2020 Top 50 Suppliers: Ennis Inc. Talks Leading Through Adversity
By the fourth quarter, C-suite executives have finalized their goals for the year ahead. But for the first time in our lives, we can’t predict much of anything. In fact, “I just don’t know” now completes the trifecta of 2020 corporate speak that already includes “pivot” and “unprecedented.” When the first wave of coronavirus cases crashed into the U.S., businesses across all industries took drastic measures to preserve jobs and keep doors open as state governors enforced stay-at-home orders. Some were successful; others were not as fortunate.
Throughout this uncertainty, printers have kept the presses running. Part of a critical infrastructure industry as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, these professionals play a crucial role in protecting the nation’s food, medical and health care supply chains, to name a few. That being said, hard decisions surrounding salary cuts, furloughs and permanent layoffs still affected members of our community.
Leaders are human, forced to grieve lost routines, social connections, family structure and a sense of security like the rest of us. On the other hand, they are paid to provide assurances, direction, hope and actionable information. While we don’t know what’s next, we do know leaders are only as good as their employees. When interviewing the principals of the top-ranked companies listed in Print+Promo’s 2020 Top 50 Suppliers chart, there was a common theme of empathy throughout the discussions. In fact, several of these executives cited employee well-being and safety as their primary concerns, and were most proud of meeting those needs. They also acknowledged that any wins were the result of an incredible team effort.
To provide additional context, we spoke to Keith S. Walters, chairman, CEO and president of Ennis Inc., No. 1 on the list.
What was your company’s biggest accomplishment over the last year?
Keith S. Walters: This year has been difficult for our country, our customers and our employees with the lockdowns, changes in the business environment, stress, and the (fortunately rare) COVID infection. Our biggest accomplishments would be our employees managing the business to remain profitable at a lower sales volume. The second most important is, as an essential business, keeping all of our locations open. Our customers and their customers rely on Ennis to produce medical, food, manufacturing, distribution and other essential items that were still in high demand during the early days and throughout the pandemic. Additionally, there are thousands of Ennis employees that were able to keep earning their paychecks, allowing them to support their families and communities.
How is your company positioning itself to stand out in 2021?
KSW: Our plants have used this time to focus on new product development, discovering new reseller channels for our products and educating our customers on the wide variety of capabilities available through Ennis.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your acquisition strategy? Have you paused any deals, and, if so, when do you anticipate M&As picking up again?
KSW: It is rare that we don’t have an acquisition opportunity that is being worked on. Not all of them end up with a deal in the end. During the pandemic, we’ve been working several opportunities, but we’ve also learned over the years that entrepreneurial owners don’t typically want to sell their businesses during a downturn when the volume of their business might be depressed.
You have always maintained that a strong balance sheet and strong free-cash flow position contribute to Ennis’ successful run. How has this helped in 2020, in particular? Has much changed since your official statement in June regarding the company’s Q1 financial results?
KSW: Our balance sheet remains strong. Ennis did not apply for or accept any government assistance, and we did not have to access our bank credit facility during this difficult time. The hard work by our employees and the loyalty of our customers have allowed us to remain strong, and our cash position for the recently ended quarter is better than the prior year’s results.
What is the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
KSW: It would have to be taking the job at Ennis. At the time I joined Ennis, the perception of the company was low, the financial position wasn’t strong and the board of directors was in disarray. The risk paid off as Ennis recommitted themselves to the distributor market as the industry shifted from the quick printer and major directs. The returns of the last 20-plus years have brought significant value to the shareholders of the company.
What is the greatest lesson that 2020 has taught you?
KSW: I’ve always thought we’ve had the best systems, but being challenged by the pandemic made it clear that we do. Our general managers have done an excellent job in reading and understanding what the systems are telling them about their businesses. They are making the necessary changes at the right times, which has allowed us to remain profitable during this difficult year.
How are you decompressing during these unprecedented times?
KSW: During these more difficult times is when you are needed more, not less. Honestly, I don’t find work stressful. I find it challenging, and this is where I want to be.
Is there anything you would like to add to give our readers a better sense of your business approach and the industry at large?
KSW: With more than 50 locations across the U.S. and a wide range of product lines, costs to produce a product and what we can make on the sale varies widely. At Ennis, we preach that each location will be judged by their potential and how close they come to meeting that potential. Plant A may make more money than plant B, but that doesn’t mean that the management team running plant B didn’t do a better job than plant A. By focusing on the potential of an operation, you give the team realistic goals that, with hard work, can be achieved.
View the full 2020 Top 50 Suppliers list here.
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