By the Letter

The fine art of a business partnership

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

In 1992, when Steve Alexander and Phyllis Bartling decided to pool their talents and open a graphic design firm in Shelburne, they knew they had a fondness for typefaces. That was the inspiration for the company’s name, Futura.

Phyllis Bartling quips that she is “one of the few people in the whole world” using what she went to college for. What she went to college for — at the University of Oklahoma — was a degree in fine arts with a major in printmaking. Since 1992, Bartling and her business partner, Steve Alexander — himself a fine arts major, but in art history — have operated Futura Design.

It’s fun to visit them in their sunny office in Shelburne’s historic Tracy House. Mellow oak paneling, high ceilings, a black standard poodle named Berkeley, and what Bartling calls “a really cool faux fireplace” provide a fertile environment for their creative minds.

Over the years, they have developed a rhythm of working together that keeps things running smoothly. They chide each other comfortably — and quickly — when the opportunity arises, but it never becomes harsh. For example, asked how they divide up the work, Bartling jumps in with, “I do it all!”

Without blinking, Alexander continues. “We basically just figure out who’s busier and who isn’t,” he says. “Phyllis does almost all of the Illustrator and PhotoShop work, but beyond that, we divide jobs up with no specific order. If someone’s busier, the new job might go to the less busy person.”

“There is a little bit of a division of duties,” confesses Bartling, “in that Steve will always answer the phone. One of the reasons is that he sets up most of the appointments. Steve does all the estimating and all the billing; I pay all the bills and balance the books. The trade-off is that he’s more guarded about the computer and programs, whereas I’m the one who says, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ It really is a fair tradeoff.”

For the most part, they meet clients together and discuss the work, although occasionally one of them might end up working more for a particular client.

On a typical day, says Alexander, “we just come in and sit down and get interrupted by phone calls, people off the street, the landlady, the UPS guy. Even though there are only two of us here, a lot of times, there’s a lot going on.”

Alexander says he thinks they’re getting better at being two people who handle everything, with no secretary or bookkeeper to pick up the administrative pieces — although an accountant, Carl Lamson, helps with taxes.

“We pay our own bills; do our own invoices; buy our own supplies,” he says. “The upkeep of the business, as much as the graphic design — it took us some time to work that out. Somehow, we’re able to do everything, as well as bill hours.”

Alexander and Bartling met in Shelburne in the late 1980s, at the Morgan Horse Association, where they worked together on the organization’s magazine. A native of Tulsa, Okla., Bartling had moved to Vermont from Nebraska with her then-husband and their three children. Alexander, a Philadelphia native, had returned to Vermont after a year of traveling in Europe.

Before opening Futura with Bartling, Steve Alexander was probably best known as the owner of Serif Typesetting & Design from 1980 to 1986. He met Bartling when they were working at the Morgan Horse Association.

Alexander first encountered the state when he was studying at Colgate College in Hamilton, N.Y., and came here to visit his sister, “an eternal student” at the University of Vermont. “I fell in love with this area,” he says.

That why, after graduation, and a year in Tucson cooking in an Italian restaurant, he opted to enroll in a fifth-year program in education at UVM, which allowed students with a general education to do intensive work and gain experience enough to become certified to teach school.

“I got my certificate and moved back to central New York to teach in the art department in the Utica area public high school,” he says.

After four years, he found himself missing Vermont. He returned and was hired by Heritage Printing Co. “I learned a lot about printing and the graphic arts there,” he says, “and one day, they lost their typesetter, and I was asked if I would like to learn how to set type. I said, ‘Sure.’”

Heritage marketed its typesetting as a side business, as well as setting type for its own print jobs, says Alexander. Unfortunately it was not profitable, and after he had been doing it about six months, he says, “they decided they were going to get rid of their typesetting, and they sold it to me.”

Alexander bought the equipment, named his company Serif Typesetting & Design, and moved into a space above Leunig’s Restaurant in Burlington. “This was in 1980, about the same time Leunig’s opened,” he says. “We were above Leunig’s as the bricks were laid on Church Street.”

He grew the business, and six years later, “single and getting a little bored,” he decided to sell Serif and take a year off to travel in Europe, where he could see first-hand the art and history he had studied in college.

L

uck was with him when he returned: He got the job at the Morgan Horse Association, where he would meet Bartling, and he met Kathy Lenk, his future wife, through a program she ran called Citizen Advocacy. “It matched people with disabilities in the community with volunteers who would act as advocates for them,” says Alexander, who was one the volunteers.

Later, in 1992, after he and Bartling had left the Morgan Horse Association for separate reasons and were freelancing, they encountered one another by chance. It was Kathy who urged Alexander to pair up with Bartling in business.

Voluntarism has been a priority for Bartling and Alexander since day one. “In that six months of setting our company up,” says Bartling, “we came to an agreement that we wanted to give back. We discussed that concept of 1 percent for peace that Ben & Jerry’s was doing, and decided we wanted to do something like that as part of our business.”

Phyllis Bartling came to Vermont with her then-husband and three children in the late 1980s, and went to work on the magazine of the American Morgan Horse Association. She struggles with the fact that many people assume she has a subservient role in the partnership or that she and Alexander are married. Neither is true.

One of their first beneficiaries was HomeShare Vermont. Bartling had seen a newspaper article about the organization’s need for someone to produce its newsletter. “Once we started working with them, we just thought it was such a great organization,” she says.

They volunteered to do work for the Shelburne Craft School, a good fit since they worked in Shelburne. That work led to Bartling’s serving on the board, and the Craft School is now a paying client.

Other pro bono work includes graphics, art and brochures for the Cancer Patients Support Program; fundraising pieces for the Ferrisburgh Grange building; work for the Charlotte Children’s Center; and, most recently, a brochure for Make A Wish of Vermont. Both music aficionados, they have also produced considerable work over the years for the Mozart Festival, some paid and some in-kind.

“We made a conscious company policy to work for HomeShare,” says Alexander. “Others have been things that meant something to us personally and individually.”

While much of their good work has been done quietly, this year, thanks to a nomination by HomeShare, they were recognized by the United Way of Chittenden County as Hometown Heroes. Futura designs HomeShare’s newsletters and annual reports, and created a new logo when the organization changed its name. “The good thing about this is that HomeShare received $2,000 and a laptop computer because we won and they nominated us,” says Alexander.

“They are just princes,” says Kirby Dunn, executive director of HomeShare Vermont. We could never have afforded to pay for the kind of service they’ve given us.”

Speaking of their work for hire, Bartling says, “We are as busy as two people can be in a 40-hour week. To continue, you’ve got to take another step.”

That step involves Web design, which Bartling has dubbed “Web Partners.” She’s referring to a Charlotte couple with whom Futura has worked for several years.

“She is an amazing, great designer who worked with us as an intern; he’s a computer engineer who does all the back-end stuff.

“The Web has been around long enough,” she continues. “Before, people just wanted to get a website up, to be out there. Now they’re saying, ‘I want my website to look good; to work for me; project my personality and my company’s personality.’”

With all their activity, Bartling and Alexander still find time for fun outside of work. Alexander’s three children are still at home, and they are a priority. He is a also baseball fan, so much so that his license plate reads “6TFT6IN,” referring to the distance between home plate and the pitcher’s rubber.

When Bartling’s children were young, her life focused greatly on their interests. “I was substitute teaching at Shelburne Middle School; on the board of directors ofthe Boy Scouts when my boys were in scouting; started timing at swim meets when they were growing up,and that’s led me into timing at the races at the Shelburne Athletic Club,” she says.

These days, Bartling volunteers at the Flynn Theatre as a Flynn Spirit. Her current enthusiasm is spinning; she’s teaching it at the Shelburne Athletic Club for about four years. She also loves to snowshoe.

“Wednesday mornings every week,I am late because I either go for a hike or snowshoe, depending on the weather, because I want to be outdoors.

That’s new, she says, adding that in the last three of her 18 years in Vermont, she’s finally learned how to embrace the winters.

Work, too, is fun, she says. “If I won the lottery, I’d come to work tomorrow. I love what I do.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Bartling continues. “It wouldn’t just work with anybody off the street. I think the only reason Futura design has lasted 13 years is that we work so well together. •

Originally published in December 2005 Business People-Vermont