One Company’s Story: A Case Study in a Business’ Evolution

This article first appeared in the November 11, 2019 edition of Mailers Hub News

In an industry where longevity is a rare quality, the life cycle and evolution of an enterprise in the commercial mailing business can be an interesting case study in adaptation and survival. An example is Whittier Mailing Service.

Back in the day

WMS was founded in 1964 by Ken Casford after a successful career publishing a magazine for the California Trucking Association. Ken started Whittier Mailing Service because there were very few mailing companies that wanted to handle the audit work for a controlled circulation magazine (the BPA Audit) – and he was tired of driving to Los Angeles from Whittier.

The company was state of the art in 1960s mail processing. It had automated Addressograph plate making equipment for mailing lists, a full list maintenance department (where all the plates were filed by hand), and high speed addressing equipment that could do direct imprint on envelopes and brochures.

WMS had a resident mailing list, compiled by driving the streets of Whittier and surrounding communities, writing down street numbers, then returning to the office and embossing Speedomat plates. Back then, the Post Office (the USPS was not born until 1970) would sort the Speedomat plates in carrier walk sequence and “add” any missing numbers for ten cents apiece, with no charge for walk sequencing – but with no discount on third-class postage either!

Mail sorters in the shop had to sort finished mail by geography – ZIP Codes didn’t come into being until 1967.

Things start to change

Whittier Mailing Service was one of the first companies in the industry to use personal computers to maintain mailing lists. The primary reason to get into computers in 1982 was purely necessity – the USPS stopped sequencing resident files on plates and WMS had a 400,000-plate resident file that it couldn’t afford to throw away. (At that time, many in the mailing industry did not believe PCs would ever take over for mini- or mainframe computers.)

During the 1960-1990 period, most mailing service companies only handled mail processing, and printing businesses only did printing. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the market changed as more printers got into mailing as a value-added service. The flow of customer referrals from printers slowed even further after 2008 as mail was hit by the recession and as social media emerged as a cheaper alternative to hardcopy mail.

Mailing equipment also changed during this time period as mechanical mailing systems (such as Cheshire labeling machines, which would last for years) were replaced by inkjet printers (that would be replaced every three or four years). Capital costs were increasing at the same time as the prices that could be charged for services were decreasing.

Marketing demands were changing as well. Customers began to want full service: creative and design, printing, mail production, electronic tracking, and internet services. This trend pushed mail service providers to evolve, merge with other complementary businesses, or simply close.

The story of Whittier Mailing Service was a little different, however, again because of necessity, and a fortuitous observation by Ken’s son, Rich.

The mother of invention

Back in 1989, Rich, then the VP of Whittier Mailing Service, was trying to figure out how to deal with the ever-changing needs of bag tags (slide labels for mail sacks) after watching a mail processing crew hand write bag tags for a large Cheshire-labeled catalog mailing.

Many Cheshire-label-based paper mailing lists at that time were in straight ZIP Code order, requiring mail processors to sort and bundle mail on the fly. Bag labels were handwrit-ten (itself a problem) since workers never knew what the sort or sack level would be in a mailing until it was processed. No one could store pre-printed bag tags for all the required sort levels in a nationwide mailing. This was not an efficient system.

Though WMS had added PC computers for data list management in 1982, the rapid change in computer technology resulted in several used computers just sitting on the shelf. So Rich asked his computer department to design a new system and machine that would print an on-demand bag tag by only keying-in a ZIP Code and level of presort. The tag would be accurate and readable!

Six months later, the Whittier Mailing Products Bag Tagger was born. (In 1989, most mail was placed in #3 canvas mail sacks, hence the name “Bag Tagger.”) The original Bag Tagger was built on a TeleVideo Monitor that included a molded keyboard. After attaching an Epson dot matrix printer, the unit produced a machine-printed tag in 16 seconds: slow but very legible.

The design had to be simple and not require computer training (this was 1989, not the 2019 smartphone generation). The WMP Bag Tagger was rolled out on the production floor at Whittier Mailing Service and staff were told to use it to make the tags that they needed. With only one Bag Tagger available, though, production stopped as the mail processors lined up like at an ATM machine to print their tags before starting production. This was not going to work.

Rich went back to his computer department and had them pull more used computers off of the shelf to build more Bag Taggers. Soon every mail processing machine in the plant had a Bag Tagger next to the conveyor belt, putting on-demand sack tag label printing at the operator’s fingertips.

Word soon spread in the Southern California mailing community about this new machine that makes bag tags from a computer. Mailing professionals would stop at the plant and ask “Could you make us one?”

Opportunity

Opportunity had just knocked, so Rich, having set-up Whittier Mailing Products apart from the mailing operation, immediately saw the chance to expand his business.

The computer staff at WMP redesigned the Bag Tagger to be mass-produced. As each design developed, the Bag Tagger was rolled onto the production floor at Whittier Mailing Service with virtually no instructions. If the mail processors could not figure out how to use the machine, the Bag Tagger was sent back to the computer department to make intuitive how a mail processor was required to sort and sack mail. “Designed by Mailers for Mailers” became the motto of Whittier Mailing Products.

As the computer industry changed, so did the Bag Tagger. When barcodes became a requirement for USPS postage discounts, and trays took over for mail sacks, the Bag Tagger changed to become known as the Bar Code Tagger. Using a direct thermal printer, the Bar Code Tagger could print a tray tag in one second. Updates went from diskettes to wireless internet connection, and USPS distribution tables were embedded in the program and updated monthly.

Evolution

As customers requested additional mail processing supplies, WMP added a full line of wafer seals and tabs for self-mail-ers, specialty labels for marketing programs, ink for high-speed addressing systems, toner for copy machines, and even the #64 Rubber Band used in mail processing. Since many mailers have “just in time” inventory needs, WMP began investing in large volumes of the most common wafer seals and ink cartridges to make them ready for immediate shipment from regional warehouses.

In time, the evolution of Whittier Mailing Service was complete. Decreased demand, a combination of competition for shrinking mail volume and the growing cost of equipment, led to the closure of WMS on March 31, 2016. Advantage Mailing of Orange took over the customer accounts and another local mailing service purchased all of the equipment.

But what was once a one-product start-up born from a production problem at WMS had become a thriving business of its own. Rich now leads Whittier Mailing Products and focuses on strategic planning as the needs of the mailing and printing industries continue to evolve.

Over his 52 years in the mailing business, Rich has seen the industry evolve from family-owned mailing companies to full-service marketing firms. But he’s also noticed that what hasn’t changed is the dedication of the mailing and printing communities to helping their customers grow their businesses. He believes there’s no industry more dedicated to customer satisfaction than the mailing and printing industry.

Now, thirty years later after Rich had an idea, Bar Code Taggers are in all fifty states, Canada, and Mexico. Whittier Mailing Products still operates under the motto “Designed by Mailers for Mailers.” As Rich notes, that has been, and will continue to be, the company’s goal.


Excerpted from the November 11 issue of Mailers Hub News

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