Seaboard Bindery Writes Its Own Story

by: Dianna Brodine

By nature of the work, every bindery has a story. Decades of bundling pages into a cohesive entity lend themselves to history, stretching each year into another chapter, telling anecdotes of prosperous times and periods of struggle. The story at Seaboard Bindery began in 1977 with a man looking to further his entrepreneurial career in a new industry. Its chapters unfolded as he learned the binding trade from the ground up, bringing his sons into the business and specializing in difficult projects to meet the specific needs of his customers. The tale followed the man and his sons as they sailed uncertain economic waters, climbed the rocky demands of the digital markets, and walked the smooth path laid by dedicated employees. The ending to the narrative is not yet written, but the reading of the journey could inspire other small binderies to begin a new chapter.

Chapter One: The Beginning

Twenty-two years after Seaboard Bindery was founded, Harold Shear purchased the business on the recommendation of his accountant. Formerly a partner in a retail clothing business, Harold had no background in binding. His desire for sole ownership – a business that was truly his own – convinced him to take the leap. “It was the kind of business that allowed you to see what you’d done at the end of the day,” said son Frank Shear, current president of Seaboard Bindery. “Whether Dad had good bindery knowledge at the time or not, he certainly knew how to run a business, and his business skills and professionalism allowed him to prosper.”

Luckily, Harold had a pretty good sense of how books were made and how the machines worked. He hired an old bindery manager as a consultant to teach him from the ground up what a saddlestitched book was and what a folding machine did. A few of the employees stayed when the business ownership was transferred, and Harold the entrepreneur was on his way as a successful trade binder.

In 1983, Frank Shear joined his father at the bindery, despite Frank’s insistence up to that point that the bindery was not on his career path. “Dad needed someone to get a sales effort going. There was a lot of potential out there, but no one to go out and find the business,” explained Frank. “It was the idea of building the business through effective sales and marketing that hooked me. I wanted to build a relationship-oriented business.”

Frank’s brother, Jim, also joined Seaboard Bindery and has been with the company for 15 years. Jim is the chief estimator and IT manager, and also handles the purchasing and billing. As with many family businesses, it’s all hands on deck. Harold still comes in to work every day at age 85.

Today, the bindery operates from a modern, 17,000-square-foot building in a pleasant industrial area of Woburn, Mass., a suburb of Boston. The area is strong in the graphic arts, with five printers located within a couple of miles from the bindery and two diecutting plants within five minutes. The bindery’s core services include perfect binding, layflat binding, mechanical binding, saddlestitching, and diecutting. Over the years, Seaboard has upgraded into PUR perfect binding and extended its support services for bookwork to include film laminating, index tabbing, sheet collating, and pocket folder gluing.

“What really makes us unique,” said Frank, “are the specialty perfect binding jobs that we can do. We’ve become known for our ability to do complex perfect binding jobs, dealing with difficult paper stocks, difficult cover designs, landscape-oriented covers, pockets with flaps, and very thin books – even as thin as 1/16th of an inch.” The bindery’s experience in dealing with that complexity became an asset when the digital world came calling, bringing with it its own challenges.

Chapter Two: The Digital World Is at the Door

The explosion of the on-demand world caught some small binderies unprepared, finding them struggling with the shorter timelines and small run lengths. At Seaboard Bindery, the digital world has changed everything about how the company does business. “First of all, the jobs are always on fire,” explained Frank, “so it means that we have to devote more resources per dollar sale with a digital job than we do with a larger offset job. It can be challenging to deal with all the little jobs, when the real money is made on the larger job.” Seaboard continues to look for ways to simplify the administrative side, exploring cost efficiencies, but Frank admits that the bindery hasn’t found the magic bullet yet.

There are binderies that specialize in small digital jobs and binderies that do only large commercial binding orders, and Seaboard is trying to mix the two – not always an easy task. “If we have a large job working its way through the bindery, it’s difficult to pull employees off that large job to work on a small digital project,” Frank said. He has struggled with the need to juggle the two. “We don’t turn down any smaller jobs, but sometimes we lose them because we can’t turn it around as quickly as the customer would like.”

When scheduling conflicts arise, Seaboard works with its customers to find space on the machines, even if it means putting in a tremendous amount of overtime to get all the work finished. The bindery also geared up for the digital challenge by purchasing computerized makeready machinery for perfect binding and wire-o binding, two of its core services, making its ability to set up and run small jobs quicker than ever. Seaboard has redundancy in nearly every area of its business, so that if one machine is occupied there is another available to service another customer.

“The pressure level has definitely increased,” laughed Frank. “That’s what digital customers want – fast turnarounds. It’s on and off the press, so it blends into on and off the binder as well. It’s all geared toward speed and immediacy.” The key to Seaboard’s success has been its employee base, a group of 18 full-time employees who are dedicated to doing what needs to be done for the customer.

Chapter Three: Cross-Training Becomes Critical

As with many small businesses, cross-training is a must at Seaboard Bindery and all of its employees are capable of operating more than one piece of equipment. “Everyone needs to fill multiple roles,” said Frank. “Otherwise, if you don’t have a replacement for someone, you can’t run the machine.” So, as employees have indicated a desire to learn to run new pieces of equipment, Seaboard Bindery has cross-trained them.

The bindery works to identify aptitudes, and then fills in the holes from there. “What are people good at? Are they good at tweaking machines or setting up machines? Do they have patience or dexterity? It’s very informal,” explained Frank, “but under pretty much any circumstance, we have enough skill to run a machine every single day of the year.” This employee flexibility benefits all involved parties, giving employees the opportunity to earn higher wages and overtime. “We started cross-training long ago as a way to cover our rear ends,” explained Frank. “But it’s blossomed into a way of looking down the road at what our needs are.”

Seaboard Bindery typically runs its shifts according to whatever time is required to complete the work, which can include evenings and Saturdays. In addition to the 18 full-time employees, Seaboard also has temporary assistance – up to five regular interim employees who fill in at the lower skilled functions when needed.

Chapter Four: Educating the Customers

With the variety of job types in today’s marketplace and the specialty work performed at Seaboard Bindery, a smooth relationship between binder and customer is fashioned through straightforward communication. Frank noted, “Since the onset of digital printing, more and more of our customers need instruction and advice as to how to prepare a job for the greatest binding efficiency. With new customers, we nearly always ask to review their layouts and, often, we provide our own.”

Aiding in bindery/customer communication is Seaboard’s quarterly newsletter, featuring topics relevant to job planning and binding-related matters. “We gained a reputation for putting out good advice and good information,” explained Frank. The newsletter began three years ago as a marketing effort and morphed into an educational tool. Marketing, however, is still a top priority at Seaboard. “It’s one of the things I firmly believe in – that no matter how bad things are, you have to be out there in front of the customers.”

As a small family business, the family members are on the front lines every day. Being directly in touch with the customers in regards to their needs has the benefit of providing immediate feedback. According to Frank, “If we need to make improvements, ownership takes responsibility.”

Seaboard Bindery also devotes more of its resources to customer service than many other trade suppliers, including keeping a full-time customer service professional on staff. “Customer service is the foundation of our business,” Frank said. “We are in the business of making our customers look good to their customers.” One way of doing that is to proactively provide information about job status. Seaboard’s customer service professional, Phil Rutzick, calls the bindery’s printing customers with regular updates.”He has a drive for keeping on top of things, and he can communicate with printers in their language,” said Frank. “Printers are always nervous about turning their jobs over to the bindery, so his chief job is to allay that fear and make people feel that we’re a good, safe home for their work.”

Chapter Five: The Story Continues

A strong business takes the lessons from the past, turns them into plans for the future, and continues to grow. Seaboard Bindery has actively searched for areas of improvement by undertaking the lean manufacturing process. In 2008, Seaboard’s accountant made the company aware of a grant offered through the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ workforce improvement program. Designed to put small businesses in a better position to hire additional employees, the fund contributed half of the money needed to begin the lean manufacturing process.

“Our lean manufacturing process is made up of several components, including 5S, which involves maintaining a neat, organized workplace; continuous training, allowing operators to keep building their skills; and a standardization of processes, so that there is a ‘best way’ of accomplishing a particular task,” explains Frank. Although the initial steps in lean manufacturing have provided benefits, the continuation of training is a work in progress at Seaboard. As a small company, it’s difficult to maintain a formal program when the daily focus must remain on job production. Frank also admits that the cost of implementing lean can be a barrier to many small businesses, but he believes that it has provided immeasurable benefits.

“We don’t spend a whole lot of time here collecting data because every job is unique,” Frank explained. “For us, the benefits of lean have been seen in the accumulation of a lot of strategic moves, like set-up reduction, continual cross-training, and process standardization. We’ve integrated many of the lean processes into our way of life, making it an ongoing process that really never ends.”

And the story is not at an end either. Through careful expansion, aggressive marketing, and a commitment to customer service, Seaboard Bindery has grown into a successful trade bindery serving commercial printing companies throughout New England. With its eye on the improvements that can be made through the lean manufacturing process and meeting demanding turnaround times, Seaboard Bindery is well positioned for the next chapter in its book.