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 WHEN VENDORS GO BAD

 By Stewart Deats

Background

Not all crises make headlines; some are played out on a near-empty stage, with few people knowing of their existence.  This is one of those “quiet crises.”

Almost every business depends on others, for goods and services that they re-sell at retail price points, for parts of larger machines, for materials used in producing final products.  All business is based on finding and working with vendors and suppliers that can supply the quality required at price points that meet the customers’ or clients’ needs, and can be delivered as and when needed.

But what happens when one of those vendors lets the customer down…in a big way.  That’s what happened to Deats Design, a Southern California organization depending on printers to print and deliver what they have created, designed, and handled pre-production for their clients.  My nightmare began as I was delivering a major job for our largest client.

The Crisis

Bam! What was that?

Oh.

When I stomped on the brakes, one of the six-foot-high palettes of half-printed catalogs slid forward and crashed into the back of the truck cab, smashing into the sheet metal behind our heads.

Very loud!  A full palette of paper is very heavy and I should have tied it down but we were only going a mile or so.

The biggest project of the year had blown up in our faces.  It was a 60-page office products catalog that we were producing for our best client.  It wasn’t the first project of this nature that we had done, by any means. We have been doing catalogs for years, some over 600 pages full-color. This time everything in the process had gone smoothly: sales, design, photography, illustration, page production, alterations, and meetings. The client was pleased and knew nothing of our current snafu.

Clients don’t like drama. It was our goal that the client would never know how close we came to disaster. If we played our cards right, this would be the case. Disaster in this case would mean the loss of the entire project: a huge economic loss for both our graphic design firm and to the office products company.

The catalog represented hundreds of hours of labor. Eventually all the art had been approved and signed off. Every “t” was crossed; every “i” was dotted.  We used a reliable printer. one that had the appropriate equipment and a stellar reputation to match. Thousands of dollars had been advanced as a deposit toward the printing and bindery work.

The plant was only a few miles from our studio, so it was convenient for us to attend press checks to make sure the job was beautiful and on target. This was standard procedure and all part of our service.

Everything at the printing plant seemed to be going along fine.  Press checks went well and were timely. The quality was very high. Then the printing started to lag behind schedule, just by a day.

Nothing to be alarmed about. Since we had rushed up the front-end, the art production, we had a good cushion of time before the finished catalogs were actually needed.

I spoke on the phone with the owner of the printing plant daily. “How’s my job coming?”

“Oh great.  Everything is great.”  No problems presented themselves. Yet, my partner and I sensed something. Nothing you could put your finger on, just more like a barely perceptible “vibe.”  I am a suspicious person by nature and my antennae sprung up.  My partner and I decided to visit the plant once more to reassure ourselves that all was well. We pulled up to the alley behind the industrial building; we were accustomed to entering through the back so we could see the work.

But the alley was blocked by a large, low, flatbed truck.  The truck’s air brakes hissed at me. A truck from Heidelberg, the manufacturer of the large press on which our job was supposedly being printed.

I innocently asked one of the workers, “Why is the Heidelberg truck here?”

Answer: “To pick up the press.”

Me, startled: “The big one?”

Answer: “Yes.”

Realization slapped me in the face like a wet dishrag. The Heidelberg truck was here to take away the press. The press was being repossessed. The press that was supposed to be printing our job… but obviously wasn’t.

“Where’s the boss?” I asked.

“Not here!” said one of the workers who busy carrying out some office furniture that did not appear to belong to him. I looked around and saw this action being repeated by others with some sense of urgency. I got the clear feeling that they were getting what they could in lieu of other payment.  Not vultures really, just folks trying to salvage what they could from a bad situation.  Looking in the office, we saw no one there. Phones were ringing, ringing, ringing and the furniture and equipment seemed to be fast disappearing.

So, the printer had been lying to us. Old fashioned, flat-out lying.  Trying to milk us for as much cash as he could before getting out of town.  Leaving us in not-very-good shape.  People do strange things when they are under pressure.

Actions Taken

Now what? We were heavily invested in this project.  This was not only our reputation being carted out the door along with the press we had been depending on, but a lot of money we had fronted on behalf of the client.

This was the kind of business situation every small firm dreads.

This was a crisis that could threaten our very existence as a going concern if the whole job was blown.

An understatement.

We needed a solution.  We went back to our office and reviewed our situation.  There were quotes on the job from other printers; printers that we worked with on other projects who had bid on this one.

Pride was now involved as well as money.  Obviously any printer would be thinking “Well, why didn’t you come to me in the first place?”  We had to be ready to sit still for a lecture.  Could we find a printer who would accept a half-printed job?  Could it even be done?  Would it fit their press, a different press from a different manufacturer?  And just as important, could it be completed on schedule

We finally found a printer who assured us he could – and would – handle the job.

We rented a U-Haul moving truck and headed over to pick up the catalogs. The workers there were sympathetic and only too happy to load the palettes into the moving truck with the forklift.  It was lucky that a forklift was still there, otherwise we would have had another problem, another expense.  It had been a few years since I had operated a forklift and I was a little rusty.  No tiedowns were available to secure the palette in the back of the truck, but after all, we were only going a mile or so.

Once on the road, a sudden stop was unavoidable and “Bam!” into the back of the cab slid a six-foot- high palette. Damage to the truck, body damage. We could worry about that later, but the catalogs seemed OK!  Bulk paper is hard.

We off-loaded the catalogs on the palettes at the new printer.

Would the already half-printed sheets work on this press?  Real skill and precision would be required here.  I was asking our craftsman to match the images laid down on paper literally dot-for-dot, virtually zero tolerance, bearing in mind that the paper may have become stretched or warped from heat, humidity, handling, and oh yes, bashing in a truck cab.

Only one way to find out.  Burn the plates, light up the press, and run it through. This was an older press, manufactured in a different country than the Heidelberg,  It had different specifications.  It is a tribute to the skill of American craftsmen that this printer was able to match the images on the paper perfectly.  Only someone familiar with large-scale printing can fully appreciate the degree of skill needed to accomplish this.

It’s about time we caught a break. The client would never know, we hoped.  Clients don’t like drama.

After all the trouble, a good print job!  We really dodged a bullet. Our client was happy. It has been said that there has never been a bad client that paid his bill. Ours was a good client and we continued to work with them for a number of years on bigger and better catalogs

Lessons Learned

It was a struggle to be sure, but it turned out OK. And we learned something.  We didn’t do anything wrong.  No mistakes really.  We did everything correctly and used a good, reputable printer who we had worked with for many years.  Still, things can turn sour through no fault of your own.

Lesson: trust everyone, but cut the cards.  Keep a sharp eye on production. Don’t panic, there is always time to think a situation through and marshal your resources.

Almost every crisis can be solved, often with a combination of calmly thinking through the options and selecting the optimum approach; utilizing the resources available; and moving quickly, but not too quickly.

Still remaining was the little problem of the bashed-in truck cab. Let no one say I am unthrifty, or not resourceful. Inside the truck cab, a sledgehammer strategically and enthusiastically walloped against a two-by-six piece of lumber laid against the offending bulge worked even better than I expected. I pounded and pounded and fashioned the cab wall back into a condition that appeared no worse than ordinary wear and tear on a truck of this sort.  Apparently it was good enough to pass muster, ‘cause it was never noticed by anyone after that. It put the finishing touch on the whole episode.

Stewart Deats is a partner in Deats Design, a Woodland Hills, California, firm that provides marketing services for the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets, including design, packaging, printing, and production services.

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2 thoughts on “Will there be blood?

  1. Let me see if I understand the lesson. When you have a problem, take a sledge hammer to it. Got it. Mr Deats, you are a genius! Great story. As we teach the men over in these parts, stay out of the problem and in the solution. You are an example to men everywhere!

  2. Dear Mr. Levine: It is not often I can use a large hammer to un-break things. Oh how I wish such opportunities presented themselves more often. But just imagine the stories I cannot tell.

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