Valuable prints Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

John Gergel has ink in his blood. So in 1985, when he had the opportunity to purchase Watt Printers, he didn’t hesitate to buy one of Cleveland’s oldest printing firms.

The company was founded in 1893, and after three generations of family ownership, the Watts family was looking to sell, and Gergel and co-owner Craig Kellem were ready to buy.

“The gentleman who owned the company had all professional children: doctors, lawyers, bankers,” Gergel says. “They had no ink in their veins.”

After a hefty initial investment to replace much of the company’s obsolete equipment, Watt Printers has enjoyed steady growth. With Gergel as president, it has grown from a five-employee, $200,000 operation to an 85-employee, $14 million industry leader.

Smart Business spoke with Gergel about why you should cross-train your employees and how to build a positive reputation for your company.

Q. How did you develop a plan for the company?

It wasn’t really a plan. We bought a company that was totally antiquated, and having been in the business prior to owning this business, we knew what quality meant.

Basically, as we grew, we had to improve our quality by investing in more capital equipment obviously, and that’s how it came about. As we grew, we kept enhancing our capabilities, or technological equipment, and added more employees.

What helped us grow is a philosophy that we all have. As trite as it may sound, if a person spends a dollar with us, they get a dollar-plus in value back.

Q. How do you ensure that your employees are living your philosophy?

Our management team has set up complete employee guidelines. Everyone basically knows their job, and we do a lot of cross-training.

So there are people out there who not only know their jobs, but they know other jobs within the company. Everybody is kind of looking after everyone else on a constant basis.

It’s helped many times during vacation periods and during sick periods. We’ve had people with some major illnesses who were gone for quite awhile. If we had no one available who could do that job, we’d be in a real hurt. So that’s two of the many, many more reasons why we’ve done that.

It also keeps the challenge. Challenge is a big part of the company, from the floor sweeper right up through Mike [Nakonek, vice president of operations] and me. If you’re not challenged, you don’t have the ambition to come to work in the morning.

Q. How do you earn the respect of your employees?

Having been in the business all my life, and having been through nearly every phase of the business, we understand the business. All of our people do know that.

We highly value our employees and let them know that. That mutual respect we have for one another has been quite sufficient in leading this company.

Q. How do you show your employees that you value them?

When we have a major client or prospective client come into the shop, I basically introduce every one of them on an individual basis. That in and of itself lets them know their importance.

I tell a story at each station. I might tell them how long that employee has been with us, what kind of job he’s done, in most cases.

I believe that we are nothing without their expertise and technical knowledge. We even let our clients know that. But then again, we do have employees we can be proud of — by the work they do, by the way they present themselves, even by the way they communicate with our clients when they’re in the shop. Letting them know what an integral part of the business they are has helped get their full cooperation.

Q. How do you find employees you can be proud of?

In our industry, there seems to be a lot of people looking. Unfortunately, there are a lot of good people out there that we just cannot hire because of our size.

We have a reputation, and people in the industry who are wanting to make a move — you wouldn’t believe how many times we’re approached and asked, ‘Can you find an opening for us?’

There are a lot of good craftsmen out there who are qualified to work here, but we have to limit ourselves. We can only employ the people that we can afford to keep.

Even that is difficult because we do promote from within. We have apprentices who are working with our journeymen, and they know someday they’re going to be in the top spot. We’re more apt to promote from within rather than go from the outside.

Q. How does promoting from within increase retention?

With the cross-training, the constant challenge as well as knowing they can be promoted, they know that there’s no limit to how far they can go in this company. That’s our business philosophy. If they want my job, they can have it. We don’t limit anyone.

HOW TO REACH: Watt Printers, (216) 398-2000 or