Rob Andelman | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rob Andelman

Background:  

Columbia, Maryland-based Nightmare Graphics has been a leader in the printing industry since 1982. The company offers custom services including screen printing, embroidery, dye-sublimation, and promotional products created in-house in its 30,000-square-foot production facility.

The Mistake:

Agreeing to fulfill a massive order that ultimately wore down our employees and alienated many of our existing customers.

In 2010 we had a General Services Administration contract to sell printed T-shirts to the government. That year was the 10-year census, and we were approached by the U.S. Census Bureau to do a rush order of 1.1 million T-shirts.

It was still the middle of the recession, so of course we jumped at the opportunity. We’re a pretty big operation, but even a million shirts into your regular production run takes a very, very long time. And this production run was compressed down to six or seven weeks.

What we ended up running around the clock for seven straight weeks — we only took off Sundays, and ran 18-19 hour days every day.

At the end of the job, we delivered, and everything was perfect and correct. But we realized once it was over that we had stressed our staff to the very end of what they could take. We’d also beaten ourselves up as management and owners, because we didn’t take a day off, or even an hour off honestly. We also alienated a lot of our existing customers, because we had to turn their jobs down just to keep doing this one order.

In hindsight, we probably never should have taken that order, even though we wanted it. A million shirts, that’s a once in every 10 year kind of order — it’s really rare.

It actually did nothing to help our bottom line that year, even though the job was profitable. We turned down the regular work, and we lost customers who went elsewhere and got the services they were looking for.

(Our employees) were just beaten down, burned out, and exhausted.

The Lesson:

We learned that it’s just not a good idea to take a gigantic one shot deal and alienate your customer base while doing that. We need to stick within the parameters we set for how we deliver orders and take orders.

Of course we do rush orders all the time, but with this census project it wasn’t an established customer, it wasn’t an easy job, and it took up all of our capacity. And that’s just from the customer standpoint.

From the employee standpoint, we paid them all bonuses and overtime, but they were just beaten down, burned out, and exhausted. It wasn’t like we finished the job and everyone took a week off. We finished that job and they had to come back the next day, and work again and do all the regular work.

Each business sets up its own rules, be it how to take an order, how to process an order, what have you, but it’s really important to stick to those rules no matter what.

In our industry a lot of customers will forget to place their order, or they need an order very quickly for the big game or whatever it is, and we try to accommodate them as best we can. We have a two-week turnaround time, but we still make the mistake of not saying no to somebody when we should be following our own rules. However, in those cases it’s not nearly as detrimental to the employees’ health or the customer’s expectations.

Nightmare Graphics is on Twitter at @NightmareGraph.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

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