman Pirie: What I’m trying to get a sense of, ’cause that all makes a lot of sense to me, and I’m trying to get a sense of what the outcome of that has been, in terms of the differences between the thirteen brands that you’ve acquired over the last eleven years I guess.
I understand that they all somewhat continue in some way, shape, or form, some are only as part of the aftermarket. Are there any other differences, or even communication with an existing client base that may change depending on brand strength, et cetera?
Trish Kempkes: Yes, different client bases have had requests, frankly, about keeping brands, or not keeping brands, and in some cases we have been able to honor that once we kind of filtered it through the rest of the information that we knew.
The other thing that we tend to look at is, if it is an acquisition where the technologies will merge, and we can have a sense of the timeline of that, once two brands of the same function machine, and the technology merges, then you’re kind of stuck with how do I brand this machine if it has two different brands in it, and if we know that that’s going to happen sooner rather than later, we can start more of a process of evolving it into, “let’s just call it BW Papersystems”.
And so, there are some brands that we have chosen to retire early, some brands that we’ve chosen to retire later as we evolved, that was product lines to be branded as BW Papersystems, and matches the company name, but then there are other product lines that hold a huge market share.
They’re extraordinarily well-known. Their technology is probably not going to be merged with any of the other brands within the company, and then they really do maintain that brand on that equipment much more strongly.
Carman Pirie: It’s interesting. I’m curious. I really do like the, and again, it make sense to me that marketing would get involved very early, and that the impact and brand strength would be considered as part of that acquisition activity.
I wonder to what extent is HR consulted in all of that. Sometimes, it’s not only the market that has an attachment, or customers that have an attachment to brand, but oftentimes of course it’s the employees, and the corporate culture of the organization being acquired. Has that factored into the thinking much as you’ve worked through this?
Trish Kempkes: Absolutely. You know, whenever you’re merging two companies together, there are human people involved, and they all have thoughts, and opinions, and feelings about, you know, the name that they have worked under, whether it be for one year or sometimes 35 years, and there is an emotional attachment to that name.
Maybe it’s an engineer who has multiple patents that they’ve contributed to that brand name, and it is an emotional conversation to say is it going to go away, or is it going to be decreased in some way? So, those conversations happen a lot.
It involves a lot of communication on the part of marketing, and on HR to inform team members of what’s going to happen, and really the rationale that we’re using to make those decisions, that it’s not sort of an off the cuff decision, and that we’re not taking it lightly. Because there’s a lot of people who have invested their lives into their work, and it’s sort of compiled into that name, and we don’t we don’t want them to feel like they’re coming into a whole new family and losing all of that.
So, it’s a lot of work with communicating about that, and it’s beneficial for marketing as a whole to communicate to the whole company what we’re doing branding wise, because one of the biggest things of making it successful, and consistent, so that everyone knows what name they should call the company and what name they should call the machine, everyone has to be on board and they have to believe in it.
If we have one, you know, if we have some team members calling the company by the old company name, or a machine by an old brand name, and the others using the new one, it causes a great deal of confusion, and so to help maintain that consistency, communication is really key and a big part of what we do when we’re evolving the brands.
Carman Pirie: And you must have seen a big variance over the thirteen, I’m guessing, I mean, instances where the corporate culture is incredibly strong, employees are practically wearing tattoos with the company name, and then in others where they’re, ‘Goodbye, good riddance to bad luck’, kind of thing. Has it been that dramatic?
Trish Kempkes: Yes. In some cases in the acquisitions, the companies were financially not doing well, things were very scary. They weren’t sure what was gonna happen and you know, when they come into a bigger company, and we’re able to stabilize the business situation, it’s a much different situation, than if it was really successful, and the brand name is hugely well known in the industry and the fear that somehow we’re going to take down all of that.
So, it has run the gamut from, ‘Yes, hey, I don’t care, take away the name, ’cause I don’t want to ever look at it ever again’, to ‘No, this name is like my firstborn child, and you’re not going to rename my firstborn child’.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Kula Ring, conversations on manufacturing marketing. Don’t forget to subscribe now at Kula Partners dot com, slash the Kula Ring. That’s, K-U-L-A Partners dot com, slash the Kula Ring
Carman Pirie: How complex have these brand integrations been from a digital perspective? Of course, I mean, we all know the import, you know, in site consolidations, redesigns, things of that nature, about you know, the basics of redirects, and what have you.
You know, we’re talking more than one acquisition a year, it feels to me, like that could have been potentially a challenge for a web presence, or any kind of digital lead acquisition program in any way, to kind of keep pace with.
Trish Kempkes: It is, and it takes an incredible amount of time, and effort, and resources, because nearly every acquisition comes with its own website, its own set of social media channels with their own followers, and people who are connected to them using that channel, and being able to integrate that all into BW Papersystems in a way that’s thoughtful and easy for customers to still understand the product line that they know and love, and where to find it, takes a lot of effort and a lot of thought put into it.
So, there is typically a one to two year period for most of our acquisitions where all of the information, and the followers, and the communication has happened to take it from one digital channel, to the BW Papersystems channel. And on the marketing side, you know, the copying the information and getting new photos sometimes is the easiest part.
And the difficult part, is to move all of the people who are traveling down one road in one channel, and get them to switch lanes and follow us in it in a different way, has been, you know, the biggest challenge, and communicating to them to tell them where to go on the world wide web to find us, when they’re used to going somewhere else.
Jeff White: Yeah, and I have to think, too, there must have been some occasions at least, where BW found something interesting that changed your marketing from the top down, in some of the acquisitions. Is there anything like that that you can speak to?
Trish Kempkes: Yes, in 2014, we acquired three companies out of Germany, and they had previously all been owned by one entity, and you know, it was a great academic research project I guess, as far as being able to see how they did the marketing in the same situation and then how we chose to do the marketing after that. They kept the brands and the companies very separate, and they didn’t overlap them as much as we choose to overlap them in our branding philosophy.
But we still learned a lot about consistency and how you can use different marketing techniques to maintain a consistency, even though you’re not using the same name. We did a fantastic job about marketing with color, and logos, and a culture instead of a name, and that really did improve probably a lot of our marketing, as we’ve moved forward with those three acquisitions.
Carman Pirie: Flip this on its head, not to be negative, I guess, Jeff. But I guess, as you look back across the thirteen, what do you think might be your biggest marketing mistake that you made?
Trish Kempkes: I think in hindsight, the mistakes that I think back on are how slowly we incorporated brands into the bigger BW Papersystems. I think that we could have in some instances increased the communication, increased the number of brand ambassadors inside the company, to help get everyone to understand the rationale of what we were doing quicker, because the longer that we kind of dragged out the evolution of transitioning the brand, it confused people more than making it more clear and consistent.
I know why I chose to do it slowly, but in hindsight there were certain cases that I really think it would have been better for the team members, better for our stakeholders, and better for the brand if we had sped it up and not taken so long to evolve one to the other.
Carman Pirie: I’ve heard that similar advice from a number of seasoned marketers that are looking at a situation in hindsight, and I’ve never heard them say the opposite. I’ve never heard a marketer yet say, ‘We should’ve moved just a little slower’, it’s never happened. It’s always been, ‘You know what? If I had to do it again, we would have pulled that bandaid faster.’
Trish Kempkes: Yes. It hurts when it’s happening, but it’s going to be better in the end.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, and I had an old agency mentor of mine very early in my career, as I was navigating a brand consolidation, and that was his advice. He said you just, you know, it was ‘Move fast, you’re more tied to it, than the market is, the market will understand if you communicate it clearly, and quickly, and don’t get in your own way. Move fast, move fast, move fast.’
I mean, I’d like to think I kind of took his advice then, but certainly you know, there’s 20 years of experience under my belt since then—or more—and I think I see the wisdom in that advice more and more every day.
Trish Kempkes: I agree. We’re all humans and we have, you know, as I mentioned earlier, ties to some of these brands, but in the end, yeah, faster would have been better for the market and better for all the team members as well.
Carman Pirie: Well then conversely, let’s look on the glass half full side here, as we near the end of the podcast. As marketers, we all like to think that we’re a little bit secretly clever, or more clever than the average bear.
So, my guess is that there’s something over the course of these thirteen acquisitions that you’ve done that you’ve kind of looked back in hindsight and said, ‘That was really kind of smart, I’m glad I thought of that when I did, or at least recognized that good idea when I saw it’. So, putting you on the spot, do you have an answer for that?
Trish Kempkes: The most recent acquisition was about six months ago, and it was for a company that originated in Taiwan and had expanded into China, and they make equipment that we also make in the United States that has the same function.
It has a very different level of capital investment and a very different level of productivity from the equipment we make in the United States, but it’s very well-suited for that market in Asia, which is growing rapidly, it’s growing faster than anywhere else in the world.
And so, being able to take a look at that and be involved, you know, while we were looking at the company to acquire them, we started talking about, ‘Let’s just brand it as BW Papersystems from the beginning, and we’re gonna really quicken up this pace of taking its original brand name and moving it to to BW Papersystems.’
And we had the advantage, of course, of having a somewhat well-known name there already. So that’s what we did, and it’s branded as BW Papersystems and customers have accepted that, team members have been ecstatic about that, and you know, I really took this, ‘Hey, let’s not drag it out, let’s shorten it up.’
We had a really large open house with hundreds of customers to come and take a look at the equipment, and we got some really positive feedback from them. So I feel really, really confident that we made the right decision to start with it from the beginning.
Jeff White: It sounds like at this point you could probably write the playbook on how to merge brands for BW Papersystems. You know, so if you decide to move on from the marketing, and global communications gig, you know, you could become an integration consultant, or something of that sort.
Carman Pirie: Or at the very least, BW Papersystems will insist you write the playbook for them before you leave.
Trish Kempkes: Yes. It’s a good thing I keep a good journal.
Carman Pirie: Trish, you’ve left our listeners with an awful lot to think about, and have delivered an awful lot of value here in the last 30 minutes or so of this conversation.
I really feel like we’ve unpacked this a bit, and I really thank you for the wisdom in your responses and for taking the time to share them with us today.
Trish Kempkes: Thank you. I’m very happy that we were able to talk. I’m very happy that our conversation was so electric, that it kept the power on everywhere.
Jeff White: Yeah, it’s still going.
Carman Pirie: Man, that’s the best thing that you could ever say about this conversation. If it’s managed to keep the power on in Nova Scotia, it’s almost done the impossible. I hope that somebody from the power company is listening to these podcasts.
We should just send it to them ‘cause they should know that we’re publicizing to the world just how terrible they are. Anyway.
Jeff White: Well, thank you very much, Trish. We really appreciate you being on the Kula Ring today.
Trish Kempkes: Thank you.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to the Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at Kula Partners dot com, slash the Kula Ring. That’s K-U-L-A partners dot com, slash The Kula Ring.