The Flesh Company Turns
St. Louis-based supplier The Flesh Company turned 100 this year. To put that accomplishment in perspective, here's a list of things The Flesh Company is older than:
- "The Jazz Age" and the mainstreaming of jazz music
- The 50-star American Flag
- The 49-star American Flag
- The Great Depression
- Women's Suffrage
The Flesh Company existed before the modern music boom, before America was whole, before the most basic and critical antibiotic science, before our country's worst economic fall—before 50 percent of our population could even vote. It's an enormous amount of history to live through, and it makes for a fascinating company history and culture, especially when the company's been owned and run by the same family since its inception.
Founded in 1913 by Roy V. Flesh, The Flesh Company began as a response to, of all things, a baseball game. After taking off work to see a Cardinals game, Flesh was disappointed following his return to work the next day, when all his boss had to say was, "Well, I wish you hadn't done that. We could have used you around here." Bothered by his boss's attitude, Flesh decided to strike off and form his own company.
Since its founding, the company has grown to be one of the largest printers in the industry, ranking 17th on Print+Promo's 2012 Top Suppliers list with a yearly revenue of $32,471,000. It's endured two world wars (the second of which Flesh's son served in, before coming home to work at, and eventually run, the company), every modern financial collapse since the market crash of 1929, and the massive contraction of American manufacturing. It's adapted to the modern computer era and helped to found what eventually became the PSDA (of which it's a charter member). Below, Roy V. Flesh, II, CEO; Bob Berardino, president and COO; and Jillian Flesh, process improvement manager, discuss the company's past, future, and what it feels like to be 100 years old.
Print+Promo (P+P): What does it feel like to be at a company that's celebrating its 100th anniversary? What does it feel like to be running one?
Roy V. Flesh II (RF2): It's a combination of pride and amazement. When you look back at what has occurred in world history since 1913 and realize that a company started by one man has stood the test of time, and in an industry which has certainly seen dramatic change, it truly is a success story. When my grandfather R.V. started the company, he was a broker selling three products: sales books, tags and envelopes. His biggest challenge was finding quality suppliers and it was not unusual to see him travel coast to coast looking for them.
I do not believe that one person runs a company. I have a vision of where I want the company to move while staying true to my grandfather's core values. I'm blessed to have a great management team and employees who continue to make the vision a reality.
P+P: Your company has survived every modern American recession and depression. Because of that, do you think the company has evolved and nurtured a culture of, I don't want to say survivalism, but you've got this inherited skill and culture of three-to-five generations of accountants, CFOs and CEOs who pass on things like, "This is how we got through the Depression, always do this and this and this," and "This is how we got through the '70s and '80s, always do this and this and this." Does that give you this chain of skill and culture where you're much stronger against historical downswings?
RF2: We started with a firm business foundation built on three pillars that R.V. put in place:
- Stay on the cutting edge of new technologies.
- Always provide customers with the best service our industry has to offer.
- Stand behind every order we produce, thereby providing customers with total peace of mind.
None of these can be accomplished without highly skilled people, from the president to the person who wraps the pallets of a customer's order. With these three core values, we can move through product changes, market erosion and competition from challenging technologies. We do not consider ourselves as business forms printers; we are experts in helping clients manage the flow of information within their client's business. Our history has taught us to watch for opportunities for growth in that information flow industry.
P+P: Do you remember any stories your grandfather, your father or any other family members told you about the company's past? (What was it like during the Depression, WWII, etc.?)
RF2: One of my favorite stories my grandfather told me involved a sales representative he hired to work in Kansas City. Having a remote salesperson in those days was very forward-thinking, and he even included a company car, a Model T Ford. When the salesman left the company, RV took the train from St. Louis to Kansas City, and it took him two days to drive back in the Model T. I can guarantee that he wasn't texting or emailing during that 250-mile trip in 1922.
My dad (Scud) joined the company in 1946 after his service in WWII. In those days deliveries could take as long as six months due to material shortages. Scud stayed focused on the core values set by his father, but had a vision of expansion. He recognized an opportunity and moved the focus of the company from distribution to quality manufacturing. We began our first production facility by offering continuous imprinted business forms in the 1950s.
P+P: Modernization and looking toward the future have always been big things for you guys. What do you do to keep that kind of forward-looking perspective? Is it something that you and your father (or you and your grandfather) explicitly talked about, like "Son, always play the long game," or was it something you learned more by example? A mix of both?
RF2: R.V. was president from 1913 to 1956, 43 years. I was fortunate to be in the business a number of years before R.V. passed on, and there were many conversations on business practices and long-term planning. They all revolved around the three values I mentioned previously, and also on the value of good people. Dad was president from 1956 to 1976, when he brought in Carl Roesel as president. I assumed the position from 1986 to 2006. In 2006, I asked Bob Berardino to assume that role, which he continues today.
P+P: How are you applying the lessons mentioned above to moving the company into the future?
Bob Berardino: When I joined the organization in 2002, the focus was our approaching 100th anniversary. It did not take long to understand that the expectations of our customers, our associates and our suppliers extended far beyond that benchmark. Today, we continue to focus on delivering a quality product at a competitive price. We continually invest in people, processes and technology to better communicate with and understand the needs of our clients. While we are not yet counting down to our next centennial celebration, we are constantly evaluating how we can be of better service to our customers, our associates and the industry.
RF2: Our management team is constantly reviewing new technologies and making significant investments in our equipment. For example, in the last two years we've invested several million dollars into both new equipment and software to run the business. To stay in tune with our customers, we've added additional sales staff who are continually traveling, seeing clients and gathering industry insight. We are using new digital online technologies to stay in touch with customers and prospects. A very exciting part of our future is that my youngest daughter, Jillian, has joined the company. I never pressured my kids to become part of the business, but she chose to come on board because she wants to see the company continue to excel for another 100 years. She has a fresh outlook on the business and no blinders on for where she can lead it.
P+P: Any thoughts on the future of this industry you'd like to share? How do they relate to what you're planning with The Flesh Company?
RF2: Our focus will be on supporting our current customers and the business document market as we still see that as a very viable business model. Naturally, we will continue a strong presence in the value-add segments of security printing, health care, labels and integrated products, as these areas continue to show growth and new applications. Our scanning and data capture business unit is on the leading edge of its industry, which is another segment of the information flow arena. As my daughter Jillian comes into the business, it's very satisfying to know that another generation will be here to continue providing jobs for our associates and quality products for our clients for many years to come.
P+P: Anything you could say about the next hundred years for The Flesh Company?
Jillian Flesh: We will continue to grow and prosper, building on the core business values my great-grandfather created. With these pillars, we were able to move from continuous and unit set forms to laser cut sheets, and from there to variable imaging, integrated products, labels and even scanning and data capture technologies. We invest not only in technology that allows us to create products more efficiently, we are willing to invest in technologies that will eventually displace some of our older products as their life cycles mature. Business culture is an evolution. In Scud's generation and even my dad's, change could be difficult. With my generation, change is not only expected, it's the norm. So, as our customers bring new opportunities to us, we have to be able to adapt with the industry.
P+P: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
RF2: Customers know us as a strong, viable supplier of business documents and labels. Bob's skills in lean manufacturing and team building keep us in a position to serve current customers and earn the trust of new clients. You can hear real examples of this from our team on our YouTube channel—The Flesh Company. I intend to be here as CEO for many more years; however, when the time comes to pass the torch, it's exciting a fourth generation is here and passionate about the business. We have a very bright future.