In the House

Michael Swaidner, owner of The Real Estate Guide and Color PrePress Consulting in Williston, may have fallen into the printing industry by chance, but the satisfaction that has followed is all his doing.

by Portland Helmich

Michael Swaidner, owner of The Garlic Press Inc. in Williston, publishes The Real Estate Guide,locally, and 18 other real estate guides, nationally, with a staff of 11.

When he left San Francisco on his BMW motorcycle in 1971, Michael Swaidner's only plan was to spend a year touring the country. Newly married, he and his wife (they later divorced) found themselves in Stowe by October, having traveled 26,000 miles. "We were looking for winter jobs to be ski bums," he recalls.

For a season, the couple lived at the top of the gondola. She managed the Cliff House Restaurant; he started the lift every morning and checked tickets. Shortly thereafter, Swaidner took on other odd jobs in restaurants and construction.

Owning a printing company like The Garlic Press Inc. was nothing the Missouri native had ever considered. Having jumped into the business, however, Swaidner runs the company with an experienced rhythm. His Williston business is divided in two: The Real Estate Guide, a picture magazine featuring mostly residential properties for sale in the greater Burlington area; and Color PrePress Consulting, which designs real estate magazines like Swaidner's for individual publishers across the country.

From left to right: Scott Gover, Alex Hirka and Jean-Paul Damrell help with production.

"I didn't set out to do any of this," says Swaidner, whose entry into the field came through Pioneer Printers, a friend's business venture in Stowe. The company printed "all sorts of little things" like brochures, rate sheets and letterheads for the Stowe Area Association and various lodges. Swaidner's friend asked him to do the company's bookkeeping. Six months later, he was asked to run the press. "Six months after that," Swaidner remembers, "he said, 'I'm tired of this. Do you want to buy me out?'"

The 54-year-old entrepreneur says he saw the potential of the business and was willing to give it a try. "It was an opportunity to be in business in Stowe without a big capital investment," he explains, noting the relaxed payment plan he was offered. Swaidner ran the company for 3 1/2 years. In 1981, one of the two silent partners he had joined when taking on the business expressed interest in becoming more involved, and Swaidner willingly bowed out.

"There really wasn't room for more than one of us," he offers. "Also, by that time my marriage had ended; I was tired of living in Stowe; and I wanted to make some changes."

Changes meant doing sales throughout New England for The Offset House, a printing company in the Burlington area. The Queen City, Swaidner points out, "had come around" by 1982 with development on Church Street. Thus, he got the idea to start Dining Out, a booklet of menus from area restaurants. Having done the same kind of publication in Stowe, Swaidner says he was aware of the need.

The impetus to create The Real Estate Guide came in 1984 when Swaidner and his present wife, fine artist Carol MacDonald, were looking to buy a condominium in Colchester. "Tom Thompson, our real estate agent, asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was in the printing business, and he said, 'I know what you could publish. This town needs a real estate magazine.' He was my first client," Swaidner recalls. "He gave me other names, and immediately I had a 16-page magazine."

The free publication looks different from when its pages first appeared in black and white in September 1984 (it's now printed almost entirely in color on glossy paper and averages 64 pages an issue), but the format hasn't changed. Aside from the table of contents and the index, there are no editorial elements in the guide. Advertisements from real estate agents and agencies wanting to attract listings and buyers dominate the magazine, along with occasional advertisements from mortgage lenders and builders. The publication comes out 13 times annually, an advantage over the restaurant guide, which Swaidner discontinued in 1985. "Dining Out only came out twice a year," he remarks, "so cash flow was an issue."

Dolores Ste. Marie greets people at the door of The Garlic Press Inc. office, as well as handle a large portion of the day-to-day tasks that keep the conpany running. Ste. Marie says the office is "small and intimate. We're not formal. We like to have a good time and the staff is wonderful very loyal and dependable."

Andrea Champagne, a real estate broker at RE/MAX North Professionals, has been advertising in Swaidner's publication for almost a decade and willingly pays $500 monthly to secure a full-page advertisement. "It's visibility; it's recognition," she says. "People see your picture and feel better calling someone they recognize. It gives them a warm-fuzzy." Champagne is also pleased with the guide's shelf life. "If you go to the store at the end of the month, The Real Estate Guide is still there," she notes.

Swaidner would likely attribute that to the relationships he and his distributors have developed with the many supermarkets, convenience stores, banks, and restaurants where his guide is distributed every four weeks. "There are probably 20 different publications out there wanting free distribution, and the ma-and-pa-type stores don't often have much room," he explains. "We always ask if we can do anything different to upgrade the racks and get ourselves in a better position."

Swaidner believes his magazine offers targeted distribution that keeps a steady flow of business. "People pick up our guide because they're interested in buying or selling a home," he points out, adding that most of his guides aren't quickly discarded. "Realtors tell me they get calls on issues of ours that are 3 or 4 months old," he adds.

Like his foray into The Real Estate Guide, Color PrePress Consulting developed by chance. By the late '80s, the invention of Apple Macintosh was revolutionizing the publishing industry, and Swaidner, who once studied engineering at San Francisco State University, was reinventing his company to keep pace with technological trends. In 1991, he bought a high-end slide scanner from a manufacturing company out of Boston, and a sales manager at the company referred him to a real estate magazine publisher in Seattle who wanted to learn how to handle production internally.

"Basically, he contracted with me to teach him how to do his own magazine," Swaidner explains. What ensued was four years of consulting with other real estate guide publishers in places like Texas and West Virginia. "I'd go there, help purchase the equipment, set it up, train them on it, and do follow-ups as needed," he recalls.

Today, Color PrePress Consulting does less training, as computer programs have become easier to use. Since 1996, however, Swaidner and his 10 employees have been producing real estate magazines for publishers from Florida to Oklahoma to California at $70 a page. In four days, they systematically move through five stages of magazine production: design, typesetting, scanning, layout and proofing. The company also brokers printing services on an as-needed basis.

Nancy Wolcott is confident Color PrePress Consulting will deliver what she requests time after time. Owner of South Shore Real Estate Magazine and Rhode Island Real Estate Magazine, she has been using Swaidner's services for five years. "In this day and age of graphic design, it's so important to be on top of the game," she says. "They can do anything that Vanity Fair does, and they've never been late. There aren't a lot of people that good that are competitively priced."

What Wolcott especially appreciates is the high level of customer service she consistently receives. Referring to administrative assistant Dolores Ste. Marie, she adds, "I get frantic about my cover, and Dolores always goes over my colors with me so that it's just right. The service she provides is excellent. I feel relaxed; I don't get lost there; I'm treated like an individual. I think they understand where I'm coming from because they also do their own magazine."

While the company's experience publishing its own guide might be a factor in Wolcott's satisfaction, Swaidner's philosophy likely plays a part, too. "Give people more than what they ask for," he declares. "That means going out on a limb for clients, making sure what they give us comes back to them better. Everyone here is clear that the client comes first."

Swaidner, with Arnelda Gover, believes in a hands-on approach to his business, spending a portion of his day working with employees and helping out with whatever needs to be done. "I would never ask anybody to do something that I wouldn't do myself, "Swaidner says. "That can mean anything from producing pages to vacuuming the rug."

As for company culture, Swaidner says The Garlic Press is more like a family than a hierarchy. "I would never ask anybody to do something that I wouldn't do myself," offers the self-possessed owner, who has two teen-age daughters. "That can mean anything from producing pages to vacuuming the rug."

Ste. Marie is in accord. "It's small and intimate here," she says. "We're not formal. We like to have a good time, and the staff is wonderful very loyal and dependable." The administrative assistant is particularly impressed by her boss's generosity. "Every time someone leaves here, Michael takes everybody out for dinner to say 'good-bye.' I think that's wonderful. If you move on from here, it's not on bad terms."

Swaidner, who grew up on a farm in Macon, Mo., surmises that one reason his business runs as well as it does is that his six production employees do not communicate with clients. "This business is all about deadlines, so clients are sometimes stressed-out," he notes. In addition to his own guide, of which 25,000 are distributed per cycle, Swaidner and his team regularly churn out 18 real estate magazines a month. Another reason things run smoothly, according to the boss, is that a clear system is in place on which everyone can rely. "I'm the master of order," he states. "I'm probably the best at that."

Materials arrive from publishers Monday. Proofs are sent to them Thursday. Corrections happen Friday. Everything is sent to the printer Sunday. The following Friday, publishers receive a completed magazine. The structure Swaidner has instituted does not prevent him from enjoying variety in his work. "It's different every day," he says. "I love that we're creating, and what we produce is effective. It fulfills a need, and there are tangible results."

Swaidner's financial results traditionally improve during economic slowdowns. Homes sell less quickly, so real estate agents advertise more. "The last few years," he points out, "we've had a boom economy with houses selling faster than they can get them on the market. Realtors don't feel the need to advertise as much then. The savvy ones, though, understand the importance of marketing and advertise regardless."

Though he never imagined a career in printing, Swaidner seems pleased with where he finds himself. Next to steel, he says, printing is the second largest industry in the world. "The wonderful thing about it," he explains, "is that it's clean; it's indoors, and it's lucrative. There's really no ceiling on what you can make."

After almost 20 years in business, The Garlic Press Inc. runs like a well-oiled machine. Someday, however, Swaidner admits he will be looking to sell his magazine. For now, he's concentrating on creating an advisory board to provide him with feedback on how to improve The Real Estate Guide, and he's considering producing a catalogue with bird-related products, like birdhouses and wind chimes.

Swaidner uses his hobby as a licensed pilot to produce copy for the catalogue by taking aerial photographs of homes for Realtors and homeowners. Not all of his interests are connected to his job, however. He's on the Zoning Board of Adjustment in Colchester, teaches prosperity courses out of his office, and participates in a men's support group called the Sterling Men of Vermont.

Not bad for a guy whose only plan was to tour the country on a motorcycle.

Originally published in April 2001 Business People-Vermont