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.”
Valley Screen Process Co. Inc. of Mishawaka, Ind., was awarded the Small Business of the Year Award last week by the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County. The company has been in business since 1967 and employs 49 people.
Valley Screen Process provides graphics to RV, boat and cargo trailer manufacturers.
Valley Screen Process coped with extremely difficult business conditions in 2008 and again in 2009 by instituting a series of cost cutting measures including layoffs, pay cuts and reduction in benefits, according to a news release. Valley Screen’s entire team sacrificed for the good of the whole company, and the supreme group effort was a major factor in the company emerging from the downturn stronger, and successful, in 2010.
Its primary source of business is the RV and marine industries, both of which were hit extremely hard by the recession. The recession forced the company to think more creatively, to become more efficient, and to diversify. The time that normally would have been devoted to filling customer orders was channeled into new product development.
In addition to traditional layoffs, the Mishawaka company instituted rotating layoffs. “We had key people we couldn’t lose,” President Karen Barnett, said, “so, we shared the burden.”
And employees looked at new products the company could produce, but never had the time to explore. Through those efforts, Valley Screen Process entered the fleet industry and architectural graphics market, despite there being no extra budget for new equipment, materials or human talent. They worked with the resources they had on hand.
“They had a can-do attitude,” Barnett said, noting how employees also came up with the idea of selling custom graphics for kid’s spaces through an online store — OleeKids.com.
Today, the company is looking at expanding its work force of 49 in the art and production departments.
“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,” Barnett said. “Now our primary markets have come back and we have the additional business in new markets to help us achieve long term stability.”
Valley Screen is a certified woman-owned, large format screen and digital graphic manufacturer located in Northern Indiana, specializing in decorative graphics for recreational products, wraps and lettering for vehicles and fleets, and window and wall graphics for home, office and retail spaces. Call (574) 256-0901 or visit Valley Screen Process’ website at www.valleyscreen.com for more information.
Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman joined business leaders from across the state on Jan. 6 to award Valley Screen Process Co. Inc. in Mishawaka, Ind., along with 19 other outstanding companies, the Indiana Small Business Development Center Network’s Economic Development through Growth and Entrepreneurship (EDGE) Award during a Statehouse ceremony.
Sponsored by the Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s Small Business Development Centers, the awards recognize clients of the agency’s 10 regional centers located throughout the state in two categories – emerging and established.
“We know the foundation of the Indiana economy is built on the ideas of entrepreneurs across the state,” said Skillman. “These 20 small businesses have continued to grow and create jobs for Hoosiers despite a very challenging national economy.”
During 2009, Valley Screen added nine jobs and continued its diversification efforts, showing remarkable sales growth in the third and fourth quarters of 2009. The Mishawaka company specializes in providing large format decorative graphics for recreations products, vehicles and fleets, and office, healthcare and retail spaces.
The company’s newest venture is a consumer-oriented website specializing in decorative graphic packages for children’s spaces and life-size wall decals made out of a digital photograph.
Valley Screen President Karen Barnett stated: “We are honored to receive the 2009 EDGE award from the SBDC. The Northern Indiana SBDC staff helped us with our diversification efforts during an extremely challenging year. As a supplier to the RV industry, we were hit hard by the economic downturn, and utilized the services of the SBDC to help us break into new markets. We were able to finish the year in a very strong position. We look forward to 2010 as we continue to grow our business into new areas including architectural graphics and consumer removable wall decor.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest story produced by NBC.com which is doing an in-depth study on Elkhart County, Ind. This story was published in The Elkhart Truth.
Outsiders puzzled that a smart, career-oriented young woman would return after college to a place that many of her school chums couldn’t wait to leave should consider Elkhart native Angie Recchio’s story.
In 2000, at 23, just finished with her work in human development and family studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Recchio returned to town with a stack of bills and a dream of settling in her own home along one of Elkhart’s elegant, tree-lined streets.
She said she was the only one of four girls who went from nursery school through high school together who had that vision. “All of them wanted to get out,” she said. And they did.
“I lived in my mom’s basement, paid off my credit cards and all my loans, and a year and half later I bought my first house,” said Recchio. The immaculate two-bedroom bungalow sits in a Beaver Cleaver neighborhood a stone’s throw from East Jackson Boulevard, where brick mansions and sprawling ramblers guard the banks of the St. Joe River.
The house would not be considered a “starter” for a single wage-earner fresh out of college in most parts of the country. In Elkhart, however, the price was $83,000, a little more than half the U.S. median home price in both 2000 and today. A few years later, Recchio was able to add a rental property to her portfolio.
To Recchio and other residents, Elkhart’s attractions go far beyond cheap real estate. And they believe those features, which include a powerful sense of community and the tendency of residents to look out for one another, are what will see the town through the current economic storm.
A ‘special’ place
“It’s special in all the ways where you live is special to you,” said Recchio, 33, single and a sales rep for a company that serves the battered RV industry.
Family and faith come first in her life, as they do for many townspeople. In Elkhart she is among relatives, including her parents and an older brother, as well as lifelong friends. Raised a Catholic, she is a member of St. Vincent’s, but also attends services at a Methodist church.
The town is clean and safe, she said, and the schools – she attended Pinewood Elementary, Northside Middle and Central High – are good. Elkhart’s performing arts center, river walk and numerous parks are the envy of similar sized cities.
“But statistically speaking,” Recchio acknowledged, “the unemployment rate is what it is.” Currently, it’s among the highest in the nation at 19.2%, having quadrupled since last year, when high gas prices sent sales of RVs into the tank.
At her firm, Valley Screen Process Co. Inc, which makes decals for RVs and boats, the slump resulted in a drop in orders and layoffs.
But Recchio, who kept her job, is concerned that Elkhart’s economic problems have been singled out too often and too superficially by journalists who descended after President Obama came here in February to push his stimulus plan.
“If it has affected anybody’s business or job in a negative way, I feel bad for them, she said. “But we’re just a small example of a greater problem. We’re going through the same thing the rest of the country is.”
‘It will come back’
Outsiders need to know that “we had some really high highs. … I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to where we were or how long it will take, but certainly it will come back stronger than it is today.”
She is not counting on federal stimulus programs. “I don’t think my confidence really has anything to do with the government,” she said. “I think you have to let the free market economy and capitalism work because that’s what works.”
For now, she said, “We’re pulling together like a community in ways I’ve never seen before. … The people who are still employed are feeling that sense of responsibility to be more involved and give more and support to businesses that are still open.” She said she has seen an increase in church and community outreach to families via food drives and other programs.
Elkhart “is a better place to be broke than anyplace else,” she added. “You don’t see people sleeping under bridges here.”
With a decade of living her dream behind her, when Recchio looks ahead to the next 10 years, she can envision more ups and downs in the area’s economy but doesn’t see much changing in the fundamentals that drew her home after college.
“I imagine it will be much the same as it is now,” she said. “I’m happy, I’m surrounded by my family. There’s not a thing I need that God hasn’t given me or provided for me.”