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Looking Back, Moving Forward

TL Ashford's Keith Suedkamp and Mike Schuett join Peg Tuttle to recount the company's history and discuss the evolution of barcode labeling on IBM i

This transcript is edited for clarity.

Peg Tuttle: Welcome to PowerTalk with Peg Tuttle, where we dive deep into the world of innovation and industry leadership. I am happy to welcome TL Ashford to the show. They are well known for their world-class barcode labeling and form software for IBM i, and they have been setting industry standards since 1983. Please welcome Keith Suedkamp, vice president of development at TL Ashford. Keith has over two decades of experience and brings unparalleled insight into the evolution of this dynamic industry. And joining us in on the fun is Mike Schuett, director of marketing, who’s been the driving force behind TL Ashford’s mission to serve the IBM i community with efficiency and excellence. Get ready for an electrifying conversation, everybody. Welcome to PowerTalk. Hey everyone, welcome to PowerTalk with Peg Tuttle. I’ve got an awesome show for you today. We’ve got TL Ashford in-house, we’ve got Mike Schuett. Welcome, Mike.

Mike Schuett: Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.

Peg: Absolutely happy to have you here. And we have Keith Suedkamp. Welcome to the show, Keith.

Keith Suedkamp: Thanks for having us. We’re glad to be here.

Peg: Yeah, absolutely. We got a lot of talk about today, but first off, before we get going, I’d love for you guys to just give us a little history about you and a little bit about TL Ashford. So Mike, why don’t you go first?

Mike: Alright, so a little bit about me. I started with TL Ashford back in about 1994, I think it was. Started off in technical support. Went through the whole training protocol that we do here, which is pretty extensive. And in that time, kind of moved through every part of the company — from technical support, just strictly on the phones, to moving into a little bit of development here and there. Then migrated over toward sales, reseller sales. We needed some marketing, so I got moved into the marketing department and that’s what I’m doing today.

Peg: Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s crazy. That’s a fun path. I love it.

Mike: It has been a fun journey. It’s nice to touch on all those different things from working directly with our customers to getting very technical to getting creative. So it’s been a fun road.

Peg: Yeah, 1994. Yeah. And we’re going to talk a little bit about the company and how you guys are 40 years old, but we’re going to save that for a few minutes. So Keith, what about you? A little bit about you.

Keith: So I joined TL Ashford, I think in 1992. So I’m a little bit more experienced than Michael’s 30-something year tenure. I started off to be a support person here, about a year in the support role. Decided that he wanted to try a different opportunity, so I stepped into the support department managerial role, which was pretty much of a challenge back in the day. From there I worked my way up to writing some of the source code and maintaining some of the source code. And my current title is vice president of development. So I oversee all the developers for both Barcode 400 and TLAForms.

Peg: Okay. I thought—

Mike: A fun fact, Peg—sorry to interrupt you there.

Peg: No, that’s all right.

Mike: Yeah, Keith has a bit more experience than me, but Keith was actually responsible for bringing me on board. He and I both worked at what’s kind of a now-famous restaurant here in Cincinnati. And so he came over to TL Ashford out of there, and then a couple of years later we kind of knew each other. So he was nice enough to put in a good word for me to get me on here.

Peg: Yeah, I love that. What are friends for, huh?

Mike: Right on. So we go a ways back.

Keith: It’s probably back late 1980s.

Peg: That’s crazy. So you guys, is the restaurant still there?

Mike: That particular restaurant has been closed, but the guy who runs it is kind of one of the more famous restaurateurs in the Cincinnati/Louisville/Nashville type of area.

Keith: The reason why the restaurant’s not there is it was a floating restaurant, and one night and the high currents on the Ohio River, it pulled away and crashed into a bridge.

Peg: Oh no. That’s horrible.

Mike: It’s not good for business.

Peg: No, it’s not. Oh my goodness.

Keith: My nephew was working on there on the boat at the time, and he was texting me. He goes, well, we’re floating down the river.

Peg: Oh my gosh. Oh, that’s crazy. So let’s talk a little bit about TL Ashford. You guys have two products, so why don’t you guys give us a little history of TL Ashford?

Mike: Okay. We started out with our barcode labeling product. There was a need. I think they called it Log Mars, Department of Defense—I think there was some automotive. And Mike, who founded the company, was working at a company who needed that. So he started to develop a product to generate barcode labels. And of course, if you can imagine back to the day where there were no barcode labels, where they were just beginning and see the progression to today where absolutely everything on the planet has a label on it—it just kind of took off from there and he sort of built the company. So the Barcode400 products morphed over the years, of course, into a better and better product and more extensive than I think it was about a decade ago. We got into the forms space, which was a natural progression for us, and been very successful there. So yeah, lot’s been going on—two products, but a great deal of business and opportunity out there globally.

Peg: Absolutely. As you can imagine, when I talk to customers and in my previous company and in the company I work for now, when I’m asking for third party tools that they use, everyone uses TL Ashford. Everyone. It’s amazing to me just the breadth and depth of those two little tools that are out there. And they’re not little—I’m not saying that. They’re big tools doing a lot of really good stuff for people, but everybody knows who you are. I love it.

Keith: Right. They’re just little add-on utilities, to be honest. I mean, they’re more than that. But I came in here kind of, I don’t know, not suspecting that printing a barcode was that important, but I’ve had many manufacturers come up to us at COMMON and other trade shows and just thank us profusely, saying if we can make everything in the world but we can’t put a barcode on it to ship it, it’s no good to us. So the labeling aspect is an important cog of the whole manufacturing environment.

Peg: Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about the fact that you guys have been in business for 40 years. I think that just says a lot about the company. Can you talk a little bit about the culture of your company and what has that culture really enabled you to build as far as relationships and driving success with your clients?

Mike: Well, I think you kind of answered it there. I know the culture of the company. I mean, when Mike Ash founded the company and when Keith and I came onto the company 30-plus years ago, the intensity with which we approached customer service was—well again, we both worked in kind of a fine dining atmosphere, and you have to take really great care of customers no matter what, no matter what the request was. And that was sort of the attitude. It might’ve even been one of the reasons Big Mike the founder brought us on, but that’s what was instilled in the company. So yes, we have utility products. They’re great products for what we do, but I think the reason we’ve been so successful is how we’ve taken care of our customers. As we were preparing for the podcast, we were kicking around different stories of—we can remember back in the day before the internet where you could just download software. We would on a whim cut some discs, jump in a car and drive four hours to Cleveland to update a customer and then drive back, just because we wanted them to be so well taken care of. And that sort of permeates everything we do. And obviously we’re kind of—at least for Keith and I and most of us in the company—the culture is we’re kind of like brotherly and sisterly with one another. So we can have a lot of fun, but we can also push each other to make sure that the edges stay sharp. And I think that customer relationship that we’ve built over those 40 years with thousands of customers all over the globe, customers are really the reason that we’re so successful.

Peg: And you sell worldwide from your office in, or no? Are you in Kentucky?

Mike: Yeah, we’re in Kentucky. We’re in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. But you can actually, if you go outside of our office building, you can look over and see downtown Cincinnati. So okay, for geographic, you kind of think Cincinnati, the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

Keith: Well, I think with the evolution of having the internet, and Mike was talking pre-internet stuff there, cutting 8-inch diskettes and quarter inch cartridges and all that stuff. There were many of times we would Delta Dash stuff. So we’d run stuff out to the airport, which is really close here, but we’d have it flown into somebody’s airport, close to them, and then have Delta Dash send it to them. So anytime somebody orders DoorDash, that’s all I say: Oh, we’re going to Delta Dash it.

Peg: Yeah, there’s nothing better than great customer service. One, you feel good; the customer feels good, they know that you care. It’s just priceless.

Mike: And you know what? We still push to our customers. Obviously we want to provide to them all the documentation, all the online resources that they can find to solve a problem or fix something or do something that they need to do. But we still ask people to call us on the telephone and we pick up right away. And a lot of people just—I mean, we will literally get calls from people that we’ve been working with for 30 years. And in fact, we were talking up until a couple of years ago, we got Christmas cards from a lady who left one of our giant customers. She had left the company for 10 years and kept sending me Christmas cards to my family, checking on my kids and stuff like that.

Peg: So you guys have been very successful in the labeling realm, but you know what? You mentioned at the start of the show that a few years ago you started a new venture or created a new add-on tool that was in the form space. And I want to just ask what pushed you in that direction?

Mike: So I think it was a couple of things. First off, it was a natural progression. We’re generating labels using IBM i data and forms, so that seemed like the next step for us. Labeling is constantly changing. So we had to allocate a ton of resources to that. I think probably the biggest factor to push us the quickest was we have so many customers—and again, I feel like I’m beating a dead horse—but I mean we had so many customers who were so close with who would call us and say like, hey, look, I’m using X for forms, however they’re doing it, but man, I would really like to work with you guys on it. If you produce a forms package, we want it. No questions asked, we’re going to do it. And so what was really cool is that we were able to collaborate with those customers to find out everything that they need in a forms solution. And we had no preconceived notion of what a forms package should be. We weren’t under any constraints. We were planning on starting from scratch with literally a blank slate. And the cool thing about our customer base is that while we’re strictly IBM i, we’re dealing with Fortune 500 companies and down to incredibly small IBM i shops. But while we’re dealing with that variety, those customers, while they have different applications—or while I should say a lot of their applications are similar—their requirements can be drastically different. So it was really cool to get that input and build in everything that they needed. Obviously we had our own thoughts, but our customers were kind of like an extension of our development team and architecture.

Keith: Yeah, absolutely. Probably got a call at least every other week saying, would you do something? And it was just in general conversations, but I heard that one too many times. It’s like, it’s been on our radar for a long time. Let’s do it.

Peg: Yeah, pull the trigger and just go.

Keith: And then send it out to 20 of your really good customers and have them shake it out for you and people you’ve worked with. That will tell you, hey, you need to do this, this, this, or whatever.

Peg: Yeah, this is clunky, this doesn’t flow right or what have you. Yeah, exactly. I’ve seen you guys a lot lately on the ALL400s survey that showcases your software as the most used form product. Why do you think that is?

Mike: Well, we were obviously crazy pleased to see that. Not shocked, but very pleased. Obviously one of the interesting things that we drew out of that was that AFP, the IBM i print utility, was second. And so that kind of got us thinking we have a lot of room for growth in that forms space to see if we can bring those potential customers over to our software to save them time and money. And in that regard, let Keith talk about why our stuff compares to AFP.

Keith: So IBM’s solution for printing your forms is Advanced Function Presentation. Everybody calls it AFP. And that’s been a decent solution in the past. But with the modernization and presenting much more favorable, high quality professional documents to your customers such as invoices and POS, our package is a great transition from AFP. No programming required. The design interface is state of the art. With AFP, you’re going to have to have a programmer. You’re designing it from a green screen, which is cumbersome, and there’s a lot of trial and error to get your data to line up correctly on the page. You got limited fonts. It’s black and white printing only. The barcodes can be cumbersome, and 2D barcodes are extremely difficult to do in there with special function codes and such. So we are a great replacement for that. And I think the no. 1 thing is no programming. And the no. 2 thing is ease of use.

Peg: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and I think the other thing too, Keith and Mike, is the fact that it’s not green screen. The people coming out of college today, they don’t want to see that. They don’t even know what it is. And when we talk about the way people are consuming technology and delivering technology, yeah, you’ve got to make that transition, so good for you guys.

Mike: Yeah. And if I could build on that just a little bit, Peg, that comment that you made about wanting more graphical stuff. I mean, there’s also been just endless talk about IBM i talent and resources and a shrinking supply. And obviously we hope that’s not the case. We’re all in on the IBM i, but you have to extend your budget and you have to be able to do more with less. And TLAForms, I mean, it’s amazing, right? I’ve been out of programming—I’m still pretty technical, but I mean, I can sit down with TLAForms and easily create SQL statements with our tool, grab data from the IBM i spool files. I mean, I wouldn’t call myself like a programmer these days, and I can knock out a form in a couple of minutes. So it really fills that gap too—extending the IT budget, extending the IT resources.

Peg: Do your customers feel the same way as far as just some of the comments and their ability, their skill levels? Are they able to purchase the product and hand it over to John in accounting or Sally in manufacturing and they can make their own forms? Or do they need to have a little bit of training?

Keith: So as with any new product, you’re going to need training on it. So we offer free training with it. So when we send it out, we’ll have someone set up a meeting, go through the software for you, give you a quick overview. It’s always nice to do that on their system so they’re comfortable, because that way it’s already installed and what have you. And then they have access to our portal from our website, which contains a lot of videos for TLAForms and for Barcode400. So all the common questions we get, we try to do a quick video for it—not something you got to watch for 3 hours, but a specific task. We usually keep them under 5 minutes. We have one that’s a total overview, that’s 20 minutes, and the comments on that video alone probably save lots of support calls. Although we want them calling us, we know that they may not always have that opportunity. If they’re working at night, they can just jump on there and look at the videos and it’ll get them to the point. So that’s just probably one of been of our greatest things is the videos and the manuals we have for it. And we take the time initially, upfront to train them, and then they have ongoing message or communications back with us and ask us quick tips and stuff.

Peg: Like I said, everybody who I run into that uses your products, loves your products, loves the company, loves the people. Even other vendors in this space absolutely love working with you guys. So kudos to you.

Keith: Love to hear that.

Peg: Ah, there you go. Thank you for that. I really appreciate hearing about the development of tools and I really do think that we need to have more software development in the IBM i space. So maybe it’ll help to inspire some of our up and coming folks coming out of college or folks that are just picking up the IBM i and learning how this amazing platform works. Maybe it’ll inspire them to create some products as well, maybe bring some ideas to you. Great. But for you guys, you know what? It’s been 40 years. We just celebrated 35 years of the IBM i, but you’ve been around for 40 years. Let’s talk a little bit about that. What’s your journey been like?

Keith: Rough. Early on it was rough long hours, and back then we were dealing with the System/36, and the S/38 was just getting phased out. That’s a little bit before my time on the S/38, but we still had to support customers on the S/36, on the S/38 before, in addition to the AS/400—well, as it was called back in the day, the AS/400. The transition in the early 1990s was just as difficult. We grew very quickly. What we do is with Barcode400, we write printer drivers for thermal printers. So for instance, Zebra printer, it has its own proprietary language called ZPL. There are a loads of printer manufacturers out there with unique or niche language that we have to write to make the printer do what it’s supposed to do. So we started picking up customers so quickly, we had the phone ringing off the hook for printer manufacturers, and you don’t write a driver overnight. I mean, it’s about a 6-month process to get it where it needs to be. So if you take six months and you times that by, I don’t know, 20 manufacturers, you can do the math. We were stressed and it’s like everything else. Their printers will relatively new. So they send us what it needs to print the label. So the technical aspects of how you send all these control codes, spend all that time right in that driver, and then the printer doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

Peg: Oh my gosh. But you know what? I think that I grew up in software, I grew up at Help/Systems, same thing, things coming at you a million miles an hour. But I think that those tough times with the great times really drive the company culture and what you stand for today. Does that make sense?

Mike: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s kind of like Keith said, like you mentioned, it’s like drinking from a fire hose again. We kind of have a fun atmosphere here, very familiar, family-like as you say. But yeah, so when that’s happening, I mean I’m sure tempers get the best of people—or attitudes, what have you. And with us, while we’re not immune, there were disagreements. When you’re here late at night and going on coffee and you’re getting frustrated, that all happens. But we do have a very kind of brotherly and sisterly atmosphere that we can work together well, and we still do to this day. I mean, things run pretty smoothly for the most part, but there are disagreements and we work through and we keep the success of the company and the benefit of our customers at the absolute forefront. And so we have fun, we wrestle, and we figure it out.

Keith: The thing that Michael forgets to mention is we might not have beat each other up, but I can tell you at least several PCs and a fair amount of printers took a beating. You’ve seen Office Space, right? Yeah, I know personally, I personally have destroyed two printers. I mean, you know how aggravated you’ve got to be at that point.

Mike: It’s a pretty cathartic feeling, though.

Peg: Call the manufacturer. “Hey, get a forklift. We need another one.”

Keith: “You’re not making anything. You don’t even have a forklift.” I said, “yes, I do.”

Mike: “We’re going to need another printer.”

Peg: So can you give us a little snippet of what your future plans look like right now? Or things that might be, I don’t know, something that you’re working on or you just got any future direction you want to share?

Mike: I’ll be a touch evasive if that’s okay. We are working on some stuff, but we’re not ready really to reveal it.

Peg: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’ll give us a good reason to have you back on the show.

Mike: Yeah. I can’t say it’s going to build onto our product, just like forms was a natural progression out of labeling. Our next iteration is going to be coming out of those two products, and we will see how quickly we can get that moving and look forward to working with our customers for that. But yeah, hopefully we’ll be able to come back on and share a bunch of details. So yeah, that’ll be great. Sorry to be vague on that.

Peg: Oh no, that’s okay. It’s software development, right? We got to kind of hold it close to our chest until we’re ready to share.

Mike: Yeah. Then pow.

Peg: Yeah. Yeah. Good. Well, hey guys, we’re coming up on the end of our time together, and so I just wanted to give you a quick 30 seconds if there’s anything you want to mention before we wrap up. And I’ve got some information to share with everybody as to how they can find you. But is there anything that you want to mention before we sign off today?

Mike: Sure. I mean, I think for anybody listening, if you know anybody using labels and forms, hopefully you’ve gotten an idea by listening to this discussion where we are as a company and how we might be to work with. And as always, we hope you’ll keep an open mind to our products, and we would certainly appreciate the opportunity to work with anyone out there to make their lives a little bit easier.

Peg: Yeah, wonderful. Keith, anything?

Keith: We’re always looking for new customers, as is everyone else. It doesn’t hurt to try it; there’s no risk and no cost. You get 30 days to try it out, and we’ll hold your hand and get you going. Do a proof of concept and give it a try. If you decide not to, there’s no hard feelings. It’s all good.

Mike: Yeah. Absolutely.

Peg: Wonderful. I love that. So thank you so much, Mike and Keith, for joining me today. For everybody out there, if you want to learn more—I know you do. Check out TLForms and Barcode400 over at their website,, or just give ’em a call. They’ll pick up the phone, help you out with your questions, and get you a trial and get you on the road to success. Thank you guys so much for being here with me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Mike: Thank you. We enjoyed it.

Keith: Yeah, thank you, Peg.

Peg: Yeah, you’re so welcome. Thanks everybody.