OPI: Brother has been a global company for more than 50 years. What is the company’s overall mission?
Dean Shulman (DS): Over the years, Brother has ventured into several business segments. The overall "dream", however, has never changed. Our vision was to become a truly global company, with global development and manufacturing.
More importantly, Brother wanted to be a "good company": good for the shareholders, good for the employees, good for our distribution partners and good for our consumers. As we continue with our mid and long-term corporate vision, called "Global Vision 21", we now focus on printing solutions as our core competence.
OPI: How did this mission develop?
DS: Almost 100 years ago, our founder started a small sewing machine repair shop in Japan. Shortly after, his two sons expanded the family business. Incidentally, they believed that there was no better name for a family business than ‘brother’, since there were six brothers in the family. Besides, "sister" was already taken.
The founders had three goals. The first was "to create jobs for those who wanted to work", the second to create factories with a pleasant atmosphere. The third dream was "to become an exporter of products, rather than an importer of goods".
The two brothers started with nothing but their big vision, and it seemed almost impossible to achieve. To realise their dream, Brother Japan needed sales and distribution companies all over the world. In 1954, Brother International Corporation US was established as a subsidiary of Brother Industries Ltd. to achieve this mission for the US market.
OPI: And how did Brother then transition from sewing machines to a leader in home, home office and office products, and then to the 2005 OPI High Tech Vendor of the Year in the US?
DS: Originally, Brother was a mechanical company with expertise in motors, gears, cams, etc – all based on sewing. It then transitioned into an electromechanical company as it migrated into the typewriter business. In the 1970s, Brother collaborated with Centronics to develop a revolutionary invention – the world’s first printer that had a high speed interface – so that several products could attach to a single printer. This invention later became the industry de facto standard – the Centronics Parallel Interface.
Years later, Brother introduced its first printer under the Brother name. From there, we expanded our printing business to word processors, dot matrix printers and fax machines. We now offer everything from mono and colour laser printers and multifunction devices, to Stampcreator custom stamp machines, to P-touch electronic labelling systems and high-end garment printing machines. And we now have possibly the ‘world’s coolest printer’ – our MPrint mobile printer that’s about the size of your hand.
We continually look to develop printing solutions that help save our customers time and expense, help improve their productivity, and even provide tools for creativity, at home and at work.
OPI: Your tagline today is "Brother is Printing". Beyond the obvious, can you elaborate on this?
DS: At their core, many of our product lines utilise some key printing-based technologies. As we continue to expand these technologies, we continue to focus on much more than the technologies themselves, but the wide array of business and personal solutions that they can provide.
Brother develops printing solutions for its customers, not only on paper, but on film and fabric.
For example, our P-touch electronic labelling systems print on film, and use the same basic technology as our plain paper fax machines – thermal transfer technology. From this technology, we’ve developed a patented laminated process for our P-touch tapes. And we continue to expand our P-touch line, so we can now provide our customers with a wide range of tapes and printing options for home, office, harsh environment and all kinds of commercial labelling.
Another example of printing is our new "garment printer", the GT 541. This product gives commercial silk screen printers a real advantage – being able to now print images directly onto garments, using inkjet technology. With our garment printer, manufacturers no longer need to create separate screens before printing – and they save on start-up time.
And last is our embroidery business, which "prints" an image onto fabric using thread, with such detail that it’s possible to create photo-like images on fabric.
So, you might say that Brother is printing…on paper, on mylar and on fabric.
OPI: And who in particular are these solutions and products aimed at? At one point you promoted yourself as the "Ultimate Home Office Company". What’s the status quo today?
Don Cummins (DC): The SOHO consumer has been, and always will be, a key part of our business strategy, since a large number of products developed are focused on the needs and applications within that segment. But over the past ten years Brother has expanded the focus of its products to include both medium-sized companies and the commercial marketplace, small workgroups and even higher end personal/home usage customers.
Bill Henderson (BH): Our P-touch labelling systems have always been fantastic organisation tools for SOHO users. For many years, the specifications and prices of these systems were aimed at those types of users, and that targeted approach allowed Brother to become the labeller of choice for many SOHO customers.
That said, over the last few years, while continuing to support our core audience, Brother has expanded its labeller line in two directions. First, we offer a variety of fun, easy-to-use, affordably-priced labellers for home and hobby customers. Second, we have developed a line-up of robust, technologically advanced models for commercial, industrial and vertical labelling needs.
In other words, today we strive to be the ultimate provider of labelling solutions for all types of users, from personal to professional.
OPI: What has happened in terms of new product development over the past year or so and what are your plans?
DC: Brother has continually expanded its technology base to stay ahead of emerging trends and their related applications. Monochrome-based technologies will continue to be paramount to our success, but we also see tremendous expansion in the colour printing technology areas, such as colour inkjet and colour laser printing.
Brother’s colour inkjet multifunction line has increased dramatically over the past three years, and we will continue this expansion and growth with the focus being on the home, home office and small business markets. In addition, Brother has recently entered the colour laser multifunction marketplace to target the small/medium and workgroup-based user markets.
BH: P-touch portable labellers produce extremely durable, laminated labels – suitable for indoor and outdoor use – on demand. We continue to offer increased machine flexibility even for home users, with easy-type keyboards and "favourite" keys for one-touch printing of often-used labels. For commercial users, we develop smart features like expanded layout options, print preview, and barcode printing.
And though all customers appreciate the heat-, UV-, abrasion- and spill-resistance of our laminated tape, Brother’s material engineers constantly create new adhesives for specialty applications, such as for rough and textured surfaces, or for wrapping and flagging on wires or cables.
But many customers do not need the machine portability or label durability of our P-touch line. Instead, they need to print pre-sized, low-cost, easy-peel labels quickly from a PC. So, we continue to expand our exciting line-up of Brother QL computer label printers. The most recent introduction, the Brother QL-650TD, even generates time and date labels at the touch of a button.
OPI: Away from products, what is Brother’s overall growth strategy, geographically speaking? You have made several investments over the past year, in Vietnam, China and Finland, for example. Can you tell me a bit about these?
DS: As a global company, we must place sales offices and manufacturing sites close to our customers. In terms of sales, Brother Industries Ltd continues to open Brother sales offices in countries like Malaysia, China etc, and our recent addition of Brother Finland helps to give us a more expanded coverage in Europe.
Brother continues to put emphasis on a pan-European strategy for both sales and logistics operations. Based on this, the company has secured a number of European accounts that operate on a pan-European level.
With regards to manufacturing, Brother has maximised its flexibility by having several factories in various countries. This strategy aims to provide redundancy of manufacturing and be responsive to changing economic and political environments.
As you mentioned, our latest announcement was the opening of a manufacturing facility in Vietnam. Brother has a total of three production facilities for communications and printing devices in Malaysia and China.
OPI: So where’s Brother headed in the short, medium and long term, from a vision and product point of view?
DS: Today, Brother International Corporation US is one of the oldest subsidiaries of a Japanese company in the US, over six years older than Sony, for example. Although the sewing machine business only accounts for 15 per cent of Brother’s worldwide sales, it reminds us all of the dream that our founder had. From sewing machines to typewriters, printers, fax, multifunction and P-touch labelling systems – our core business has changed and expanded, but our commitment to providing printing solutions has not.
Brother continues to expand its product offering and is committed to providing new printing solutions for our customers. In the short run, we will continue to expand our current areas of business and distribution by offering what we’re best known for – value. This mantra of offering innovation at affordable prices has differentiated Brother from many of its competitors.
OPI: Finally, the all important customer…
DS: We have developed an extremely loyal base of customers that trusts our products and knows we will perform as expected, without costing them a fortune. Yes, there are firms offering products at a lower price, but it’s the price-to-feature ratio where Brother has developed such a loyal customer base. We continue to expand beyond our core SOHO customer base, so as to offer this same value proposition to corporate America and vertical markets alike.
This year, Brother achieved record sales in the US, thanks to our resellers, retailers and corporate customers. We continue to be a "good" company for our shareholders, employees, resellers and consumers. As we said before, "Brother is Printing…"