Q: This is a special year for Zebra Pen. A company with over one hundred years in Japan is now celebrating 40 years in the U.S. market. You have been with Zebra throughout most of those forty years. During that time, you have witnessed incredible company growth, particularly in the last several years. What was your initial role in the company and how did you and the company progress over the years?
A: I joined Zebra in 1985 as National Sales Manager, a few years after they established themselves in the U.S. Prior to my arrival the organization got their first opportunity via an agreement with Day Timers, which helped launch our STEEL F-301 in the market.
However, outside of that opportunity our business really built its foundation via our partnerships with regional and national wholesaler, who remain an integral part of our business today.
After several years I was appointed Vice President of Sales and we focused expanding our distribution into the retail space. As such, we made the investment to develop retail friendly packaging strategy, which resulted in Zebra gaining distribution in one of the large office superstores.
It was around 1988 when we solidified ourselves and were able to support distribution in the retail and commercial channels. This expansion of business lead to increased staffing of sales personnel to handle both sides of our business.
In 1990, we hit another milestone. We established a relationship with Walmart, which really put us on the map and continued to push us to further expand our staff and logistical support of our customers.
Throughout the early evolution of our organization the STEEL F-301 was at the core of our success. (And it remains so even 40 years later.)
The early 90’s led to the launch two “first of their kind” brands. Jimnie Gel was the very first rubberized barrel gel pen to be launched in the U.S., while the Zazzle Liquid Highlighter was the first liquid ink highlighter. Both brands remain a component of our offering however, it has advanced and grown where our reliance on their success is not as critical as it was in the 90’s.
Perhaps one of the most significant product innovations/launches in the early years of growth was the introduction of Super Marble in 1999. Super Marble was a very unique innovation that, at the time, consumers truly enjoyed challenging our ability to meet their demand. It was a pen whose refill featured several different colored inks that would blend together when the consumer began to write.
Perhaps an even greater impact to our business was the launch of our Z-Grip brand in the early 2000’s. It remains a market staple today as a leading retractable ballpoint offering quality and value to the consumer.
In 2002, I was humbled to have been appointed President of the U.S. operation. It was at this time that we began to explore and strategize transitioning our warehouse, packaging and logistics operations to Monterrey, Mexico. The objective was to eventually turn that facility into a state-of-the-art packaging, manufacturing, and distribution facility capable of supporting our North and South American business’.
From 2002 through 2005 we saw our plan slowly come to fruition as we began to package our items in Monterrey, then we moved into product assembly before initiating product manufacturing in 2005. One of the first manufacturing projects for this new facility was the production of our Sarasa Retractable Gel pen. In 2005, we embarked on an initiative to manufacture and market one of Zebra Japan’s most success full brands – Sarasa.
Over the course of the next 10 years, we saw the expansion of our manufacturing, collaborated with Japan to identify complimentary suppliers from China, India and Indonesia in an effort to broaden our product offering, bring products to market faster and maintain our quality and price position.
In 2014 I decided it was time for us to push our branding efforts to the next level, which lead to the introduction of our Find Zen in Your Pen campaign featuring a 3D, animated spokes-animal: Zen. The campaign, like our STEEL line, was another differentiator in the market, and we are still just scratching the surface with Zen.
Our next business shift occurred in 2017 when we brought the pastel highlighter brand – MILDLINER – to the U.S. Timing could not have been better. Bullet journaling, journaling and color-coded organization were rapidly emerging lifestyles as consumers were looking to both find sanity through organization and planning, but also to reconnect to the creative side of their personality. As a result, we saw our business properly align with these emerging lifestyle trends as our offering now appealed to both the traditional and creative consumer.
After 40 years our organization continues to grow through new strategies, market penetration and innovation. Thanks to the support of the staff and our parent in Japan, I see a bright future.
Q: How important was your ongoing relationship and support from Japan?
A: Zebra Japan, which is a family owned and operated business, looked upon the US as an extension of its’ global family and has been very committed to Zebra US since its inception in 1982; and understood this market was critical to its’ desire to be a successful global brand.
Of course, Zebra Pen Japan Chairman Mr. Ishikawa drove the global organizations focus on assisting in the US success by providing financial, personnel and innovation resources. Despite, the competitive nature of the category and the challenges of establishing the brand in the US, Mr. Ishikawa did not waver in his support and was committed to the company’s success. Mr. Tanigawa, who was our domestic US president from 1989-2001, quickly familiarized himself with the US market and understood the undertaking and requirements to further advance the business.
Mr. Tanigawa was promoted to President of International Markets giving way to myself in 2001 and as a result of Mr. Tanigawa’s understanding of the US market he became a great partner and ally in helping the US obtain the support from the home office in Japan. Today, he continues to be connected to our business and a greater partner, but he has taken on additional responsibilities in his new role as Managing Director in Japan.
Throughout the 40 years, Japan has and continues to be a collaborative, inquisitive and supportive partner, which enables us to continue to best position ourselves for success.
Q: What does it mean to say that Zebra initially was a black and blue company? How and more importantly why did it change?
A: Actually, the writing instrument category as a whole was black and blue; or traditional. Writing instruments were predominantly used in very traditional ways from taking notes to signing agreements or performing accounting work. So, of course, for those traditional applications consumers used black and blue ink or mechanical pencils, etc. However, in perhaps the last 5-7 years there has been a shift. We identified that there were, in fact, two consumers in our market – the traditional consumer and the creative consumer.
Perhaps the first indication of this shift came with the trend toward adult coloring, which started gaining traction in or around 2013 and exploded in 2015. Adult Coloring started to open up consumers to the usage of traditional pens in an array of colors to express themselves creatively. However, most of the resale outlets initially did not really support the “creative” product offering beyond promotional opportunities. But that quickly changed as they worked to capture the color momentum.
In recent years a new lifestyle trend of self-expression and organization emerged in the way of Bullet Journaling, Planning and Color-Coded organization. As this new wave exploded on the seen the resale outlets knew they needed to adapt their offerings to appeal to this new audience. As a result, their plan-o-grams/offerings were a mix of both traditional and creative writing instruments.
Zebra was opportunistic leveraging some of the creative items that had an established presence in Japan and brought them here to the US consumer, who were very excited for them to become available. This shift gave us a complete and diverse offering that aligned with both consumer bases and helped propel and align us with this market shift.
Q: Opening new markets and launching new products in the face of existing competition always has its challenges. Growing Zebra U.S., what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
A: Over the course of my tenure with Zebra we have faced a little bit of everything.
To start, the market itself was and remains very competitive and when we launched there were several established brands who had a significant head start. As such, we had to play a lot of catch up and we leveraged differentiation and innovation to get our foot in the door.
As mentioned previously, our F-301 STEEL pen was something very unique at the time and it set us apart. Then, of course, came Z-Grip, which was our value brand with premium product attributes like a metal clip and rubberized grip. That was followed by the likes of SuperMarble and then Mildliner, etc.
So, through product innovation we have been able to find ways to differentiate ourselves and gain share.
Of course, we were not alone in dealing with weather events like Hurricane Sandy or the horrific events of 911. Most recently, we have had to adapt to the challenges brought on by a global pandemic, which has led to major challenges in the supply chain and placed great pressures on profit margins.
To overcome and be able to handle these challenges, we have innovated internally. We have adapted to leveraging technology and embraced new ways of conducting our business. None of which have been easy; however, the common ingredients in our ability to adapt to these challenges and overcome them are our people and the support of our parent in Japan. Without those two critical components our business would have been severely challenged.
Q: Let’s focus in on Zebra’s incredible growth over the last 5 years. What do you believe were the key factors that contributed to that growth?
A: I would suggest the following are some of the key factors to our growth over the past several years.
The introduction of MILDLINER is certainly at the top of the list. It was a product whose timing was perfect as these lifestyle practices of planning, journaling and bullet journaling put this product at the forefront. Even more importantly was the voice of the US consumer, who through social media, clamored for its introduction and availability in the US. MILDLINER came with built in demand and upon introduction it hit the ground running and continues to grow.
At times our size might be considered a hindrance, however, we still remain committed to our guiding principles of being a flexible and supportive vendor capable of supporting opportunities perhaps other competitors could not or would not.
Global Zebra prides itself on innovation, constantly seeking new technologies to solve the needs of todays “writers”. Whether it’s the uniqueness of the MILDLINER double-ended, pastel ink palette, or the retractable, no-dry out technology of our ClickArt brand; or the break-resistance technology of the DelGuard mechanical pencil, Zebra is constantly pushing the envelope to bring uniqueness to its offering.
Zebra’s investment in our re-branding to introduce Zen and align our marketing with our icon and namesake has better connected consumers to the brand. Our packaging received some awards for its clean design and easy communication strategy, but it tied nicely into our brand name and separated us in the space.
Of course, none of this is possible without a dedicated and committed staff. We have great people who are passionate about what they do and take great pride in being the best. As our founder suggested when he named the company Zebra, he appreciated that the animal had a strong family instinct and that is what he set out to establish with his company.
Q: The COVID pandemic created significant challenges for companies all over the globe. What challenges specifically did Zebra face and what steps did you take to weather that storm?
A: The COVID pandemic was nothing like anyone had ever experienced. So Zebra was not alone in facing these challenges. Our key to weathering the storm was our ability to adapt and our staff’s willingness to collaborate in new ways to keep things moving.
The biggest challenges are still lingering today. They range from supply chain issues to lead time delays to rising costs of transportation, etc.
Like most organizations we had to adapt to a work from home platform; we had to leverage technology even more than before and we had to take some educated risks in order to keep our customer base in stock. It was certainly not easy, but with the support of the internal staff, our parent company in Japan and our other partners we were able to sustain our business.
Q: Looking back on your years with Zebra Pen, what is your favorite part of the job?
A: The people I work with; and the feeling of accomplishment felt by each and every staff member as we watch our business grow.
Q: What excites you the most?
A: What has excited me the most and continues to excite me is change, which has led to growth. Our organization has reached beyond ballpoint pens and offers such an array of products to a whole new set of consumers. With a strategic focus on supporting the traditional and creative consumer Zebra’s innovations continue to align with current consumer trends. As a result, it has opened up new markets and new customers and new consumers. At the same time; however, our foundational core remains intact.
Q: What’s the best piece of leadership advice you have ever received?
A: Quite simple: Trust and empower your people and don’t be afraid of some risk. All good leaders know and understand that their people are at the cornerstone of your success. It has always been important to me to do the very best to support them and give them a solid place to work and grow.
I am also a firm believer that the biggest risk is the one not taken. Of course, there are varying levels of risk, but if we don’t/won’t try we will never know.
Q: What do the next 5 years look like for Zebra Pen? What do you see as evolving or innovative?
A: The next 5 years are very exciting for Zebra. I am excited about our expanded product offering, which has allowed us to engage with new customers/consumers in new markets. I am excited about the innovations brought to us by our parent (i.e. MILDLINER). I am excited about our ability to leverage our Zen character within the Augmented Reality space and utilizing QR Codes on pack.
Q: Thank you, Clem. This has been great. One last question. What will Zebra Pen be doing to highlight their 40th Anniversary in 2022?
A: During the months of September and October we will be running a consumer campaign leveraging social media and QR Code technology on pack to engage consumers in a 40th Anniversary Sweepstakes where consumers will have an opportunity to Find Their Zen at an Arizona spa. Of course, there will be opportunities to win additional Zebra Pen prize packs plus a limited edition Zebra 40th Anniversary pen.
We, of course, will celebrate as a staff in some capacity, but we will definitely be thanking those who have contributed to our historic success and have helped us position ourselves for the future.