2023 Innovator of the Year: Wolverine Solutions Group:

For Wolverine Solutions Group, the evolution from a distributor to the powerhouse it is today, is a result of never standing still.

By Toni McQuilken

-Printing Impressions

Editor’s note: In today’s printing industry, the concept of innovation is wide in definition, but rather narrow in its goal. Leading companies grasp many tools to define themselves, increase profitability, and differentiate themselves. They utilize new technologies, systems integration, novel human resources practices, diversification, exemplary customer services, and so much more.

The six companies included in the 2023 class of Printing Impressions’ Innovators of the Year were nominated by printing industry experts and consultants who identified them as notables. The business tactics and philosophies they employ may provide some inspiration to take your company to similar, greater heights.

The summary of Wolverine Solutions Group that follows shares what makes this company innovative, interesting, and exceptional. The insight it presents may provide the inspiration you need to take your company to a new level, or in a new direction.

Wolverine Solutions Group, based in Detroit, Michigan, is one of those printing companies that didn’t actually start out as a commercial printer. When it was founded in 1978, it was a distribution company, in fact, but neither its original founder, nor its current leadership — headed by Robert Tokar, CEO, and Darryl English, president — have ever believed in standing still. Innovation, you could say, is in its DNA.

Today, Wolverine Solutions Group supports clients with both direct marketing and transactional jobs, notes English, with a focus on high-volume, high-integrity type of work. The industries it serves tend to be highly regulated — healthcare, insurance, gaming, government — work that contains a great deal of protected information inside of it.

So what led to the evolution from a distributor to the powerhouse it is today? “Our focus on technology has been the biggest game changer for us,” English says. “There were really two things that catapulted us to where we are today: one was diving early into production inkjet … and the second part is our internal capabilities with that technology. We have an incredible team that solves the problems our clients face.”

And that’s not just English being proud of the Wolverine team. It’s a paradigm that others have noticed as well, including Pat McGrew, managing director at McGrewGroup, who nominated Wolverine Solutions Group as a “2023 Innovator of the Year.”

“Wolverine Solutions Group never stops innovating, McGrew points out. “They are fearless implementers of technology to help them drive efficiency in their processes. They embrace new technologies to bring new services to their clients, while they work closely with their technology partners to provide feedback to drive enhancements and new features.

“The team does not hesitate to have hard conversations with their customers and vendors when they see processes that need change,” she adds. “They look beyond their current book of business and deadlines in a quest to expand their market reach.”

Embracing Production Inkjet Printing

An early adopter of true production inkjet printing, Wolverine Solutions Group credits that technology in particular for accelerating its growth during the past five years, with English noting Wolverine was one of the first to install the roll-to-roll SCREEN Truepress HD press as an example. But the switch to the latest technologies didn’t happen overnight, or without any issues.

“It took longer to convince our customers to accept the technology because we were such early adopters,” he says. “That adopting production inkjet was the way to go, versus storing pre-printed sheets and inserts on our shelves.”

Today, the shop is operating two SCREEN Truepress Jet520HDs that are roll-to-roll presses with in-line finishing such as perfing and coating, as well as a pair of Konica Minolta KM-1s, and two Merlin K146c cut-sheet printers from MCS Inkjet Technologies.

Among Wolverine’s production capabilities are two high-speed SCREEN Truepress Jet520HD roll-to-roll inkjet presses equipped with in-line finishing capabilities such as perfing and coating. | Credit: Wolverine Solutions Group

“We do more work with those six devices than we did with 15 toner devices in the past,” English notes. “And we do it with essentially half the staff. Historically, we did have some offset equipment, but it was limited to one color, and was for generic inserts, typically. Today, we have a completely white paper workflow.”

And it’s not just the equipment that Wolverine Solutions Group has sought to innovate — the company has also heavily invested in the software. Today, it is running the full production suite from Quadient, with all of the modules, as well as quite a bit of sophisticated workflow solutions from Solimar. “We are really big proponents of both of those platforms,” English says. “We do so much sophisticated work that, in addition, we also write a lot of internal applications for anything not easily done through one of them. Essentially, we take a three-pronged approach to workflow.”

“The team at Wolverine focuses on the needs of their customers today and tomorrow,” McGrew says. “They built a technology stack that is unique to their processes, with room to change as the markets they serve shift. They have great partners who support them, but they return that support with insights and suggestions based on their evolving production requirements. They also share their knowledge with user groups and industry associations, which brings huge value to printers and mailers.”

The end result, according to English, is that once a job is in their system, there are very few reasons for anyone on staff to touch it again until it is going out the door. “We still have to do that initial setup, but after that, it is full automation all the way through fulfillment,” he says. “Data management, postal sorting, reporting, client notifications, job updates, production paperwork — it’s all created automatically. The only thing it can’t do is the physical printing and inserting!”

The Future of Print

Of course, for a company so focused on innovation and the next big thing, it should be no surprise that artificial intelligence (AI) is on English’s radar. “We have a team dedicated to figuring out how to use AI,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a differentiator in the print industry in a couple different ways.”

First, he sees AI helping to further streamline internal processes, removing even more manual touches from the workflow. Second, he sees AI benefitting how the industry approaches data.

“How we look at data, how we model it, and how we look at what our customers’ true clients really look like? And how do we mimic that to get the best results in a direct mail program? That will be the next big step with AI,” he says.

In fact, English envisions AI being incorporated far more heavily into the daily tasks at Wolverine Solutions Group specifically within the next year, although he doesn’t believe the industry at large will see adoption that quickly. “This industry has many people who are late adopters, but we’re not going to wait around to find out how others are doing it — we’re going to be the ones setting a path,” English pronounces.

“You never know what to expect next with Wolverine,” McGrew says. “They will continue to be one to watch as new print and finishing technologies come to market. Whenever they speak, they will be a company to listen to as they continue to push the envelope in high-speed customer communication production, regardless of the output platform.”

English says that if he had to give one piece of advice to other commercial printers looking to embrace innovation as part of their company DNA, it is the same thing that he follows for himself: “You need to have continuous investment in both your people and your technology. It is very difficult to grow, to keep up with the competition, without it. As client needs are changing, and turnaround times are changing, it is nearly impossible to keep up if you aren’t always looking to innovate.”

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