Evidence of this family’s work is on paper

by Heleigh Bostwick

leahy_lead0611_correctedSteve and Deena Smead have run The Leahy Press in Montpelier since they bought it from Deena’s parents in 2002. Deena’s parents had bought it from its founders, Howard and Alba Leahy, parents of Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Please note: In our print edition, the photos on page 10 and page 13 were switched by mistake. We have corrected it in our digital edition (see here) and apologize for any confusion this might have created.

When Deena and Steve Smead bought The Leahy Press in Montpelier from Deena’s parents in 2002, it was pretty much business as usual for her. Her parents, Ron and Marty Kowalkowski, had owned it since 1969, and Deena practically grew up in the printing business.

However, for Steve, a woodworker, printing was something new and the result of a turn of events that had been set in motion several years earlier when mutual friends introduced him to Deena.

“Two of my best friends sent their sons to a private academy in Westminster where Steve lived,” Deena recalls. “Steve had lost his wife to cancer and was alone in the house. The two boys needed a place to board while attending school, so it seemed like the ideal solution.”

“My friends kept telling me I should meet Deena,” says Steve. The two finally did meet in the fall of 1996, hit it off, and started dating.

Back at the Leahy Press, Deena’s parents were thinking about selling the business and retiring. “They really wanted someone in the family to take it over,” says Steve. “Deena was the obvious choice but she felt like it was too much for her to take on.”

“My two sisters worked on and off in the business, but I was the one who worked there most of the time,” says Deena.

Steve and his brother were running Smead Woodcraft down in Putney, which they had bought from their parents. The business made cutting boards and utensils, lazy susans, “stuff like that,” says Deena.

“We got married in 1998, and the next year, Steve’s brother took over the business and Steve moved to Montpelier. My parents hired him for an entry-level position at the company and the rest is history.”

Two years later, with a business loan financed by Deena’s parents, the Kowalkowskis retired and Deena and Steve became the owners of The Leahy Press.

The company was founded in the 1930s by Howard and Alba Leahy, the parents of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. Deena’s parents bought the business from Howard Leahy when he retired. They kept the name because, as Deena explains, “No one could pronounce Kowalkowski.”

For many years Leahy Press was located on State Street across from the capitol in downtown Montpelier. “Leahy Press was the only printer in town,” says Deena. “My parents did a lot of state work. They printed all the orders for ballots.”

Things were a lot easier back then, adds Steve. “Now the state sends out bids to as many as 15 or 20 printers, some of them out of state. The low bid gets it [the job] no matter where the printer is located. That makes it hard for Vermont printers.”

Nonetheless, that business loan from Deena’s parents has been paid in full, and annual sales are holding steady at close to $2.5 million. Sales have stayed about the same for the last four or five years. “We just try to print smarter,” says Steve.

The plant is located in the Heritage II building on River Street that Deena’s father bought back in the 1970s. “We own the building now and occupy the bottom floor, about 15,000 square feet, and rent out the second and third floors,” she says.

They are proud that they haven’t had to lay off any workers. “When times are slow,” says Deena, “employees will do whatever needs to be done — painting, maintenance, cleaning.”

There are 17 employees on the payroll including Deena, the president, and Steve, the vice president. Deena’s sister Ronda is the receptionist and Steve’s son, Nathan, works in customer service. The couple’s three Pekingese dogs also come to the office every day, and customers occasionally bring their dogs.

When the Leahys owned the business, there were only two or three employees. “It was Deena’s father that really grew the business,” Steve says. “Some of our employees have been working here over 30 years.”

“We have great employees,” Deena adds. “They really go the extra mile to make sure jobs get done right.”

The employees are not the only ones to go the extra mile. “I went to Leahy Press to have some calendars printed,” says Clare McAfee, owner of in Berlin. “I was amazed that Deena herself drove over after work and suggested layouts and colors. Deena and her sales staff really went out of their way to get the job done. The quality was excellent.”

Although both Deena and Steve attended college, neither has a degree. “I have a degree in printing,” Deena jokes. “My father wanted me to learn as much as I could about the business. I’ve worked in just about every department in the business except running the press.

“Steve is the production manager,” she says. “He makes sure the jobs are entered into Excel spreadsheets and prints out so everyone knows what jobs are in production that day.”

Deena does most of the estimating and handles human resources duties such as hiring, firing, and interviewing, says Steve. “She also stays on top of every bill that comes in and looks it over before passing it on to our bookkeeper.”

Deena reminisces that her parents’ roles were the opposite of hers and Steve’s. “When they ran the business my mother did the production and my father did all the estimating.”

Running a business with a spouse can be difficult, but the Smeads have developed a system that works well for them.

“I start my day at 8 a.m. and stay until 4 p.m.,” Steve says. “Deena comes in between 10 and 10:30 a.m. and works until 5 or 6 p.m. We overlap our schedules so that we have alone time in the morning and afternoon.”

During her off-hours Deena enjoys working in her flower garden or hanging out with the dogs. Steve spends time mowing what Deena calls “the vast acreage of lawn” surrounding their home.

Every Sunday morning they go out to breakfast. “Inevitably Steve needs to stop by the business to check on a few things,” Deena says with a chuckle. On summer weekends they enjoy riding their motorcycles, camping, or going to NASCAR races. In winter Steve snowmobiles. Deena used to go with him but sold her snowmobile a few years ago.

Their personal interests often spill over into the business. “We like to get involved in the community, especially sponsorship in the arts,” says Deena. “We print up programs for Stowe Performing Arts Center, Stowe Balloon Festival, Barre Opera House, and Lost Nation Theater at little to no cost to them.” Steve chimes in that this year marks the first year that Leahy Press is sponsoring a late-model race car at Thunder Road in Barre.

Leahy Press specializes in five-color printing jobs such as brochures, newsletters, catalogs, and small magazines. “We do a variety of things,” says Deena. “No job is too small. When my father owned it, he wanted to make sure that we could do anything for a company from letterhead to business cards to newsletters.”

One of the biggest challenges is keeping their computers and software programs up to date. “We just spent over $20,000 on two new Mac computers to make prepress more efficient,” Deena says. “We’re constantly updating our programs and making sure they are compatible with our clients.”

They have made it a priority for The Leahy Press to become a sustainable business. This includes using soy-based inks and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper. “It shows our customers we really care about the environment,” says Deena. “We pay to have the inks recycled, and all of the paper that gets trimmed is also recycled.”

“In the 12 years I’ve been around, the printing technology has changed dramatically,” says Steve. “We’ve gone from film and chemicals to direct-from-the-computer to lasers that burn the image on plates and rinse off with water — no chemicals.” They’ve worked with Presstek (a supplier of digital offset printing solutions) to develop chemistry-free plates.

“Our big five-color Heidelberg press will be paid off this year, so our next big move might be to buy a new six-color press,” says Deena. “We might add a second shift on press and hire another pressman and bindery person to bring in more sales.”

These days, printing is business as usual for both of them. “It’s been a profitable business for the past nine years, even with the loan payments,” says Steve. “Without the loan payments over our heads we can grow and decide what to do next.” •