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After a century, HBP sees technology in the fine print

November 03, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

When HBP was started in 1903 - as Hagerstown Bookbinding & Printing - the Wright brothers were experimenting with manned flight, Theodore Roosevelt was president, Panama agreed to let the United States build a canal and the Boston Pilgrims defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series.

And the company's jobs were printed with a handfed letter press.

The company still has a letter press, but it has moved well beyond that, HBP President John Snyder said. The newest technology at the HBP plant on Frederick Street in Hagerstown is digital equipment.

In September, HBP bought and installed a NexPress color digital press, which is a joint venture between Kodak and Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG.

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With digital printing, the days of film seem ancient. Images can be stored and altered, to be printed at any time.

Snyder, 45, watched recently as an employee demonstrated how the press allows projects to be customized.

For example, a particular 16-page brochure ordered by a customer had 17 different spots where it was personalized. Individual names were printed on the manuals for the employees who were to receive them. This was done through a database that was fed to the printer during the job.

Snyder said HBP's goal is to use the color digital press to make 1 million impressions this year.

The company's two black-and-white presses now make about 20 million to 22 million impressions a year, he said.

"We're evolving into an era of computer-integrated manufacturing," Snyder said.

HBP started on that path in the mid-1980s, a few years after Snyder became president.

Snyder said he studied math and computer science in the 1970s, when large mainframes in basements read data on punch cards.

After a while, he said to himself, "I don't want to spend my life in the basement of the math building," so he switched to history as his major.

His computer background helped when he returned to HBP.

Now, printing can be precise. A scanner can read color output and automatically adjust ink levels - increase the magenta, decrease the cyan - when they're slightly off.

Snyder grew up with the company. His father, William Snyder, bought the business in the early 1960s.

William Snyder had owned the Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Register, a weekly newspaper. The newspaper was more than 100 years old when William Snyder closed it in 1958. A printing operation remained.

HBP was on Franklin Street in Hagerstown when Jamison Door Co. sold it to William Snyder. He took HBP's Franklin Street plant and his Shepherdstown print shop and combined them at the plant on Frederick Street.

William Snyder died in 1979. His wife, Jane Snyder, took over.

John Snyder, who had worked with his father at the plant as a teenager, became president in 1982.

Snyder said the company has survived over the years - while competitors in the Baltimore and Washington area have folded - by offering more than just printing.

HBP has an Internet division that hosts about 70 Web sites. It processes credit card transactions and runs online stores. It offers a distribution service that includes storage, labeling, mailing and tracking inventory.

Snyder said those divisions work together in interesting ways.

It's possible, he said, to track a mail-order purchase someone makes and send the buyer, the next day, a color catalogue of similar products. The response rate might be 10 times higher when merchandise is targeted so specifically, he said.

HBP has in-house graphic artists who can design either printed material or Web sites. One recent morning, an employee was working on the Georgetown University's men's basketball program.

Snyder said F&M Bank and its holding company, Susquehanna Bancshares Inc., are among HBP's larger clients.

HBP has a sales representative in New York City, where the company works with some of the big publishing companies, such as Simon & Schuster and Random House.

Snyder said the post-Sept. 11 economy hit the printing industry hard, and HBP was no exception. In particular, the anthrax scare involving mail was "a disaster," Snyder said.

"We had a job that never got delivered," he said.

People were afraid to open letters, especially unexpected ones, which made direct mail tougher.

"Dot-com money went away," Snyder said. "Advertising got clobbered."

HBP now has about 88 employees.

The company laid off about 10 percent of its work force in September 2002. However, Snyder said, new positions were created in digital printing.

Also, last year, the company added 45,000 square feet to its plant, for a total of 80,000 square feet.

Snyder also owns Oak Printing, a separate business that uses a small portion of the HBP plant.

Snyder said he hopes to celebrate HBP's 100th anniversary with an open house - but not until next year, when renovations to the plant will be completed.

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