YOUR HAPPY (WORK) PLACE

Livingston’s Printing for Less banks on employee enthusiasm

2009-07-26T00:00:00Z Livingston’s Printing for Less banks on employee enthusiasmBy LINDA HALSTEAD-ACHARYA
Of The Gazette Staff
The Billings Gazette

LIVINGSTON - Work hard. Play hard. That's the unwritten motto at Printing for Less, the online printing company that hit Livingston by storm in the late 1990s.

Now counting 140 on its payroll, the cutting-edge firm is second only to Livingston's medical community in size of employment. But a vibrancy resonates through PFL's 46,000-square-foot headquarters, suggesting an efficiency and energy that has few rivals.

"What print shop has that view?" asks Wyeth Windham, the super-charged vice president of manufacturing, as he points to the mountains. "We could have been anywhere in the world, and we chose to be here."

PFL, the nation's first commercial online print company, moved into its spacious new headquarters three years ago. Nestled on the lee side of Bozeman Pass, just a mile or so to the west of Livingston, it replaces the company's original home in the town's old creamery.

Though some say the new building resembles a post office, any similarities diverge beyond the exterior.

Inside, sunlight gushes through walls of windows, accenting vivid hues that run the gamut from a plum to an earthy lime green. Powered with electricity from a North Dakota wind farm, the guts of the building include a humidifier system that simultaneously creates a healthier environment for employees and helps prevent the paper products from cracking and curling.

At one end, nearly two dozen preschoolers spend their day at the in-house day care - the only company-owned, state-licensed day care in Montana when it opened three years ago.

Downstairs, a 90-pound Alaskan malamute named Boudie wanders the halls yowling for some human attention or at the very least a romp with one of the dozen or so canine buddies that accompany their owners to work.

"They really wanted to focus on the employees, make it a home away from home," explains Suzie Lalich of the HR department. Although Lalich was describing the "homey" atmosphere of the upstairs gathering space, the reference could extend to just about any aspect of PFL.

"This company basically started as a way to supply jobs," explains Windham, who is punting for founder and president Andrew Field. Field, the only "employee" with his own office, seems to shun the seclusion. He's more apt to be found in the trenches, brainstorming with fellow PFL staff.

"Part of his whole vision is, he built this for everybody here," adds Jared Tanner, vice president of marketing. "It's not his deal."

On the run, Field appears briefly to tell how he arrived in Montana from Minnesota in 1989. Plan A for Field was to find work in the print industry. When that didn't pan out, he bought an auto repair and supply business in Livingston. Plan B came to Field while out fishing with friend Michael McNicholas.

McNicholas, who had been working for a printing company that was shutting its doors, joked that he could either go to work for Field at his auto repair business or Field could start up a print company to keep him employed. The latter option seemed perfectly plausible.

"I was bored and my friend needed a job," Field said.

Founded by Field, McNicholas and Boyd Badten, Printing for Less opened in 1996 as a brick-and-mortar print business that cut costs and quickly absorbed the lion's share of the Livingston market. Two years later, amid a "perfect storm" of technological opportunities, including the advance of broadband Internet, Badten and McNicholas launched the online service.

"We were growing so fast, we could never find enough people," Windham said. "Everybody started imitating us."

The company, which specializes in printing for small businesses, has printed brochures, catalogs and marketing materials for 85,000 customers. Simultaneously, it has garnered a host of awards, ranging from its 2007 Best Workplace in America Award to Field being named an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 Finalist. The company has also won the prestigious Management Plus Award and was just named No. 1 Pet-Friendly Employer by Petside.com.

Yet, as Windham insists, the laurels are the direct result of the people who make up PFL.

"Andrew said he would rather close the doors than create an environment where people hate coming to work," he said. "If you run a business well, nobody loses. Whether its dogs or kids or wind power or community, that's what it boils down to."

Though the atmosphere is casual - shorts and jeans are accepted dress - there's an intensity inherent in PFL's workplace. And it appears that little has been left to chance.

Prospective employees are hired based in part on their connection to the area.

"That has better long-term results," Lalich said, noting that the turnover rate is a mere fraction of the industry average.

Likewise, employees across the board are assessed on a color-coded personality system known as "Insights." Bar charts indicating strengths and weaknesses - red signifies a driven, CEO type, while green designates a creative introvert - are posted on name plates and personal "do's" and "don'ts" are listed on the Internet.

"It's pretty helpful," said Jessica Cooper, who offered a tour of the facility. "You may approach someone differently if they're a red or a green."

Regardless of color, employees are expected to work hard. Though the company has always supported a living wage, employees motivated by monetary rewards over self-satisfaction rarely linger for long.

"People are fighting for quality, and not because that's what I've told them to do," Windham said. "This provides them that chance to be great, rather than creating that system that tells them to be mediocre. And it makes a difference if you get to do it with fun people."

That PFL philosophy extends to employees at every level. Customer advocate Marcy Allen works in the bindery, cutting, folding and preparing the product for shipment. A week ago, she suggested introducing bracelets to signify an employee's recommitment to the customer experience. Within days, employees throughout the company - including Field - had stopped by the bindery to tell their personal stories of remarkable interactions with a customer, a prerequisite for earning their bracelets.

If the model sounds too good to be true, the obvious question is: Is it recession-proof?

Some savvy planning early on has situated the company in an envious position. During the years that business swelled exponentially, PFL shared a small percentage of its workload with a limited network of partners. As demand slows, the company can and has pulled back to focus its work internally. While unfortunate for its partners, the move has allowed PFL to avoid layoffs, Lalich said.

Windham argues that the PFL model fits well in both good and bad economies. Businesses that balk at creating a great place to work are actually leaving money on the table, he said.

"The old mindset says someone has to lose," he said. "This is about everyone winning. You have to set that as your goal."

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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