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Branch-Smith Printing -- Branching Out

February 2003
by chris bauer

Some might not give a printing company launched in 1910 by a man with no arms much of a chance to succeed. Yet that is just how Fort Worth, TX-based Branch-Smith Printing got its start—and the company continues to keep a strong hold on its loyal customers and its own rigorous standards of performance and quality.

Branch-Smith founder Aaron Smith managed to do what some would call impossible—including writing and typing with his toes and starting a successful printing business.

David Branch
Although company founder Aaron Smith was born with no arms, he learned to write and type with his toes and worked as an editor of the Weatherford Democrat. He began his professional life by earning an attorney's certificate in 1889. In his mold, the company continued to grow—and did not let obstacles detour its road to success.

By 1954, Smith Printing was incorporated as Branch-Smith Printing, to reflect Aaron's daughter Carrie Beth and her husband Oscar Branch, who were involved in the business. It remains a family affair to this day—now in its fourth generation.

Today, the 70-employee, $10 million company, which provides full-service printing for corporate and publication customers and specializes in bound materials such as magazines, directories, catalogs and books, is led by descendant and President David Branch.

As proud as Branch is of his family's long-running company, he recently got something else to smile about. In November, President George W. Bush and Commerce Secretary Don Evans named Branch-Smith Printing the recipient of the 2002 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

The coveted Baldrige Award is the nation's premier award for performance excellence and quality achievement. Branch-Smith was recognized in the small business category; two other winners were named in the categories of manufacturing and healthcare.

"We are incredibly honored to receive this award," comments Branch. "But I have to tell you, in no way did my management team or I do it alone. Every day when we come in the door, we work with a dedicated group of highly professional employees. Their commitment to understanding our customers' needs, fulfilling our role in helping our clients meet their goals, and in delivering a superior product are what makes us successful. I am proud to share this award with them."

High Honors

The award has been called the business world's most prestigious honor, named after the former Secretary of Commerce. It was established in 1987 in response to competitive threats by perceived higher levels of quality in the Japanese automotive industry, to recognize American companies that achieved the highest standards in quality.

The award is presented annually (although not necessarily in every category) to companies with exemplary achievements in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resource focus, process management and results.

All applicants for the Baldrige Award undergo a rigorous examination process that involves a minimum of 300 hours of review by an independent board of examiners, primarily from the private sector. Final-stage applicants receive about 1,000 hours of review and are visited by teams of examiners to clarify questions and to verify information. Each applicant receives a report citing strengths and opportunities for improvement.

In his congratulatory letter to Branch-Smith, President Bush wrote, "The Baldrige Award honors American businesses and organizations that have demonstrated an unparalleled commitment to quality and performance improvement. In earning this prestigious award, this year's recipients reflect the values that Malcolm Baldrige embodied during his service to our nation as the Secretary of Commerce and throughout his life: integrity, excellence, principled leadership, sound judgment and responsibility."

The company plans to take as many staff members to the award ceremony in Washington, DC, as possible—without dropping production and quality back at the plant. "All of the employees are excited about the award," Branch reports.

Since Branch feels open communication between management and the workers is important, he says the company strives to keep all employees up-to-date with everything the printer does. "We want it so the employees drive the management, not the other way around," he explains.

The Baldrige Award also recognizes Branch-Smith's management excellence in working with both its customers and its staff. The company achieves its quality standards through a systematic complaint process, routine customer satisfaction surveys, regular meetings with key clients, as well as a customer plan and an online "Goldmine" database that identifies and maps the needs of specific customers.

Management applies the same thought and satisfaction standards to its employees. It demonstrates its commitment to them through an annual employee satisfaction survey, systematic performance appraisals and by retaining its work force even during economic slowdowns.

Low Turnover Rates

The company benchmarks its employee satisfaction and turnover levels; and, not surprisingly, its turnover rate is low. The positive effect these and other activities have on employee commitment and morale can be measured in hard numbers: Value-added sales per employee has increased 33 percent during the past five years.

Benchmarking against its own performance is an important part of daily business at Branch-Smith. The company measures a wide variety of standards, capturing them in three key areas: customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and business results. It changed the way the company was managed a few years ago when it established employee teams and committees that review various operational areas and make on-going suggestions about improving practices and procedures.

"Our goal is to continue to improve the ways in which we understand our customers' needs, to create measurable ways to address them and to find the true solutions to their problems," explains Branch.

He notes that his company often "flies under the radar" of some of the commercial printing giants, providing clients with high-quality, short-run color work that bigger companies often shy away from.

"If you are not in a niche, it's a difficult situation to be in," Branch says of today's printing landscape. "But there is a lot of business out there, especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth area."

Branch-Smith is a performance leader on many fronts, including financially. It boasts that its sales growth rates have outperformed those of the industry since 1998, as reported monthly by the National Association for Printing Leadership's Printing Business Panel.

The company reports it experienced a 72 percent growth rate over four years and was able to hold that gain, and continue to make quality improvements, even in the difficult business climate experienced in 2002. Malcolm Baldrige would be proud.

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