Rodney Brown: A Tale of Two In-plant Eras
"I LEARNED how to run the Ludlows and then offset," says Rodney Brown, referring to a stint working on a Ludlow hot metal typesetting system at Kent County Publishing back in May 1965. "It was rigorous to do. I just liked it. Even back then, there was always something new."
Brown later became head pressman at Tidewater Publishing but left to pursue an education, even after receiving a 10-cent raise. "It was a big deal back then," he remarks.
Brown, now manager of University Printing at the University of Delaware—where he oversees a staff of 17 and an operating budget of $2.8 million—has seen a lot of changes since those early days. At the university now for nearly 30 years, and a well-known figure in the in-plant industry, Brown would still probably rather be taking in a ball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, or skipping across the Chesapeake Bay on his 42-foot Sea Ray Sundancer with his wife, Karen, if he had his choice. Or perhaps he would head to one of Delaware's beaches with her and their two children and four grandchildren.
An avid boating enthusiast, Brown started his love of the seas young, fishing with his father in a Wellcraft. "God, I was 9," he recalls.
Growing up on a farm in Ingelside, Md., he attended grade school in a one-room school house that didn't even have a toilet inside. But that world might as well have happened to someone else as now his time is split between boating on a luxury vessel and working with multi-color offset and digital presses in his award-winning in-plant.
In 1969, though, Brown and his colleague Jerry Rash worked at Dover Litho Printing—Brown on the front end, Rash in the press area. But one day the paper cutter at the shop received a raise and Brown didn't, even though he basically ran the shop for his boss.
"I did it all myself. I didn't have anyone who answered to me," he recalls. "If it had to be done, I did it back then."
Brown knew it was time to venture into something new: his own print shop. He and Rash hatched a plan to go into business and eventually opened Capitol Lithographers in 1972. Brown invested $12,000, and Rash threw in another $9,000. The business soon brought in enough income for them to hire nine employees as revenues soared.
In 1980, Brown went on vacation in the Bahamas. When he returned, Rash had literally stopped the presses; he'd found someone to buy him out for $50,000. But he wouldn't let Brown meet the investors, and the deal soon fell through.
After several other attempts by Rash to sell, he pulled out altogether, and Brown was left with the hard work of closing the shop and laying off the employees. The doors closed September 30, 1980. After that, he tried to continue running the business from his garage using a 12x18˝ ATF press. Nine months later, though, he finally gave up.
"I was just one man," he laments.
Back to School
On September 1, 1981, Brown began working at the University of Delaware's in-plant as an assistant manager. In 1984 he was promoted to manager.
"Today, a manager has several people who fall below him and they carry it from there," Brown remarks. "Back then, if it had to be done, you did it. Today, you are more of a paper pusher."
He has a lot of leeway in running operations at the shop and deciding which capital investments to make.
"I wouldn't say its carte blanche, but we have a lot of flexibility," Brown says.
In 2000, he brought in a five-color Komori press, and two years later the in-plant added a computer-to-plate system. In 2009, the shop became one of the first in-plants to install a Xerox iGen4 digital color press.
In the 46 years he has spent in the printing industry, Brown has witnessed a lot of technology changes.
"Now you have electronic files; before it was all hard copy," he says. " You also would have to do the job completely by yourself with your hands, whereas today it's all done on the collator. You took a lot more time to do the job than today. It was just tougher."
The in-plant, which has won two In-Print Best of Show awards over the years, does the majority of the printing for the University of Delaware, but not all of it. Despite the in-plant's five-color press and iGen4, some large jobs must still be outsourced to commercial printers. Brown notes that some of those printers require about two weeks to complete jobs, and if the university needs them faster, they pay extra.
"If they go outside, there is a rush charge. Not so with us," he says. "Most people have the mentality that it is a fast food restaurant and you just drive up."
Brown says he is looking to increase the volume of work, so he is exploring other revenue sources.
"We are trying to get into more specialty items like buttons and pencils," Brown says. "You gotta do things different to pick up new orders."
A strong believer in the value of conferences and networking, Brown has been attending the Association of College and University Printers (ACUP) and the In-Plant Printing and Mailing Association (IPMA) conferences for many years.
"You learn a lot from other people there," Brown says. "Just talking, sometimes at the lunches, you learn more than at the sessions themselves. There are just so many people there with knowledge. If you just listen, you learn."
He plans to be at both events this spring, and looks forward to attending the IPMA awards banquet in June where his in-plant will be honored with four new In-Print awards. And Brown knows something about winning: his in-plant has already won 63 awards for its work.
"You are just tickled to death that your plant has done a good job," Brown says.
Related story: Delaware Dives into Digital Color