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Preservation act Featured

6:17am EDT January 3, 2006
Nathan Depew worries that growth will spoil his company. Not in a financial sense, but in ways that would find the culture of the Grove City producer of T-shirts and novelty apparel straying too far from what he first envisioned for it when he founded it in 1996.

While physical expansion in a small town has been tough for Earth Sun Moon Trading Co., what vexes the company’s president most is how growth has challenged him and his company — which virtually doubled in size since 2004 to 75 employees — to preserve the creative, casual and people-oriented atmosphere that prevailed when it had just a handful of workers.

Growth has meant adding layers of management and a need for more policies and procedures to ensure that the business runs smoothly, but Depew wants to ensure that the growing bureaucracy doesn’t mean losing touch with the needs of his workers.

For Depew, growth has required that he move away from hands-on involvement in some aspects of the business, like production and shipping, while assuming an even more focused role in human resources and marketing.

Q. Why has growth posed a dilemma for your company and the way you want it to run?
As the company gets bigger, there becomes more need for structure, more need for a supervisor for this and a supervisor for that. And there becomes more of a need for me to tell supervisors how I want things to be run. There are naturally tendencies to say, ‘Well, this person doesn’t do that, they should be out of here.’ I might want to say, ‘Let’s figure out a way to accommodate this person.’ But there’s a fine line. I don’t think everything I’m doing is right. You can go too far the other way.

Q. What is your vision of how employees should be treated?
For me personally, I guess I have a lot of ideals about how to run a company. That’s pretty easy when you’ve got about six or eight people. It becomes a lot more difficult as you get larger because you’ve got to entrust a lot of things to supervisors. I’m extraordinarily interested in making the focus the people, kind of like the work being for the person instead of the person being for the work, and I think for two reasons. One, I think it’s the right way to run things and two, I think you actually end up doing better.

Q. How has that vision manifested itself and how has it contributed to a better company?
Well, I want people to be paid well, better than they would be making if they were working somewhere else in a similar job. I want there to be good benefits. The bottom line is what that’s created is, like, zero turnover. It’s turned it into a place where you never have to worry about getting new people. It’s a small town, word gets around and it’s an everyone-wants-to-work-here kind of thing.

Q. What are the forces that work counter to your view of how the company should operate?
I think capitalism is a good system; it’s way better than a lot of others, but like any system there are dark sides, there are temptations. One of the temptations is using people as a means to an end as opposed to saying people need to walk out of here with dignity. It might sound like a bleeding heart thing to say, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I think about it and I think if people are stressed out non-stop because of the way management is at a company, when they go home at night maybe they need to talk to their wife about other problems they’re having but instead they go on and on about work.

Q. Why is it important to the company to preserve the culture that prevailed when you started the business?
From what I’ve seen, the reason we have grown is because people here are relatively happy. It’s not heaven on earth, but I think creativity more than ever is the fuel for growth. Think of how many people are out there selling T-shirts and here I am trying to sell T-shirts to make a living and keep people employed. We’ve grown not only because we’ve been creative with our products, but we’ve been creative with our marketing and creative with just how the company’s run, and I think it’s given us a real edge. I think happy people are creative people.

Q. Where do you focus your efforts to preserve your vision for the company?
There’s always the need when a company or any kind of organization starts to grow to start setting policies. It’s easy when it’s small. Things become more bureaucratic or corporate. So I’m very interested in all of those policies. A lot of them have an effect on people’s ordinary lives. Not just the obvious things like benefits, but how the company’s run, what’s acceptable, what’s not, when do you crack down on someone, when do you just look the other way and let things roll. I’ve tried to decipher what’s important to me, what I need to be involved in. I’ll always be involved in marketing and product development, but I don’t need to know what kind of switch we have in the server room or what kinds of inks are we using for our printing.

How to reach: Earth Sun Moon Trading Co., www.earthsunmoon.com