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Managing with enthusiasm

May 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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Express Press' unique management style captures Hall of Fame honor

"Printing is the most important job in America!"

This declaration by Mike Stevens, president of Express Press (Fargo, ND) partially explains his success in steering this quick printer to the highest honor attainable by a graphic arts firm in the National Assn. of Printers and Lithographers (NAPL) Management Plus competition. The company has been elected to the Hall of Fame, top honor in the annual program co-sponsored by NAPL, Didde Web Press and AMERICAN PRINTER.

"Although printing is the sixth largest industry, you never see TV shows about it or hear songs about it," he notes. "Even miniature Christmas villages feature bakeries, hardware stores, banks and malt shops - almost everything except print shops! Yet think about it - if you take away printers, our economy and our country as we know it almost would grind immediately to a halt. We make everyone else's jobs possible, including creating the currency."

Stevens' passion for his role in the industry has carried over to the organization's 13 employees, who rank number one with management. Ahead of customers? 'Yes," he replies. "It's much more difficult to replace a good employee than replace a customer." This philosophy also is based on the certainty that motivated employees will make customers believe they always come first.

Since its inception in 1983, Express Press has advertised and adhered to the policy that every job will be delivered on time or it's free. "We currently complete nearly 1,000 jobs each month," Stevens reports. "We've processed an average of 4,000 jobs before missing a delivery deadline."

Operations and profitability are enhanced further by unusual "over-equip and under-staff" planning. By investing in extra equipment in the press-room and bindery, in more varieties than normally found in plants of similar size, greater productivity per employee is achieved consistently.

"For example, we have more than one computer per employee and more than one press per press operator," Stevens states. "Our high-speed copy department has three machines and one employee, but many times all units operate simultaneously." Equipment investment is much less expensive than employee investment, Stevens maintains.

Although the shop is small, it follows the organizational practices of much larger concerns, including written goals, an employee handbook reviewed by an attorney every year, a 15-page sales and marketing plan, and written employee production standards.

By 10 a.m. daily, a report goes to all employees showing where each one stands in relation to his/her goals for production - that day and for the month to date. Also, it shows how the company as a whole is doing. "We've done it in a non-invasive, non-threatening, positive way that the staff appreciates," offers Stevens.

Another unusual planning element at Express Press is the occasional inclusion of vendors in some of the 15 or more planning sessions held annually. "We think of them as partners," comments Stevens.

Much has been reported about the firm's marketing expertise, including an extensive direct mail effort that spawned a separate business. Ink, Inc. provides printers with skillfully created direct mail programs sold on an exclusive territorial basis. Various mailings have been developed for use with different groups of prospects and customers.

Some of the company's mailing lists are limited in number, reaching as few as 200 businesses in a specific niche, while others reach more than 4,000. The direct mail program continues to be the most effective method for generating business, according to the firm's president, and has helped the shop achieve a 19 percent increase in business this past year, with a 21 percent profit increase.

Supplementing the mailings are local advertising spots appearing on cable TV's Larry King Show and CNN Prime Time News, as well as on the number one local radio station.

The Fargo Walk of Fame could be considered the most publicized company promotion. Hand and foot imprints of more than 90 celebrities appear in concrete on the sidewalk in front of the plant. Every time a famous person or group arrives to be a part of the walk, a news item is developed to call attention to the firm. The list of participants includes entertainers, authors, politicians, religious leaders, scientists and military heroes. Most recently, musical groups Alabama and the Eagles, as well as singer Billy Joel, have added their signatures to the walk.

Open book management is another notable technique used at the shop. Every week all employees see the firm's complete financial statement. "There are no secrets," stresses Stevens. "They see how much I make, how much the company makes, line-by-line revenue streams and all the expense areas."

By a predetermined formula, employees share in the profits each month. "It's unusual for a small company, but we hired a CPA to help implement the plan. The results have been amazing. It has fired up employees. They come to management with ideas for increasing profits by improving quality and production. They even ask questions such as, 'We think we can do better with a different supplier; do you mind if we call and find out?'"

Quality control receives top priority, monitored by an I'm Perfect program that has reduced spoilage from seven percent to less than two percent, contributing measurably to profits and customer satisfaction. Operations evaluations occur daily via reports covering key data, including on-time scheduling (or lack of it), errors and spoilage stated as a percent of sales. Each employee signs off on work completed after following a detailed quality control checklist designed specifically for each operation.

"Quality is everything," sums up Stevens. "Customers expect it, and if you don't provide it, they'll go elsewhere."

In the early days of the company, which he purchased in 1983, Stevens followed the advice of the "experts" to use financial leverage to the maximum. "However, it impacted our profits heavily because much of our overhead went to debt reduction," he relates. "Six years ago we flip-flopped, and now do everything we can to keep out of debt. It's one of the most liberating things in terms of de-stressing my life, but it also has impacted our business powerfully. Today, when we decide to buy a piece of equipment, we have the reserves to pay cash for it."

Stevens truly was surprised to receive NAPL's telephone call revealing the firm won the Hall of Fame in Management Plus. "After all, recent winners were DuPont and AT&T printing operations, which are far larger than Express Press," remarks the industry exec.

Stevens gave credit to NAPL for recognizing that small printers can demonstrate outstanding performance just as well as multi-million dollar organizations. Perhaps it was the relatively small size of this company that permitted the application of so many successful management techniques. The lines of communication are more direct.