Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A visit to Beijing Fila Dixon Stationery Company

Typically I visit our pencil slat production facility in Tianjin, China about this time of year for our annual operations review and budget planning sessions. This year I have the added enjoyment of being accompanied by my 23 year old son Philip who is now working full time in the business in our e-commerce division. This trip provides his first real in depth exposure to our core pencil slat business where he'll spend several days in the manufacturing environment.

Normally during these trips I take added time to visit several of our customers in Japan or elesewhere in Asia in addition to our time in Tianjin. This year our first stop was a visit earlier this week to Beijing Fila Dixon Stationery Co., Ltd. Initially named Beijing Dixon Ticonderoga Stationery Co., Ltd., the company was originally established by Dixon Ticonderoga to produce pencil slats of Chinese Basswood for export to Dixon's facilities in Misouri and Mexico and a few pencils from residual slats. Later the facility began producing Incense-cedar pencil slats as well as some cedar pencils and has grown dramatically with steady investment since the acquisition of Dixon Ticonderoga company by FILA Group back in 2004. Today this factory produces both cedar and basswood slats for FILA Group needs around the world as well as manufacturing a broad range of pencils under the FILA brand portfolio, including specifically the Dixon Ticonderoga, Giotto and Lyra brands. In all the factory produces about 1700 different pencil items with about 3/4 of production focusing on color pencils for sales in Europe under Lyra and and the balance in graphite pencils in the Ticonderoga and Temagraph product lines. Most Ticonderoga graphite pencils sold world wide are now produced in the group's Mexico City facility which I also had the opportunity to vist about two weeks ago.

As it turns out Beijing FILA Dixon just recently celebrated it's 10th anniversary in business October prior to our visit. The photos here are of a special commemorative pencil set which we received as a generous gift to honor this anniversary from General Manager Tommy Lin who is shown in the photo with Philip and me. It includes 10 color sample set of jumbo coloring pencils using the formulation of the Giotto BeBe product as well as two Ticonderoga pencils. The pencils and box are imprinted in Chinese only with the inscription "10 Year Anniversary Beijing FILA Dixon Stationery Company, Ltd."

During our visit we were able to give Philip a great first introduction to the entire pencil making process from slat production to finished pencil production and packaging. One of the highlights was seeing the production of another special commemorative pencil FILA is producing to honor the 150th anniversary of the Union of Italy. This Genuine Incense Cedar pencil has some very unique features including one half the pencil being shaped to round while the imprint side is shaped to hexagonal, so it's a "hexi-round". The pencil will also be end dipped in the Green, White and Yellow tri-color of the Italian flag. Production floor samples shown in the photograph here are before end-dipping.

Other interesting products being produced in this facility include the Lyra Groove pencil, an ergonomically designed triangular pencil with gripping grooves cut into the pencil casing. As well as the Giotto Bebe, a special formulation super soft and bright children's jumbo coloring pencil range with a 7mm core. This item is like a wood cased crayon on steroids.

Overall I was impressed with the ongoing development of this facility which plays an important role in the total pencil manufacturing strategy of FILA Group's global operations and has contined to expand capabilities each year over it's ten year history. It was a great initial exposure to pencil manufacturing for Philip. Congratulations to Tommy Lin and his entire team for 10 years of growing accomplishments.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, and in my opinion, the quality of Dixon pencils has declined steadily since production in the USA stopped in favor of production in China. I one wrote to Dixon about this, not seeking satisfaction, but simply venting, and guess what? They sent me a box of Chinese Ticonderogas as a consolation. They sharpened poorly, the graphite core was off center, and every one has therefore broken cores during sharpening and/or during subsequent writing use. Dixon Ticonderoga used to be my most prized writing pencil, but now are relegated to junk in my house. With respect, I disagree with you, and claim that there is no superlative example of ANY product manufactured in modern China. But, I suppose contemporary business practice and quality of production are separate issues and not on the mind of any modern businessman simultaneously.

Andy @ Woodclinched said...

I hope your travels are going well! This is really interesting. The only Dixon product I really use with some regularity is the black Ticonderoga. I haven't noticed a major quality shift, but I did like the matte black barrel, similar to the new Palomino Blackwing, that we saw when it was produced stateside.

In any case, it sounds like a fun trip! Keep us updated!

Anonymous said...

Back when I was still in school I bought a package of Dixon Ticonderogas at Cost Co. I bought them back when the Ticonderoga was still made in America. The package was a bundled of six boxes which came to 72 pencils in all.

Luckily I still have a lot left. I'm pretty picky about my stationary, I'll only buy from companies that produce their products in America, England, Germany, or Japan. I do make a few exceptions e.g.(Eastern Europe); but I'll never by from any company that produces their pencils in Mexico or China. So once my current Ticonderogas run out I won't buy Ticonderogas ever again.

There is still one good pencil that's made in America. They're made by General's and they're called Semi-Hex in my opinion they're a lot better than the Ticonderoga. Unfortunately they're hard to find, but you can still get them if you order them from their website.

WoodChuck said...

Anon #1 - Thanks for your comments. I certainly empathize with your unfortunate experience with Dixon's pencils since cessation of thier US based production. I would like to point out that in general most Dixon Ticonderoga pencils sold in the US today are not made in this China facility, but rather in the Mexico City manufacturing facility. The vast majority of the Beijing production serves the European market and to some extent the Canadian market.

I was not singling out this facility as a "superlative example" of pencil manufacturing in general. Nor was I specifically addressing the issue of quality in this post, but rather the general development of the facility, the employees and the company over time. Any startup manufacturing operation, regardless of location, faces tremendous challenges to become a commercially successful operation making a broad range of good quality products. These diverse and often complex issues take time as the business and team go through the learning curve common to all startups. I was merely commenting on the favorable progress the company is making overall.

This is not to discount the importance of proper quality assurance in any manufacturing environment. And I strongly disagree with your statement that "contemporary business practice and quality of production are separate issues...". In my personal view the country of manufacture is generally irrelevant to the ultimate quality of a product that can be achieved. Yes, some countries may pose greater challenges in this arena, but that in itself does not preclude high quality production.

The core determinants of success include strong product design, appropriate quality raw material inputs, the implementation of superior management & quality processes, the proper training and technical development of the workforce and management and most importantly developing a workplace culture with a strong sense of pride in quality of workmanship and positive self-motivated workers. These all take substantial work and dedication from management, ownership and workers, but certainly are traits that ultimately can be implemented in China, India, Thailand, etc. as well as in the US, Japan or Germany.

Personally, I have witnessed highly motivated, well trained workers turning out high quality products in a number of Chinese manufacturing operations (not just pencils). I have also seen frustrated, poorly supervised workers forced to work with poorly maintained equipment, substandard raw materials producing terrible product quality in the US and elsewhere.

Eric said...

It is always nice to see the next generation getting involved in the business. It sounded like a fun, and educational trip.