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Jul 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Taking stock is never easy, but successful companies and managers know it's an important mental exercise. After all, if you don't know where you are, it's hard to chart a course to where you want to be.

Each year hundreds of printers take stock of their companies by participating in the National Assn. of Printers & Lithographers (NAPL) Management Plus Program. Sponsored by american printer magazine and The Didde Corp., this management tool provides invaluable help to companies that want to take an in-depthlook at themselves.

The basic mechanism of the program is a self-administered questionnaire designed to garner a wealth of information about the company's various management functions and practices. Although completing the questionnaire is sufficient management exercise for many companies, NAPL will evaluate the responses and provide objective, confidential comments to companies that wish to go a step further.

In addition, most participants enter the optional Management Plus Awards competition. NAPL staff reviews the completed questionnaires, looking for the rare company whose management excellence represents "best of class." Winners are selected in six categories and receive Gold, Silver and Merit awards in each category.

Top Gold Award winners also choose a four-year graphic arts educational institution that receives an NAPL scholarship in the winner's name. All winners automatically join the NAPL Management Plus Society, a peer group assembly designed to encourage managers from these companies to get to know one another.

Five organizations were given Gold Awards in the current competition. Excellence wears many different faces as the 1998 Management Plus Gold Award winners illustrate. Together the companies present a broad variety of services, products and management philosophies. What binds them together is their clear vision--they know what makes them successful.

For Lazer Inc. (Rochester, NY), a high-technology service bureau, one of the major reasons for high growth and profitability is the diversity of its technology. "For a company as small as we are, to be as diverse in technology as we are is a major achievement," explains Karl Scheible, Lazer's founder and president.

Scheible credits the technology in part--but only in part--for the company's resourcefulness and flexibility. "We are an innovative company," he says. "We recognize where the market is, prepare for it and go there." For example, the firm delved into computer-to-plate technology more than three years ago at a time when many companies were still skeptical of that technology's future.

Another major reason for the success of the company is its dedication to improving one of its most valuable resources--the staff itself. Employees are continually offered professional and personal education and enrichment opportunities. Scheible and the rest of the company's management team also participate in ongoing management training activities.

The quality of the staff also is a major reason behind the success of Bloomington Offset Process, Inc. (Bloomington, IL), a commercial offset printing company and another Gold Award winner. "We have people with the right kind of drive to get things done," says president Thomas Mercier. Bloomington makes it a point to select people who are self-motivated and enjoy working. Like Lazer, Bloomington Offset puts considerable effort into training its staff on an ongoing basis.

"Our company draws good people who want to be part of a company with vision. We're focused on growing, advancing technologically and we're not afraid to take the next step," Mercier explains. Such a company, he says, will naturally attract the kind of people Bloomington wants to hire. Consequently, the company uses no special hiring procedures, although Mercier himself talks with the majority of candidates.

Emphasis on serving the customers' needs is another large component of Bloomington Offset's success. Having enough of the right technology and equipment to meet these needs is one way the company does this. Another is to offer a large number of services beyond basic printing, including binding, finishing and distribution. The Illinois company also offers comprehensive multimedia development and prepress services.

The quality of its employees also plays a part in the success of yet another Gold Award winner--The John Henry Co. (Lansing, MI). According to David Gadbaw, company president, it's all about trust--"trust in our employees and the trust our clients have in us," he states.

Another element is management's crystal clear perception of the company. Having such a clear vision of its markets and strengths helps the firm avoid unprofitable situations. "We're a niche player," Gadbaw maintains. "We don't consider ourselves a printing company. We are a marketing and distribution company that uses printing as its primary manufacturing process."

The John Henry Co. finds its major strength is in the narrow scope of its specialization. As employee-owned group of seven companies operating under one name, it purposefully serves only a handful of markets such as floriculture, horticulture, over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceutical firms. Printed products for these markets include cards, labels, envelopes and tags, while non-print product lines include baskets, plant decorations and accessories. The company also offers its markets creative agency and business forms services.

"We are a solutions-oriented company. We help our customers solve their problems," Gadbaw continues. "In fact, the tag line we use for our floriculture customers sums it up nicely: 'Our business is helping you grow your business.' "

Focusing on client needs is a hallmark of all Gold Award winners, and it is particularly important at Wicklander Printing Co. (Chicago), which claims to be the largest sheet-fed printer in Chicago. "We aren't just selling print," says president James Wicklander. "We are offering a business solution." To offer the best business solution possible, the company's sales and management staff focus intently on each customer. They develop profiles of each customer's business and needs, then develop an action plan for that company. The emphasis is on understanding what the company wants to accomplish and how Wicklander Printing can help achieve these goals.

Wicklander offers a specific example of this focus on the customers' needs. The client needed to roll out a new program, involving 11 printed items, on a set date. Wicklander's staff worked with the customer to establish a production schedule in advance. In spite of the schedule, the customer delivered raw materials (digital files, materials to be scanned) 10 days late. Despite the late start, Wicklander was able to meet the deadline. Three days later, the 11 items were printed and ready to ship.

The remaining Gold Award winner, Allstate Insurance Co. (Wheeling, IL), also is focusing intently on its customers. Only in this case, its customers are more broadly defined, as Allstate is a large in-plant printing operation. Last year, the company merged its printing and fulfillment departments into one large center that serves the entire company's printing and mailing needs. Everything from bills to brochures are printed and mailed by this department. This year, having determined it had plenty of capacity to meet the needs of its primary customer, the department is ready for new challenges. So, with the blessings of Allstate's top management, the department decided to expand its operations, accepting print jobs from outside the company. It is now an in-plant operation that does "insourcing."

Using its vast 429,000-sq.-ft. facility, the department's 350 employees already produce work for several outside customers. As part of the plan, Allstate is expanding its facility and planning to acquire even more on-demand and offset printing equipment. More staff will be added as needed.

"Allstate thinks it's a good investment," says Robert J. Tierney, Allstate's purchasing operations manager. "We had some excess capacity and decided to turn ourselves into a profit center." Although work of all kinds is welcome, the department intends to focus on digital printing and on-demand markets. For complete details on the Management Plus Program, contact the NAPL Center for Continuing Education, 780 Palisade Ave., Teaneck, NJ 07666; (800) 642

Gold Award Winners *Lazer Inc., Rochester, NY *Wordsprint, Inc., Wytheville, VA *Bloomington Offset Process, Inc., Bloomington, IL *Syscan Corp., Charleston, WV *U.S. Press, Valdosta, GA *Wicklander Printing Corp., Chicago *Flower City Printing, Inc., Rochester, NY *The Argus Press, Niles, IL *The John Henry Co., Lansing, MI *Intelligencer Printing Co., Lancaster, PA *Baum Printing Co., Philadelphia *Allstate Insurance Co., Wheeling, IL

Silver Award Winners *Ross Printing Co., Spokane, WA *hc Johnson Press, Rockford, IL *Carpenter Reserve Printing Co., Cleveland, OH *Executive Printing, Inc., Marietta, GA *Web Express Printing, Royal Oak, MI *Western Graphics, Inc., St. Paul, MN *Nies/Artcraft, St. Louis, MO *Alonzo Printing Co., Inc., Hayward, CA *Craftsman Printing Co., Charlotte, NC *Heartland Press, Inc., Spencer, IA *Omaha Printing Co., Omaha, NE *ZBR Publications, Inc., Haverhill, MA *The Nielsen Co., Florence, KY *University of California Printing Services, Berkeley, CA

Merit Award Winners *Classic Graphics, Charlotte, NC *Printwest Communications Ltd., Regina, Saskatchewen *Flashes Publishers Inc., Allegan, MI *Webtrend, Vista, CA *ColorDynamics, Allen, TX *George Lithograph, Brisbane, CA *Creda Press, Cape Town, South Africa