How Modern Entered the Jet Age

Jeff Blow has worked all his life to become a jet setter

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

In the mid-1970s, Jeff Blow was introduced to the contraption on which he would base his career. As a teenager who occasionally spent more hours working at his family’s Barre print shop than he did in school, Blow immediately recognized the company’s first envelope press as an opportunity that practically hummed his name.

Twenty-five years later Blow has traversed three generations of shifting family involvement, finicky suppliers, Act 250 and a meddlesome neighbor to rise to the top of Jet Service Envelope Co. Inc. The Berlin business, which evolved from the former Modern Printing Co. Inc., is Vermont’s only printer specializing in the increasingly competitive field of envelope work.

Blow, 43, seems proud of that distinction, but prouder of his business’s rich history in the Granite City. If he has any regret it’s not that he’s spent his life working in an industry suggested by his family. Instead it’s that the relative simplicity of operating a small business is a thing of his past.

Jeff Blow

Jeff Blow hopes his children will be interested in carrying on the family business someday. Jet Service Envelope Co. in Berlin grew out of Modern Printing Co., the Barre business Blow’s grandfather purchased in 1945.

“You always want to grow. Unfortunately you grow with headaches,” Blow says. “Whether you do $200,000 a year — or $2 million or $25 million — you’re going to have headaches in proportion.”

If growth is trouble, Blow has no one to blame but himself. The proposal to grow Jet Service out of Modern Printing and move it to a separate facility 10 years ago was his.

The promise he made to his grandfather that the move would yield a return seems safely met: The added breathing space has allowed Jet Service to gross $2 million a year. The company’s single envelope press has become four; its staff has grown from one to 14. The 14,000-square-foot facility houses an inventory of 15 million envelopes, and the two-color presses crank out product all day Monday through Friday. Occasionally they come to life during the weekend, too.

“I think it’s worked out pretty well,” Blow understates.

Modern Printing got its start in 1915.

The business was founded by V. Lafargo at 1071/2 N. Main St., Barre, as El Corriere del Vermont, an Italian language newspaper. Changing times meant an end to the paper 25 years later when English replaced Italian as the language of choice. Lafargo began to transition the business into a print shop.

Garth Blow, Jeff’s grandfather, moved from Montpelier to Barre to work for Lafargo before purchasing the business Jan. 1, 1945, and renaming it Modern Printing Co. The eldest Blow incorporated the business in 1956, moved it to the Flanders Repair Shop building next door, and acquired and consolidated the Granite City Press the following year.

In 1960, the business added its first offset press to complement its letterpress service. By 1967 Modern relocated to 14-20 Jefferson St. It shared the building next to the Elks Club with Montgomery Ward until the retailer relocated, giving Modern even more space.

Old photos

Robert Blow (left) and Woody Woodworth unwrap a new Heidelberg press in 1966. Blow retired to Florida a few years ago; Woodworth died in 1995. Inset: The company’s Main Street location in the early ’50s. It’s now a parking lot. (Courtesy: Jet Service Envelope Co.)

Jeff Blow arrived on the floor in 1972. A freshman at Spaulding High School, he swung a vocational deal that allowed him to work at the shop from 31/2 to nearly seven hours a day before becoming a full-time employee following graduation in ’75. “It was kind of odd that I was able to get out of school as much as I was,” Blow ponders — odder still that many years later he can effortlessly recall his exact work hours for each year of high school.

Blow’s full-time employment at Modern coincided with the arrival of the company’s first jet envelope press — so-called for its speed. After watching an employee operate the device for the better part of a month, Blow concluded the company was realizing 20 percent of the machine’s potential. “I saw it as a challenging piece of equipment that wasn’t being challenged,” he muses.

So Blow approached the employee. “I recall going into his office one day and saying, ‘You know, you’re not getting your money’s worth out of that press.’ He very nicely looked over the rim of his glasses and said, ‘You know, do you think you can do better?’”

It turned out that Blow did and wasn’t afraid to say so. From that day on, Blow handled the envelope side of the business.

Printing has always been the business’s forte, and Blow remains content to let someone else manufacture the envelopes. “To buy one machine, you’re looking at millions of dollars,” he explains, “and it only makes one type of envelope. To be considered competitive, I’d have to have a building that is 10 or 15 times bigger than this one, and I’d have to have at least $20-to-$25 million to spend on machinery.”

There are no envelope manufacturers in the Green Mountains. Consequently, all of Blow’s suppliers are large, out-of-state firms — a fact that leaves him somewhat sullen. “If there was a good quality, competitive envelope manufacturer in the state, I’d buy from within the state. Vermonters supporting Vermonters is the only way Vermont’s ever going to grow,” he offers. “I listen to all these politicians on TV: ‘Buy Vermont! Buy Vermont!’ The state of Vermont is probably the one largest entity within the state that buys most of its product outside the state. To me it doesn’t make sense.”

Janet Silman cites the fact that Jet Service is a Vermont company as just one reason Country Home Products Inc. in Vergennes does business with it. “I think they give us a very reasonable price, a good product, and good service,” she says. “And if you top all that with being a Vermont company, that’s the final reason to stick with them.”

“We try to do business with other customers of our bank,” says Sheila Bartel, purchasing agent for Vermont National Bank. Jet Service is the main supplier to the Brattleboro bank, which uses about a half million envelopes a year. “Of course quality and service is most important to us,” she adds, “and they’ve always met those expectations.”

Rick Choquette

Jet Service prints 85 million envelopes a year, which means the business serves clients outside the immediate area. “There’s probably not 80 million envelopes mailed through the Barre post office in a year’s time,” speculates Jeff Blow. Pictured: post press manager Rick Choquette.

To remain competitive, Blow learned early that access to certain suppliers was significant. “Some (envelope) manufacturers don’t want to be bothered dealing with somebody who only does a small volume,” he explains. “They lay out the rules: ‘If you’re a commercial print shop, we won’t sell to you. However, if you have an envelope business, and that’s all you do, we’ll sell to you.’”

Establishing the subsidiary name Jet Service Envelope Co. in the late 1970s granted Blow that access. Eventually the name started creeping off purchase orders and onto the sides of the company’s delivery trucks until it grew into a recognizable brand with clients.

The growth the division experienced over the following years taxed its 4,500-square-foot space. Raw materials and finished product collided in transit to and from the cramped, second-floor facility, so Blow started looking to relocate the division. The proximity to the interstate of the 19- acre parcel at the junction of Vermont 63 and East Road in Berlin attracted the company in September 1988. Moving out of downtown to the area immediately off Exit 7 saved a half-hour round trip on deliveries made via Interstate 89.

Blow put out the construction bid for the new plant to three local contractors. He was sure to check their list of subcontractors, too. “Though we selected E.F. Wall, we required them to change some of the subs to someone who was local, even though it might have cost a little more,” he says.

A 700-pound, marble sign sits along one wall of Blow’s office. It reads: “Joseph C. Palmisano, Attorney at Law” and begs the question that Blow seems to love to answer. “You must have heard of Joseph C. Palmisano,” he says. “This was his sign on his property across the road.

“He gave me difficult times. That sign is all Act 250 would allow him to have,” Blow says, with a gesture to the sign, “so he was going to make certain that I didn’t get anything any bigger or any better than his.”

After three years of butting heads with the strong willed lawyer and providing nearly eight hours of testimony at Act 250 hearings, Blow finally received permission to erect a sign for Jet Service. Palmisano’s notoriety was finally confirmed in 1995 when he pleaded guilty to bilking more than 90 investors of $8 million, and was ordered to serve more than 15 years in prison.

When a friend purchased Palmisano’s former office, now the Grand Lodge of Vermont, Blow used a two-wheel dolly and more than a little elbow grease to cart the weighty slab to his office. He’s affixed a letter X to the sign, making its resemblance to a tombstone even more striking: “He’s an ex-attorney at law now!” Blow cries. “In some respects I miss him across the street, because he kept me on my toes and I learned a few things.

“Likewise, he learned a few things, too.”

Staff

Clients request recycled paper 50 percent of the time compared to 5 percent a decade ago. From left: Cindy Rock, Renee Hrubovcak, Carmella Tucker and Tom McCarney.

Several years after the Berlin plant was built, Garth Blow died of cancer, leaving Modern Printing in the hands of son Robert, who had served as president since 1976; grandson Jeff; and a trust account. At that point, Robert decided it was time for a change, and Modern was sold to Larry Brown, who moved his business, L. Brown and Sons Printing Inc., from East Montpelier to Barre.

“My father decided that he was going to come up here and work. That wasn’t such a good idea,” Jeff says, citing conflicting management styles. “At one point when I worked at Modern Printing, it was my father, my grandfather, my mother, two of my sisters and a brother-in-law. It made for,” he pauses to delicately choose the word, “tension from time to time.”

When Robert realized retirement was the better option, Jeff ended up negotiating a purchase agreement for the business and become sole owner of Jet Service. His father moved to Marco Island, Fla.

Blow spends a lot of time on the phone, but reserves a third of his work day for the plant. “I like to be close to the staff that’s producing the product,” he offers. Average orders are in the ballpark of 22,000, though smaller orders of 500 to 2,500 are the company’s bread and butter. Competitive bidding constitutes up to 70 percent of the workload, a marked change in the way the company does business compared to 20 years ago. Most clients are in New England, heavily weighted toward Vermont. Blow cites potential loss of quality control as the reason he runs just one shift. “If it’s not right, then the customer’s not coming back.”

The company’s presses crank out 60,000 impressions an hour, but they apparently can’t satisfy Blow’s need for speed: He took up go-cart racing two years ago. “On the quarter-mile asphalt at Thunder Road we’ll turn laps between 65 and 70 miles per hour. In a go-cart,” he emphasizes. His three carts that compete in 16 Saturday events run by the Northeast Cart Club bare the Jet Service logo. “We have a blast,” he adds.

Go-carts provide an opportunity for family recreation — his 14-year-old son, Keith, also races — that Blow relishes. Wife Karen has operated Kay-Bee’s Day Care out of the couple’s Graniteville home for 17 years. The couple also have a 16-year-old daughter, Carie.

Blow says he’d like to see Jet Service stay in the family. “I’ve worked 28 years to build it to what it is. They’ve both had a little bit of an introduction to it,” he says of his children. “It’s a great opportunity.”