Rickard Bindery: A Century of Folding Solutions

by: Dianna Brodine

“It can’t be done” isn’t a phrase heard very often at Rickard Bindery. The family-owned business, located in Chicago, Ill., has fostered a reputation for doing the difficult work, for finding creative solutions to problems that might normally require intensive labor by hand. And yet, the bindery also prides itself on helping its printing customers with overflow folding jobs, using more than 80 folding machines to take on the large jobs that would tie up a printer’s equipment.

Rickard Bindery has found a way to combine the mundane and the exotic, creating a solid business plan and over 100 years of success.

Putting His Stamp on the Family Business

The company began in 1900 when Rickard Circular Folding Company opened its doors. Fay Rickard was a printer’s apprentice at R.R. Donnelly in 1898. As the story goes, in addition to learning the craft of printing, he was required to hand fold the circulars the company was printing. After two years, he decided machine folding was the way to go and opened Rickard Circular Folding Company next door to Donnelly in the heart of Chicago’s famed Printers Row. Donnelly then became the company’s first customer.

Fay Rickard’s knowledge and experience led to advancements in the folding industry. In 1922, with Rickard’s guidance, the Faydon Sealing Machine Company developed and patented an automatic tabbing and sealing unit. In 1945, Fay Rickard developed what is believed to be the first mechanical gate fold attachment.

Fay Rickard passed his love of the bindery business to the second generation through his son, Les. Les Rickard worked with his father and initiated a lifelong friendship with advertising agency giant Leo Burnett, who is still a client. LesÂ’ son Jack, the current president of Rickard Bindery, started working for the family business in high school and college. In 1966, after a four year stint in the military, Jack Rickard began working full time in production operations, running the business with his dad. In 1973, Jack was promoted in a rather unexpected way. “We were in the middle of a party with clients and he stopped the party and announced that I was the new president. It was a total shock.” Jack Rickard was 33 when he took over the presidency. His father stayed involved with the bindery until he passed away in 1997, working with job estimating and talking with the customers.

Although he continued to run the business in conjunction with his dad, Jack Rickard placed his stamp on the bindery early on by planning and executing the move to a new facility. In the mid-1970s, the bindery encompassed 40,000 square feet and the operation was quickly running out of space. Jack Rickard found a warehouse about six blocks away and went to work converting the building to a manufacturing operation. That first big change after assuming the presidency was a success – Rickard still occupies the 80,000 square foot facility today. “This location has given us flexibility to do a lot of things and room to grow,” says Rickard.

Two Distinct Service Offerings

Rickard Bindery still focuses on the folding work that it began more than a century ago. The company serves two basic functions with volume split almost equally between them – overflow work for printing partners and specialty work. Sales Manager Jim Egan explains, “Assisting print shops in getting their projects produced fast and returned to the client is an important role. We do this through our army of folding machines, some 80 in total. Often, for the overflow work, we will devote four, five, and even six folders to a single job and then run it around the clock. When there are tight turn times, sometimes it actually pays to have a trade bindery tackle the entire project.”

The volume folding work is critical to the company’s business plan, but the other half of the business is a little more fun and challenging. “We thrive on being able to do projects that others can’t produce by machine,” states Egan. “We have worked hard to cultivate the reputation of being the ‘experts’, the ones willing to tackle the most difficult postpress projects. When people say ‘If Rickard can’t do it, it can’t be done’, we feel a great sense of pride that the printing community believes we will seek out all possible solutions to get a project done.”

With two very different service offerings, marketing could offer a challenge but Rickard has success through a combination of methods. Jim Egan acts as salesperson for the Midwestern states, but Jack Rickard believes word of mouth is what gains the company the majority of its clients. We do a good job for somebody and people remember. When they change jobs and go to another printer, we pick up where we left off with that relationship” explains Rickard. The company also maintains a professional Internet presence, but Rickard believes it’s the bindery’s approach to customer service that allows it to gain clients from across the country. “Customers come to us with all kinds of problems and we try to help solve the problem, or direct them to where they can find the service.”

Close Oversight, Decisions for Growth

Jack Rickard remembers 2001 as a turning point in the binding industry, beginning in February and March and compounded by the tragedy of September 11. “From a customer standpoint, I’d guess that about 125 customers bit the dust, through mergers, acquisitions, or just going broke.” When asked for an opinion regarding the cause of the downswing, Rickard is confident in his answer. “The dot.com bubble burst. There was this basic euphoria that everything was going great and would stay that way. I was always of the opinion that it was going to bust – the whole dot.com thing was not based on a solid business plan.”

Rickard Bindery survived the 2001 downswing by closely watching the financials of the company and making hard decisions quickly. It’s a policy they still follow. “We carry a very conservative balance sheet and we literally watch every single job from a financial standpoint,” says Rickard. “Every week, I get an abbreviated balance sheet and that allows me to recognize trends within two weeks. We need to know specifically what’s going on.”

In 2001, the trends were apparent quickly, but it took the company a few months to react. Rickard still feels some regret, “The hardest thing to do is to adjust indirect labor and office staff to meet reality. It took about five months for us to adjust and see what the reality really was.”

Jim Egan also can see the impact, and the opportunities, created by the industry shake-up in 2001. “The past five years have really set the tone for the future. Between bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions, the entire landscape has changed. As companies grow, they shed equipment and skillsets in order to streamline their operations. This creates a gap in what kinds of products they can produce. As a trade bindery specializing in challenging postpress services, we can fill the void created.”

However, emerging from the fray intact isn’t enough to ensure success. “There have been such huge advances in the pre-press and printing equipment, the next evolution of the printing plant is focusing on increased production from the bindery. For Rickard Bindery to stay competitive we have to do two things – maintain our competitive advantage in the specialty arena and continue to upgrade our machinery,” explains Egan.

Doing What Others Can’t

“My grandfather used to say there was only one reason God put binders on this earth and that was to make machinery manufacturers rich.” Jack Rickard

The company makes sure its machinery is on par with that owned by its printing customers, meaning it has a wide variety of equipment within its facility that mimics what its customers have in-house. Equipment from MBO, H & H, Stahl, Vijuk, and Muller Martini populate the production floor. “We have equipment just like theirs that can be dedicated to their job for a week, two weeks or a month, whereas they can-t do that. We never have one of anything – we usually have two or three of each piece of equipment. With the miniature work, we have twenty-three. We can service a lot of customers and still run big jobs while keeping everything on schedule,” clarifies Rickard. 75 employees operate the folders during three shifts each day, creating pharmaceutical inserts and instruction sheets; coupons and product insets, with Rickard’s miniature folding department producing millions of coupons a year for the liquor and personal care markets; and direct to market products, such as maps using synthetic stocks like Yupo, Poly Art, or Tyvek.

Growth is approached cautiously at Rickard Bindery. “I don’t view growth as an absolute requirement to be healthy. I think profit is a better indicator,” states Rickard. Evaluating new business opportunities is done with a careful look at how the new production method would fit in with Rickard’s customer base and operating philosophy. Jack Rickard defines that philosophy: “We want to operate with the same business model. We are a sub-contractor in the graphic arts business so printers are our primary customers. We want to do the things they either can’t or shouldn’t do internally.” The bindery focuses primarily on folding paper. It has no mechanical binding, perfect binding, or case binding capabilities. The company does no diecutting. That doesn’t mean, however, that Rickard Bindery sends its customers away without providing appropriate resources. “We have a database of numbers to direct customers to for other services,” explains Rickard.

String tying is one area of growth for Rickard Bindery that fits both the customers’ needs and is a natural extension of the work the bindery is already doing. The bindery does a lot of miniature work – miniature folding and stitching of advertising booklets that are then attached to strings and tied to bottles and other packaging. Rather than send that work out, Rickard has invested in the capabilities and now provides string tying as a service to its customers. “It’s unique enough that the printer will not need to install and learn to run his own machines,” says Rickard.

Sharing Industry Knowledge, Reaping Rewards

As part of its philosophy of serving customers, Rickard Bindery has built an extensive library of educational topics and shares them through its web site (www.rickardbindery.com) and monthly e-mails, called Helpful Hints, to current clients. Topics include folding synthetic stocks, gaining consumer attention through string tying, and the versatility of accordion folding.

“An issue in this industry is that companies will hire young people with no experience. Rather than grumble, we decided to help them,” states Rickard. He further explains, “Later down the line, people will remember that you helped them. Our focus has always been on helping customers.”

Jim Egan believes there are additional benefits to customer education, “We feel that our bindery expertise can impact the final product in a significant way. Redesigning a layout for better machinability or driving home the importance of proper panel sizing, it all has an impact on production. If we are doing our job, we can help increase production, while lowering costs.”

Moving Forward

Jack Rickard is confident in Rickard Bindery’s ability to serve its customers well. His family has been assisting customers across the country for more than a century, and his son Kevin is poised to take the reigns when Jack is ready to retire. For now, Jack Rickard is happy knowing that his customers trust Rickard Bindery to be there when needed. “When we’re doing work for the customers, we want them to have a good night’s sleep, knowing their job is being done right and will be done on time. Someone else is laying awake worrying.”