Great Lakes Label: Big gambles have led to big success for this Michigan-based label converter.

Author:Hrinya, Greg

Tony Cook has taken the circuitous route to success. His journey has included a car wash pitstop, an exploratory trip to Europe, and finding his first press near a dumpster.

Cook's journey began in 1992 when he graduated from Ferris State University with an insurance degree. After making the decision to forego the life of an insurance salesman, he opted to use his business education to explore other avenues. A colleague from Cook's college debate team presented him with the opportunity to sell labels. Despite lacking any foundational knowledge of the label industry, Cook took the interview --and ultimately got the job.

"When I joined this small company, they had one salesperson who had been there for 28 years," recalls Cook. "He had announced his retirement, so that's why they started looking for another salesperson. By the time they hired me, which was about a month away from his retirement, he decided he was going to stay another year."

This delayed retirement provided Cook with an opportunity to learn the label business. The label printer moved Cook throughout a variety of roles to build up his industry knowledge. He worked in the art department, purchasing, estimating and even production planning. Cook concluded the year by sneaking in to be taught to run a press during production's second shift.

"I didn't know anything about printing or labels when I entered the business," explains Cook. "I didn't even know what they meant by pressure sensitive labels. You pretend like you do in interviews, but you really don't know what you're talking about. The internet really didn't exist back then, so I had to go to the library to learn. They said, 'Maybe it's a good thing. Our salesperson is going to retire in six months, so in the meantime let's get you some experience.' Then when he finally retired, I had a lot of product knowledge from my hands-on training."

Cook was not long for that job, though. When he left in June of1994, he established Great Lakes Label. Cook, the company's CEO, endured humble beginnings, too. The business originated in a one-bedroom apartment with a card table in the closet. He had a typewriter, fax machine and a credit card with $500 available--just enough to buy business cards, letterhead, and incorporate the business.

"It seemed like a great plan, of course I had no idea what I was doing," remembers Cook. "I thought a lot of my accounts would give me some business, but not a one did. So, for six months, I had no business. And I had just gotten engaged and married over a nine-month period, and that was about two months into the engagement when I left the one job and started Great Lakes Label.

"There were a lot of hard times," says Cook. "Not only do you not know everything you need to know about the particular business you're going into--you don't know business. I was 27 and I had studied...

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