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Change for the better

May 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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Continually reshaping its market to capitalize on societal shifts has made this 109-year-old printer a success

On a cold New Year's Day in 1886, three young men pooled their resources to establish a printing company in Cincinnati. John and James Hennegan and James Kelley started with $1,000 in stock and machinery, as well as $500 in cash, to create what would become, by 1994, a $58 million, 350-employee firm.

The story of these partners and their business - The Hennegan Co. - is one of change and adaptation. It's a story of following history pace for pace, of tweaking their market in accordance with societal shifts and profiting by such vigilance. Today, the company boasts an ever-lengthening list of successes: for instance, it has won more Printing Industries of America awards for excellence than any other printer.

It also houses two six-color Rockwell Baker Perkins webs (one with in-line spot UV), five 40-inch six-color Heidelberg sheet-fed presses (three with aqueous coaters) and one Heidelberg Harris 60-inch five-color machine. In addition, management is installing an eight-color Heidelberg press. Such an impressive cache of equipment marks quite a divergence from Hennegan's early days of hand- and foot-powered presses (steam-powered machines were too expensive) and horse-drawn carts to deliver paper and finished product.

At the turn of the century, the firm printed flyers and posters promoting the latest vaudeville shows. But, the Hennegan owners didn't merely print for their market; they also participated in it by being active in amateur theatricals.

Their vaudeville interests changed soon after the first moving picture premiered in New York City. The shop began printing playbills for early motion picture studios - posters initially rarely more than single sheet size, with ornamental frames printed in three colors or less. The owners, with a penchant for hands-on involvement in their markets, opened their own theater in 1908. In fact, they produced a version of The Great Train Robbery and showed other silent films.

The next shift came during World War I. Drawn to the patriotic cause, the company printed and sold thousands of flags to theaters, fairs, circuses and parades. After the war, during the 1920s, Hennegan re-focused on the motion picture industry - until a cluster of factors, including the advent of radio, lessened the popularity of motion pictures. The grocery trade sustained Hennegan during the lull.

Such market changes continue to occur today. Kevin Ott, marketing director and the fourth generation of family ownership, will tell you that the firm now tackles high-end commercial work and annual reports, as well as corporate and automotive brochures.

The printer produces this work with its Mac-based desktop system linked to Scitex equipment. Hennegan also houses a full bindery with a perfect binder, two saddle-stitchers, diecutters, foil stampers, embossers and more.

"The new press will enable us to keep up with the competition, as well as more deeply penetrate the Detroit automotive sheet-fed market," reports Ott. Automotive firms, he adds, require a great deal of eight-color work with UV coating.

The purchase will coincide with the firm's move from its original Cincinnati building (housing its offices, prepress facility and one sheet-fed press) to its Florence, KY site (which holds its webs). Management plans to expand the latter plant from 100,000 sq. ft. to 200,000 sq. ft. of space.

"Working out of only one building will improve our communication and workflow," relates Ott. "For instance, pre-press managers will be able to talk to web press managers about upcoming jobs and plan them more effectively than they can while working in two plants. In addition, we won't have to run back and forth between locations if a job involves sheet-fed and web printing.

Finally, the 75,000-sq.-ft. Cincinnati building is old and workflow isn't favorable - the original facility was built in the 1880s and other portions were added in the 1930s and 1960s, so the plant is pieced together.

Workers view the move favorably, relates Ott. In fact, they view the entire company in a positive light. "For the most part, people are happy here," he enthuses. "We don't have a lot of turnover, and we have many multiple family members as employees - fathers and sons, for example, that have spent their entire careers here."

Why are workers so content? One reason is the potential for skill improvement. "We're a union shop so there's a formula for apprenticeship," Ott says. "For instance, sheet-fed pressroom employees can work their way up from a floor person through feeder operator to second pressman, then first pressman, so a growth pattern is fairly well laid out."

The staff members also are motivated by pride in the stellar-quality work they produce. The firm's niche is high-quality sheet-fed and web printing. "Employees are interested in doing a good job; that's been engrained here for decades," relates Ott. "Also, the customers we deal with, such as Tiffany, Mercedes and Lexus, produce beautiful work as far as design and photography, which helps make us look good."

Another reason behind employee satisfaction? "It's the nature of being family owned," Ott replies. Besides Kevin Ott, family members ensconced at Hennegan include his father, Robert Sr., chairman; and Robert Jr., president. "It's not absentee ownership - we work long hours, and employees know they aren't the only ones laboring away."

While being a family owned firm has definite advantages, "the cost of keeping pace with new technology is especially difficult for businesses like us," he continues. "While investing giant sums in a new web press is a difficult decision for us, it may be easier for huge conglomerates."

Hennegan competes against about 10 other printers in the country. (Most of the firm's business - nearly 90 percent - comes from outside of Cincinnati.) What makes Hennegan stand apart from its competition? Here, its small size comes into play. "We're not as big as some of the other firms. That translates into being more connected to customers - it's easier for clients to talk to management-level people."

Of course, Hennegan touts such favorable traits. "We create at least three self-promotion pieces a year," states Ott. "We produce an informative piece if we install new equipment. We've also done pieces about how to prepare your desktop files for Hennegan. Finally, we usually create one beautiful photography book a year.

"It's important to remind people you exist, and not just through salespeople, but with mailings. Our soft-sell promotion pieces have been effective in that potential customers identify Hennegan with quality, well-designed pieces."

By carefully watching history unfold and jumping to serve the resulting new customer needs, The Hennegan Co. has blossomed into a highly successful firm. But, it's one that hasn't forgotten its employees along the way. As Hennegan has proved, meeting customer needs and keeping employees happy, is a surefire method for success.