Silvanus Products: Artisans in the Custom Packaging Market

by Jen Clark, The Binding Edge
Silvanus Products won a 2012 BIA Product of Excellence Award in the Innovative Use of Materials category for its work on the Blue Wine Menu.

Old-fashioned work ethic and attention to detail have made Silvanus Products, Inc. a leader in the loose leaf industry, not only for the products it produces, but for the expert craftsmanship of its long-time employees. Located 60 miles south of St. Louis, MO, in the historic town of Ste. Genevieve, Silvanus has been providing innovative custom products to merchandising groups, dealers, banks and knowledgeable buyers since 1929. It manufactures vinyl specialty items, loose leaf binders, checkbook covers, portfolios, custom-made indexes and turned edge binders, as well as bank passbooks and more.

The company, along with its employees, has become known across the country for providing high-quality decorating techniques and service. The secret, according to Cathy Elliott, Silvanus’ customer service and purchasing manager, is its equipment, processes and people – who have “years and years of experience honing their craft.”

“Our rich heritage as a leader in creative packaging ideas for custom binders and banking products has helped us become a direct source manufacturer for “second-to-none” quality and economically priced custom binders,” she said. “Every Silvanus binder product features expert craftsmanship acquired from a rich history of manufacturing a wide variety of binder products.”

Humble Beginnings

Ed Schaefer founded what then was known as the General Passbook Company on Nov. 29, 1929. The plant had six employees who manufactured bank stationery products, passbooks, savings books and other paper-related items. In the early 1950s, the company began manufacturing vinyl loose leaf binders, check book covers and related products. In 1977, Schaefer sold General Passbook Company to The Georgia-Pacific Corporation, National Cover Division – a company that had been a long-time competitor. Corporate restructuring in 1983 took almost immediate action to discontinue operations that were not closely associated with Georgia-Pacific’s building and paper product business.

The Ste. Genevieve facility was sold on April 27, 1984, to a local group that included five former Georgia-Pacific employees. The principle financial backer was Robert Rottler, a life-long Ste. Genevieve resident. Renamed Silvanus Products, the company officially began production of stationary and index products on May 2, 1984. After purchasing new equipment and materials, the company began producing vinyl products in September 1984.

Silvanus Products continued to grow and added turned edge products to its long list of offerings. The company now produces a variety of binders; custom- or standard-format index tabs; bank and financial items; and other products including menu and diploma covers, writing portfolios, clip folders, pouches, custom turned edge boxes, presentation kits, various custom-made vinyl products and more.

Silvanus’ customers are more than pleased with the workmanship on their projects. “True artisans in custom vinyl and turned edge binders, boxes and informational packaging products,” one customer wrote in a testimonial.

“Our customer set a timetable that was next to impossible to accomplish and your company performed in an amazing fashion,” said another, noting the knowledgeable staff “rolled with the punches without complaint or hesitation.”

Another client reiterated that sentiment: “Silvanus Products is the company I turn to when clients come up with seemingly impossible designs. The company will tackle new designs, work with unusual materials, develop new techniques to accomplish our client’s goal and deliver the product our competitors say can’t be made.”

BIA Honors Longtime Leader

Former CEO Vernon Schwent was inducted into the Binding Industries Association Hall of Fame in April 2013. He is shown here with Cathy Elliott, Silvanus’ customer service and purchasing manager.

In April, Silvanus’ former Chief Executive Officer Vernon Schwent was inducted into the Binding Industries Association Hall of Fame. Since 2008, the Hall of Fame highlights industry pioneers whose hard work and determination have created a vibrant, growing and changing industry. And, while Schwent was honored for the accolades, he didn’t feel that he deserved all the credit. “I alone did not contribute to the success of the company,” Schwent said. “Everyone who has worked hard here earned this award. It took all of the Silvanus employees to make it a great company to work for.”

That humble attitude is Schwent’s character, Elliott explained. “He worked many long hours and on weekends for years,” she said of his dedication to the company. “That is why we are known in the industry for our superior decorating techniques. He spent hours developing these techniques. He learned by trial and error because he wanted success for the company, not on his behalf, but for the employees.”

Schwent received nominations from industry peers, including Earl Vogt, retired president and CEO of Mecom Ltd., Indianapolis, IN; Connie Jones, president of Rimco Marketing Products, Inc., Orlando, FL; Rick Seibel, president of Binder Graphics, Inc., Lees Summit, MO; and Melvin Weight, owner of Di-Mel Associates, Fountain Valley, CA.

Vogt supported the nomination with a letter detailing his experience working with Schwent. The pair worked together for more than a decade at the General Passbook Company. Several years later, when the company became known as Silvanus Products, Schwent became its vice president. “Vernon spent his entire career in the loose leaf industry, and he led Silvanus to become one of the top and most respected companies in the industry with products and service that have no equal,” Vogt wrote.

In announcing the nomination, Justin Goldstein, BIA director, said Schwent was being honored “for his excellence, creative abilities and service to others in the industry. He has produced some of the most creative and unique binders and accessory products in the industry, and many decorative techniques used today were developed by Schwent and his staff.”

While Vogt and Schwent worked together at General Passbook Company, Vogt noticed Schwent’s great work ethic. “It fit in with my desire to make (the company) a major player in the loose leaf industry,” Vogt wrote. “During those 12 years, Vernon developed into an excellent leader. He would take any and all challenges and work his heart out to provide great products for our customers – with a 99 percent on-time delivery record. In those 12 years, we never had a month that our output did not exceed the previous months.”

Vogt left the company in 1977, shortly before Georgia-Pacific purchased General Passbook. Schwent assumed the duties of the commercial group, which included all loose leaf and a wide variety of vinyl products, along with some purchasing and tool design, Vogt explained. In 1983, when the Ste. Genevieve facility resumed production of loose leaf and bank products, Schwent was elected to the vice president position and took charge of the commercial aspects of the company.

In 1990, the pair again began working together, but with Vogt as a Silvanus customer. “Sometimes we asked for almost impossible deliveries, like calling late on a Friday for delivery on the following Tuesday. Vernon would work all weekend to get our orders to us on time with excellent quality.”

Schwent, who retired in 2004, made hands-on learning and development a mainstay for every employee. “He wanted you to learn and understand each product construction and the various ways we could use decoration,” said Elliott, who worked with Schwent for 17 years. “With customer service employees understanding the product, we then could teach our brokers, who then could sell the item to the end user. We were very much hands-on with product design and decoration. It was fun looking at new artwork or a logo and coming up with an idea that would make the design be over the top. It was very unique, hands-on training.”

Despite his retirement, Schwent still has a hand in the business and remains on Silvanus’ board of directors. “He helps guide with decision-making based on his years of expertise and knowledge,” Elliott said.

Family Atmosphere Keeps Employees Engaged

The company’s board of directors include, from left: Steve Rottler, president; Vernon Schwent; Norma Rottler, owner; John Burgert, retired sales manager; Rick Schaefer, accountant; and Terry Rottler, attorney.

Executives at Silvanus are quick to point out the secret to the company’s success is its employees, many of whom boast tenures of 20, 30 or 40 years. The employees are passionate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their craft and work hard to meet and exceed customer expectations. “We are excellent at what we do because our employees have so many years of experience,” said Paula Kuder, a customer service representative for Silvanus’ commercial products. “I’ve been here for more than 20 years, and there are many with more tenure than me.”

That’s because the culture is built around product quality, starting with the members of its team. Every Silvanus product features expert craftsmanship acquired from its history of manufacturing a wide variety of products. “The atmosphere is that we are a family,” Elliott said. “Our employees have a long-term relationship here. They take pride in the jobs they produce and enjoy working together. People stay if they like what they are doing and where they are working.”

Even though recent struggles with the economy hit many businesses hard, Silvanus was able to weather the storm thanks, in part, to its dedicated employees. “We are located in a small town in Eastern Missouri. There are many people without a job in this small community due to business closings over the past few years. Thankfully, we have not had to look for new employees with the dedicated workforce we have here,” said Elliott.

Plant operations include a full-service office staff, with accounting, human resources, sales, customer service, estimating and order entry. The Vinyl Manufacturing group consists of graphics, cutting, silkscreen, stamping, sealing, diemaking, turned edge, vacuum forming and assembly departments. The Bank Manufacturing group consists of the printing department, dark room, layout and both offset and letter press printing presses, while the Passbook group consists of sewing, cutting, tipping, diecutting and folding. Also, there is an index tab department that makes standard or custom index tabs.

“Our team is very knowledgeable about our products and decoration techniques,” Elliott said. “We are able to help customers with product design, materials and decorations. When we send out samples, people are sold on the quality and service.”

Decorating Techniques Take Center Stage

Specialty decorating techniques have become a niche for Silvanus. “We offer the finest decorating services in the industry,” Elliott said.

For each job, Silvanus employees challenge every age-old standard of binder decorating that exists. An eye for detail and familiarity with the equipment helps produce designs that are enhanced with multi-color silkscreening, 4-color process screening, foil stamping, embossing or debossing (blind or color filled), reverse screen overlay, picture perfect and applique. In addition, Silvanus offers digital printing for short-run 4-color binder needs.

Specialty techniques that were developed by Schwent and his staff include reverse applique, reverse screen overlay and picture perfect, to name a few. “Our registration for silkscreen debossing and foil stamp debossing is perfect,” Elliott said. “The keys are knowing how to order the dies and being able to get the guides set-up on the machines so they are dead on. You have to train your people to have a good eye, which is exactly what Vernon did.”

Workers are trained on a variety of equipment that fills the shop floor, including electronic sealing, cutting, riveting, sewing, creasing, foil stamping, diecutting, embossing and Mylar reinforcing machines; sheet fed printing presses; silkscreening presses; turntables and autoloaders; casemakers for oversized and high-volume turned edge products; a vacuum former; and several units dedicated to creating index tabs, in addition to miscellaneous printing and manufacturing machinery.

Silvanus has won several industry awards for its work, including three first place awards in this year’s BIA Product of Excellence Awards. Last year, it earned a first, second and third place award in the BIA competition. Previously, Silvanus was honored with two SCROLL Golden Ring Awards for Best of Show; two BIA Awards of Merit; and it earned BIA Decorative Reproduction of Excellence status.

Last year’s Product of Excellence winner was entitled “Blue” – a turned edge binder that was to be used for a wine list in an upscale restaurant. Silvanus also created companion pieces for lunch, dinner, dessert and drink menus. “What is unique about Blue is that the customer wanted to use a real copper material,” Elliott explained. “We had never worked with copper before, so I had sample material brought in so we could see how it could be applied with no sharp edges or corners. The decoration the customer wanted was a blind deboss – a little more of a challenge as we did not know how the material would accept our typical application.”

An Eye to the Future

While Silvanus has led the industry through numerous rounds of innovation, it remains poised for future development. The company recently began offering eco-friendly binders.

The cover and liner material is FSC®-certified and is made from 30-percent post-consumer waste. No harmful coatings are added in the manufacturing process. The chipboard interior is made from 100-percent recycled fibers, including a minimum of 35-percent post-consumer waste. The binder can be decorated with images, such as a company logo. The ring metal can be attached in a traditional manner or in a clip-on fashion. The clip-on metal easily can be removed and reused or recycled, making the binder completely biodegradable.

Adjusting to the current business climate of declining orders and quicker turnaround requests is something that all binderies are faced with. “Like all corporations, we’ve had to adjust to fit the customers’ current needs,” Elliott said. “Orders are smaller, yet we still maintain the quality, service and on-time deliveries our customers expect. We want to remain in business so we adjust to the demands. Previously, business came to us by word of mouth, and now that the buying markets have changed we are seeking new partnerships.”