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The right type

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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After graduating from college, Bill Gilmer, president of Wordsprint (Wytheville, VA) spent a decade pursuing his goal of writing short stories. As an English major he was inspired by other masters of the genre such as Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. But as it turned out, Gilmer came much closer to following in the footsteps of his fellow Virginian, writer Earl Hamner.

Hamner created “The Waltons” based on his childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Gilmer didn't grow up during the Depression, and his family — wife Mary Ann and their daughters, Dory and Sarah — don't live on Gilmer's Mountain. But in talking to some of the 26 employees of Wordsprint, one word is constantly repeated: family.

“It's kind of like a big family,” says CFO Kathy Matheny. She adds that Gilmer deserves much of the credit for making Wordsprint a fun place to work. “Bill loves what he does and he's constantly figuring out how to improve things. He's a good listener and just a super guy.”

Kim Haga, director of marketing and prepress, agrees: “We really care about each other and our customers, too,” she says. “We have become good friends over the years — we know a lot about their personal lives and are truly engaged with them.”

That's not writing, that's typing

Today, Wordsprint is a $3 million provider of design, print and mail services for colleges and non-profits. It occupies a combined 25,000 sq. ft. spread across two facilities in Wytheville and Christiansburg. Equipment highlights include a Xerox iGen3, DocuColor 242 and Nuvera 100, several small-format Heidelberg presses and a variety of Standard Horizon finishing equipment.

In the mid-1980s, Gilmer was Wordsprint's only employee and his typewriter was its lone piece of equipment. After years of writing, Gilmer had no success in getting his stories in print. “It took me 10 years to realize my desire to write greatly exceeded my skill,” says Gilmer. “I was not quite good enough and certainly not lucky enough to get published. But the one benefit was I became a very good typist. I needed to make money, so I stuck a sign up at the local community college for my typing service. That really was the beginning of Wordsprint.”

Although Wytheville is home to fewer than 8,000 people, Gilmer found there was a steady demand for his typing skills. “I realized I could do a lot more if I had a computer,” Gilmer recalls. “When I was teaching high school, Apple had given the school this new machine called the Mac. We used Pagemaker 1.0 to lay out the school paper. We still cut and pasted it, but at least the type was justified.”

Gilmer asked his father to loan him the money to buy a computer. The elder Gilmer refused, but was eventually cajoled into co-signing a note. Equipped with a Mac and dot-matrix ImageWriter, Gilmer expanded beyond typing to offering flyers. “I would take them to a print shop in town to have them reproduced for my customers and that's when I got more exposure to the printing world,” Gilmer explains.

Gilmer called his new one-man company “Wordsmith” and chugged along for about a year and a half. “In late 1986, I was approached by a gentleman in town who always wanted to start a printing company,” Gilmer recalls. “He was retired and convinced me to be his partner.”

Gilmer and his partner, Jack Crawford, changed the company's name to Wordsprint and invested in an AB Dick 360. Now Gilmer was competing with the printer that previously had produced his flyers. “The existing printer was very good on the production side — running presses, operating a darkroom and stripping film,” says Gilmer. “It did not have any of the front end expertise and wasn't customer service oriented. We were the opposite. We knew nothing about running presses, but we were very good at computerized typesetting. My partner, a former Proctor & Gamble executive, had a strong background in customer service. Within a year after we started, the owner of the other print shop proposed a merger.” This owner was Steve Lester Sr., who remained a senior partner in Wordsprint until his death in July 2008. His son Steve Lester II is now Gilmer's only partner in the business.

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In 1990, Gilmer hired Doug Barber, a retired foreman of an inplant operation for Publix Super Markets. Barber, who had recently moved to the area, dropped in without an appointment to ask about employment opportunities. Wordsprint wasn't hiring, but Gilmer agreed to give Barber a tour. “Half way though giving this stranger a tour, I realized we had to hire him,” said Gilmer. “He was phenomenal. Within a year or two, he phased out our duplicators and got us into ‘real’ presses, a single-color Heidelberg GTO and a two-color Heidelberg SORMZ.”

Gilmer credits Barber with helping grow the company. “Doug reinvented the production side of things. He pushed us in terms of quality.” Barber, who passed away several years ago, eventually became a co-owner of Wordsprint. In 1992, Gilmer made another key personnel decision. “We hired Brian Kuhens and he took us to the next level,” says Gilmer. “That's when we gained bigger name accounts. He took us from baby steps to giant leaps on sales.”

Design, print & mail

During that time, Wordsprint adopted its “design print mail” tagline. The company had stressed its expertise in these areas for years, but new mailing opportunities prompted it to make a formal declaration. Gilmer credits this to another employee-turned-partner, Robert Kegley, who rose through the ranks from proofreader to plant manager and eventually to part owner, until his departure in 2007.

“In 1994 when the first postal reform came along with bar coding that providers like us could do with CASS certification, we hopped right on it,” says Gilmer. “Our best clients now are the ones who avail themselves of all three of those services. We are not a low-cost provider running 100,000 brochures, but if you have a 5,000 piece VDP mailing, we can help you.”

Gilmer learned about NAPL and its annual Top Management Conference in the early 1990s. “We started participating in Management Plus before we attended the conference,” recalls Gilmer. “That was in 1993 — I went to the Top Management Conference for the first time in 1995.”

Gilmer credits the Management Plus competition with helping Wordsprint hold its own against companies of all sizes. “It forces you to look at everything from internal control systems to community involvement, quality control to sales and marketing plans to financial performance, you name it,” he told NAPL Business Review. “[The evaluation form] even wants to know if you have a safety committee. For years we got partial credit because we had only a safety coordinator!”

Gilmer cites “The Flywheel Effect” as the secret to success in the Management Plus competition as well as in business. The term, popularized in “Good to Great,” refers to the additive effect of many small initiatives, what author Jim Collins calls “the victory of steadfast discipline over the quick fix.”

“You create your vision, map out the steps and doggedly check off those steps,” says Gilmer. “There's no magic moment, but a repeated series of small pushes, doing the little things that make a difference day in and day out.”

Gilmer says the Management Plus framework keeps Wordsprint focused. “We all know what to do, but we don't always have the discipline to do it. That's where Management Plus helps.”

Rave on

In addition to its Hall of Fame accolades, Wordsprint won an NAPL 2008 Platinum RAVE award for customer satisfaction. Companies qualify for the award by first enrolling in the NAPL eKG service, which helps companies understand what customers most value both from them as a company and in comparison to their competition.

Results are benchmarked against industry standards and can provide data by type of account as well as by type of print buyer. An overall evaluation report is issued and scored against a database of responses from more than 20,000 previously surveyed printing customers. Wordsprint's results indicate that customers prefer them, on average, 21% more than other alternatives.

Wordsprint previously achieved high scores in the customer service and problem solving categories of the competition, but wanted to improve its production and financial/invoicing efficiencies.

In 2007, Gilmer found his answer in the sales department. When Wordsprint's scheduler was on vacation, lead sales rep Jeff Umberger helped out. Umberger has been with the company for 16 years and is also a Wordsprint board member.

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“Jeff started coordinating deliveries and pretty soon he was [working with] prepress to see when plates would be ready,” Gilmer explains. “Jeff is now our plant manager and he's loving it. We felt someone who understood our customers the way a sales rep does would be an excellent choice.”

Two years ago, Gilmer asked another veteran employee, Kathy Matheny, to apply her skills to a new position: CFO. After 15 years in customer service, she relished the challenge. “Previously, my focus was helping customers, keeping work flowing through the system and supporting Bill and others in the field,” she says. “My degree is in management and I always had a love for the mathematical side of things.”

Gilmer says Matheny's strong customer service skills are just what the department needed. “We now have a cohesive production flow and an excellent customer service person in the CFO spot,” he says. “NAPL's eKG has validated our decision making.”

Wordsprint's next chapter

As a manager, Gilmer says one of his biggest challenges has been to transition from his early years as a one-man entrepreneur to implementing a team-driven management approach. “When Wordsprint was much smaller, I was more active in different aspects of the business,” he explains. “Four or five years ago, I made a conscious effort to delegate the decision making to a management team.”

Gilmer devotes his time to business development, sales and strategic planning. In addition to Matheny and Umberger, the management team includes Kim Haga, director of marketing, and prepress supervisor; Jonathan Smith, production manager; Lisa Moore, mailing supervisor; and Clay Quesenberry, Christiansburg manager and sales rep.

“We have outstanding performers,” says Gilmer. “Now [we're concentrating] on putting outstanding systems in place. We'll continue to use the Management Plus format — it's built into our business plan every year. I'd like to make Wordsprint self-sustaining, not dependent on me or any other leader.”

Wordsprint merged with Christiansburg Printing in 2007, which put it closer to the Virginia Tech market and gained valuable employees. Former production manager Clay Quesenberry now manages the Christiansburg office and is the region's lead sales rep. Chris DiYorio is the other sales rep, focusing on several key vertical markets, including real estate and auction clients.

Gilmer and his current partner, Steve Lester II, are open to additional acquisitions. “We have a strong infrastructure and are on sound footing,” says Lester. “We're going to grow this company.”

Gilmer has no qualms about shelving his literary career. Wordsprint customers include many authors, and he's content to print and promote their work: “I can't write books, but we do publish them!”


Katherine O'Brien is the editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at

Globetrotting with Bill Gilmer

“Bill worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was a national sales manager, and taught English and coached wrestling at a high school in Virginia — all before starting Wordsprint in 1986,” Gregg Davies told attendees at the NAPL Management Plus award ceremony. “He has also run with the bulls in Pamplona, gone scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and explored a mile underground in the gold mines of South Africa.”

The scuba diving came about when one of Gilmer's college buddies, now an attorney, accepted a speaking engagement in Sydney and invited several friends to join him. The journey to the depths of a gold mine in Welkom, South Africa, was part of a Rotary Club trip. “In 1999, I led a Rotary group study exchange to South Africa,” Gilmer recalls. “I was gone for six weeks. It was a big decision [to be gone that long], but it was a good thing for me and the company.”

Gilmer ran with the bulls shortly after graduating from high school. “I was an exchange student in Germany during high school,” recalls Gilmer. “The summer after high school, I traveled with Uwe Jorger, my host family's son. We were hitchhiking through Europe. We'd read ‘The Sun Also Rises’ so we went to Pamplona. I remember Uwe telling me ‘Of course we can outrun a bull.’”

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Gilmer's German friend was a schoolboy track star specializing in the 400-meter event. “I jogged some, but I wasn't a runner,” says Gilmer. “To this day, I can't believe he convinced me that human beings can run faster than bulls. Let me tell you something — Uwe was full of it. Those bulls can haul butt. I literally got lifted off my feet by the crowd that was trying to get out of the way of the stampeding bulls, slammed up against a wall and then the bulls raced by and it was all over.”

The road to the NAPL hall of fame

Named for William K. Marrinan, an industry veteran whose efforts helped create the Management Plus program, the Hall of Fame Award is reserved for companies that have demonstrated consistent excellence. Winners must have earned at least five Management Plus awards, including the current year, and a minimum of three gold awards. Wordsprint had previously won 15 Management Plus honors, including five gold awards.

Gregg Davies, president of Action Printing and 2007 recipient of the Management Plus Hall of Fame award, presented the 2008 award to Bill Gilmer, Wordsprint's president. Noting that Gilmer's “spirit, liveliness and sense of humor” are well known to his fellow NAPL members, Davies summarized some company milestones.

“The first Wordsprint office was Bill's bedroom, where he literally rolled up his futon every morning and hid it behind a bookcase before customers started to arrive at 8 a.m.,” said Davies. “After two years, Wordsprint merged with its biggest rival in town, and Bill became partners with the late Steve Lester Sr.”

Lester, a full-time insurance executive, had invested in a printing company in 1972. The 1988 merger marked the start of a partnership that continues today with Lester's son, Steve II, who also is a full-time insurance agent.

Wordsprint grew to 20 employees and continued double-digit growth through most of the 1990s. In 1994, Wordsprint moved production to an abandoned department store building in downtown Wytheville. The company acquired Triangle Printing (Radford, VA) in 1997. In 2007, Wordsprint acquired Christiansburg Printing Co., which put them nearer the campus of Virginia Tech.

“One of the first things we did after my father passed away was to have an employee meeting and announce that this is Bill's company to run,” said Lester, who recently purchased the Wordsprint shares from his family's trust. “I've never known anyone with such a passion for his job.”


2008 NAPL Management Plus winners

William K. Marrinan Management Plus Hall of Fame Award

$1 to $5 million in sales

Wordsprint (Wytheville, VA)

Gold Awards

$10 to $25 million in sales

  • Harding Poorman Group (Indianapolis)
  • Think Patented (Dayton, OH)
  • Over $25 million in sales
  • Classic Graphics (Charlotte, NC)
  • In-plant printers
  • Portland General Electric (Portland, OR)

Silver Awards

$10 to $25 million in sales

  • Daily Printing (Plymouth, MN)
  • Omaha Print (Omaha, NE)
  • Western Graphics (St. Paul, MN)

Over $25 million in sales

  • (Livingston, MT)
  • Hammer Packaging, (Rochester, NY)
  • RR Donnelley-State (Columbia, SC)
  • Dome Printing, (Sacramento, CA)

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Merit Awards

$1 to $5 million in sales

  • C L Graphics, Inc. (Crystal Lake, IL)
  • Printing Spectrum (East Setauket, NY)

$5 to $10 million in sales

  • McClung Companies (Waynesboro, VA)

Over $25 million in sales

  • Allen Press (Lawrence, KS)
  • ColorDynamics (Allen, TX)

Putting the ‘we’ in Wytheville

Set in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Wytheville area seems to inspire a certain amount of self-reliance and creativity. As Gregg Davies noted: “The production manager builds racecars on the weekend and one sales rep plays lead guitar in a rock and roll band. There's a press operator who's a master spelunker, a mailroom supervisor with a family stock car racing team, and a prepress operator who runs a local barbecue restaurant on the side. Bill's first employee was actually living in a teepee when he hired her in 1986 to answer the phones.”

“That was Mary Justus,” recalls Gilmer. “She was my first hire. Since I hadn't sold anything yet, the phones weren't ringing. She was bored, so she started playing with the Mac, learning Pagemaker and Photoshop to pass the time. She's now an experienced prepress operator.”

Gilmer says he's always sought to hire self-motivated people. “The moment you need to manage someone, you've made a hiring a mistake,” he says, quoting business author Jim Collins.

Plant manager Jeff Umberger was Wordsprint's lead sales rep prior to assuming his new role as plant manager two years ago. Another long-time employee, Kathy Matheny, took on the CFO position after a 15-year career in customer service.

Kim Haga, who recently celebrated her 12th anniversary with Wordsprint, has unusual dual responsibilities — she's the director of marketing and prepress. Haga had always enjoyed design work, which led to her first job as head of prepress. While working at Wordsprint, she earned her MBA from Virginia Tech and was ready to add marketing duties when Gilmer asked.

“All of the employees are eager to keep the business profitable, we're all eager to learn new things,” she says. “We're a team.”

The Management Plus difference

More than 150 companies have won Management Plus awards since the program's inception 29 years ago. This past March, Scott Bieda, publisher of AMERICAN PRINTER, Vince Lapinski, CEO of manroland and Peter Schaefer, president of Compass Capital Partners joined Joe Truncale, president and CEO of NAPL in presenting the coveted trophies at the association's annual conference.

Unlike most industry awards, competitors aren't judged on print quality. Instead, participants complete a self-evaluation form that covers financial performance, internal control systems, marketing/sales plan, vendor relations, business planning, human resources, environmental/safety concerns, quality control and community/industry relations. Companies compete against similarly sized operations. There's even a separate category for in-plant printers.

Paying it forward

The Management Plus Hall of Fame winner bestows two $1,000 scholarships to a four-year graphic arts school. Wordsprint selected Emory & Henry College and Bluefield College.

The top gold award winner from each category receives the honor of naming a four-year graphic arts school to receive a $1,000 scholarship. Harding Poorman Group chose Ball State University; Classic Graphics designated Clemson State University and Portland General Electric named Portland State University.