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The Form House?Tops at Tipping

February 1998
"We glue things to other things." That's how Plant Superintendent Joe Carr describes the services offered at The Form House, a finishing house situated in Bedford Park, IL.

Carr's description, while accurate, can be a tad misleading. True, The Form House specializes in affixing, but it's an affixer like no other. This company pushes its machinery—and people—to the hilt, coming up with solutions to seemingly impossible problems.

"We're proud of our creativity," says Vice President Roger Crisman.

Indeed, The Form House is stuck on creativity. The company's innovative approaches to tipping win it the jobs other finishers are afraid to touch.

Often, these jobs may be beyond the basic capabilities of the company's equipment. That doesn't stop The Form House. When a machine can't handle a finishing order, The Form House's mechanics—the employees responsible for setup—go into action.

One job, for example, involved gluing nickels onto paper. Since tippers don't exactly come standard with attachments for feeding coins, The Form House had to improvise. A mechanic bought some piping from a hardware store, rigged it to the tipper, then fed the nickels through the pipe.

Wired for Finishing
A little bit of creativity with baling wire has also helped The Form House complete some really tough jobs—such as a challenging order from IBM. The piece, an ad promoting a partnership between IBM and Nintendo, included self-adhesive stickers of Mario, the popular plumber protagonist who leaps his way through many of Nintendo's top videogames, and a wide-eyed star.

Mario and the star had to appear on different parts of the page, angled in different directions. A handwork job? Not at The Form House. Mechanics screwed in baling wire to set up a series of bumps and turns that allowed the tipper to put the stickers in the appropriate positions—in one pass.

Feeders laced with baling wire are not uncommon sights at The Form House. The company's massive 300,000-square-foot facility contains more than 100 machines, many of which, at any given time, sport wire twisted for specific jobs.

Unfortunately, baling wire can't solve every problem. Some jobs require a unique machine—something unlike anything currently available. That's when the The Form House calls on Minong, WI-based MachTronic Products, one of the company's biggest, and most valued, suppliers.

MachTronic builds the products that The Form House designs. While pondering new approaches, employees often get inspired, dreaming up new devices. MachTronic then brings these ideas to life, delivering the creations to the shop floor.

Since The Form House closely guards its trade secrets, Carr won't describe the unique MachTronic bases and feeders that populate the shop. However, he is willing to divulge one morsel of information: MachTronic isn't the kind of company which disappoints.

"If I need something, they're the first ones I call," Carr says.

The Form House may take pride in its unusual technology, yet the company realizes that its employees far outshine its machinery. "Creativity is a big part of what we do here," emphasizes President John M. McGinnis, "and it's our people who make it possible."

Carr also applauds The Form House staff. Once, a group of efficiency experts, hoping to win The Form House over as client, took a tour of the plant. Afterwards, the experts remarked that The Form House's workers didn't exactly specialize in brain surgery. Carr agreed.

"I can advertise for a brain surgeon," he told the experts. "But I can't advertise for someone who does what we do here."

The experts didn't get the account—or the point. They failed to understand that The Form House's work requires a special kind of person. Button pushers can't do the job—only innovators can. And you can't run a classified ad searching for an innovator.

No Job Too Tough
Currently, The Form House employs 350 innovators, many of whom have been with the company for decades. Both Carr and Crisman, for example, have worked at The Form House for more than 35 years.

Like their co-workers, Carr and Crisman relish the tough work their employer throws at them. They realize that the tougher the work, the more captive the business. "If it were easy, everybody would be doing it," Crisman notes.

In 1994, The Form House's unique business drew the attention of the Pentzer Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Washington Water Power, a publicly held utility in Spokane, WA. The arm of Washington Water Power that invests in well-run companies, Pentzer purchased The Form House in March of 1994.

Pentzer's interest in The Form House doesn't surprise McGinnis. "We're in a niche market with long-term customer relationships," he says.

Loyal customers keep The Form House running three shifts, five to seven days a week. The company's clients include household names such as Proctor & Gamble and McDonald's, printing giants such as R.R. Donnelley & Sons and World Color, and publishing leaders such as Time Inc. In fact, Time Inc. helped mold The Form House into its current shape.

When The Form House first opened in 1952, the business specialized in finishing one-time carbon forms—hence the name, The Form House. Then in 1958, Time Inc. asked The Form House to tip a two-page insert to a signature for a regional advertiser. The company suddenly had a new service—and a new direction.

A Cohesive Business
Today, gluing is what The Form House does best, but the company is still branching into new areas. The Form House has beefed up direct mail offerings with fulfillment services and a Scitex ink-jet printer. Furthermore, the company recently became an authorized 3M distributor for Post-It notes, providing the firm with yet another sticky product to sell.

Not that the Form House limits itself to selling products. The company also designs a great deal of work. Frequently, a job is nothing more than a prototype that an agency sends. The Form House then fleshes out the idea for grateful clients.

"We're here to give [our customers] a lead," Crisman explains, smiling. "The key is we're always accommodating."

Very accommodating. The Form House gladly does whatever it can to meet customers' specific Quality Assurance (QA) requirements. The company operates under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for all functions guided by comprehensive, written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

Quarterly Self Improvement Plans (SIPs) and Quality Assurance Maintenance Plans (QAMP) keep the company's quality plans current. A variety of training and testing programs ensure that the operation's employees are up to speed. In addition, customers such as Proctor & Gamble conduct annual audit reviews of The Form House's quality program.

Sound like a lot of work? It is. But at The Form House, they wouldn't have it any other way. "We thrive because we enjoy what we do," Crisman says.

—Jerry Janda
 

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