Our next Studio/E At the Hill cohorts embark on their expeditions February of 2018

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Exploiting a Harsh Niche in a Crowded Field

This post originally appeared in Minnesota Business Magazine’s October issue.

When it comes to the accuracy and durability of products, for Todd Roach it’s life or death. Todd is co-owner and VP of Innovation at Computype, a company that produces labeling solutions for the healthcare, rubber and industrial industries. This Twin Cities-based outfit produces the serialized barcodes for approximately 85% of the North American blood supply, as well as all of Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and a third of Europe. A blood bag is not the place for a label to malfunction, so the stakes are high at this family-owned business, which has been passed from Todd’s father’s hands to those of Todd and his brother Eric Roach.

I remind myself that better is perfect. Most of my best learning experiences have been failures. I don’t see that as a negative, it actually advances you forward. —Todd Roach

Though Computype is co-owned by brothers, the pair have enrolled folks from the outside to help them make good decisions and operate as effectively as the industries they service demand. We talked to Todd about his run-ins with failure, staying relevant in an old industry and why his employees stick around.

Studio/E: Your desire is to give people a hand up. How do you do that?

Todd: By employing and training people and giving them second chances. I believe in teaching-people-to-fish. Last month 15 people from our company spent two days at Habitat for Humanity helping build a house, and we’re doing it again in September. What I like about Habitat is the teaching people to fish component — they have to put in their own sweat equity. We like associating with groups like that. My passion is Habitat, my brother’s is the Special Olympics and my dad’s was United Way.

Studio/E: How did you come to the decision to bring in a non-family CEO?

Todd: My brother and I went through an assessment with an industrial psychologist prior to my dad retiring, who asked us if we were ready to run a multi-national company. We found out there were areas we thought we were good at but weren’t. Neither of us are driven by ego enough to try to force our way through it, so we hired someone else to make decisions.

Studio/E: Leading innovation requires you to spend a lot of time in the unknown. What helps you navigate the ambiguity?

Todd: I remind myself that better is perfect. Most of my best learning experiences have been failures. I don’t see that as a negative, it actually advances you forward. With the drone I’m working on to take inventory in our warehouse (see photo left), I ran into a lot of roadblocks and learned really fast. I crashed it three times within the first 48 hours. I broke an arm on it, I broke propellers, but I learned.

Todd Roach, VP of Innovation, Co-Owner, Computype
Headquarters: St. Paul
Inception: 1966
Employees: ~230 worldwide
Description: A label manufacturing company that has been family-owned since 1975.
Todd’s Desire: Helping people by giving them a hand up.
Studio/E Competency: Enrollment — The art of inviting another to combine their desire with yours.
Website: computype.com

Studio/E: Two of your employees just hit their 37-year tenure. Why do employees stick around so long?

Todd: We treat them fair. We don’t pay the most but we aren’t banging on their heads trying to get them to meet unrealistic criteria. We’ve been increasing benefits packages over the past 5-7 years to attract better employees and be more competitive in the marketplace. We have a flexible environment for people to make decisions on their own, too.

Studio/E: How do you stay relevant in an old industry?

Todd: We take something that isn’t designed to do what we do, and we make it work. Here’s an example: When the barcodes we make for the tire industry are vulcanized, they are cooked between 300 and 350 degrees, but the ink we use to make barcodes melts at 220 degrees. So we created a method to ensure the barcodes don’t melt. We realized we really succeed in harsh environments like that, so now harsh environments are our core competency.

Studio/E: What advice do you have for business owners?

Todd:

  1. Learn fast, learn often. Break ideas down into little steps instead of doing one big launch. Too many people try to reach perfection on the first go-around, and then they fail. I think the fastest way to success is to take smaller steps and learn fast.
  2. Reinvent yourself to stay relevant. In this world of off-shoring, we’ve never sent anything abroad — we’ve reinvented ourselves to stay relevant and cost-effective here in the U.S. Keep reinventing yourself. If you don’t, you’ll die.
  3. Don’t let your ego override good judgement. Hiring an outside CEO was one of the best things we’ve ever done. Don’t let your ego get in the way of good decisions.
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