Donna Free and Joe Biddy have more than 60 years of printing experience between the two of them.
Both were trained in traditional printing and both started businesses in the area during the 1980s.
But in 2007, the nation saw one of the worst economic downturns in history, forcing many businesses to change their approach or, worse, close their doors.
Free and Biddy were no exception.
In 1980, Biddy opened Georgia Printing, which specialized in offset printing. Nine years later, Free and her husband, Steve, opened Premier Printing, which eventually specialized in label printing.
Then came the recession. Many printers — a business Biddy and Donna Free said had its share of success prior to the mid-2000s — were forced to shut down, leaving many without jobs or options.
“Our industry has gone down — the demand is just not there,” Donna Free said.
In 2009, the Frees and Biddy had a plan. Premier Printing would buy out Georgia Printing and the two would become one, forming Premier Georgia.
“You can recognize instantly the economy of that,” Biddy said. “Where you’d have two bookkeepers, you now have one. Where you’d have four cutters, you now have two cutters. Where you’d have six pressmen, now you have three pressmen. So the economy of doing that is evident.”
But while trying to make the business floor leaner and still maintain production levels, the company, like many in the region, state and nation, had to ask its employees, along with its owners, to do more.
“We’re not just owners that own the business. We’ve always had active jobs,” said Donna Free. “You just learn to do it. I’ve found our success comes from everybody being cross-trained. You just move around people and they do the job.”
Historically the printing business has had niche jobs and employees were only asked to perform one role. A pressman would just operate the press. An accountant would just punch the numbers. A designer would just, well, design.
Now, everybody on the production floor and in the front office is asked to wear more hats.
“In every sector, we’re doing so much more as far as production and goods, but we’re doing so with much fewer people,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s definitely a trend and a trend that will continue, no question.”
That sentiment is true at Premier Georgia’s McEver Road offices.
“I’m more hands-on today than I’ve ever been,” said Biddy. “When Donna started out, she knew how to do everything. As they grew, they brought on more folks and they could do more things. But now as we ratchet down a little bit, we’re back to doing more things.”
But that doesn’t mean business has slowed. In 2000, the Frees started printing labels, mainly for the area poultry industry. Two years ago, they started producing packaging for the same industry.
“I didn’t want to sit back. I wanted to grow my business,” said Donna Free. “I’m going to go get work because it may not come to you.”
And although she may have an office with a window, it’s doubtful you see her with her feet up. As her employees’ responsibilities multiply, so do hers.
“I’ve been doing all the ‘owner’ stuff, but then I’ll go and do order entry. Then I’ll go and do some design work,” she said.
“I had employees. Joe had employees. I wanted to stay (in business) for them. I wanted to work hard and sustain for them. They give 100 percent like I have, so I feel like I owe my employees the extra work that I’m doing.”
The result? A thriving business forged in a bad economy.
“The recession just continued to eat into our business (prior to the merger),” said Biddy. “There were a number of people who went out of business that didn’t need our product anymore.
“(But) the result has been good. I’m sure there’s been some sleepless and anxious nights for the Frees. With this stinking economy, you were not real sure there for awhile whether it was going to tick up or tick down. They kept the faith and stayed the course and now it’s starting to pick up.”
But even though things are starting to pick up for local businesses, asking more out of employees and working “lean” is likely to remain commonplace in today’s business world.
“I hate to use the term ‘new norm’ because everybody uses that term, but that’s exactly what is going to happen,” said Biddy. “It is going to be the way businesses are run.”