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SPECIALTIES BINDERY -- A Cinderella Story

March 2002
BY CAROLINE MILLER


Brenda Slacum, COO of Specialties Bindery, has a favorite saying: "We are a brand new company with a 30-year history." It's a statement that might leave you scratching your head if you're not familiar with this trade bindery, which specializes in mechanical (Wire-O, spiral wire, plastic coil and plastic comb) binding, perfect binding, as well as folding, rotary scoring, collating, fulfillment and related services.

But this $6.5 million, 85-employee trade services company, which is located in a 108,000-square-foot facility just outside of Washington, DC, in Hyattsville, MD, has a bit of a Cinderella story to tell—thanks in part to its COO.

Specialties Bindery was founded in 1971 by Ronald Ridgeway and Bill Schroder. Mark Lee and Joe McAllister joined the firm seven years later as partners. In the beginning, the operation primarily finished pamphlets, but evolved into a specialty house focused on mechanical and adhesive binding services before it was sold to Quebecor World in 1988.

Only the First Chapter

You might think that the story ends with the sale to Quebecor, but in fact that's when the tale starts to get interesting. The sale of the company brought problems. The bindery's niches did not fit into Quebecor's core businesses, nor did local commercial printers want to give work to a finishing operation owned by a national printing concern, so Specialties Bindery languished with no new equipment or expanded capabilities and a dwindling customer base.

"We found that, during the Quebecor years, other printers viewed us as competitors," admits Slacum.

So, in 1997, when the opportunity to buy the bindery back surfaced, Lee and Ridgeway jumped at the chance. Ridgeway came out of retirement to become president and Lee served as general manager. The company was slowly beginning to get back on track when tragedy struck: Ronald Ridgeway passed away, leaving a hole in the company's leadership.

At that time, Mark Lee was named president and Brenda Slacum became operations manager. Two years ago, she was promoted to COO—perhaps making her the only woman in the country to head a trade bindery operation.

"It was a natural progression for me. I started in the MIS department eight years ago," Slacum explains. "I oversaw the MIS department and provided analysis on what direction each department needed to go, which sort of evolved into overseeing operations."

For Lee, though, it was Slacum's work ethic and managerial skills that made her the natural choice for the job. "She has the drive, the ambition, the persistence and the willingness to take on anything that needs to be done," remarks Lee.

Lee and Slacum have a rather unorthodox management style. "Mark and I run the business simultaneously. People told us that it wouldn't work, but it seems to work very well for us. Mark brings industry experience to the table, and I have a lot of business experience," she claims.

Slacum also prefers a team approach to managing the company rather than a traditional hierarchy. The management team meets every morning. "We have a chance to touch base about customer needs for that day and go over any scheduling requests," she remarks. "Any problems in production are reported and we discuss anything else that needs to be addressed."

Slacum also meets with her team every two weeks for a manager's meeting, where more long-term concerns and issues are aired and discussed. Before each meeting, attendees are required to submit discussion points. "Everyone has experience and approaches problem solving from a different angle. Collectively, we come up with the correct solutions. Every department is represented and every need is covered," she notes.

Team Approach Works

Slacum admits that her tendency towards a team approach partly comes from being a woman in corporate America. "Men tend to be more comfortable with a more hierarchical management style and very defined positions. They tend to be conscious of that structure. Women who have come up through the ranks, on the other hand, tend to look at co-workers more as equals.

"I really emphasize with my management team that there isn't one of us in charge. Each has their area of expertise," she adds. "For example, my customer service manager should know more about customer service than I do. When it comes to operations expertise, I expect him to show me that same respect in return."

While it's a management structure that doesn't please everyone at Specialties Bindery, Slacum is winning over many of those who were initially opposed. "I think I've converted a few in the last few months," she says with a laugh, adding, "I actually have one manager who once said he would never work for another woman again. But I've definitely been able to change his perspective."

Binding Still a Male Biz

She admits, too, that she sometimes has to contend with pre-judices based on her gender in the still male-dominated world of binding and finishing. "In one sense, it is hard to be accepted, especially at industry functions at which you are the only woman. There have been a number of times that I've been mistaken for someone's wife. In other situations, though, it can be an advantage because, as a woman, you are the one who is different. I have also been fortunate that my male counterparts at Specialties Bindery have been very supportive and have given me ideas on ways to work from a male perspective. It's a learning experience every day," she reports.

Slacum says her greatest challenge has been to keep Specialties Bindery healthy in a weakened economy, as well as to build back the customer base that was lost during the Quebecor years.

"Our biggest challenge has been to make it known that we are no longer part of the Quebecor family and that we're independent again. Then, we had to define what it means to be a new company with 30 years of experience behind it," she says.

To answer that challenge, Slacum brought in a marketing specialist, changed the company's logo, began to advertise in leading publications, became more active in trade shows and industry associations, and started the "FACTS" program, which provides free tips on bindery issues for customers and prospects.

It's a strategy that has worked well, according to Lee. "We were at one industry event and someone said to me, 'You must be doing something right because we hear about your company everywhere we go,' " he says.

Specialties Bindery has also continued to attract new customers due to its guaranteed on-time delivery promise. "When you bring it to Specialties, you don't have to worry about it," affirms Slacum.

But, like the rest of America, September 11 required the trade bindery to adopt some new business practices. Up until the terrorist attacks, Specialties Bindery ran two shifts and many of its workers were putting in a substantial amount of overtime.

"We were at one function and found out that we were the only bindery that had not laid anyone off," Lee reveals.

Layoffs Avoided

In fact, the company moved to a team approach instead of a traditional shift approach in order to avoid layoffs. Two teams of employees now work three, 12-hour days.

"We don't necessarily have the need for 'x' number of people. But we want to hold on to our employees because 11⁄2 years ago we were begging for people. We have developed a strong staff of experienced people, and we want to keep them," states Slacum.

By altering its time schedules, she adds, Specialties Bindery was able to generate significant cost savings while still being able produce as much work. "By running six days a week, we could still meet customer demands without having to go into an overtime situation, and we kept all of our employees." When the economy improves, the company can go back to two shifts. But, until them, Lee says the team approach is saving Specialties $500,000 in overtime.

Slacum and Lee have also instituted other changes during these challenging times. Estimators are now required to turn around quotes in four hours or less and there is an increased awareness on building sales. As such, two new positions were created to support the sales effort. A customer service manager, who had a strong background in printing, was hired to go out and actively work with customers. A client services manager position was created to serve as an advocate for customers and to follow up with clients on quotes.

In addition, Specialties Bindery has been concentrating on further extending its sales into the southeast. The company mainly serves East Coast customers, but its location near Washington, DC, provides it with the ability to service customers within a 250 to 300 mile radius. And, aside from the geographical proximity, many southern printers lack significant in-house binderies.

Award Winners

Although still in its early stages of expansion, Specialties Bindery has already been recognized for its quality work by the Printing Industries of the Carolinas (PICA), the Printing Industries of Virginia (PIVA) and the Printing Industries of Maryland (PIM).

One job that won them an award from the PIM and PIVA was a promotional piece for a paper company. "It was very precision driven," Slacum claims. "It was diecut and there were registration issues all over the place. Plus, the cover was black, and there were scratching and handling issues to consider. So, we had to get creative with the packaging."

The trade bindery has also embarked on a major equipment upgrade. Over the past year, Specialties has added three automatic plastic coil machines, a dual paper cutting system, a scoring machine and a 60-pocket collator to complement its Bielomatik Wire-O in-line punching and binding lines.

In addition, the company has been very satisfied with its purchase of a TR die-scoring system from Rollem International. Scoring is just a natural fit with adhesive and mechanical binding, according to Lee.

"We've added the new equipment for a number of factors: increased production, expansion and cost savings, to name a few. All of the equipment saves manhours. It doesn't eliminate jobs, but it frees up our employees. The equipment also enables us to offer a wider variety of products and expand into low- and mid-range quantities," he explains.

The decision to upgrade equipment and capabilities might seem risky in an environment where more and more commercial printers are moving finishing in-house. But Slacum isn't concerned about losing business to printers.

"We've found that printers who bring the kind of work we do in-house, often find that it is not cost-effective to do so," she says. "We're not a typical trade bindery; we provide a specialized service that printers often can't afford to take on themselves."
 

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