Brands, Banners and The 4,000-Pound Box

Traverse City-based Britten, Inc. ships more packages around the world than you. It’s an easy assumption, given that the banner and sign maker shipped 46,000 packages last year and ranks third among all FedEx customers from northern Grand Rapids to Sault Saint Marie.

And though its operations are fascinating for its size and complexity, small companies throughout northern Michigan can now benefit from Britten’s shopping volume and knowledge through a new outsourcing program.

A recent tour of Britten’s Cass Road campus in Traverse City is led by 
Jamie Benningfield, logistic & strategic manager, operations, one of more than 400 Britten employees employed in Traverse City, Grand Rapids, and around the country. The “wow factor” is real as a visitor witnesses colorful, grand scale building wraps and giant banners rolling off million-dollar digital printers. On the walls and floors and desks of the building are the world’s most recognizable brands, logos and advertisements.

On any given day, hundreds of jobs pass through the manufacturing process at Britten and come through the doors from the fabrication department to shipping in its main building (though the company operates shipping departments in several of its buildings).

Activity for those in the shipping department peaks in the summer into fall … and then spikes again before Christmas as Britten’s retail clients ramp up their promotions and signage for the busy shopping season. Fifteen staffers handle packaging, labeling and shipping duties year-round, while temporary help can swell the crew to 30 during peak months.

In January 2014, the department implemented the principles of lean production, the benchmarks and metrics of which are right on the wall for all to see. Annual expectations and goals are printed, daily shipments and updates are noted in black Sharpie, and post-it notes adorn the wall where changes must be noted.

“There are metrics we follow and then those metrics feed into the companywide numbers,” Benningfield said.

Benningfield and her staff’s success is measured by:

– re-dos, or jobs that are damaged and returned for reprinting

– missed deliveries that didn’t arrive or arrive on-time

– packaging issues, or when something looks wrong or wasn’t packaged correctly

When Benningfield arrived on the job a few years ago, error rates were as high as 8 percent, she said. Today, after switching shipping carriers and implementing the lean process, that number is .8 percent.

Benningfield’s team is also measured by the percentage of customers who choose to use Britten’s FedEx account number to ship their products instead of their own, and the department’s staffing costs compared to overall production volume.

“When we redeveloped our…model 4 years ago, it was to leverage our volume to lower the rates for our clients…we saw almost a 100 percent increase in shipping on our account,” she said of the turnaround.


But it wasn’t an easy path to get there; at the heart of any manufacturer’s shipping operation is its relationship with its major carrier. Britten had been a “UPS shop” for a quarter of a century, and Benningfield decided to open up the contract.

“I wanted to open it up and look at our possibilities,” she said of the decision in 2011.

“We identified some weaknesses within the flow,” she recalled, noting one instance in particular where a customer, the operator of dozens of shopping malls, had very specific timelines for receiving their signage.

“We would have to spend on overnight freight and then production would become bottlenecked,” she explained.

Enter FedEx, a company with significantly more “ground points,” meaning faster deliveries. The differences in speed, cost, and reliability ultimately made the decision a simple one for Benningfield – though not necessarily for her co-workers.

“We’ve always been a relationship-driven company, and this represented a very difficult cultural change here,” she said. “It was tough to get everyone on board, and I was against the grain for about a year back then.”

Ultimately the turn times shrunk, job re-dos and missed shipments dropped and customer service increased.

Not surprisingly, Britten’s FedEx contact has good things to say about the company and the relationship.

“Britten has grown from doing almost nothing with FedEx four years ago to becoming … our third largest shipper,” said Gary Lord, FedEx sales executive, area development. “We love doing business with Britten. Britten and FedEx have a partnership which is not just vendor and customer. We do things in such a way to help the efficiencies and profitability of our respective companies.”

Today, though FedEx handles the lion’s share of shipping at Britten, UPS and several less-than-truckload (LTL) ground shippers also provide service.


Not only is Britten shipping hundreds of packages every day, the diversity of those products and packages keeps the department on its toes.

“We’re not a widget company,” Benningfield noted, adding that most jobs have custom instructions for packing and shipping. And in many cases, Britten’s the “invisible partner” between major advertising agencies and their clients, who never know Britten’s involved.

In one of hundreds of different iterations, an agency hired Britten to print and ship thousands of point-of-purchase kits its manufacturer needed shipped to thousands of retailers across North America.

The shipping staff receives the pieces from the fabrication floor, and must follow strict instructions for bagging and boxing, with five different styles of signage and different numbers of kits to each location.

Once the thousands of kits are out the door, the logistics department of three ensures delivery, even beyond the limitations of a carrier like FedEx.

“Sometimes a common carrier can only run at a certain time or only go so far on a certain day, and we can’t just say it won’t deliver,” Benningfield said. “So we come up with a solution. We find another carrier for the ‘last mile,’ we handle tracking and customs … and address issues that arise. We are dealing with customers needing exact [delivery] times.”

Asked if she recalled any memorable or especially challenging projects, Benningfield struggled. “Every job is so unique. Abnormal is the norm here.”

In one case, a client wanted a giant, 300-foot American flag. No problem, except that – from client approval to date of delivery – there were only two days. It was a size and time test for printing, fabrication, shipping and logistics, with teams working around the clock to get the job done. And the job did get done, with the 4,000-pound flag arriving in Charlotte, N.C. with time to spare.


The next frontier for Britten’s enterprising shipping team is to launch its own Third-Party Logistics (3PL) enterprise. Called Britten Logistic Solutions, the new group will allow local companies of all sizes to leverage Britten’s shipping know-how and volume pricing.

“It’s a great way for small companies to optimize their logistic department without hiring internally,” said Benningfield, noting that companies that ship just a package or two a day could save with the new solution.

How much does Britten save with FedEx? Neither FedEx’s Lord nor Benningfield will say. But the company’s most common shipping box is 30″ x 6″ and weighs in at about 3 pounds. For that size box, Britten pays less than half what any other local customer would pay.


What Should I Do About Shipping?

Sure, Britten ships an average of almost 300 packages a day. But Benningfield said any growing company can learn some basics about shipping.

“The biggest thing I learned is to look at what your company needs and build your logistics and find a carrier from that, and not the other way around.”