Filling a Pressing Need
An astute approach to technology keeps this printer thriving
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Larry and Diane Brown run their company, L. Brown and Sons Printing, in a 22,000-square-foot building in Barre, plus leased space in the former Ethan Allen Furniture Co. building in Randolph.
It’s hard to tell in casual conversation which of Larry Brown’s two main activities is more important to him. One feeds his soul, and one feeds his pocketbook.
On the soul side of the equation is Brown’s affinity for his avocation, which encompasses a longtime involvement in fire and ambulance work.
A devout Christian, he has served not only as a fire department chaplain for over 30 years, but also as captain in the Barre City Fire Department and deputy chief of the East Montpelier Fire Department. He has launched a couple of fire and ambulance services, and has encouraged both of his sons in their pursuit of national certification as firefighter paramedics.
On the pocketbook side is his longtime interest in graphics and printing, which led to the 1988 founding, with his wife, Diane, their sons, Jim and Bob, and daughter, Carole, of L. Brown and Sons Printing.
“We started the company at our home in East Montpelier,” says Brown. “I had an old barn building there. I went in and shoveled cow manure out, poured a cement floor, redid the walls myself, put a little dock area in for loading trucks, and converted it into a small print shop 28 by 64 feet.”
All that was needed, he says, was a substantial loan to finance equipment. “My wife was very nervous about this. She said, ‘If the banker says yes, we’ll know it was right. If it’s no, we’ll do something else.’ It took 10 minutes to get the loan.”
Now 14 years later, the barn has been left behind for a 22,000-square-foot facility in Barre plus leased space in the former Ethan Allen Furniture Co. building in Randolph. Employees number around 25, plus an occasional group of 40 to 50 temporary workers in Randolph, hired for six to 12 weeks at a time through Westaff to accommodate big projects.
Learning of Brown’s history, it seems natural that he leaned toward the printing business. He grew up in Clinton, Mass., in the shadow of Colonial Press, one of the largest commercial printers on the East Coast. “Everybody in that area always looked to get a job in the Colonial Press graphics division,” he says.
Brown studied graphics at vocational school for four years and, following graduation in 1965, took a job with Colonial. He pursued additional courses in graphics, estimating, and commercial printing at satellites of Northeastern University.
“The Colonial Press was an extremely large company at the time,” says Brown, “with several hundred, if not thousands, working there. I worked in a number of divisions there — bindery, press, fulfillment — so I had a good experience level.”
One good experience was meeting Diana Falldorf. She had taken a job there to fill time before she could enter a dental hygiene program in Worcester. They married in 1967, both age 19.
In 1970, he left Colonial for a job at Atlantic Union College Press, later called Atlantic Graphics, in Lancaster, Mass., where, in the next five years, he rose from pressman to assistant general manager.
By 1980, with three young children, the Browns decided to leave Massachusetts for Vermont, familiar to them from their friendship with Ron and Marty Kowalkowski, who had bought Leahy Press in Montpelier in 1969. Brown and Ron Kowalkowski had met when Brown was with Atlantic Union College Press.
“I decided to leave the printing industry and was hired to work as a sales rep for a company that was serving the blind and visually impaired in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont,” says Brown. The family packed their belongings in a U-Haul and headed north.
Unfortunately, when they arrived, Brown was told that the job had been given to someone else. “Unbeknownst to the regional sales rep who hired me,” he says, “another rep in the New Hampshire area had hired a salesperson to cover the same territory the day before I was hired and hadn’t got the information back to headquarters.”
Brown called the Kowalkowskis, who, for some time, had been urging him to come work for them. “I worked with Ron and Marty from 1980 until 1988,” he says. “I had a vast background in four-color printing. At that time they were a smaller company, and I was able to help them with putting in larger four-color equipment, moving to their present location, and helping organize it.”
“Larry worked quite a few years for me as pressroom foreman,” says Ron, “and as time went on, he decided to step out on his own. I always like to keep friends ... and good competition!” he adds with a laugh.
“We started out as a company with zero accounts,” says Brown. “After we got the loan, we put in presses and cameras, a folder and cutter, and the necessary things to run a small company.” Diane was to handle the finances and office management, Carole would help in the bindery and take over meal planning and prep, and Brown and the boys would sell and run the presses.
The first day the company was open — “a Monday,” says Brown — he wrote an order. “The first doctor’s office I stopped at, I explained I was starting a printing business, could do a fast turnaround at a good price, and the secretary said, ‘We need 1,000 envelopes.’”
The boys were 13 and 15 at the time, says Brown. “I used to take Jim, the 13-year-old, with me on sales calls, and Bob, at 15, was much more mechanically inclined, so I trained him to run equipment — all aspects of the trade. It was part of their home-school program, which we did through high school.”
Jim eventually went to Oregon, where he became “the youngest advanced life support instructor in paramedics at the university hospital in Portland,” Brown says proudly. After 14 years, Jim returned to Vermont and rejoined his parents in the business.
Bob also went into a fire department career and continues as a paramedic. He works in the psychiatric division at Central Vermont Medical Center on weekends as he pursues his nursing degree.
After that first sale, business took off. Brown promised overnight service, scheduling sales calls early in the day followed by shooting film, stripping, and burning the plates, then having the boys run the press at night. “The next morning, I’d make up an invoice and delivery slip, and take the job to the customer.”
During the second year, the Browns hired 14 people, built a 2,000-square-foot addition to the building, and, with another loan from the bank, put in Heidelberg presses.
By 1994, the company was outgrowing the barn. The decision was made to erect a new building on property Brown owned in East Montpelier, but before construction started, he learned that Robert Blow was selling Modern Printing Co., an 80-year-old family business in Barre.
The Browns bought the business, took over the three-story concrete and steel building, adopted Modern Printing’s accounts, put in new presses, and within a year, had hired another 14 people. “At one time,” says Brown, “we had six Heidelberg presses running here.”
From ’94 onward, the staff grew to as many as 35 (a few have retired and have not been replaced), and the company has grown into a multimillion dollar corporation.
Keeping abreast of the industry’s rapidly changing technology has been a priority. “Five years ago,” Brown says, “we put in one of the largest digital presses in the state: an Igen, the only one of its kind in Vermont.
“We’re on the cutting edge of technology. Printers who do not invest in digital technology will not be able to compete or survive,” says Brown. “In the past few years, over 10,000 printers have gone out.”
Brown prints for companies across the country — magazines, annual reports, and a large amount of work for the state of Vermont such as ballots for the general election and Vermont Life calendars and engagement books.
As a trade printer, the company offers services to smaller printers such as specialty coatings and larger sizes. The bindery features high-speed automatic folding equipment. “We do every binding — perfect, specialty coil, wire, saddle stitching — types a lot of other printers have to send out. And we do mailing fulfillment.”
For the last six years, Brown has run Norwich University’s printing facilities, where his employees run the copy centers and produce much of the in-house work.
Imminent is the launching of a new storefront on the website that will allow people from all over the world to order on-demand books and business cards in large or small numbers at a reduced price.
All is not work for the Browns. He likes to fish for bass; Diane accompanies him, but with a book to read and knitting to finish. She is into marathons — “We walk, don’t run,” says Brown. “We hike, bike, climb mountains, look at the Vermont scenery. Winter we do a lot of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing. Relaxation is to get away for camping in the summer.”
They spend as much time as possible with their six grandchildren — two from each child.
The Browns give back to the community in many ways, including printing for hundreds of nonprofits for only the cost of materials. “After Irene,” says Brown, “we distributed food and clothing to many families; ran promotions to supply Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; put money into food banks and the homeless shelter here.”
“We try to run this company on a very solid Christian foundation,” says Brown. “We try to emulate that philosophy to all we come in contact with.”
That’s soul speaking. •