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Golden Opportunists

Sep 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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NAPL's Management Plus award winners distinguish themselves through smart planning and adherence to details

They vary in annual revenues, product offerings, staff size and market niche. Yet these companies share one of the industry hallmarks of excellence, the National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL) Management Plus Gold Awards. The program recognizes the management performance of graphic arts firms.

The recipients of Management Plus Gold Awards also share some commonalities in their approaches to developing and maintaining reputable businesses. american printer interviewed each of the Gold winners for insight on their best practices.

VALUE EMPLOYEES

"Let the place burn down. We can replace the equipment. Just don't take any of my employees," says Lou Brand, chairman of John Henry Co. (Lansing, MI), a $100 million commercial printer.

Rob Busch, president and CEO of All-State Legal (Cranford, NJ), a $44 million legal printer, concurs that employees are the key ingredient in achieving company goals. He notes that competitors can buy the same equipment; All-State Legal is more productive than others because of its operators, who maintain and apply innovations to its equipment.

How do the Gold winners attract and keep good employees?

The Johnson Group (Rockford, IL), a full-service sheetfed printer that serves the Fortune 100 and 200 markets, boasts a turnover rate of two percent annually for skilled positions and an average length of employment of 12 to 15 years. Vice president Tonya Meister attributes some of that loyalty to management's efforts to provide ongoing career opportunities for employees within the company.

"If you're not challenging your people, they'll look for something else," Meister says. "We constantly provide training and new opportunities. We promote from within." She cites the recent transitions of a press operator and a customer service representative into sales as examples.

Employee education and training is an integral part of operations at John Henry Co. as well. According to Brand, more than 12,000 hours were devoted to employee training last year. The company has a learning center in which a wide variety of classes are offered, from computer science to Spanish.

Bob Tierney, purchasing operations director of Allstate Insurance Co.'s in-plant operation (Wheeling, IL), believes that the availability of high-quality benefits also contributes to contentment amongst staff. He says one of Allstate Insurance's selling points in attracting employees is a fully paid pension not found in other printing companies, a sophisticated 401(k) plan, and medical and hospital plans that rival any in the industry.

"Fortune 500 company benefits are superior to the commercial marketplace," he declares.

PLAN FLEXIBLY

A shared practice amongst the award-winning printers is the design of and adherence to a business plan. What do plans include? A printer's product offering, target audience, sales strategy, and operational model based on company growth or detailed sales projections are often defined in these documents. These plans may vary in the objectives they outline, yet one element is the same for all - they must remain flexible.

"It's definitely a work in progress," says Elliot Thostesen, senior vice president of marketing and sales of Lazer, Inc. (Rochester, NY), a provider of traditional electronic press services, web design and asset management to Fortune 500 consumer manufacturers.

According to the executive, Lazer creates a benchmark at the start of each year and works against it. He notes that the plan doesn't receive a monthly or quarterly perusal but is instead under constant review.

"We have a good yearly plan and a good three-year plan," agrees Meister at the Johnson Group. "But the tactics change monthly and we monitor trends daily."

The Arbor Press (Royal Oak, MI) incorporates a unique strategy in its business plan - the 68-employee sheetfed and mini-web printer does not allow any single client to account for more than 10 percent of its total annual income. President Jim Russell explains that this policy is based partially on Arbor's geographical proximity to Detroit and the giant auto manufacturers.

"It's easy to get sucked into doing half of your business with Ford or Chrysler, and if they take their business elsewhere, you are dead," Russell observes. "If one of our clients has 11 percent to 12 percent of our orders, we certainly won't turn them down for more business. When we arrive at the 10 percent figure, though, we pay attention. We talk about if we want to keep growing with that client and how much more business we want to take from them."

Russell insists that the 10 percent cutoff and overall business plan is flexible, and refers to a prior situation when one client's projects comprised 25 percent of Arbor Press' business. Instead of declining any of that customer's work, the company added and grew other accounts, so the dominant client's volume would be minimized within the total workload.

TRUST IN TECHNOLOGY

Many printers' business plans also outline practices for determining equipment needs and purchase decisions. In an industry that is continuously affected by the rapid pace of technological development, the approach to new equipment acquisitions can have a huge impact on a printers' operations.

"My friends in the industry would tell you that what sets me apart from them is that I have more toys," chuckles Bill Gilmer, general manager of Wordsprint, Inc. (Wytheville, VA), regarding his company's technological investments. "We apply most of our money back into the company to stay current with the developing technology."

The printer - which houses design, print and mail services - has four Heidelberg sheetfed presses, Xerox machines for digital printing and what Gilmer deems a "very sophisticated" prepress department. Wordsprint is primarily direct-to-plate, and Gilmer says the firm spends a lot of money keeping its computers updated.

Wordsprint's strides to maintain a competitive advantage with its equipment capabilities are echoed by almost all of the Gold winners. Lazer's Thostesen believes that if investment in new technology is not constant, companies lose their competitive edge, productivity and profitability. He alludes to companies that purchase new equipment irregularly and require reengineering of their workflow with each major addition.

Lazer puts a strict requirement on the return on investment; new equipment must yield what management projects it will yield.

Wayne Scheible, chairman and CEO of Flower City Printing (Rochester, NY), describes his firm as operating "on the bleeding edge of technology" but agrees that companies need to exercise caution in their purchasing decisions.

The printer has pre-determined "shelf life" time periods for various types of equipment. Fo r example, the company purchases computers that are forecast to be technologically current for six months, and expects larger presses to be competitive for seven to 10 years.

Jim Wicklander, president of sheetfed printer Wicklander Printing Corp. (Chicago), says his management team looks at the needs of both clients and prospectives when considering new equipment additions. "Current clients help drive and protect us," he states. "But as in any business, things change. Not every client's business is as strong as it was years ago, so we're constantly looking at new areas and new things."

BE DIFFERENT

Part of the Gold winners' management excellence lies in their ability to set themselves apart from the competition. Comprehension of client structure and needs, unique approaches to end-time delivery and team-based incentive programs were each cited by company leaders as practices that set them apart.

Classic Graphics (Charlotte, NC), a commercial printer that serves the advertising, corporate and financial sectors, relies on strong self-promotion to attract new customers and drive sales.

"We do clever, sophisticated, direct-mail self-promotion pieces that have been effective in increasing our sales," says co-owner David Pitts, who recommends designing such promo items at a more complicated level than is standard for the company. "If your capabilities are a level 20, send out a piece that is a level 50. You will get work in the 20 to 25 range where your capabilities are."

Scheible of Flower City emphasizes the importance of having a proper fit with each and every client - he says a printer should never take on a new project or client where it can't fulfill significant objectives. For example, a company should not take a job where 90 percent of the work is outsourced, yet it must assume 100 percent responsibility for it.

Scheible says Flower City won't take on a new account for something that is out of its paradigm, but growing with a client is a different practice. According to him, if the client is one Flower City has been doing business with for a while, the printer is willing to put in special equipment and even change its paradigms.

The University of California (UC) Printing Services (Berkeley, CA), whose clients are the nine campuses in the UC system, receives business only through competitive bids and therefore uses low-bid tactics to earn projects - typically the antithesis of how most printers like to operate.

"Nothing is handed to us; there is no mandate for the customer to come to us," says business manager Sue Sheehan. She says that what distinguishes the in-plant operation from outside printers is its intimate knowledge of the customer.

"We're sensitive to economics - we're good at figuring out inexpensive ways to produce what customers need. We do what they need, when they need it, or we don't exist," Sheehan states.

Wicklander Printing has a detailed core account program where client happenings and upcoming tasks are evaluated and an action plan is created. Recently, for example, the company hosted a luncheon for clients with the purpose of introducing e-business to them. The staff provided attendees an overview of what's coming and informed them of the printer's available e-business services, rather than force-feeding a particular solution.

Russell says that Arbor Press' company-wide commitment to end-time delivery is what sets it apart from competitors. "It's not a motto; it happens," he insists. "All of our people know it, they thrive on it and their bonuses are tied into it." According to Russell, only two jobs were shipped late in 1999.

Gilmer, on the other hand, attributes his company's use of a critical ratio - and subsequent on-time job completion - as the key to successful project completion at Wordsprint. Critical ratio is determined by dividing the number of days remaining before a job's due date by the hours of work needed to complete the job.

Gilmer first learned about critical ratio in an NAPL article several years ago and has fully incorporated its use into the daily workflow at Wordsprint. He says that at any given moment employees can push a button and see the sorted critical ratio for any department.

UNDERSTAND CUSTOMERS

For Baum Printing, Drexel says its advantage lies in its team-oriented setup. The company has five production teams composed of salespeople, estimators, production staff, invoicing people and direct-to-plate operators that handle specific clients.

"The advantage of the team concept is that they get to know the idiosyncrasies of each individual client - how their files come in, what needs to be done to the files, whether they view color a particular way that is different from another client," explains Drexel. "Clients love it, because we know their unique needs."

Commitment to gaining an intimate understanding of a customer's needs is indeed a highly valued strategy. Classic Graphics' Pitts believes that the more a printer understands a client's work, the more likely it is a profit will be made. This understanding should span everything from how the final product should be packaged when it arrives at the client's warehouse, to what should be on the label. According to Pitts, sometimes a detail that small makes a difference between doing and not doing business with a company.

So is there a formula for success and management excellence? For these Management Plus winners, it's a mix of paying attention to the small details while remaining committed to larger guiding principles and operational strategies.

The National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL) Management Plus program was established 20 years ago to give graphics arts companies a chance to measure their management performance against established, industry-specific benchmarks. Sponsored by american printer, Compass Capital Partners and MAN Roland, the annual program is the only one that rewards management excellence.

Performance is measured in 10 categories: financial performance, internal control systems, marketing/sales, business planning, human resources, environmental concerns, quality control, community/industry affairs, customer relations and vendor feedback.

Companies can enter the program and use the results as a low-cost tool for obtaining feedback that might otherwise require outside consulting expertise. All results are kept strictly confidential by NAPL; participants can keep their results in house, or, if satisfied with their scores, enter in the second phase of Management Plus, the awards program.

The awards phase evaluates entrants on how well they performed compared to other companies of similar size and structure. Winners are chosen at the Gold, Silver and Merit awards levels. The William K. Marrinan Hall of Fame Award, named after the program's founder, is also presented yearly to a company that has won several successive Gold recognitions. As part of the Hall of Fame Award, the winner chooses a graphic arts school to receive a scholarship. Intelligencer, the 1999 winner, has chosen the Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology (for more on the Hall of Fame winner, see p. 54).

For additional information on the Management Plus program, contact NAPL at (800) 642-6275, ext. 1307.

Founded in the 18th century, Intelligencer Printing (Lancaster, PA) entered the 21st century as recipient of the William K. Marrinan Hall of Fame Award in the National Assn. for Printing Leadership's (NAPL) Management Plus Program. This award, one of the most prestigious in the printing industry, recognized Intelligencer as the best managed printing company in North America in 1999.

The program evaluates printers in 10 categories, such as financial performance, marketing and sales, and vendor feedback. Companies can then keep NAPL's assessments confidential or enter the awards program, where they are compared to other companies of similar size and structure.

Intelligencer has 240-plus employees and operates a 100,000-sq.-ft. facility that offers the latest in sheetfed and web press technology. Customers include some of the country's largest corporations. It does $45 million in annual revenues.

What puts Intelligencer ahead of the pack? "Without question, it's service," says Michael Stief, director of manufacturing. "Our point of view is that anyone can buy technology. Service is where we feel we can differentiate." By offering superior service, he adds, "ultimately what we're really selling is peace of mind."

Intelligencer's commitment to constantly improve its service is evident in its ability to blend innovation with common sense. Take its approach to telephone calls. Although voice mail is an integral business tool, it is not always effective.

"No customer enjoys calling and then having to press all sorts of buttons just to leave a message," Stief remarks. The inefficiency of the phone system was solved two years ago when Intelligencer's president, the late Stephen Brody, decided to give each project team its own toll-free number.

Each team consists of an account representative and two production associates. When a customer calls, they automatically reach one of the team members. A pre-arranged schedule ensures that at least one member is available by beeper at all times.

Intelligencer is also carefully attuned to the needs of its employees, proven by its turnover rate of one percent. One quarter of Intelligencer's employees have been with the company for more than 25 years.

But, "when people are at the same place for 20 or 25 years, there's always the danger of complacency, of stagnation," admits Stief.

Intelligencer handles this by encouraging employees to advance within the company. Stief, Brody and several other top managers started in entry-level positions and worked their way up. The company also looks to local schools for employees, and puts recruits on a career track that exposes them to many aspects of the printing industry.

Stief also notes that with the introduction of new technology, it's important to make sure employees have the necessary training. If technology makes a particular employee's job obsolete or redundant, that employee will be retrained.

GOOD, HONEST COMMUNICATION

The exec believes that good, honest communication, with both customers and with employees, is critically important. According to him, when projects go awry for some reason, the company first tells the customer exactly what happened, and works on correcting or eliminating the problem. The most important thing the customer wants to know, he adds, "is that we're on top of the problem and that we'll make good on what we promised. Everything we do is a reflection on us. If we're not honest, we lose credibility."

Ultimately, says Stief, "we want to provide superior service on every job from the time it enters the door until the time it gets to the end-user." Intelligencer has found that there is no better way to sell peace of mind.