The past few years have been rocky for all of us. COVID hit us out of nowhere, and the uncertainty forced some people to make decisions that would ultimately determine whether they could stay afloat.
Adversity, however, can inspire true growth in those who are willing to see it as an opportunity. That’s what happened to my family’s printing business.
I currently work in the finishing department as the die cutting manager at Marking Systems Inc. It was started by my grandfather Henry Van Beber back in 1971, and currently nine family members work for us. That doesn’t include our longtime employees, whom we also consider family.
Our company has expanded quite a bit since those early days. We now print everything from warning and caution labels to complex membrane switches with silver conductive ink printed as circuitry on the back, and we operate a precision cutting division. We also have a T-shirt business.
When the pandemic hit, our only hope of staying open during and filling the revenue gaps that began to pop up was to make a case for our business to be designated essential. This required calling on our most influential customers to write letters on our behalf, stating that closing our factory would impact their ability to manufacture life-saving equipment that had become sparse because of so many supply chain meltdowns.
Even after we received that designation, we were not out of the woods. It was time to find ways to supplement the loss of sales that resulted from the pandemic. The business implications at the time were impossible to quantify, and we could not risk letting dust collect on our equipment as the world seemed to be falling apart.
So, what do you do when demand for your core product has dropped, and demand for masks and face shields is impossible to keep up with?
Both MSI and our sister company, T-Shirt Tycoon, joined the fight to keep our first responders equipped with face shields. We also developed a branded fabric facemask, which had to undergo a few different tests until it was perfect and ready to be offered to customers.
We began cranking out hundreds of thousands of face shield kits, as we were cutting and sewing face masks around the clock. At times we were forced to work with a skeleton crew and orders continued to accumulate.
Our production crew was exhausted both emotionally and physically, but something about being seeing each other every day made work feel like more of a home than our real homes, in a way. They say fear haunts you, and pain creates hate. In our case, our pain strengthened us, and our fear drove our faith in a higher power.
We were able to make it through the worst of the pandemic, and soon the world regained a sense of normalcy. The masks came off, and with them came another revenue gap we had to fill quickly. Our sales team began a historic campaign, and the business we lost was soon replaced and then some.
About the time we started to prosper again came a snow storm, the likes of which we had never seen. Our factory was shut down for a week, and the amount of time we lost made the accumulated workload look impossible. On top of that, everything we shipped or were supposed to receive was landlocked well beyond the storm.
We began to experience a large amount turnover as a result of the added stress, losing longtime members of our staff who had played a huge role in our growth as a company. As if the personal loss weren’t enough, the departures left a labor hole that, combined with the need for considerably more man power and capacity, dealt another serious blow to our already battered crew.
The ensuing nine months were some of the longest and hardest in our company’s history. Out of that struggle, we showed resilience and continued to relentlessly pursue our goal to grow and remain a world-class printing company.
We added cleaning protocols and equipment like dividers to prevent COVID-19 spread, and our quality manager learned how to add glycerin to our large stock of isopropyl alcohol to make everyone hand sanitizer when it became sparse.
During the ice storm our managers with four-wheel-drive vehicles picked up employees who wished to come and work, so as not to hurt their paychecks. And when lots of employees were out, the owners stepped in to run the presses.
We still managed to have employee pot-luck lunches, with a few modifications for safety.
Now we are again at a point of prosperity where we can take the lessons we learned from our trials and use them to handle our next influx of business with plenty of room for growth. Our T-shirt division acquired its own facility, and MSI invested in several new pieces of equipment and more space.
Our staff is seasoned and strong because of the struggle we faced, and our sense of team and family is beginning to regain its rightful place within our wonderfully diverse company.
Together, and by the grace of God, we can take on anything the world throws at us.
John Van Beber is assistant finishing manager for Marking Systems Inc. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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