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Apr 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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PERFORMANCE GROUPS FOR QUICK PRINTERS "There is strong evidence to suggest that active, well-organized performance groups can help individual owners achieve higher profits," asserts John Stewart, president of Q.P. Consulting (West Melbourne, FL).

Speaking at the recent National Assn. of Quick Printers (NAQP) Owners Conference, the consultant also suggests that "regular and consistent business planning and forecasting can be used in these groups as a key tool for improving profits."

Stewart says that successful performance groups feature members with similar product mixes (e.g., printing, copying, brokered, digital. Common backgrounds help participants understand each others' challenges and offer practical advice. Similar annual sales volumes are helpful, too. "Firms in the $1.6 million range simply will not mix well with $800,000 firms," says Stewart. "There must be reasonable restrictions regarding the composition of these groups."

Successful groups are candid groups--and therefore, membership shouldn't include direct competitors. Stewart submits that groups with six to eight members who meet three to six times a year usually work best. Adding a cautionary note, Charleston, WV-based consultant Tom Crouser says that "not all printers are ready to participate in a performance group. The stability of the business must be there." Crouser's tips for successful performance groups include: working with a facilitator to promote fair, objective discussions, * setting an agenda to keep meetings on track, * insisting on full, honest financial disclosure, and * appointing one member to put all participants' financial data in a common format.

FINDING GOOD EMPLOYEES Most printers, it seems, have struggled to find and keep outstanding employees. Mel Kleiman, a consultant with Humetrics Inc. (Houston), offered some tips for meeting this challenge at the National Assn. of Quick Printers Owners Conference.

The best source of new hires are your current employees. Ask your top performers for recommendations--offer a recruiting bonus for those who help bring strong applicants on board.

Don't fall victim to the same shopworn interview questions. Rather than asking an interviewee "what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses," try asking "on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your professional skills?" Since it is unlikely that the candidate will rate him or herself a perfect 10, follow this question with, "What would it take to make you a 10?" Ask for specific examples--what has the person done to deserve a high ranking? Also, ask applicants which supervisor got the best performance from them and why. Before hiring someone, ensure that the candidate understands the company's expectations. Review the rules, i.e., punctuality, dress code, professional attitude.

What about retaining employees? Don't forget that your job priorities (money, learning new skills, opportunity for advancement, recognition etc.) may not necessarily hold the same motivational factors for your employees. "The best way to find out what your employees really want is to ask them," stresses Kleiman. Finally, try to keep in close contact with your employees. Too often, says Kleiman, "the only way employees really get your attention is when they do something wrong."

NEW PRINTING COMPANY ESTABLISHED Printing Arts America, headquartered in Westport, CT, has been formed by Kohlberg and Co. in conjunction with the management group of four regional commercial printing companies. The new national printing company encompasses Classic Printing and American Corporate Literature (both in the Nashville area), S&S Graphics (Washiff from 51 percent last spring." Finding qualified employees tops the list of major industry concerns. The biggest increase is among commercial and quick printers (from 39 percent six months ago to 51 percent).

Printers also are very concerned with plant productivity. "Without the ability to raise prices, improved bottom lines have to come from cost reductions," explains Webb. "Luckily, with a relatively strong economy, firms have been able to make money despite reduced margins. But this means any economic downturn can hit these businesses hard."