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TypoThe Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost $4 Million (An Entrepreneur's Education)
By David Silverman
Soft Skull PressCopyright © 2007 David Silverman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBenevolent Capitalists
Dan and I drove south through Iowa on Interstate 29 in our standard-issue rented white Ford Taurus, passing exits for what appeared to be only fields. After forty-five minutes Dan gave in and lit up a cigarette, hanging his arm out the passenger window and trying his best to blow the smoke outside. I coughed, but didn't begrudge my friend, partner, and boss his one weakness. He was, after all, in charge.
Nearing sixty, Dan was an old school, button-down executive and I suspected he hadn't taken off his ancient houndstooth jacket since leaving home in Baltimore that morning. A self-described "wrong side of the tracks Irishman," he looked more like a corporate version of George Carlin than the world's foremost expert on typesetting, and he smelled like a country singer, all hair tonic and Benson and Hedges cigarettes. His bronze-to-grey hair was nearly the same color as his leathery skin and thinning, but not so thin that he couldn't get it puffed up every morning with rigorous combing. He was thinking, as always, about his plans: how to remake the company we'djust bought, how to beat the East Indian competitors, how to take the company public, how to roll up the typesetting industry and make us millionaires.
Those potential millions were both the first thing on my mind and the last-first because, quite obviously, I wanted to be a millionaire, and they would let me pay back my father his retirement money. They were the last because I had Dan, and he had taught me, "millions are easy, kiddo; building a company that will endure is hard." He should know, he had made millions for every boss he'd worked for, but never for long enough to get any of it for himself. We had worked together for more than four years at two companies where he had been my boss and I had been his loyal, tech-guy ward. Both companies had been run by narrow-minded men who had thwarted Dan's typesetting dreams and had been the worst kinds of owners: lying, greedy, and uncaring.
Like my father, he had told me repeatedly that the good guys ultimately win in business. When we closed on the purchase of the fifty-year-old Clarinda typesetting company two weeks ago, the good guys, we believed, were winning. The benevolent capitalist was now the CEO of his own company. Without my asking, he had made me, who had never owned anything, an equal shareholder with him, increased my salary a third over my previous job to a hundred and thirty thousand a year and bestowed on me, who had never been the boss of anyone, the title of President.
We turned off at the green-and-white highway sign for the town of McPaul. McPaul had four pairs of railroad tracks, two houses, a closed post office, closed gas station, and closed antique store. No more than a mile beyond, we crested a hill and then: nothing.
Or rather, my city boy idea of nothing: farmland. From the top of this crest I could see twenty miles and there was only one building: a corrugated steel Quonset hut that had been crushed by some natural disaster, lying in a field like a deity-discarded soda can. Every other corner of the world was corn, soybeans, or sky-a third-grader's watercolor of blue, green and harvest gold.
There must be states covered in tomatoes or cucumbers or radishes or whatever else is in the grocery store because Iowa doesn't have them. I asked a local, "What's that?" "Corn." "And that?" "Soybeans." Aside from the occasional cattle or pig farm that was the only agriculture I saw.
We arrived in Clarinda an hour and a half after leaving Omaha. Clarinda had a town square and a mixture of manicured Victorian and vinyl-sided ranch houses. Just over five thousand people lived in what was the biggest urban center with the only movie theater for twenty miles around. The Clarinda tourism brochure highlighted other distinctions-Clarinda was the birthplace of Glenn Miller (he left when he was two), the birthplace of 4-H (contested by at least one other town, in Illinois), and the home of the largest indoor swimming pool in Southwest Iowa (leaving one to assume that somewhere to the north and east lies a much more substantial indoor pool). Keeping up with the times, Clarinda has staked an additional claim as the locale where the hamburger was invented by a Mr. Bert Grey, who employed a German chef of the eponymous town (contested by just about everybody).
It was nearly ten o'clock, so we went straight to the brand new Super 8 motel at the edge of town. Although chain motels appear to be all the same, I, as an experienced business traveler, could spot the minute gradations in quality the way an Olympic judge could tell the difference between a 9.7 pommel horse routine and a 9.6. Do they serve three kinds of stale muffins for breakfast or two? Is the morning orange drink thicker or thinner than water? Is there a morning orange-flavored drink?
The Super 8 was a looking at a major technical deduction-there was no one at the desk. "Hello?" I called.
"Hello!" Dan said, more loudly, and put his green overnight bag down.
I looked around the corner down a hall of rooms. No one. I went and knocked on the door. "When you find her," Dan said, "I'll be outside smoking," and he walked out, tapping a cigarette box against his wrist.
A few minutes later a young woman came out from the room behind the counter. "Oh hi!" she said, "I didn't know anyone was out here!"
I told her we had reservations.
"Look at that!" she said, turning the pages of the book where my and Dan's names were written with arrows across several pages. "You're staying a long time here. You must love Iowa." She smiled at me. No more than a teenager, her teeth were crooked in as many ways as she had teeth-which were not as many as there should have been. "Just fill out this card with your name and company."
"It's the Clarinda company," I said.
She looked at me blankly. The Clarinda company had been located on First Street for 40 years. "I'm sorry. I'm not from around here," she said. "I'm from New Market." New Market was fifteen miles away.
My room had soap but no shampoo, not even the little ketchup-packet kind that you have to tear open with your teeth, but I didn't deduct any more points. It didn't really matter. Not only did I not have enough hair to warrant a complaint, I was here for much more important business-my future millions. I fell asleep to the lullaby of long-haul trucks on the highway a dozen yards from my window carrying what sounded like giant tubs of loose metal pipes over the rumble strips intended to stop them from missing the lone traffic light in fifty miles.
The Clarinda building had its own loading dock-my own loading dock!-a sign-it lit up at night!-a cafeteria room with vending machines-whatever!-and over 25,000 square feet of office space that was mostly unused-mine! 50% mine! All that space was a reminder of just how big the equipment required and how labor-intensive typesetting used to be-not to mention how cheap office space was in Iowa.
Dan greeted the receptionist. I wasn't sure if he said "Mary" or "Carrie," so I just smiled. She beamed back at me, the new boss from New York City with a bicycle messenger backpack slung over his shoulder for a briefcase.
My office had a distinct 70s flavor with a single fluorescent lighting block overhead, paneled walls, and a grey-orange carpet. I had inherited from the former occupant a little round conference table, a credenza-my father worked twenty-five years at IBM before he got a credenza-and a view of a cornfield. Dan's office adjoined mine and was bigger. His desk, unlike mine, was made of solid wood, which, I admit, I would have liked, but his view of the cornfield wasn't as good.
I rifled through the drawers, there were some pens, lots of paper clips, a few dozen rubber bands, some spare change, and oddly, a fly swatter. I put the change in my pocket, and unpacked my office supplies: a copy of the video game Age of Empires and a PalmPilot. Now what?
As I sat there tapping my hands, a man walked in, keeping his head down and avoiding my gaze. He had white hair, multi-layered cheeks like a walrus, and gave off an aura of unmistakable Santa Claus-iness. His overall straps stuck to his broad chest like copper bands on a barrel made of jam. He slid behind my chair and stood there. I didn't know what he was doing, but I didn't want him to know that, so I picked up the mail already on my desk, and looked through the invitations to buy monogrammed pencils, umbrellas, and garbage bins for "President, Clarinda Company."
I glanced sideways and saw he had opened a metal boxed that contained a readout like a bomb timer. Increasingly uncomfortable with the man wedged behind me, I picked up the phone, but before I could think of someone to call, he turned, handed me a white plastic card and closed the box. "Yes, sir," he said.
He had already started out, head still down, when I realized I would have to act. "Um, what's this?"
While still backing out he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't want to get in your way."
"It's OK." I said. "What's this card?"
"It's your keycard," he said
I looked at it in confusion.
"To get in and out of the building."
Someone else had already given me a regular old metal key that opened the front door. I showed it to him. Did I need a keycard also?
He thought about this and began scratching his back by rubbing up against the doorframe like a grizzly bear. "Well," he said, "only a couple of people have those." He rubbed up and down one more time, "I was told to give you a keycard."
* * *
At one o'clock, Dan, wearing a rumpled blue blazer with brass buttons, convened his newly created "Executive Committee" in the large conference room next to my office. The room was cold. Although it was across the hall from the main HVAC unit, it had no heating ducts. Other than that, it was the nicest room in the company. On the front wall a huge whiteboard hidden behind double French doors. The conference table was large and solid, and seated about a dozen people in high-backed chairs, which made the lectern and microphone seem like overkill. There were two windows: one looked out onto a tree and the barren cornfield across the street; the other framed a parking lot. On the far wall a retirement-gift sized pendulum clock ticked away, and interrupted the first minute of the meeting by chiming loudly on the hour. It smelled of cheap paneling and erasable marker ink.
Dan stood at the whiteboard and made a sweeping motion. The dried out pen left a thin green line. He redrew over the first impression, and then again-each time pressing harder and causing a little more squeak-to clearly write one number a foot high on the otherwise empty board: "9"-the number of millions of dollars of revenue he hoped we could get to.
I scanned the room for reactions. At thirty-two, I was a few years younger than Kathy from St. Paul, but more than a decade younger than Sally and Steve, and everyone else in the room had kids my age. With his leathery face, Dan, although younger than half the group, looked like he was old enough to be everyone's parent. However, I was by far the baldest. Maybe living in the big city was more stressful than I had thought.
"If the sales estimate Ron has given me is correct," he said and winked at Ron, who as estimating manager, knew every price the company had ever charged. He also served as the mayor of the nearby town of Shambaugh, a position that rotated among the town's population of 190. "And all the customers that David and I spoke to from our old employer Bembo aren't lying to us, when they say they will follow us to Clarinda, then we will do nine million our first year." Dan's voice reminded me of Walter Cronkite. Warm, sincere, fatherly, and when he talked to you, you felt there was no rush-that the most important thing to him was that you understood and that you told him what you needed to. "Imagine that," he said, moving his attention to the production manger, "Fifty percent more than last year. Can you imagine that, Frank?"
Frank, who was-incredibly-the original plant manager sent down from Chicago forty years before, nodded cautiously. He looked like a Lutheran minister-all humorless straight jaws and elbows-combined with a cowboy, combined with a yellow short-sleeve shirt.
Dan continued, "If David and I are able to get through to some of those venture capitalists, we'll also be buying two or three of our competitors, maybe even as soon as next year. Who knows, we might go public." He smiled broadly, exposing his wide, slightly yellowed teeth. "All of you are going to be part of that. You are going to make this company the best in the world."
I looked out the window at the cornfield thick with green stalks. I had nothing to do except listen to Dan win them over. I'd heard this speech repeated to every potential client, investor, and partner for three years, and could repeat it with my eyes closed, but I still listened as every careful word of instruction reminded me we were going to be millionaires running our own typesetting empire. All I had to do was let Dan make his life-long dream happen-let the plan in his head play out with me quietly at his side.
He walked across the room and dropped the worn out marker in a trashcan directly behind me. "Connie, you're my appointed cheerleader; what do you think about that?"
Connie, the customer service manager who Dan hoped to turn into a salesperson, could not have looked like a less-willing cheerleader. She had sounded so sweet on the phone, but in person was pinch-faced, as if an encyclopedia-sized binder clip was fastened to the back of her head. She smiled, aware of everyone looking at her, raised a loose fist just below her shoulder and said, "Rah!"
"That's the spirit!" Dan said, without the slightest edge of sarcasm. "But the reality is Clarinda hasn't done nine million in years. At this critical juncture, the challenge we have is making it to the end of that first year."
A clerk knocked on the door and handed Dan a stack of pages, which he gave to me to pass around the room. I recognized the list we had gone over on the floor of his Baltimore office the week before: all hundred and eleven employees' names and salaries.
"I've picked each of you to be on this executive committee," Dan said, one hand stretched out on the table, resting palm down on the list, "because you are the ones who run this company. You've all been here while Household danced in one president after another. What were there, five of them in just the past few years?" He turned to Frank, who had been studying his copy.
Frank looked up, chuckled, and said, "More like seven."
"Seven," Dan said, pushing out his lower lip thoughtfully. "And you've lived through all those other companies-"
"Poole Brothers, American Can, Nodaway Valley, and Whitestar," I interjected. I had found an anonymously authored company history in the cubbyholes behind the whiteboard. Frank looked amused. Minnie, the brittle controller with bright white hair, scowled, and Dan continued.
"None of those other owners wanted your opinion, did they?"
Ron leaned back in his chair, his hands calmly in his lap. His mildly happy, wide-eyed stare had never strayed from Dan since the meeting began. "That's right," he said.
I recalled a sexual harassment suit against a former president of Clarinda I'd seen during due diligence. The suit had been dismissed because, as the judgment read, "by all accounts many people found the Clarinda Company President a difficult person with whom to work, regardless of their gender. Both male and female employees testified that he accused them of incompetence, undercut their authority and threatened to fire them."
Dan continued his pitch, slowing down to stress each word of the plan, "But to get to that glorious future, we've got some work to do. As far as the bank is concerned, this is a 'turnaround' situation. But they don't know this business like you and I do. The formula is simple-" he went back to the board and wrote a few numbers "-we needed to get revenues to three to four times labor costs so that, after all of those fixed costs like rent, sales, and all of us folks in management-like you and me-who don't make pages, we will get ourselves a nice, solid, ten percent profit. Follow this tried and true formula and we will show those banks how quick those ten years of losses at Clarinda can be turned around."
Excerpted from Typo by David Silverman Copyright © 2007 by David Silverman. Excerpted by permission.
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