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Pratt Corp.: Where Corporate Growth Starts With Personal Growth

(November 2001) posted on Mon Nov 05, 2001

Learn more about the graphic-solutions company


By Anne Wilke

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Two months ago, when Dan Pratt and 30 other Pratt Corp. employees exhibited at the GlobalShop retail-display trade show in Chicago, visitors got a glimpse of the light-hearted atmosphere that pervades the successful promotional-services company. At Indianapolis, IN-based Pratt Corp., job titles tend to be downplayed, a fact made evident by the name badge company president Dan Pratt wore at the show. It read "Head Mischief Maker,"a title he said he "absolutely" agrees with.

It's not every company whose leader shows up at the plant dressed as Beetlejuice. And where else would you find members of the Indianapolis Colts visiting with workers, educational programs to help employees earn their GEDs on company time, or after-hours courses in photography and ceramics? These may not seem like typical elements of a high-volume printing and support-services company. But they demonstrate that Pratt Corp. places as much emphasis on learning, personal growth, and a fun work environment as it does on making sure that customers receive only the best products.

Diversions and antics don't mean that Pratt Corp.'s employees take their jobs lightly. In fact, since 1992, the now 55-year-old company has rapidly increased its size and sales, growing from a $10-million banner- and poster-printing business to a full-service graphics provider that expects to hit $43 million in sales this year.

The reinvention and restructuring Pratt Corp. went through to achieve this success is just as interesting as the workplace culture it has evolved to support it. To understand the company's climb, however, you must go back a few years.

Rising to the top

Founded in 1946 by Rylander Pratt as Pratt Poster, the business began by producing show posters for the local theater where Rylander's wife performed. The company charted slow, but steady, growth as a screen printer of banners and pennants, enjoying sales around $8 million annually by the mid-1980s. When Dan Pratt, Rylander's grandson, took over around that time, he began setting the company on a journey of growth in which it has expanded through acquisitions, new equipment, new services, and a renewed focus on customers and employees.

The real changes at Pratt Corp. started in 1992, when the company broke its workforce into work cells and sales groups in an effort to promote continual improvement training. According to Dan Pratt, the effort failed miserably because many of the people heading the teams were promoted based on seniority, not necessary on skills and experience. This placed many unqualified employees in top-management positions.1995, after losing a big customer, the company went back to the drawing board to restructure its services and streamline its processes. The company's first strategic plan was introduced in 1997 and defined a goal of evolving Pratt Corp. into a full-service turnkey graphics provider. A new organizational structure was outlined, and four separate divisions were formed as the company embarked on a series of acquisitions and mergers over the next several years.

With revenue at $19 million in 1998, Pratt Corp. began answering the call of customers for more value-added services. In May of that year, the company merged with Last Image, a local small-format screen-printing operation. The move expanded the range of print sizes that Pratt Corp., previously just a large-format specialist, could offer to customers.

Around the same time, the company also formed a new Creative Services division to help customers develop effective promotional displays. The division was housed at a new second facility just a few miles from the headquarters.October 1998, Pratt Corp. had also added digital-printing capabilities to its production mix, merging with Marbaugh Co., a digital reproduction firm. Housed with the Creative Services division, the Digital Services division brought in valuable new business.

The next year, Pratt Corp. and Langham Transport Services teamed together to launch One Source Fulfillment LLC. Now with its own Fulfillment Services division, Pratt Corp. could offer long-term warehousing, just-in-time kit assemblies, distribution management, and inventory data management using custom software. Then, in October 2000, Pratt Corp. acquired Digital Plus and Graphic Access to form Pratt Chicago, the company's first branch outside the Indianapolis area.

Today, Dan Pratt, his brother Tom, and four cousins are at the helm of the family business, which employs more than 150 workers and operates three shifts to keep production churning 24/5. Pratt Corp. continues to emphasize the need for bundled services and is now focused on recasting its image as a screen-printing company into that of a one-stop, multiservice company that can support all aspects of its customers' P-O-P and display-graphics needs.

"Digital and some of the other services we're looking at are mutually beneficial technologies for screen printing," said Dan Pratt. "I envision us doing more screen printing than less, but it will be more bundled. Pure product screen printing is something that three years from now will be unacceptable."

Pratt Corp. today

As Pratt Corp. went through its internal transitions, it also re-evaluated who it wanted to serve. As a result, its customer base has changed from a random collection of print buyers to a select group of retailers that has the most to gain from Pratt Corp.'s full menu of services. Today, key accounts include Skechers, Lowes Home Centers, 7-Eleven, and Hess chains.

To meet the diverse needs of such large clients, Pratt Corp. relies on an assortment of prepress, screen-printing, digital-imaging, and finishing technologies, as well as its creative and fulfillment services. About two years ago, ever-shrinking lead times from customers caused Pratt Corp. to bring filmmaking in-house instead of relying on service bureaus. The company purchased a wide-format Autotype Aspect thermal imagesetter, which now produces about 80% of the film positives that the company uses. Pratt Corp. only outsources film for jobs with line counts greater than 75 lines/in.

In addition to upgrading equipment needs, Pratt Corp. has also reorganized its sales, customer-service, and prepress functions under a single account-management structure. The structure centers on team management and support of each account. Each team comprises a customer-service representative, estimator, and prepress operator who, together, handle all of the needs and questions of specific customers. This approach reduces the number of contacts a customer has within Pratt Corp. and gives the customer quick access to the individuals directly responsible for their orders.

Out on the production floor, Pratt Corp. chose a layout that would enhance production efficiency. The first element of the production area is the screenmaking department, which now incorporates a custom built Harlacher automatic screen-coating system. The giant machine, designed to support huge large-format screens, accommodates the frames in landscape orientation and allows front loading to simplify screen handling. The company is now looking into automating its screen-reclaiming process.

Screen-printing presses, sheeters, and support equipment fill the production area. The main eyecatchers are the company's two M&R Processor large-format, five-color inline printing systems. But these machines are also augmented with numerous single-color presses, including two M&R Patriots, an American long-stroke, an M&R Eclipse, a Svecia 5, a Sakuri cylinder press, and several other machines.

John Kernagis, manager of screen-printing operations, recalls six years ago when process-color printing represented less than 10% of Pratt Corp.'s production volume. Today, he said that more than 90% of the jobs printed are process color. "I believe competition is the number one reason for change," explained Kernagis. "But the competition is based on process improvement, quality improvement, and efforts to increase capabilities of screen printing to be more on a par with certain levels of offset."

As for the digital technology that Pratt Corp. has added at its other Indianapolis location, the equipment has not only opened the door to new customers, but also opened up opportunities to existing customers who needed only a few items that would have been cost-prohibitive using traditional screen printing. "At one point in time, we felt there was a void between people who needed just one or two items and people who needed 100 plus," said Chris Pratt, director of the Digital Services division. "We feel we have filled that gap."

Today, the digital division employs two Gretag (RasterGraphics) Arizonas and two Cymbolic Sciences LightJets, as well as two Gerber Plotters, two Encad inkjets, and a CNC Router. "I think our biggest strength, and why we succeed as a division, is the fact that we as a company offer such a broad range of services," said Chris Pratt. "It's not that we have big clients who buy exclusively screen printing from us and small clients who buy exclusively digital. It's that our clients buy everything that we provide."

Adjacent to the Digital Services division is Creative Services. You know you're there when you enter a wide open area that is filled with display models, prototypes, sample products, and surrounded by Mac design workstations. The center of the room holds a large conference table surrounded by an odd assortment of chairs resembling giant shoes and hands. This is where the Creative Services staff meets to brainstorm new projects.

Jim Carter, manager of the Creative Services division, explained that his staff deals with digital illustration, 3-D renderings, design and layout, typesetting, digital photography, and prototype design. Replacing the role of the traditional advertising agency, the division will handle most promotional needs for Pratt Corp.'s customers, except for print-ad design and media buying.

On the fulfillment side, Pratt Corp. is also equipped to handle most finishing services in-house, including hemming, roping, grommeting, and most recently, notching banners. Ken Woods, who runs the finishing department, said that a few years ago Pratt Corp. decided to streamline their procedures to accommodate growing requests from customers for kitting services.

For example, Hess, an east-coast chain of gas stations and convenience stores, relies on Pratt Corp. to produce, collate, and ship monthly P-O-P graphics to more than 500 stores. Kits vary from store to store, so Pratt Corp. must print and move thousands of items, from banners to window decals, through the plant. To handle such large and frequent orders, Woods fashioned the kitting de-partment to run like an assembly line. "Henry Ford said that if you can limit what people do, they will become even more efficient," he shared. "That's what we've done."

Pratt Corp. will always go the extra mile for customers, as another example from the finishing area illustrates. As they were trying to win 7-Eleven's business, representatives of the chain kept mentioning the short-turnaround they would regularly require on a banner program that involved 3000 rolled printed banners.

So Woods and several other employees worked with an outside fabrication shop to design a hand-cranked banner-rolling machine that made the rolling process quick and easy. It worked so well that the company has since developed a pneumatic version that can roll a 30-ft banner in less than a minute. Now the equipment is used for multiple customers several times a month. "We go the extra lengths to make sure that we listen to the customer and that we do everything we can to make the job efficient and cost-effective for both parties," Woods said.

This is also demonstrated in the company's warehousing facility, which allows Pratt Corp. to quickly respond to customers in times of need. "Recently, after a bad snow storm, we had a lot of gas stations calling and saying that their banner was torn up by high winds," explained Rodney Martin, production supervisor. "We just sent extras from the warehouse to replace those items."

In tandem with the redesigning and restructuring of its operations that began in the 1990s, Pratt Corp. also set out to strengthen the company culture by placing a great emphasis on continual learning. In 1995, Dan Pratt and other managers took a long and focused look at its workforce. After the continual improvement training failed in the early 1990s, Pratt employees took the Adult Basic Education test to gauge basic math, language, and reading skill levels. To the management's surprise, 40% of the workforce fell below a sixth-grade basic-skills level--including a few upper managers.

With a belief that strengthening employees' confidence and skills would spill over into their work at Pratt Corp., the company spent the next three years placing a strong emphasis on basic skills. Local teachers were brought in for in-house classes and tutors from the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League helped elevate employee reading levels. In turn, many employees took this opportunity to earn their GEDs.

Dennis Hunter and MaryAnn Johnson were appointed to lead the training programs at Pratt Corp. on a full-time basis. "One of the things we believe here is that as you build skills--whether they're directly related to your job or not--you're developing yourself," said Hunter. "That self development will bring more confidence and greater capabilities to the job you do at Pratt. You can't quantify that (improvement), you just see it."

In support of its new mission, Pratt Corp. also developed an in-house Learning Center, complete with seven PCs, one Macintosh, and a library of resources including magazines, books (ranging from manuals to classical literature), and newspapers. It serves as a facility to host training seminars through a sophisticated multimedia system or just a place for employees to gather during breaks and log onto the Internet or read a magazine.

Once the company succeeded in elevating employees' basic skills, Hunter and others began assessing technical skills levels throughout the company. "When we redesigned job descriptions so that they focused not on longevity but knowledge base, we realized we had to provide employees with the opportunity to learn those skills and develop that knowledge," explained Hunter.

He began by looking at outside training sources, but when those fell short of company expectations, Hunter picked up technical books and started writing training manuals himself with the help of other managers. He started in the print department, developing a training syllabus and certification tests, and will continue moving through each department.

In an industry where consolidation is the trend, Hunter said it's equally important for management to educate employees on broader issues, such as the market and economic issues. "We don't have the profit margins that we used to have, so we have to do things faster and smarter," he said. "We help them to see that and understand that and then back it up with these learning opportunities."

In addition to work-related skills, the company listened to employees' requests for additional classes. To date, training has been offered in CPR/First Aid, photography, ceramics, and using the Internet, with the courses held on-site either after shifts or on Saturdays. Hunter said he knows he is on to something good by the response and suggestions he receives from employees.

"Just the other day, an employee in customer service came to me and said, 'I'd like to learn more about prepress to get a better understanding of what their challenges are as they prepare files for customers,'" shared Hunter. As a result, he is already working on a new training proposal. "With our team-based approach, that makes a lot of sense because it helps communication between team members," he said. Pratt Corp.'s training efforts even extend beyond its walls, as described in "Training a Future Workforce," appearing to the left.

The road ahead

Presently, Pratt Corp. is again reviewing employee skills to see how its current workers need to be prepared so that the company remains competitive in the future. The company has already identified the need to improve employee computer skills, so Hunter is working to schedule more computer and Internet classes. Also, the company would like to initiate some quality training to help it earn ISO certification.

Currently Pratt Corp. is also working with a market research company to help it map out an overarching brand image and get the word out on its capabilities and services. "Right now if you talk to our customer base, some will say we're a high-quality screen printer, some will say we do great digital output, some will say we do great creative design, and some will say we do turnkey services from A to Z," noted Dan Pratt. "So we have a very schizophrenic identity, both inside and outside the company."

Dan Pratt also said the company is looking to the West Coast to form some additional strategic alliances. Pratt Corp.'s Indianapolis location would then become a production portal for services across the country. "What we're going to look like in two to three years from now in terms of an infrastructure in the marketplace or in our facilities remains to be seen," he said. "We're going to look at where the customers are and what their needs are, then buy the services as well as the equipment that will take care of them."

One more thing is certain: As long as the Head Mischief Maker is involved, company culture will continue to grow as well. Dan Pratt hopes to build a company retreat center within the next few years that could be used to host company gatherings and other activities for employees and their families. As he put it, "My hope is that working here doesn't become just work, it becomes an element of a way of life."


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