Q and A with Skip Bliss
Today’s edition of The Janesville Gazette represents a milestone in the company’s history. It’s the first printed at the new Janesville Gazette Printing & Distribution plant, which sits on 13 acres at 333 S. Wuthering Hills Drive on Janesville’s east side.
Skip Bliss, president and CEO of Bliss Communications, sat down for a few minutes to discuss the $22 million project that includes a 54,000-square-foot building, a new printing press and new distribution equipment.
Q: Several people have commented that this building looks much too nice to be a production facility. What was the thinking that went into how the building looks?
A: The architects gave us a lot of options. One was more of a manufacturing sort of a box-style building. There were several others that played off Wisconsin’s agricultural history. The one we were taken by is almost kind of a Prairie style. It’s not necessarily Frank Lloyd Wright-ish. We felt the pressroom would lend itself really nicely to that kind of a Prairie pitched roof because the press is 32 stories high. The rest of the building is pretty much manufacturing with a contemporary box look. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being something that might last three years and 10 being a Taj Mahal, we gave the consultants a guideline of a 6 or 7. We probably ended up with a 10.
… Our main operations are still in downtown Janesville, and we’re glad that we’re there. If you’re building a corporate headquarters, then you want to make a real architectural statement, but I don’t think we had that in mind here. The location was one we had in mind for a long time. This is a location that we’ve always felt strongly about because of its proximity to the youth athletic fields and all of the families and the activities that go on there. We were aware of the exposure this building would get. That’s always been a group that we’ve had relationships with.
Q: What’s happened with your business that made you feel this is the right time to pull the trigger on this kind of investment?
A: Our building downtown is 40 years old. The printing technology is 40 years old. Printing presses are built to last almost forever, so its not often that you change presses. What really drove this project was the problem we had in handling our pre-printed insert advertising. Forty years ago, newspapers didn’t know what a pre-printed insert was. Now, every time there’s retail growth in the community, it’s probably going to be some sort of national box store that brings an insert with it. Home Depot, Best Buy, Gander Mountain—they’re all insert customers of ours. Our downtown facility was overtaxed. We had no room to store the inserts, and we had poor means of handling them.
… We had a bad situation in our distribution area. Whenever you look at building on a new site, you really need to look at a new press, too. The press became the focal point, and what’s changed in our business are the demands for high quality four-color printing. Our old press had limitations between our editorial four-color photography and a few color ads. That was pretty much the extent of what we were capable of. The advertiser demand for good quality four-color work is substantial. This press in this facility will print high quality four-color work on every page. The opportunity to get into the world of commercial printing … that’s something that our press downtown is not capable of. This new press is much faster with much more capacity, and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to do some of that printing work.
Q: Like many other businesses in Janesville, yours is heavily dependent on an economy driven in large part by what goes on at General Motors. If GM were to close, maybe Janesville loses a carpet seller, a grocery store or a car dealer. That’s catastrophic for each of those businesses, but your business would suffer from losing advertising business from all three. With the uncertainty at GM, how are the risks associated with your project here multiplied and magnified?
A: There are risks; there’s no question about it, but it’s not just GM. Our own industry is changing. People are garnering information in so many different ways. It’s not as easy to print newspapers and recruit readers as it used to be. You’d like to have a perfect world anytime you undertake a project like this, one where the economy is incredibly strong and advertising demand is over the top and local industries are all strong and thriving. But there are times in the lifecycles of businesses where you have situations where you simply are faced with issues, and you have to take risks and improve those conditions.
… There are great people working for this company, and we’ve done the best that we can do develop financial forecasts that indicate we’re capable of managing a project like this. Certainly, if a company like GM had a problem, yeah, it’s going to affect everybody in this town, and we would have to make adjustments in the way we operate the business.
Q: You’ve been running this company for a long time and your family has owned it for nearly 125 years. How do this project and the commitment that goes with it rank in that storied history?
A: It’s one of the milestones. It’s a once-in-a-generation commitment. The last time this happened was in 1967 when my dad and his brother built the facility downtown. At that stage of the business, there was a huge change in technology. We went from letterpress printing, hot metal, to offset cold-type printing. Maybe once in every generation, there’s that kind of dynamic, either a change in technology or change in demand that results in something like this. It’s a great project, and it’s a milestone for my family and me. It’s a great time, an exciting time, for the people who will be working here and working on this equipment. Many of them have worked in conditions that I would have to say were pretty inadequate. It’s fun to see the excitement on their faces.
Q: There’s a common misperception that the Gazette is leaving downtown Janesville. What’s your perspective on the importance of the Gazette being downtown?
A: We need to be sure we’re getting the message out. People will see a substantial campaign announcing the arrival of a brand new Gazette. The advent of this building means the Gazette will have a much different look to it. When we sat down and first started talking about this, certainly one of our options was to move everything (to Wuthering Hills Drive). In a lot of respects, that’s a very attractive proposition: You don’t have to operate two separate buildings, you don’t have to find ways to get those buildings to communicate with other. But the best way to look at those plans is to talk to the people who really operate the business. We asked: “In a perfect world, if you could go anywhere and do your work, where would you want to be?” Several people thought they could probably do business (at the Wuthering Hills Drive location) or do business downtown. Primarily from a newsgathering standpoint, there was some pretty strong opinion that we would really prefer to stay downtown.
… Equally as important is that this newspaper has editorialized and talked very strongly over the years about the need for a community to have a strong and a vibrant downtown. For whatever reason, the newspaper has been kind of a downtown institution. It’s kind of like city hall, the courthouse. People think of the newspaper when they think of downtown, so, to a degree, I felt if we would pick up and leave, there would be an element of carpetbagging that I’m not sure right now would be a good thing for us.
… Down the road, we’ve got a lot of work to do downtown. Once this project is up and running, fine-tuned and the bugs are out of it, we believe we’ve sold our existing press to another newspaper company, but it will be quite a project to get that out of our building. That will happen next spring, and it will create a lot of new space. Then we will start the process of remodeling all that. We’re tight downtown, and we have people in places that they probably shouldn’t be. This gives us the chance to have a little elbow room downtown.
… We originally thought we could build this building and still have room for future growth on the eight acres, but the more we got into it, it wasn’t going to be enough, so we got five more acres. In the future, that five acres could accommodate another facility, a virtual twin to this facility, and it would have room if another generation wants to move all our operations out here.