Partner Perspectives: “Why Zebra Was One of My First Calls 24 Years Ago…and a Company I Still Call Almost Every Day”

American Barcode and RFID may be a small business, but owner, president, and CEO Mike Stryczek is a big proponent of putting customers’ success first.

The American Barcode & RFID team
by Caryn Scherer
September 27, 2021

When American Barcode and RFID (AB&R) first partnered with Zebra in September 1997, RFID wasn’t even on most people’s radars. In fact, AB&R wasn’t even AB&R. It was a company called American Barcode Concepts that was in the business of selling barcode printers.

But that’s exactly why Zebra was on Mike Stryczek’s radar. As the new owner, president and CEO of American Barcode Concepts, he wanted to align his company with one that had the same commitment to quality solutions and customer service. So, he called our team to set up a meet-and-greet and the rest is history (still in the making).

In fact, AB&R’s collaboration with Zebra has helped propel both companies forward – to RFID and beyond!

It is impossible to fill you in on all the amazing things we’ve helped customers accomplish together over the past 24 years. I know we only have a few minutes together here. However, I did want to highlight some pretty remarkable things in the works right now that will likely impact your business in the coming months and years.

So, I invited Mike and Gary Randall, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for AB&R, to share more about their company’s history, the standards they’re looking to set right now (with Zebra’s help), and what has enabled their small business to grow over the years – even when markets have turned downward. Here’s an excerpt from our interview:

Caryn: Take us back a bit. When and how did you first learn about Zebra?

Mike: When I acquired American Barcode Concepts back in September of 1997, one of my first strategic moves was to contact Zebra leaders to see if they were interested in adding a Value-Added Reseller (VAR) in the Southwest U.S. To my surprise, Zebra was in the process of looking for a new set of VARs they called Zebra Labeling Resellers (ZLR’s), and I was put in touch with Zebra’s Channel Manager. He asked if I could visit Zebra’s Illinois headquarters for an interview the following week. He must have liked what he heard because within 12 days after buying American Barcode Concepts, I had a ZLR Agreement in front of me to sign. Two weeks later, two Zebra legends were in our office for a week training our sales team on how to sell Zebra printers. Afterwards, our sales team jumped right into selling Zebra printers like a duck takes to water, and we never looked back.    

Caryn: What made you want to partner with us? And why have you remained so committed to Zebra all these years?

Mike: I was aware of Zebra’s reputation for building quality, industrial barcode printers.  When I purchased American Barcode Concepts, we had just finished installing a large number of a competitor’s printers for two customers, and they were experiencing a host of ongoing quality defects and poor workmanship. That’s what prompted me to call Zebra. We have remained committed to Zebra ever since. Zebra’s management and engineers are passionate about building a quality product, and over the years whenever we experienced quality problems, Zebra management would always own it and do what was right to correct the situation.     

Caryn: Mike, you were instrumental in creating Zebra's PartnersFirst program several years ago as a member of the Zebra Vision Council. How has Zebra’s support for partners changed since then?

Mike: Since the rollout of the PartnersFirst program, the number of Zebra authorized partners has grown significantly as has the need for Zebra to monitor and enforce its Minimum Advertised Pricing (MAP) policy on the internet. Throughout all of Zebra’s impressive growth in market share and its dedication to a Channel business model, the integrity of the partner program continues to stand the test of time and impress me. 

Caryn: What is the greatest benefit of Zebra’s current PartnerConnect program right now, from your perspective?

Mike: In this era of ever-increasing competition, as a Premier Solution Partner, we enjoy Zebra’s best product discount levels, deal registration and a dedicated channel sales account manager along with access to Zebra senior management and product managers as needed for large or custom opportunities.

Caryn: Is that what you would credit with your success in the technology industry?

Mike: Absolutely. By earning Zebra’s highest discount level as a Premier Solution Partner and the opportunity to obtain a deal registration on large Zebra projects, AB&R has been able to maintain equipment margins in the 15% to 20% range on most engagements.

Caryn: Why did you decide to build a business focused on barcoding? What opportunity did you see at the time?

Mike: Back in 1980, American Barcode’s founder, Jack Burns, an Electrical Engineer by trade, started out by assisting local Phoenix, Arizona-based manufacturing companies like Allied Signal, Motorola, McDonald-Douglas Helicopter and TRW Automotive network their computers on their production floors.  As time went on, they all seemed interested in tracking their work-in-process using barcode technology rather than traditional clipboards. Jack experimented with networking barcode scanners and printers on their production lines and, over time, developed an expertise in Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) technology. Ever since then, AB&R has focused on providing AIDC solutions to manufacturers and later distribution centers as well as transportation and logistics clients all in an effort to make them better at what they do best.         

Caryn: Where do you think technology is headed? Are there new trends you’re seeing? Or maybe opportunities to better utilize technology that’s been around for decades to solve new problems?

Mike: In the AIDC space, we believe RFID is an underutilized and often misunderstood technology. In line with Zebra’s vision, AB&R is focused on AIDC solutions that emphasize real-time visibility of assets in an effort to improve productivity more effectively and intelligently for our supply chain clients. 

Caryn: AB&R is often tapped for Zebra’s advanced technology and innovation programs because of your strong leadership, sales and technical teams. You also have a deep Zebra expertise. Can you talk about your approach to innovation, whether you’re developing a new solution or just trying to apply technology in new ways to solve existing problems?

Mike: AB&R is very passionate about AIDC technology, and we pride ourselves on using this expertise in creative ways to solve difficult customer problems. A recent example of this is with Zebra’s ZC10L large format card printer. With Zebra’s approval, we incorporated a UHF RFID and Near Field Communication (NFC) encoder into this printer for a large corporate events company, giving them superior capability in tracking attendants at trade shows that clearly differentiated them in the hospitality industry.

Caryn: You’ve also adapted your business over the years to better support customers’ needs, right?

Mike: Yes. Back in 2003 with the Wal-Mart RFID mandate that directed its top 100 suppliers to use passive RFID tags on pallets and cases, we decided to add RFID to our name so that our end users did not think we only provided barcode solutions. Thus, the name American Barcode and RFID (AB&R). Eighteen years later, RFID makes up 20% of our total business. Our vision is that someday RFID will be the dominant way to identify, track and manage products in the supply chain.

Caryn: Though AB&R has grown tremendously over the years, you’re still technically a small business. So, what advice would you give to other small businesses that want to attain the level of success and credibility you have in the technology sector?

Gary: Do not be afraid to be curious and creative. We have a brilliant team that is a very curious bunch at understanding how the Zebra equipment works and the benefits that are brought to the industry.  That deep understanding of the technology has helped the team to creatively apply that technology and customize how it best works for each of our clients.

Caryn: Are there any mistakes you’ve made along the way that you feel others can learn from?

Gary: There is a very fine line between “leading” edge and “bleeding” edge technologies.  Understanding the right way to apply the latest technology can define the success or failure of that offering.

Caryn: What’s your secret to keep customers happy, especially with a leaner team?

Gary: Throughout our entire organization, the AB&R team truly understands that our purpose is to apply our 41 years of experience to make them better at what they do. From the initial contact with AB&R and through every transaction, service, and/or support interaction, our goal is to make customers sense that purpose no matter the size of the client or project. 

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Editor’s Note:

If you’d like to learn more about AB&R’s story and technology expertise or set up a time to talk with their team about your team’s current challenges, visit their website.

Stay tuned into the Your Edge blog all month long for more conversations with Zebra partners. Even better, subscribe to the blog here for bi-weekly roundups of all the latest insights from experts in your industry.

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Caryn Scherer
Caryn Scherer is currently the Director of Global Channel Strategy where she is responsible for the overall strategy and management of Zebra’s award-winning PartnerConnect program. She has more than 20 years of experience in the channel including channel strategy, operations and business consulting.