Karen Barnett acknowledges that for decades her Mishawaka, Ind., decorative graphics business centered largely on the RV and marine industries.
As RV sales trended upward over the years, Valley Screen Process Co. Inc. secured more work in the design and production of decals for motor homes and boats, the South Bend Tribune reported.
The company expanded four times after opening in South Bend in 1967, adding not only physical space but also employees to keep up with demand in the prospering business sectors.
Then the recession hit.
Discretionary spending came to a screeching halt and RV sales plummeted. Following a record year of sales for Valley Screen in 2007, Barnett, like many business owners, faced an extremely difficult business climate in spring 2008.
But she refused defeat.
Her employees also rejected the notion of putting their company on hold until the economy recovered.
“We could have rolled up in a little ball and kind of hoped it would pass over, but we didn’t want to do that because we knew it would be giving up,” said Barnett, company president.
Survival meant branching out in new directions.
Granted, there were pay cuts, reductions in benefits, and some people were laid off indefinitely. Other employees, however, were asked to participate in rolling layoffs so the creative and design processes could continue without interruption.
“We had key people we couldn’t lose, so we shared the burden. And we looked at things we could produce but never had time to explore,” Barnett said. “We reinvented ourselves.”
Some even worked more hours for less pay to brainstorm and launch new efforts in new directions.
Valley Screen Process entered the fleet industry and began designing architectural graphics, despite there being no extra money in the business budget. It secured an order for more than 400 window graphics for the new Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka, among other sales and clients, in this new niche.
Employees, who embraced a “can-do” attitude, also came up with the idea of selling custom graphics for kid’s spaces through an online store, Barnett said.
By 2015, about half of the company’s business will still come from the RV and marine industries, which have started to rebound. But Barnett anticipates the other half will be derived from the new markets Valley Screen Process entered during the recession.
The company, which now employs around 50 people, received recognition from its peers in February for its achievements. Barnett accepted the Small Business of the Year award at the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County’s annual Salute to Business.
In hindsight, while the economic downturn was horrible, Barnett said it was the best thing to happen in the long run to her company.
It forced diversification from a work force that rose to the occasion, she said.
“We did a lot of innovating things to get through. We still do what we’ve always done, but now we can also do so much more,” she said. “It has made us more stable and gives us a better future so we’re not so dependent on the economy.”