Chris Cate – Valpak Direct Marketing Systems Inc.
The ability of a company to prevail through a crisis, as other companies fail, is a sign of strength and thoughtful determination. Such was the case during and after the Great Recession in the mid-2000s, and it seems to be happening again, as normalcy slowly returns to the business world.
“When small businesses took a hit, Valpak was directly impacted,” says Chris Cate, the chief operating officer and chief information officer of the Florida-based direct marketing company, whose more than 34,000 advertisers range from local mom and pops to national brands and big-box retailers. “The one thing we did was continue mailing. By staying the course, we helped our advertisers get their message out to consumers, therefore helping them stay in business.”
Although the past year has been trying, Cate emphasized that these challenges have presented a unique opportunity for businesses to quickly pivot and capture market share. Valpak has been the industry model for direct mail, he says, which has enabled its advertisers to lead in their industries by taking advantage of the company’s print and online reach.
When COVID-19 hit, the entire country saw stay-at-home orders enacted, which meant many consumers were now home all day, every day. This additional time spent in their homes resulted in many consumers noticing the need for home repairs. Enter the iconic Blue Envelope, which delivered targeted ads for Valpak clients that would range from home cleaning services to roofing to window replacements and weatherproofing.
This new stay-at-home culture also helped many restaurants survive by using Valpak’s print and online coupons that allowed them to highlight offers for pickup or no-contact delivery, as well as communicate their new pandemic safety protocols.
Valpak did see many grocers pull back from advertising due mainly to panic buying that had essentials flying off shelves, but Cate says they’ve already begun advertising with the company again.
“We’ve come out of this [pandemic] stronger because we did what is right for our customers,” he says.
Foresight wired early
During the mid-2000s, Cate oversaw the technology that went into building the $220 million state-of-the-art facility in St. Petersburg, Florida, known as the Valpak Manufacturing Center or VMC. This advancement positioned Valpak as a specialist in the business-to-business marketing space long before COVID-19 was a household word.
That back end of the business—coupon manufacturing—has been bolstered by VMC technology powered by heavy automation, logistics and robotics. This ensures that when the iconic Blue Envelope arrives at your home, yours will be the first hand to touch the contents. More than 38 million envelopes are mailed each month, and Cate says nine out of 10 households open the envelope.
Then there’s the front end of Valpak, which he has streamlined through Salesforce.com and business intelligence. Salesforce.com has eliminated many redundant sales processes while business intelligence has made it easier to target the right advertisers at the right time. The latter has enabled Valpak to supplement its main revenue stream by selling mined data.
“We have built a comprehensive data product that allows us to be advisors to our advertisers, identifying and targeting the right customers at the right time,” he says.
Besides advances in both the back and front end of Valpak, Cate describes a shift in the Valpak corporate culture as well, one that’s moved from a traditional structured hierarchy to servant leadership principles. The technology gives more autonomy to tech-savvy in-house groups, and the new culture has enabled them to change direction much faster through Agile Enterprise Transformation.
Not by online alone
And with advances in data acquisition, security has become a priority at Valpak. Cate has built a robust defense against increasing threats to protect the company and its customers. Just as important, he stresses, Valpak has been training employees in such basics as protecting passwords and not opening suspicious emails and links, raising the entire organization’s understanding of cyberthreats.
Also at the top of the priority list is online marketing, which he says complements rather than replaces print marketing while enabling Valpak.com and other digital media channels to reach consumers with the right message at the right time.
“Offline offers drive customers to online resources and vice versa,” Cate says. “In the past, as we’ve all heard through the media, print is dead, but that has not happened. Print and digital work together, in synergy. Each complements the other in this omnichannel approach.”
Innovation is a cornerstone of Valpak culture, he says, adding that the firm won’t stand still.
“Technology’s going to continue advancing and we’re looking to apply new ways of machine learning and artificial intelligence to our business,” Cate says. “Technology is an endless path—it’s a journey, not a destination.”
He’s also an advocate for a greater technological footprint in the Tampa Bay area. For the past six years, he has served in several capacities with Tampa Bay Tech, a nonprofit council that envisions the area as a Silicon Valley on the Florida Gulf Coast. Founded in 2000, its members hail from over 100 member companies, and with the Tampa Bay area a hot spot for economic growth, the council should grow in prominence.
And for Cate, life at Valpak remains invigorating after 25 years.
“It’s been a fun journey,” he says. “Most people leave a job when they get bored, but I’ve never been bored.”
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