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Sep 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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The economy may be flourishing, but running a successful business still demands the highest levels of experience, dedication and skill. To help hone their business acumen, people who want to learn more about the business of printing take time out to participate in the Management Plus program offered by the National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL). This program, which is co-sponsored by american printer, Compass Capital Partners and MAN Roland, enables printing business owners and managers to evaluate every aspect of their business. And it often has inspired them to make innovative changes and incremental improvements.

Participants complete a detailed self-evaluation questionnaire. They can either keep the completed questionnaires for in-house use or return them to NAPL for confidential analysis and comment. NAPL also tells the participants how their companies fare when compared to other printing firms.

The optional Management Plus awards competition is a way for businesses to gain public recognition for their success. NAPL chooses winners in six categories and presents Gold, Silver and Merit awards. Top Gold Award winners choose a four-year graphic arts educational institution to receive an NAPL scholarship in the winner's name. All winners automatically become members of the NAPL Management Plus Society, a peer group of businesses dedicated to promoting management excellence in the printing industry. Participation in the program is extremely valuable--"a good yard stick" and a "pathway to profitability" were phrases two 1998 (most recent program year) Gold Award winners used to describe the program. Learning something about what the winners are doing to become and stay on top in the printing industry is valuable as well, however. A series of interviews with the presidents of Gold Award winning firms provides helpful insights.

One of the most striking findings is that the winners all hold fast to the same principles and basic strategies. While all the firms have unique differences, each has independently arrived at many of the same winning combinations. These principles have become the cornerstones of the company's management strategies and tactics. Some of these philosophies are outlined here.

no company succeeds without good employees. To ensure that employees work together to satisfy customer needs, printers must select employees carefully, taking into account not only their technical skills, but attitudes and work habits. Finding employees that will comfortably fit into a corporate culture is a challenge, but one that pays off in the long run. "Hire good people and treat them well" is the phrase that sums it up. "The best executive is the one who picks good employees and then lets them do their job," explains Jim Russell, president of Arbor Press. "Getting the right people on board can separate you from your competition," adds Dick Bloomfield, president of Keys Printing.

After hiring the right staff, it is important that management invest in its employees, providing training and career path options. Investing in employees means providing them with the training and incentives to become better employees. At Keys Printing, 30 percent of the employees are involved in on-site training at any given time. Training covers a variety of professional and personal areas ranging from sales training to human relations skills. The company also offers employees 100 percent tuition reimbursement for college programs.

Investing in employees can also mean keeping jobs as challenging as possible. At Flower City Printing, chairman Wayne Scheible says that management "constantly provides key personnel with challenges and provides an environment for entrepreneurial spirit." Joan Weisman at the Sheridan Press concurs, striving to "create a constant learning environment."

And employees should be rewarded consistently. Rewards need not always be salary-related. A public pat on the back, pizza on Friday or time off for outstanding achievements are just a few of the rewards managers can bestow on their staff.

Incentive plans and earnings potential vary from company to company, but each gold winner has some means of tying individual performance into salary and benefits. For Stephen Brody, president of Intelligencer Printing, it's important to offer "excellent" pay and benefits. Action Printing, a family-owned business, returns a substantial amount of profit over to employees, in addition to a generous retirement plan.

For all these companies, technology is important but it takes a back seat to people. "Technology makes it possible, the people make the difference," explains Keys Printing's Bloomfield. Rosemary Kelly, president of Baum Printing (a Wallace Company), agrees. "We understand that it's not just the equipment that makes the company, it's the people who use the equipment," she says.

no company succeeds without good customers. In order to be a profit leader, every person in a printing company must understand that customers represent more than just a source of income. Great service has become the great differentiating factor in our competitive industry. To provide that service, the company culture must reflect an interest in and respect for its many and varied clients.

"Our clients are the key to guiding our business decisions. When we listen to them, they can provide all kinds of insights to guide our strategic planning," Kelly says. Treating customers as people rather than sources of income is one of the ways Bill Gilmer, president of Wordsprint Inc., gets and keeps customers. "Marketing is more about listening than pushing a message."

Weisman echoes Kelly's concepts and explains part of Sheridan's success strategy: "Customer relationships are crucial in our business, and it requires each person, in every department, to work together to accomplish our goals."

Flower City's Scheible explains the dynamic between employees and customers by saying, "If you invest in leading edge technology and back it up with top personnel, it gives you a lead into the best customers."

Providing good service and treating customers with respect are ways to keep good customers. But printers also must actively seek out clients that fit naturally into the services being offered. To do this, graphic arts execs must clearly understand what products and services their company excels in and handpick customers that will most require those unique skills.

Every business manager wants good customers, but few know how to get them, and once they've gotten them, know how to keep them. This fine art is something the Gold Award winners have mastered, due in no small part to their recognition of the importance customers make to the company's bottom line.

David Gadbaw, president and COO of The John Henry Co., credits his company's success to working with customers. "The boss is the customer. It's our creativity and our creative approaches to working with customers to devise solutions to their problems that helps make us successful."

think long-term, not short-run. Long-term growth, not short-term profitability is the way to manage for success. In order to achieve this goal, management needs to be participatory and open to change. Graphic arts executives must pay close attention to industry trends, their customers' industry trends and the world at large. When market or technology shifts are identified, be willing to shift along with the needs of your customers.

Robert Carew, president of Action Printing, has a clear vision of the importance of long-term thinking. "When we hire people, it's like getting married," he says. Such a deep degree of commitment is necessary to getting, and keeping, good employees and, in turn, good customers. "We try to let new employees know that we want them to retire from here," he says.

Another part of staying in business over the long-term is the willingness to try new things so the firm can evolve over time. "One of the biggest factors in the company's success has been the willingness to try new things," Russell says. "We've tried a lot of things. Some worked, some didn't."

Another important long-term value is to pay attention to what's going on in the world asserts Phil Wicklander, chairman of Wicklander Printing. "Live in the world of 'what is, is' and act accordingly to make it better. This is a non-ending process."

develop a workable, practical strategic plan. A strategic plan must be a living document, embraced by all within a corporation. Goals must be clearly articulated, detailed and achievable. In order to develop a strategic plan, management should solicit employee involvement. Without staff buy-in, a strategic plan is just a piece of paper in a filing cabinet.

"The biggest factor in our firm's success is the strategic planning that we do. It gets the whole management team on the same page. Instead of separate agendas, we develop a plan in which corporate and personal goals coincide as much as possible," asserts Wicklander. Each Gold Award winner plans for success using a strategic plan. As Flower City's Scheible explains, "I don't see how you can operate without a plan. If not, you are not focusing your efforts."

Some companies developed strategic plans that span several years (three was the most popular time span), while some may have a slightly shorter or longer focus. All executives report they incorporate specific action items into the plan, along with some means of knowing how and when they've accomplished their goals. Deadlines are attached to most action items, turning what would be desires into real goals.

It's no surprise that Management Plus winners share these approaches, because they follow the strategies of NAPL's Long-Run Growth Leaders--companies that have outperformed the rest of the industry in profits, year in, year out, for the past decade and longer. They all ascribe to treating their employees well, learning as much as they can about their customers and their industries, and using a meticulously developed strategic plan as the foundation for everything that occurs in their plant each day.

When you get right down to it, the bottom line at the Gold Award winning companies looks something like this: value your employees and clients, commit to the firm's and your customers' success. Plan to be around for the long haul and then work your plan to make that commitment a reality. And, as Weisman says, "Work hard, but have fun."