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It Was a Very Good Year

Author: Bonnie Durrance
January, 2010 Issue


In honor of our 35th birthday, NorthBay biz profiles three North Bay companies that have the same amount of candles on their cake—ChromaGraphics, The Marine Mammal Center and The Roman Spa.


The year 1975 saw the end of the Vietnam War, the last of Jimmy Hoffa, the first of “Saturday Night Live” and the appearance of the trademark Microsoft. Gas prices ranged around $0.44 a gallon and a first class stamp cost a dime. Unemployment hovered just under 10 percent, a recession was underway, and awareness of environmental problems was having legislative effect. In that climate of uncertainty and change, several local businesses—including this magazine—emerged and are thriving to this day. Their stories offer insights and models for navigating the current times.
 

ChromaGraphics grows with the times

“My dad has an amazing sense of the customer,” says Eric Janssen, president of ChromaGraphics, the Santa Rosa-based printing company that his dad, Walt, co-founded in 1975. “He’s always been able to see with the eyes of what somebody else would want.” A good job, he taught Eric, isn’t just the end product—it’s the customer’s whole experience, from start to finish.

“The hardest thing to do in business,” says Walt Janssen, who no longer works in the business but remains on the board of directors, “is to get a client. The next hardest thing is to keep that client.” For him, that means giving the client the security of knowing he’s getting a good job. “Packaging is an absolute key,” says Janssen. “How it’s delivered, whether it’s delivered UPS or hand delivered, how it’s boxed, how it’s set on the loading dock.” It’s customer service founded in old school values.

Walt Janssen’s family were farmers in Germany before settling in Sebastopol and going into the chicken business. Walt, when he came of age, didn’t see a bright future in chickens, so he took his father’s advice and went off to learn a vocation. At Laney College in Oakland, he learned printing.

In 1975, he went into business with his friend, Don Herman. When searching for a name, they invented a loose, customer-based form of market research. “We had about 20 names in the hopper,” he says, “and we did a random call to people asking which one they’d give their printing to.” Hands down, the name was ChromaGraphics.

Janssen and Herman leased 1,000 square feet on Ripley Street in Santa Rosa, put in two presses and a camera, enlisted Janssen’s wife as bookkeeper and got going. “I look back at some of the things we did early on in our careers and I cringe,” Janssen says. “I thought at one time the most important thing was just to get ink on paper. But the important thing is that the customer believes you’re providing increased value to the products you’re creating. Great pricing helps, too.”

Technology enhances quality craftsmanship

In the old days, he says, the printer would set the type, take the image to the camera and make a film. Then that would go to a plate, then to a press, then the printed pages would go for finishing or binding. Now, with digital technology, prepress and typesetting is all part of the same process. “Printing is done much better now than ever before,” he says. “Just having a computerized cutter makes things better.”

Eric Janssen, who joined his father in the early ’90s, says digital printing has enabled them to go from producing five to 10 orders of business cards a day to 150. “That’s 450 jobs a week,” says Janssen. “We didn’t used to produce 450 jobs in a month!” But that doesn’t mean profits have multiplied accordingly. “We might produce four jobs to every two we used to produce, but our total revenue has flattened over the last two years, so we’ve needed this increase in productivity to stay competitive,” he says.

In addition, ChromaGraphics offers personalized and customized products so everybody can be marketed to individually. “You can make someone feel more comfortable with your product,” says Janssen. “That’s digital printing.” So, many people can receive notices addressed to them by name, letting them know that their personal favorite varietal is now ready for tasting. An announcement of a wine product may be in warm, rosy tones if it’s for a woman, or in robust, earthy tones if it’s for a man. This “personal touch” marketing has increased success rates by five to eight times that of traditional print.

It’s a family affair

Heidi Janssen Would has worked in the business with her father and brother for nearly 25 years. For her, the family aspect of the business gives customers a sense of security. “My brother and my dad are very similar in their ways: very, very conservative but smart enough to move with the times. We’ve had to grow, but grow carefully,” she says. “So we don’t overspend and we don’t overestimate what a customer will want to purchase. I think they’ve been extremely smart as far as the choices they’ve made with real estate and equipment. We don’t want to go over that threshold and do too much at one time. So rather than huge growth, we’ve taken more moderate steps to sustain and be stronger.”

“Eric,” says Walt, “has an uncanny way of seeing the next step.” A 1980 move from Ripley Street to Park Center on Dutton Avenue was risky, he admits, but the company wanted to expand the manufacturing into a larger space and add a few employees. “We had to go back to our vendors and ask for extensions.” He learned that, if you help your vendors, they’ll help you. “Communicate well with your vendors and they’ll support you,” he says. “Tell them when you’re having a little bit of a problem as far as paying your paper bills, or whatever it may be.” Later, when the company moved again to its present location on Tesconi Circle (1997), the Janssens talked to their vendors up front, letting them know they might be a little late in their payments, “and they said, ‘no problem.’”

Walt looks at the challenges Eric faces in today’s recession in light of his own startup in the 1975 recession. “We were so focused on service and client relationships, we kind of blocked it out of our minds,” he says. “I don’t even remember considering it a recession, as we have today,” he says. “We were just kind of trying to get through it and keep clients happy.” But as conditions have changed over these nearly 35 years, so, he admits, has the nature of recession. “This recession has been absolutely incredible,” he says.

“And I think any business that can stay afloat right now has to be commended. You have to work with your clients to help them stay in business. If your clients are out of business, you’re out of business.”

The Marine Mammal Center to the rescue

For Sausalito’s The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC), business is booming—and regardless of which recession we’re talking about, that’s not good.

“We’ve gone from about six [animals] in 1975 to 1,600 in 2009,” says veterinarian, former volunteer and executive director Jeff Boehm, who practically winces as he says this. He’s talking about 1,600 sick and stranded marine animals that have been treated at the center so far this year (more than double its yearly average). It’s a shocking spike, but with an 800-strong cadre of volunteers and a staff of 45, a 19-member board of directors, a donor list that extends for pages and a $32 million new science, education and hospital facility, The Marine Mammal Center is continuing what it’s been doing for nearly 35 years—just on a vastly larger scale and with a graver message.

The center, originally powered by one man’s passion and launched by a core group of cofounders, is located on a decommissioned missile site in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the Marin Headlands. That’s where, in 1975, Lloyd Smalley, with the help of Pat Arrigoni, Paul Maxwell and Bruce Keegan, founded a simple rescue and rehabilitation center with some shipping crates and plastic wading pools and a determination to help the five or six sick sea lions that washed up on local beaches every year.

At the time, Smalley, a compact, blue-eyed man who, when he enters a room, causes it to fairly light up with energy, had been the curator at the Boyd Science Museum, a small children’s natural history museum in San Rafael, and he was concerned about the numbers of marine mammals dying on beaches. “From time to time, we’d get stranded, distressed marine mammals,” he says, “or we’d get calls to go out and rescue them. And we were getting this increasing number of strandings. You could see the need.” As he talks, you can see his profound connection with the creatures. “They’re so…mesmerizing,” he says, his voice brimming with excitement. “So animated!”

He tells about one named Nikki who was too injured to return to the wild, but became completely healthy at the center. “She was all over this place,” he says, laughing. “To exercise her, I’d have her walk all the way up the hill with me.” Sea lions can actually walk, one learns. By rotating their pelvis, they can get their back legs on the ground and walk on all fours. “I don’t think this place would have been started anywhere besides Marin County,” says Smalley. “The people here are very ecologically conscious.”

“We cover 600 miles of California coastline,” says Boehm, seated at a long table in the new, energy-efficient conference room with ceiling tiles made of seaweed and walls made of largely reclaimed concrete and steel. “[We help animals] all the way north to Mendocino County and all the way south to San Luis Obispo County.” So if someone within that range sees an animal in distress, they phone the center and it deploys a team of volunteers to determine whether that animal needs to be taken care of immediately, needs to be watched or is actually just fine and in no need of rescue. Depending on their assessment, the center may dispatch vehicles to remove the animal and bring it to one of TMMC’s triage centers. There, the animal might rest overnight and then be trucked up to the main hospital in Sausalito.

Sea lions serve as environmental sentinels

Over the years, Boehm says, they’ve seen some patterns in the animals needing rescue. “During the first few months of the year, there will be stranded seal pups who’ve become separated from their moms during storms. Our job is to get them in and fatten them up so they’re ready to go back out. With that category,” he says, “we’re very successful.”

With other conditions, that’s not always the case. “We see an incidence of cancer here that’s extraordinary,” Boehm says. “Almost one in six animals we examine post-mortem has cancer.”

They’re also finding levels of chemicals—PCBs and others—in the animals’ blubber. “A common refrain around here,” he says, “is that what we’re learning about these animals is a great window into ocean health; but it also pertains to human health as well, because many of us are dining on the same food sources, and we’re exposed to the same chemicals as these animals. So we’re very wise to watch what’s going on out here and learn from it.”

Education is part of the mission

One doesn’t usually think about tours around a hospital, but educating the public is a vital part of what the center does. Its mission begins with the sick pup on the beach, but then extends to the learning gained by the volunteers. That understanding is transmitted to visitors. They support a steady process of scientific research, data collection and storage, and information sharing among scientific communities around the world.

“This place touches people,” says Boehm. “We were started by volunteers and, almost 35 years later, to still be sustained by volunteers is a pretty incredible story.” He was a volunteer, himself, in 1980, before going on to study veterinary medicine. “It’s wonderful to be part of this new, emerging center, but it’s also pretty incredible to have that connection all the way back to when the organization was just five years old,” he says. They built it, and the people and animals keep coming.

Since June 2009, he says, they’ve seen about 35,000 visitors. “These are people who are inclined to support the mission, and we can help them along on the continuum of understanding and hopefully move them toward action.”

As an organization supported by donations, one of the desired actions would be reaching for the checkbook and a pen. Over the years, the center has veered near the brink from time to time but always, says Smalley, the donors came through. “Sometimes just in the barest nick of time,” he laughs. Lately it’s experiencing the same constriction as other nonprofits; people are donating less and giving less frequently. But, says Boehm, there’s not been a drop in membership, and people are still supporting the center.

“So what we’re doing,” he says, putting his thumb and extended pinkie to his ear in the “call me” sign, “is reaching out and connecting to people, whether they were giving last year or not. Just keeping them a part of our community, so as we all emerge from this, we’re still present in their minds.”

He thinks a moment, then adds, “and we have a lot of gratitude about what’s brought us here. And whether people can help us right now, or not, they likely helped us get to where we are.”

Taking the waters in Calistoga

Business is pleasure for Kathy and Michael Quast. The Roman Spa in Calistoga, which Michael’s father, Max, bought in 1975, has been a haven for health and relaxation for families, groups and individuals for nearly 35 years.

“We moved in at the end of the summer in ’75,” recalls Quast. “There was just a big open courtyard with a wishing well and lots of chairs and trees. The mineral water was in the rooms. The spa facility was located in an old barn. It was all very simple.”

For the elder Quast, who came to the United States from Germany via Canada after World War II, the hot springs spa was a natural continuation of his European background. “In Germany,” says Michael, “you’re never more than about 50 miles from another hot springs.” Back then, Europeans knew about the healing aspects of mineral hot springs and sought them out to restore themselves. The Roman Spa, originally called Piners Hot Springs, was a place where Michael’s father (who, at 50, was getting a late start in business) could restore himself and offer that to others.

Kathy Quast, a trim woman with an easy smile and warm, brown eyes, married Michael in 1987 when he was a graduate student and she was a nurse. In 1990, he came to work with his father. She started helping out in ’93, and by ’95, left nursing to work in the business full time. “I really like our place,” she says, “our atmosphere, the people we attract. We’re small. We only employ about 25 to 30 people. We don’t have IT or human resources. We take care of most everything ourselves.”

She says people like to feel the presence of an owner who’s there, who really cares and who’s always making sure things are done properly. “We’re fortunate to have people who’ve been with us for 25 years,” she says, “and we have people who’ve been coming here for 25 years.”

Relaxation vs. regulations

“There are now federal and state mandates for the pools,” Quast says. “And the health department is more involved and has a much stricter code than it had back then. You used to just put in a permit for a pool and basically, as long as you had the right filtration system, it was approved. Now, you need safety measures in place and back flow entrapment, and the state and city want to check your books.”

The increased regulations limit their ability to keep up with the demands of some clients. “People are saying they can get this or that in Vegas—such as waterfalls, or water features—so it kind of looks like you haven’t gone anywhere,” says Kathy, adding that while the people who’ve been coming to the spa for years may not need new features, they’ll ultimately be replaced by a new set of people and, for those customers, competition will be stiff.

In the last four or five years, one major customer group, the Europeans, have stayed away. “I think that has a lot to do with 9/11,” says Kathy. “People talk to us about how it’s much more difficult to come into the United States. It’s easier to travel around Europe. It used to be, right after Labor Day, the Europeans would come. Now, they just say ‘It’s difficult, it’s difficult.’”

Readjusting

“We’re trying to be frugal,” says Michael, “but people want the latest technology.” The Roman Spa has Internet access in the office, but people want WiFi throughout, inside and outside, which would be a steep investment; in normal times, it could manage, but not currently. So it’s making the kind of improvements that add value and attractiveness while keeping costs within range.

“We’re putting in new pool decking, so it has an updated image,” says Kathy, “and we’re going to be adding to our linen packages.” They currently have bedspreads, but the trend now is toward duvets. So they’ll have triple sheets with comforters and duvet covers. And they’ll continue to look into WiFi.

Tourist trends have changed. “I think years ago, people were more willing to spend the time to get somewhere,” says Michael, “and now people are taking what’s easiest. So when they get to the City of Napa, they think that’s the Wine Country, and they stop.”

“But we also have a traffic problem,” says Kathy. “People have to be willing to sit in traffic on Highway 29 coming up. There are times when people will call and say they’re not coming. ‘Just too much traffic.’”

“We were looking forward to Destination Napa Valley,” says Michael, “when they were going to promote the whole Napa Valley, but now it’s in a very confused state. I don’t know where it’s going.”

For him, Napa Valley is a kind of a symbiotic environment between the vineyards, the people living here, the lifestyle, the restaurants and the wineries. It’s good relations between people in business and organizations. “All those things are what make Napa Valley.”

Spring forward

“There’s a significant drop off in clients,” says Michael. “It started around November last year. Each month is significantly less than what we’ve done in the past.” Is this unusual? “This is drastically unusual. We’re trying very hard to break even for the year.” Having been in the business a very long time, though, he’s cautious, but not actually worried. “It’s frustrating because you’re working harder, and not much is coming in as in the past. And people are more demanding and a lot harder on you. During the week, we’re not making profits on the rooms, and people want it given away, and we can’t.”

He sees the future in the long term. “I know where I’m going. I want to redefine what we’re doing as a hot springs and modernize it so it’s attractive to today’s customer, as it was to my dad’s customer. That’s where we’re going. Right now, we’re trying to enhance what we have and not lose the tradition and depth of our property. It really is all about the mineral springs. The biggest thing the spa director has to do is tell people to slow down.”

Laughing, Kathy adds, “And don’t text!”

If you consider (as do the staff and volunteers at TMMC) those who love and devote themselves to animals as “family,” then each of these three business have one basic thing in common: they are family businesses. If you listen to each of them carefully, you’ll find that means more than hereditary privilege. It means dedication and growing with the changing times. “We’re printers,” says Eric Janssen, with pride. And Michael Quast looks back to “the waters” as part of his father’s and his German heritage. No doubt, each of The Marine Mammal Center’s 800 volunteers, who labor in service of the sea lions, finds themself as speechless as Lloyd Smalley, if they tried to explain why they do it. “There’s just something about these animals…” Underneath it all, what these businesses really have in common is passion.

Through the years, each of these businesses has ridden waves of change and, at least for The Marine Mammal Center, been very close to sinking once or twice. But something—or someone—came in just in time. What keeps them going? Maybe it’s that simple principle that Eric Janssen so respects in his father—that innate sense of what the customer needs. And maybe, as you can see in the way Michael Quast is planning for the future, you just have to be very, very flexible. And it may be, if the explosion of illness that The Marine Mammal Center is now experiencing is any guide, that success in business is partly determined by how it fulfills the larger, changing need. Whatever it is, these three enterprises are thriving…and their communities are all the better for it.


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