Etheridge Presses Ahead

May 20, 2002
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HOLLAND — At a time when chief executives were pulling back capital spending, Ted Etheridge took the other road.

And why not. Despite the slumping economy, Steketee-Van Huis Printing and Packaging was experiencing its best year ever in 2001 and customers were asking for more. So Steketee-Van Huis pushed forward with a $2.5 million investment in a new seven-unit printer and related equipment that expands the company’s high-end printing capacity.

Sitting idle and pulling back capital investments during the recession, Etheridge said, was something he and the company simply couldn’t do, preferring instead to use the period to “expand business and put in the latest and greatest technology.”

“We want to do what our customers want us to do. We want to build a base to serve them over the next 10 years,” said Etheridge, a veteran of the commercial and packaging printing industry who bought Steketee-Van Huis with a partner in April 1999. He serves as the company’s chief executive officer.

“The customer is the source of all prosperity. If we don’t take care of them, we don’t have business,” he said.

Steketee-Van Huis has been in a growth and expansion mode since Etheridge bought the company with partner Bill Ockerlund. They have made more than $5 million in capital improvements in three years and have grown revenues by about 10 percent annually. Steketee-Van Huis posted 2001 sales of about $20 million and is nearing a goal of generating 30 percent of annual revenues from high-end printing, Etheridge said.

The 52-year-old Etheridge has spent most of his life in the printing business.

He followed his grandfather and his father into the family business, The Etheridge Co., after graduating in 1972 from Hope College with a degree in business administration. His original intent was to go to work for an advertising firm.

His grandfather changed all that when he asked him to join the company, then a small commercial printer in Grand Rapids with about 15 employees that was “a little behind the pack” in terms of capability.

“I didn’t know enough at the time to say ‘No,’” said Etheridge, whose grandfather, Dan, started him off in the shop, where he spent the next two years learning how to operate every piece of equipment the company had.

Looking back, Etheridge calls the experience the “best thing he ever did for me,” because it taught him the business from the bottom up.

That lesson led to a quick succession, as Etheridge’s father and grandfather turned over operations of the company to him in the mid-1970s.

By the late 1980s, he was ready to build on his success, although a hard lesson awaited. He sold The Etheridge Co. in 1989 to a British firm, the Wace Group, which he then joined as head of its American division, Wace USA. Their aim was to acquire other smaller commercial printers to create a larger company that could handle the national marketplace for commercial printing.

When Wace sold its worldwide printing operations to a Houston, Texas, company in 1997, it voided a no-compete clause that Etheridge had signed at the time of the original sale. This freed him to pursue other options in the industry — something he had wanted to do for some time.

“My whole business philosophy was different from theirs, but I had a contract,” said Etheridge, who planned to take the name The Etheridge Co. with him and start a new printing company.

He couldn’t, because during that time the Wace Group trademarked the name and sold it to the Houston firm with its printing operations. He learned of the deal when he went to form his new company.

“I got a lesson in big business,” said Etheridge, who opted to join Ockerlund and look for other opportunities.

He initially spent a year in Waukegan, Ill., working for a printing company owned by Ockerlund’s uncle doing marketing work for high-end printing and helping to build a new facility.

In 1998, he met up with Bob Kapenga, a co-owner of Steketee-Van Huis with partners Denny Brewer and Mike Elms. The partners were planning for the transition of the business.

After a period of getting to know each other, and concluding that their business philosophies were similar, they reached a sales agreement in March 1999. As part of the deal, Kapenga, Elms and Brewer agreed to stay on for three years.

at The Etheridge Co. who have joined Steketee-Van Huis and “made a difference” for the company.

Etheridge said the allure of the printing business for him stems from the mix of fine craftsmanship, manufacturing expertise and business savvy it requires in creating and producing a new packaging design for a customer’s product.

“We have to create something that’s not really been seen. Correctly executed, it’s just a wonderful thing,” he said. “I get a kick out of it.”            BJ

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