Worzalla celebrates 125 years in Stevens Point
Worzalla will celebrate its 125th anniversary in business this year after surviving – and thriving – in a constantly-changing market.
The Stevens Point-based book printing company has been able to stay a world leader in the business, and weathered the proverbial storm of the digital revolution.
“I would define the books that we print by-in-large have kind of a reference quality, meaning that you don’t just read it once and stuff it in the back of the airplane seat and leave it. It’s little kid books that get read over and over again. You buy coffee table books to make a point. It’s a display. When you get tired of having it on your coffee table, you put it up on the bookshelf. That’s the reference quality I mean, they’re keepsake books,” said Jim Fetherston, Worzalla president and CEO since 2011.
Fetherston said he attributes the company’s enduring success to a long history of leadership which understood the wisdom of adapting to the needs and wants of the book publishing world as changes loomed.
But more importantly, Fetherston said, the primary driver of success has been the employees’ ability and willingness to adapt to new requirements imposed on them by changing market standards, as well as their capacity for taking pride in their work.
“The Worzalla family owned the business, with a couple partners early on, and had a little office upstairs downtown that lasted through 1955 when they came ‘way out here’ into the suburbs,” Fetherston said.
Back then, 3535 Jefferson St. where the company still operates today, was nearly completely undeveloped.
“The front end of this building was built in 1957 and that kind of starts the modern era of the company. We kind of confuse people a little bit because our name is Worzalla Publishing and we devested the publishing side of it in the 1980s, we just haven’t gotten around to changing the name of the company,” Fetherston.
“We don’t own any of the content as a publisher would. So, technically, we’re really only a book manufacturer. About once a month we’ll have local people come up and say, ‘I’ve written a book, can you publish it?’ and we have to explain we don’t really do it like that. Book manufacturing has been our gig for a long, long time,” Fetherston said.
“In the ’80s, (the Worzalla family) sold the business to a couple of shyster business guys that raided the pension funds and practically bankrupted the company. My predecessor (Charles Nason), who had sat in this chair for almost 30 years, led a group that put together an employee buyout of the company, and in 1986 we became an employee-owned business. We just celebrated 30 years of employee ownership, which is a long time for an employee-owned business,” Fetherston said.
From 1986, the company’s focus has been 100 percent on printing books.
“The company went through a great growth curve in that period, from ’86 to about 2001. Shortly after the new century began, Asia, specifically China, production really ripped the heart out the American book manufacturing business,” Fetherston said.
“Our customers deserted us en mass to go to China because it was so cheap to print there. We pay people $30 an hour, and China pays – at that time – $3 a day. It’s pretty hard to compete on that level,” he said.
“So, we faced some real adversity right after the turn of the century. But, the company was very resilient. It started printing other kinds of books that were more likely to stay domestically produced,” he said.
“We had made our living around here doing very thin, four-color children’s books, 32 pages usually. You know, they’re the little picture books all of us as little kids crawled up in our parents’ lap had the books read to us. Those really worked well to print in China because they didn’t weigh a lot, because they were thin books.
“So, we started looking around for things that weren’t going over shore as much, even though almost everything did. Bigger, heavier books that were more expensive such as coffee table books,” Fetherston said.
Even though China could produce books for the American market cheaper than American manufacturers, publishers could only cut down logistical costs so far. Shipping inventory was still a costly undertaking and took several weeks.
“Even with modern freighter technology, it’s about four to six weeks from Shanghai to Long Beach, Calif.,” he said. “What we climbed out of the hole with were books that were still being printed in the U.S. Even though our legacy business was the juvenile market, the kid’s books business, we migrated to different kinds of books.
“Coffee table books were the big success at that point. Coffee table books are usually big and heavy, you print a lot of those in China and going to be more expensive because you ship by weight. So, that became a nice new niche for us,” he said.
“The company was knocked down in the early 2000s, but it rebounded quite nicely up until the economic downturn of 2008-09, when it got knocked down again,” he said. “I came in on the tail of that … I was just coming in to the company as it was shaking off the hangover of the economic meltdown and we’ve grown nicely since then. We’ve been in solid financial shape (since).”
Shifts in the industry
“About when I first came on, there was a change in attitude on the part of big publishers,” said Fetherston. “The holy grail was unit cost. Because they could get a book printed in China for 50 cents on the dollar, what they did is they went to China and said, ‘give me a bazillion of these because they’re so cheap, we are saving so much money. Ship them over and we’ll stick them in a warehouse and all the hot sellers will fly off the shelf, and we’ll make a fortune.’
“Well, what smart people in the industry started figuring out was not a lot of books are best sellers. All people outside of the industry ever really read about are the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘Harry Potter’ books that sell 50 million books. Well, in my 30 years in the industry, there are only a handful of books that ever sold like that. The average best-selling books sells only 9,000 or 10,000 copies,” he said.
“The problem was the publishers really don’t know – unless it’s another installment of a fantastically successful series … and there’s a handful of authors that every book they publish goes nuts – what’s going to sell,” Fetherston said. “The problem was they woke up one morning and went out to their warehouse and saw stacks and stacks of books that didn’t sell.
“So, what they started doing was radically cut back the amount of books they printed in China because they don’t know what would be a best-seller or not. They still print there, but the publishers discovered a new model which was to print fewer books in China and if the book takes off, they’d reprint domestically. Now, it’s more expensive on a unit basis, but they’re only reprinting the books that are selling,” he said.
Fetherston said they saw more books starting to be printed in the U.S. after that shift, especially children’s books. It was a big opportunity for domestic companies to get back in the game, but required huge operational shifts.
“The big opportunity for folks like us was we had to change how we do what we do. All of a sudden, there was this really tight timeframe to print books. Instead of having a month or two in the old days like 10 years ago, now they wanted us to turn around a complete book in two to three weeks,” he said.
“So, that was a challenge, and remains a challenge, but it’s a much more fun problem than to have our customers say, ‘we really love you guys, but you’re too expensive. We’re going back to China.’ It allowed us to crawl back,” he said. “We had to do some investment, get faster equipment and retrain people, but the good news was the business was coming back.
“I attribute the ability to go through those two big storms in this century to our employees. Through the concept of employee ownership, I think people felt really committed and worked very hard to help the company figure out a new path and find a way to reinvent itself each time it got knocked down. It’s a testament to terrific people,” Fetherston said.
“We’ve got an awful lot of people who have worked here for 20-30 years … and that’s the big difference in our organization, we’ve just had such great people over the years,” he said
Why Stevens Point?
Worzalla is hired by a large number of high-profile customers looking to print their books, such as Lucas Films (now owned by Disney) for its “Star Wars: Rogue One” illustrated books and J.K. Rowling for her ”Harry Potter” series. The classic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” was originally printed by Worzalla as well.
“We do a lot of work for Disney and Marvel, that’s a new segment we’ve gone into in the past few years that I spearheaded. Movie tie-in books, the type of books movie producers like to have go to market about the same time as the movies. Which is a brilliant strategy because if you’re a big fan of the movie, there’s a good chance you’ll buy the book,” he said.
Another ultra-popular book Worzalla prints is the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney, which is a juggernaut in the children’s book industry and makes best-seller status annually.
“That is one of the best-selling books every single year. It’s aimed at middle school kids, predominantly boys. They’re humor books, but tell a story as well have a lot of jokes. We print six or seven million of those a year,” Fetherston said. “We’ve been doing it for 10 years and we just cracked our 100-millionth book that we produced for the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ series.”
Fetherston attributes Worzalla’s ability to attract international customers to the trust it has earned through decades of precision work.
“We don’t have any customers in Stevens Point. We don’t have a lot of customers in the whole state of Wisconsin. The American publishing industry is based in New York City, and 85 percent of our work comes out of New York City. So, you might wonder, because there a lot of printers between Stevens Point and New York City, why in the heck would they come here? Especially because our customers source printers globally and we’re not the cheapest place in the world to print a book. So, what is it that makes them keeping coming back to us here?”
Fetherston said he asked that very question to all the customers when he came on as president and the unilateral theme to all the answers came down to trust.
“These book publishers sweat every detail, color, style of the font, the cover – you wouldn’t believe how many hours went into designing that Harry Potter ‘Cursed Child’ book we did last year – there’s an awful lot of people that go into that … it just all boils down to trust. They trust we’re going to get them what they want,” Fetherston said.
Having built a solid reputation publishers and authors can trust coupled with adaptability to the needs of the market has paid off for Worzalla and its employee owners.
“It’s very positive right now, we’re very excited about that because we are getting a shot at getting a lot more books than we were 10-15 years ago. A funny thing happened along the way too, maybe five years ago people were starting to say – and I’m talking about regular media – ‘The book is dead.’
“I’m proud and happy to say the book is alive and well, more so than ever,” he said. “What did occur was that certain genres of books did migrate to an electronic platform. If you look at the total number of books that were printed pre-electronic revolution, like romance novels and mystery novels – you know, the paper backs you buy at the airport before a flight – 60 to 70 percent of those have left the print format and have gone to electronic. Very few are left in print now.’
“The phenomena is really because most of the people who read those kinds of books read a lot of them and it really is more convenient to load up a dozen of those on your Kindle when you’re going to the beach on vacation. But the good news for us is that was never really part of our business,” he said.
“We’re very fortunate because coffee table books, which is one of our main segments, and children’s books are still the tactile part of holding the book and holding the physical page. Scientists are studying heavily to figure out why it’s better to teach a kid to read rather than handing them a Kindle. There’s something in the bonding, there’s just something about that bond between the grandparent or parent and a small child teaching them how to read,” he said.
“Those who are still with us are longtime lovers of the book, and I’m thrilled to be able to tell you we didn’t die and it’s not going to change,” he said.
Workers for the future
Worzalla will face unique employment problems in the coming years because many of its longtime workers will be retiring. Fetherston said the company will have to find skilled workers in rapid succession.
“That’s going to be our next big challenge,” he said. “Historically, we’ve had very little turnover. Now we’re facing massive turnover. Not for any other reason (than retirement).
“The problem with 30- to 40-year veterans is they’re going to retire. I’d love to convince them to hang around until they’re 80, but I’m not sure I’d be able to pull that off,” Fetherston joked.
“It would have been nice if that wave would have hit 10 years ago when the unemployment rate in Wisconsin was much higher, our timing was terrible on that one. But our next challenge will be finding that next generation of people that want to work in this environment.
“It’s a lot of fun here, I still get excited to see those big trucks come in full of white paper and at the end of the day we ship out things that look like this,” he said, holding up a copy of a newly-printed children’s book.
“I’ve very proud of that process and the people who make it happen,” Fetherston said.