Treading Carefully

March 21, 2010

Danger Minefield signPoor Richard has  never strolled through a minefield, but he can imagine what it must be like.  It seems a good analogy for the experience of hanging on to a printing business these last 18 months. There have been days and weeks when explosions were occurring all around and it seemed the end was near. On other days, the sun was shining and everything appeared almost normal until the detonation 20 feet away and flying shrapnel brought reality into sharp focus. The last couple of weeks have been like that.

Macon, Georgia is no business Mecca. It is a sleepy southern town that has had better days and hopefully will have better days again. Macon has been a good place for a business like the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to avoid the wrath of the franchise).  Over the last decade plus, we’ve enjoyed good customers, wonderful friends, and mostly amicable competition with the other printers in town.

For our company and for our competitors, business as usual ended abruptly in November of 2008. The stock market crashed, our customers contracted and folded, and sales plummeted.  Monthly newsletters went digital; nevermore to return. Businesses decided that they could do without printing. Our friendly bankers, once eager to finance new equipment purchases, now wouldn’t return phone calls. Yet we hung on and tried to do what we could, hoping and praying for better days.

An interview in the PrintCEO blog tells the sad story of the demise of Alonzo Printing, a midsized California operation that seemed to be doing everything right. The owner, Jim Duffy, describes the heady days of 2007 with new equipment investments, diversification into digital printing, and the difficulties of turning a marketing vision into reality.  Jim didn’t have to step on a mine.  His bank detonated it for him.

In our sleepy southern town, we were all holding on until just a couple of weeks ago. Sure, a couple of small printers have closed, but they were operating with 30 year old systems.  Two weeks ago, one of our better competitors announced that they were suspending their production operations and would continue as a print broker. Last week, a promising short run book printer literally disappear overnight.  The mines are exploding all around us.

Our little company is treading very carefully. Like Alonzo printing, we made new equipment purchases when times were better. Some of these have not played out well. Equipment vendors, banks and even the franchise, once seen as allies, now look more like the enemy. The path through the minefield is complicated and dangerous and there is no lack of diversions that could cause a misstep.

Poor Richard is convinced that one of these is the whole “marketing services” concept. In the PrintCEO interview, Jim Duffy makes the following comment:

We marketed Alonzo, and from a pure marketing perspective, it was just a dream. And yet, it was another issue of not having the right people to make it really come to life. Then we reached the point where we couldn’t hire the right people. That’s how you get caught in the spiral.

You do need to market yourself; you need to do it in a way that’s going to be meaningful for your clients.

The last sentence is telling. Printers are not viewed by our customers as “marketers.” That is the realm of advertising agencies. With due respect and apologies to our agency customers, printers are not “pie in the sky” folks. We don’t do well with concept. Coming up with concepts that work requires a lot of time and creativity that a short-staffed printing company doesn’t have.

Printing companies do a very good job with details, with implementation.  If “marketing service provider” means that we have to dream up the marketing concepts for our customers, we’re in trouble. If it means that we implement and measure marketing “campaigns” using the new tools that are available to us, then perhaps we can provide our customers with something that is of value, that is meaningful.

Poor Richard is not certain what it will take for some of us to make it out of the minefield, nor is he certain that the printshop on Poplar Street won’t be blown to smithereens during the debacle. I hold to the hope that there will be a need for companies like mine that “do stuff,” that are competent at producing and implementing.

There is a certain sense of desperation that naturally occurs when one strolls the path through a minefield. Traveling the path requires care, tenacity, and not a small bit of prayer. There is also the possibility that the trail will eventually lead to un-mined pastures that allow more flexibility to move around and maybe some better possibilities for small businesses like mine. Poor Richard is really looking forward to the other side of the minefield.

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The View from My Window

October 25, 2009

The view from my window is sometimes entertaining and sometimes thought provoking. Here’s what I see when I look out from under the red awnings at the printshop on Poplar Street (brand name omitted to protect the delicate sensibilities of the franchise):

The Poplar Street Park Congregation

The Poplar Street Park Congregation

At Gralpharaphics, we call them the Poplar Park Congregation. Their membership ebbs and flows with the weather and the economy. Lately, it’s been growing. It’s not that Poor Richard really minds the congregation that much most of the time.  It’s a public park and they have a right to be there. And they’ve been there or somewhere else downtown for a long time. My dad, who has worked in downtown Macon for over 70 years, knows many of them by name. They are loud, profane, occasionally drunken, and mostly harmless to others; if not to themselves.

There is an occasional preacher. There are frequent arguments and brief fistfights. If an event is upcoming, the Macon Police Department will clear them out for a day or so.  When the event is over, they come back. My customers have learned to always park on our side of the street to avoid jeers, comments, and requests for money. The money is used to buy a beverages in brown paper sacks from the Poplar Mart, the foodstore on the other side of the street that sells beer by the bottle.

We’ve had occasional fun with the congregation. There was the time when beautiful wife was given plug-in air fresheners by a friend who works at a bath boutique in trendy North Macon (where the congregants dare not tread).  Thinking to improve the atmosphere at the printshop, beautiful wife plugged in one of her new acquisitions in the lobby of the printshop during a brief Saturday afternoon visit. What she didn’t know was that there was a reason the trendy boutique had decided to dispose of the air fresheners at a deep discount. It was the fragrance–“Aroma de French Bordello.”

None of the printshop crew had ever worked in a bordello and they found the perfumed aroma somewhat strong for their tastes. With burning eyes, they unplugged the air freshener and transferred it to an outlet in the middle of Poplar Street Park just as the congregation began to arrive for the day.  It made for an entertaining morning as we watched the members of the congregation try to identify the source of the noxious odor.  One of them finally noticed the plug-in on the column in the middle of the park, and on hands and knees stuck his nose directly above the source of the smell and began to sneeze. The air freshener was removed by one of his fellow congregants, pocketed presumably to take to a location where Aroma de French Bordello would be better appreciated.

Now to the thought provoking part. The Poplar Street Congregation is indicative of a problem that is not getting any better. Macon, our lovely city, didn’t fare too well in the press last week. Forbes magazine published a top 10 article and we made #7. We’re #7 in the list of the top 10 most impoverished metro areas in the nation. That’s not a statistic that does much for civic pride. For the purposes of this short blog entry, it’s not worthwhile to go into the details of the problem . . . high unemployment, low incomes, poor education, etc. Fill in the blanks or read the Forbes article.

The causes of the problem are tough to tackle. The symptoms are visible from my window – the Poplar Street Congregation is a segment of the population that doesn’t even fall into the ranks of the unemployed. They haven’t been employed and they’re not looking for work. Goodwill, the agency whose motto is “Building Lives, Families and Communities – One Job at a Time,” used to operate the store behind the congregants. It shut down three months ago.

It seems that the Macon of my lifetime has always been a town just on the edge of getting it together. There was a time in the 1960s and 70s when we were a music mecca for Soul musicians and Southern Rock bands. We have a great university (Mercer) in town, plus Wesleyan College and Macon State.  The cultural scene is really pretty amazing. As is the case in many small cities, real estate and development interests have been allowed to run unchecked, leaving areas of abandoned and decaying buildings in their wake. Before the Decession, Poor Richard was convinced that downtown was on the verge of a renaissance and that may yet be the case. There are still signs of life and a great organization (Newtown Macon) that is devoted to the restoration of the city center. But the view from my window is troublesome today.

It seems that because the causes of the problems are tough to tackle, we don’t try. It’s easier to argue, to blame political incompetence and the inability to make rational decisions on race, to pretend that North Macon is part of another city entirely, to put personal aggrandizement ahead of the best interests of the community. Or perhaps it’s easier to pretend that there are no problems, that it’s all a bed of roses. Poor Richard is  afraid that the smell is more like french bordello air freshener than roses.

The Forbes article indicates where we are as a community. It is a warning of where we might wind up. It’s time to get behind the positive efforts to change Macon’s  direction. The list is long:  improving public schools, keeping the museum district intact, developing the College Hill Corridor, consolidating the City and County governments, reducing the number and improving the quality of our city and county representatives. It’s not impossible, though. Poor Richard is an optimist –  I’m sure that there are many like me who don’t want any part of politics, but will be glad to pitch in and help if we can all work together.

I’d like to still be looking out of my downtown window in a couple of years, and I’d like to see a different scene. Instead of the Poplar Street congregation, I’d like to see shoppers and tourists enjoying the park with open stores and businesses behind them that employ people.  Instead of the Poplar Mart selling beer, there will be a new grocery store to serve all of the folks who are moving downtown. Grant’s Lounge will be open every night, featuring the best Indie bands, who all want to play in Macon. It could happen, couldn’t it?


Crazy People

November 19, 2008

The screen on all of our phones is displaying 911 followed by my name. It’s a panic button feature. When 911 is dialed from any of the phones on the system, every phone in the place lights up and blinks with the extension from which the emergency number was dialed. This is so everyone in the place can go to the aid of the user dialing 911. Obviously my emergency wasn’t too dire . . . or nobody paid attention to it. Brian pointed the emergency feature out to me a day and a half later.

I had dialed 911 because of the crazy people in Poplar Street Park. They were fighting again. This time it was a man and a woman who began with a high volume shouting match, clearly audible to me across the street on the second floor of AlphaGraphics towers. I looked out the window to witness the development of a full fledged altercation: tearing of clothes, fighting, scratching and finally rolling around on the sidewalk.

The 911 operator didn’t seem at all disturbed when I called. “911, please state your emergency,” came the calm voice over the receiver.

“The crazy people are fighting again in Poplar Street Park,” I replied. I think I heard the faintest sigh from the other end of the receiver.

“We’ll send someone over,” the voice replied. The fight was over soon enough and I never saw a police car.

I don’t really have a great objection to the crazy people that inhabit the park, except when they’re drinking or fighting. We’ve never had much walk in traffic and most of my customers know to park on our side of Poplar Street to avoid the panhandling and the comments. I’ve never been threatened and by now they know that if they ask for money, I’ll offer to feed them. Most of them don’t really want food. I think that there should be a better place for them to stay than the park, but some of them don’t want that either.

We’ve gotten to know a few of them. There’s the lady who comes into the shop once or twice a week. She buys paper by the sheet to draw on and insists on paying for it. She’ll ask for a specific number of sheets and always wants a receipt for her purchase. She also likes plastic bags . . . two of them each time. She was fascinated by our display cabinet and helped herself to samples of our work until we discovered what she was doing. She liked the colors.

Then there’s Jeff. He’s a singer. He carries the names of all of the songs he knows on sheets of notepaper that once were bound together in a spiral pad. If you give him a dollar bill, he’ll sing you any of the songs. He’ll give you a sample verse for free. He can’t carry a tune in a bucket . . . but don’t tell him I said so.

Jeff came in for business cards the other day. He took about 20 minutes at the front counter to compose the content. The finished product had his name and the services he offered: DJ, lawn and garden work, weddings, auto cleaning, and short-term loans – zero interest. Jeff has no address or phone number. I pointed out that this might pose a problem for potential clients who wanted to get in touch. Jeff didn’t seem concerned about this. I also pointed out that there was little profit margin in a zero interest loan. This was a mistake on my part. Jeff took another 5 minutes to graphically illustrate (using long multiplication and division) how it was possible to turn $5 into $900 in a few simple transactions with no interest charged. He even offered to help me do it if I’d contribute $5 to the cause.

I also have to give homage due to Dr. H. I’m not sure exactly where the doctor earned his PhD, or exactly what his area of expertise is, but I am reasonably certain that at one time Dr. H did receive an education. He has a wonderful command of the English language and is even eloquent when he speaks. He has the bearing (if not the cleanliness, coiffure or wardrobe) of a college professor. His area of specialty is conspiracy theories. For a while, he came daily to copy tedious, hand-written complaints to city officials regarding all sorts of injustices that were perpetrated or planned. I understand that he has occasionally appeared at City Council meetings to read his discovered plots into the public record.

Dr. H is also an artist. In a moment of weakness I was convinced to actually scan and print one of his newsprint collages on signboard. He wanted me to deliver it for him to the Salvation Army, where he was staying that evening. When I told him that this didn’t really fit into our delivery plans, he became irritated with me. I haven’t seen him since. I’ve kept the print, though. Maybe it will be as valuable as a Howard Fenster one day.

homelessLike I said, I really don’t mind the crazy folks if they aren’t fighting, drunk or both. I’ve learned to be a little cautious, though. I don’t know what to do about them. I haven’t joined the church group that comes to feed them on Thursday nights. They feed them burgers and hotdogs and occasionally get them singing a little. I applaud their efforts, but the crazy folks are still left on the streets at night and I don’t think that the gospel message really sticks with most of them.

According to my Dad, the homeless folks have been there a long time. He speaks to them, but doesn’t really worry about them. I have to worry a little. The crazy folks certainly aren’t helping the effort to revitalize downtown and I can’t see that there’s much there to help them either. It’s obvious that most of them are not capable of or willing to help themselves. The police consider them a minor nuisance – they can’t afford to arrest them and couldn’t keep them if they did. The shelters offer a place to sleep in the cold or a meal, but little else.

I’m a little embarrassed at the call to 911. It’s difficult to look across the street without the thought that , “there but by the grace of God go I.” The strength of our republic has been the opportunity America has afforded for success along with the willingness of our people to care for those in need. Living in America has not been a zero sum game. Joe has not become wealthy or successful at John’s expense. We’ve succeeded or failed based upon our individual efforts and our efforts and intentions, for the most part, have been good. I hope that this isn’t changing, but I sense that it is.

We’re not doing so well right now. I mistrust our universal willingness to rely on government for solutions. I’m also embarrassed at my own ambivalence, but I’m not willing to adopt a crazy person either.

God is still in control. Here’s to better days . . .


Oprah Spotting

November 18, 2007

As beautiful wife and I left one of our favorite lunchtime haunts on Cherry Street Thursday, we noticed a well-dressed young man hurrying down the street toward us. By my guess he was a professional, in coat and tie, with an expectant and excited shine in his eyes.

“What’s the rush?” I queried.

He smiled nervously and replied, “It’s Oprah. She’s going to eat at the NuWay. Have you seen her yet?”244winfreyoprah091906.jpg

It was more that a little crazy in Macon the end of the last week. Oprah Winfrey taped a show here and the presence of such an electrifying personality in our city had the immediate effect of shorting out the synapses of a large part of the population.

“Ma’am, all you have to do to approve the proof is reply to the email,” Brian was saying into his headset as we returned to the shop. “Just type ‘OK to Print’ and reply,” he continued to an obviously confused customer.

“The reply button,” he continued, “on the email. It’s the button that says ‘Reply.’ ” Brian’s perpetually patient good humor was flagging a little. “Yes, that will send an email back to me. I’m the one that sent the proof to you. We’ll print your project when we receive your approval.”

He listened patiently, rolling his eyes. “Yes, ma’am, you can print it out and sign it, but that will mean you’ll have to use the print button and the fax machine.”

I knew that there was a full scale disruption of the magnetic field in Middle Georgia when I caught a snippet of Sharon’s conversation later in the afternoon. Sharon, our salesperson, was answering questions from one of her customers. She’s not always as diplomatic as Brian and seethed a light expletive under her breath after she finished the call.

“What?” I asked.

“I can’t believe what she just asked me,” was the response. “She wanted to know how many envelopes were in a box of 500.”

The crew took off early and I was at the front counter when one of our favorite designers came in with a camera and a sly smile on her face.

“And what are you doing?” I asked of her.

“Ostensibly, I’m on a photo shoot,” she returned with a slightly deranged expression on her face. Then she whispered, “In actuality I’ve been Oprah spotting!”

Thanks for coming to Macon, Oprah! Now we know why California is so crazy!


Reminiscing

July 10, 2007

When AlphaGraphics moved, we landed next to a landmark, Grant’s Lounge. Many of my customers don’t have a clue about Grant’s when I reference it giving directions, but Grant’s is at the very least a landmark to my particular generation of kids who grew up amidst the music of Macon in the early 1970s. I generally don’t find it productive to ruminate around in my memories, but our close proximity to the Macon club that was frequented by so many of the Capricorn bands has stirred up some fond recollections.

I can’t say that I was a regular, but I was there some. I remember my first time in Grant’s very well. It was probably in 1975. I was friends with a couple of the Allman Brothers roadies that had a little side band called the Almost Brothers. They were playing at Grants on the weekends when they were in town and I had been invited to come and jam. I played drums . . . not very well, but that really didn’t matter in those days. Macon musicians were a generally friendly bunch and they took a lot of kids under their wings.

For some reason, the first memory that sticks were the photos of enormous nude women behind the bar. I had certainly seen photos of naked women before, but not of such magnificent girth. I never did find out why the photos were there or who had the fetish for large women. That day, we set up the equipment and did a quick sound check. At some point, I remember Mr. Ed Grant walking in front of the stage and lifting an eyebrow in my direction. I was a skinny kid of 16 with big hair. Drinking age was 18.

As I climbed out from behind the drum kit, I saw Mr. Grant again. He motioned to me and I walked over.

“Young man, do you know who I am?” he asked.

“Yessir, Mr. Grant,” I responded. My scrawny kid impression of Mr. Grant was big and imposing.

“Follow me. I want to show you something,” he said as he walked around the stage. We approached a door. “Young man, do you know what that is?” he questioned.

“Yessir, Mr. Grant, it’s a door,” I replied. I wasn’t missing the obvious.

“No, young man,” he stated, “that there’s the back door. The police, they come in the front door, you go out the back door. Understand?”

I did. And I remembered Mr. Grant’s admonitions during later visits to the club, but I never had to go out the back door. Grant’s was a very cool place in those days, with a fascinating clientele. The young musicians were there. The musicians that made it were there. Older musicians that liked to hear the young musicians were there. There were black people, white people, young and old and no one seemed to mind. It was a good time.

Mr. Grant died a couple of years back, I understand. The club is still open, though you wouldn’t know it in the daytime. Beautiful wife and I worked late on Saturday a couple of weeks ago and the joint was hopping. The clientele and the music are way different, though. The building is decrepit, though I’m not really sure that it wasn’t just as horrible back in the day. It’s been purchased by the same investors that sold and remodeled our building, and they’ll be restoring Grant’s when they find a buyer.

I don’t even drink anymore, but I’ve found myself wishing for a neat little club or restaurant next door where young people and older folks and black people and white people could go. They could listen to good music or play a little music and laugh and talk and get along and have a good time and nobody would mind. I’m older, and I’d like it a little neater and cleaner than the Grant’s I remember. . . and I’d prefer to skip the naked photos of large women.