Starting a Case Business
Interview with Alan Adler, Founder of Cases By Source
Alan Adler and a partner founded Cases By Source in 1985. Today Alan and his son Matthew are working together to make this case design and manufacturing business a success.
Cases by Source was founded in Mahwah, New Jersey by Alan Adler.
Tell me about Cases By Source, Alan.
Cases By Source Inc. provides businesses and consumers with stock and custom case solutions. We design and manufacture our protective and reusable cases in metal, plastic, fabric and wood--with or without custom foam or molded interiors--to meet customers' specific requirements. Our cases are used to safeguard valuable merchandise and equipment during transport and to display some of the world's finest--and most expensive--instruments and products (including sensitive US military equipment and precision medical devices).
When did you start Cases By Source?
My former business partner and I founded Source Packaging in 1985, offering Presentation, Protective and Reusable Packaging Solutions. When we celebrated our 10th anniversary, it was clear that we needed to make changes in order to remain competitive. Manufacturing was leaving the northeast region and heading south and, worse, offshore. Packaging opportunities were decreasing, the market for value‐added cosmetics, giftware and electronics packaging was evaporating, and the business was being affected by geographic and environmental trends including the "green" movement and the internet's strong influence.
I was inspired by all of these things and shifted the company's focus to what was already a profitable but less prominent part of the business--Reusable Packaging. At the start of the millennium, we launched Cases By Source as an independent entity. In 2005, I purchased my partner's stake in the company.
What were you doing before starting Cases By Source?
This is my first business, but one that follows the natural path of my employment journey. I have a Master's Degree in Package Design from the Pratt Institute and, shortly after graduation, found work designing bottles for W. Braun, a plastics supplier of cosmetics accessories. Feeling slightly unfulfilled, I sought a more visible and customer‐centric role and soon jumped over to the sales side of the business, where my design expertise provided an extra edge.
My time at Braun was followed by a short tenure at (now defunct) J.E. Plastics Manufacturing Corp., where I honed my packaging expertise selling acetate boxes and thermoformed inserts. My experience at J.E. was marked by great progress and capped with an offer to run the production plant, I decided instead to further sharpen my sales skills by joining Shell Containers Inc. (now known as Flexcon), another packaging manufacturer. During my 13‐year tenure with the company, I rose through the ranks to the eventual post of Executive Vice President. A plan to buy into the company fell through and I seized the opportunity to follow my dream and nourish my entrepreneurial spirit.
On November 24, 1985 Source Packaging Inc. opened for business.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Money cannot be your motivation. Follow your passion, be passionate about your idea, and create a niche for it. "Me too" people cannot be successful entrepreneurs. A successful entrepreneur provides a valuable service for an appropriate market in which the customer will benefit. The money will come if you do things correctly. Otherwise, I believe failure is certain. It takes a long time to see the return on your investment, but the freedom and independence you gain by starting your own business is, to me, most valuable and rewarding.
Just as important, I think entrepreneurs have to take cues from their surroundings. I didn't necessarily envision our shift from packaging to cases but closely monitored trends that dictated the change. Shifting our strategy to be synergistic with the times helped us triple our revenue in a short time period and implementing updated ideals and technologies into the company's infrastructure brought our once regional business a prized domestic and international customer base.
What outside resources were helpful to you?
In the early days, we shared office space and a secretary with 20 other companies. We saved on overhead and still maintained a professional presence. We weren't working out of a garage; we had a home base with a conference room and a place to meet clients. What we lacked in real estate and staffing was more than compensated for by the ability and facilities to build a solid foundation for the business.
I also had professional network upon which I relied heavily. From legal to financial advisors, I surrounded myself with trustworthy and successful contacts that would provide sound counsel. Friends mean well but usually come with baggage and are influenced by other factors. Business associates and advisors can empathize with your day-to-day frustrations and triumphs without the personal distractions.
Three years ago, I joined Vistage, a professional association for small business owners. My group (of about 12-18 people) meets monthly; we learn from professional presentations, share experiences and perform as each other's Board of Directors.
Do you own Cases By Source with family members?
My son, Matthew, joined the business in 2003 and is now the Vice President of the company. There are certainly challenges when family members work together but the benefits far outweigh them. I have a level of trust in Matthew that goes beyond words. He has watched me build a business that provided for our family. As my immediate successor, he has a vested interest in the company's growth and prosperity. He also has a deep understanding of the business's capabilities; he worked here during school breaks and summer vacations. And he brings with him experiences from other employers that have strengthened Cases By Source's future. His commitment to results is one I never question.
The challenges we experienced in the early days of Matthew's employment with Source typically revolved around my tentativeness to let go of responsibilities I had held for so long and habits that were formed. My hesitance wasn't for a lack of trust or faith in his abilities, but was more a facet of the familial relationship and a generational gap. I had to learn to separate the parent/child dynamic from the one of colleague/partner.
Matthew brings an ever-evolving skill-set to the business. I have learned to listen and be open to change. Once I learned to let go and split the responsibilities--he handles the tactical side of the business while I focus on the strategic component--any tensions fell by the wayside and the business saw tremendous growth.
Green business practices are the new hot topic. Do you incorporate any green technologies and Cases By Source?
We see our business itself as being a "green" one. In the mid-1990's, when the "green" movement took hold, it brought with it an anti-packaging undercurrent. The ecological awakening we experienced was, in essence, an idea that seemed contrary to the principles that brought Source's early success--packaging was a lucrative business because it always needed to be replaced. But we knew that the company's survival essentially depended on our embracing environmental ideals by focusing on the benefits of re-usable/re-shippable cases and containers.
Sure, we recycle and have dreams of going paperless. We also stay abreast of new, eco-friendly materials and methods of manufacturing. But we're most proud of the bigger picture that our business addresses on an environmentally-sound level.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
The case industry is an under-appreciated one. People don't know much about it unless they're involved with it and they typically take cases for granted. I expected employees to embrace our business and passion from the get-go and take us to the next level. Unfortunately, it hasn't always been so easy. I know no business is immune to employment pitfalls and poor hiring choices, but assembling our ultimate team has proven to be more difficult than I had initially anticipated. As cliché as it is, I have truly learned from the "hire slowly, fire quickly" adage. Set goals. Communicate expectations. Hold people accountable to the level you hold yourself accountable as the business owner. Only then will your business grow and mature.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Though I'm proud of Cases By Source as it stands today, I wish I had started the business completely independently. I thought it would be too difficult having 100% of the responsibility on my own shoulders but quickly realized that when you have a 50/50 partnership, you can't make decisions on your own. Dissolving the relationship in the later years proved difficult and painful and also provided great perspective, if only in hindsight. Instead, I wish I had conceived the business on my own and hired wisely and slowly.
It sounds like you and Matthew have made a good "case" to become entrepreneurs. Thank you for sharing your business expertise with our readers at Gaebler.com.
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