Decision Gone Wrong

hagridYesterday’s post, garbled though it was, was perhaps not cathartic, but it did seem to clarify some paths to decisions. However, I left that and wandered into a thicket of rue at work over a large, possibly irrevocable decision made last October.

The decision had actually fomented over years, and was probably really made in May, when one of our printers left. We decided this would be a time to consider going to an automatic press.

When I assumed management in 1999, everything at Pat’s Screen Printing was done manually. I believe Pat had an old computer of her son’s (does a Commodore 64 sound right?) that she used to set up a sales spreadsheet so her accountant could prepare sales tax, but that was it. Screen storage was mostly in Pat’s head — and you could ask her where a screen might be, and of two entire walls-worth of choice, she could direct you to the exact shelf — and customers were listed in a Rolodex (younger readers will just have to use the internet to define that term).

Slowly, Pat’s became more dependent on technology, as we acquired first a hand-me-down computer, then bought one, then two — now everyone gets a computer of their own, and can access all the records that are stored electronically.

But we continued to print on manual presses, fancier than the hand-made ones Pat started with in 1980, but still the exact same principles.

Then the voters of the state of Colorado decided minimum wage should be increased. On the one hand, that’s a laudable decision. On the other, despite what you hear academicians say, it creates a very real hardship for small businesses like mine. Because it’s not just minimum wage; there’s the issue of “wage compression,” where people who have worked for several years either have to be raised as well, or their pay grows closer and closer to minimum wage. That’s no way to reward folks who have worked for your company for a long time.

So we decided to use a printer’s departure to do what the rest of corporate America has already done: bring in machines to replace human beings. In October, we made a serious capital expenditure and bought an automatic press.

Now, several companies sell automatic presses, and I’ve been looking around for several years. But most automatics are much larger than the manual presses they replace, and space is at a premium in our shop. (And perhaps we could have sought a different location, but I have watched the business grow as our visiblity has increased, and am very reluctant to leave Main Street.)

There were maybe two presses that would suit our needs, and one came with a diameter two feet wider than the other, which comes from a company with the uninspiring name (and drab color scheme) of Brown.

Now, I know Brown does not have the best reputation out there, but it didn’t really seem to have the worst, either. And a sales rep from Denver, whose company sells the machine not taken (called Workhorse), made a disparaging comment about Brown but then conceded that one of his customers, also in the Denver area, loves his. (Plus, the Workhorse rep, who is always long on promise and short on delivery, never did get me the prices he said he would.)

After looking on line for printers’ thoughts on their machines, I contacted Brown. They were very helpful, informative, and willing to do whatever it took to make a sale (maybe now in hindsight, desperately so), including flying a member of the company to Colorado so he could “evaluate” our site and assure us the press would fit.

The last manual press I bought, I had to invest in a lawyer to actually take delivery after paying for it, so it was a nice surprise — albeit a hectic one — when our new automatic arrived days before they said it would. (Although I doubt it was new; it had enough scratches on it to suggest it had made the trade-show rounds.)

The man who came with it to install it was the first indicator that all would not be peaches and cream. He’s probably the poster child for misanthrope, and he is on the road so much that he doesn’t bother to keep a home or apartment — he spends his entire life in hotels. One of our guys dubbed him “Ross,” for Ray of Sunshine. He made Eeyore look downright cheery as he barraged us with an endless litany of complaints, about his employers, his customers, how very put upon by every aspect of life he was . . .

In addition to installing the press, we had been assured he would provide “one to two” days of training. Instead, without warning, he started “training” at 5 p.m. one night, going until 8 — and then the next morning he packed up his tools and left.

Several things are now becoming clear. For all of Ross’ alleged “expertise,” our press was very poorly put together. And, as at least one other hapless customer noted (we discovered yesterday), Brown is all sweetness and light — right up to the point your check clears.

They say, “Call anytime.” But I guess that doesn’t necessarily imply that they will talk to you or call back like they say they will. They could send someone from Michigan on spec to sell us the press, but have no interest in sending someone to fix the press (which supposedly comes with a one-year warranty) and provide the promised training. In fact, yesterday’s strategy was to impugn our screen-printing ability. It’s probably better they said that to Ben instead of me.

Talk about buyers’ remorse: yesterday I e-chatted with another screen printer who had contemplated buying a Brown, but instead went with Workhorse. They provided him/her with two days of training, fixed a part that went wrong at their expense, and sent some additional printing aids for the inconvenience. (Oh, why didn’t the Denver sales rep make a real effort at a sale?)

The temptation to give up my day job and spend my years traveling around to trade shows, standing alongside the Brown booth warning customers away, is quite strong this morning. I want to single-handedly bankrupt the company, even if that is not particularly a charitable thought.

So, now that I have spent time ruing my expensive decision, I need to make more decisions. I already decided Brown is not going to be of any assistance. I haven’t decided whether to have them buy the press back, a decision that will likely incur legal costs. I think my best bet is to find someone who speaks “machine” to perhaps start over with the installation, and to communicate with the screen printer in the Denver area (there may be one in Cedaredge, too) who own Brown machines to see if we can’t get some real training and trouble-shooting tips.

But none of this is giving me confidence in my ability to make big decisions.

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