blood, sweat, and tears

We opened our St. Louis facility in 2016 in a small, 7500 square foot space, with 1 automatic and 1 manual press. Growing a new business in a new market definitely was challenging for us along with Kyle, our operating partner. Identifying the best supporting employees was an ongoing job, along with the newness of these responsibilities. Kyle was joined a few months into this new venture by Gabrielle, who had left her previous job as a graphic designer at a local competitor. She was looking for change and decided to give this a shot. The two of them had much to learn in terms of working together and managing this new business.

Jay would make monthly visits to work with and mentor them, helping with the typical issues that would arise. Kyle would often times arrive at 4 AM to get a head start on their work, always fearful of not completing it on time. His care and concern were a driving force behind their success and loyalty from their customers. All of their customers loved working with Gabby and her cheerful manner. Many months were non-stop, 7 days a week, to do whatever was needed to stay on top of work. After 18 months, we made a decision to expand with the purchase of a building nearby. This allowed them to add capacity with more equipment in each department and space to organize. They really started to grow and show promise with a stable team helping them produce.

In addition to Kyle’s drive for success was his wife, Amber, who also has had many outstanding accomplishments in her field of Bio Sciences. She has quickly become a leading force, passing on multiple opportunities to grow within her organization, locally and Internationally. Amber’s growth inevitably would mean a move somewhere around the world. In order to achieve this, Kyle would need the flexibility to support her and we all agreed that we needed to relieve him of his responsibilities, sooner than later. The void his absence would bring created an enormous challenge for us, with the rebuilding of the management team there. We therefore agreed that the best option would be to close down their business.

This decision has been absolutely bittersweet and we appreciate how well our leads in St. Louis received the news when Jay met with them. They have all found new opportunities already and though, they won’t have the same culture Kyle and Gabby created, they will do well and continue to excel. Thank you for these past four years.

Visual Impressions St. Louis Moves into New Expanded Facility

Kyle Petersen and Gabrielle Kohlmann have worked very hard in their first two years as our team building our sister facility in St. Louis, MO. Kyle has been with Visual Impressions for almost 5 years and previously ran a smaller facility for one of our customers for over 10 years. He brings a work ethic and drive for the highest quality product and service to St. Louis like no other screen print company. Gabrielle previously worked in graphic design in the local market and we were fortunate to discover her shortly after opening in 2016.

2 years later into our endeavor, space became an issue and we made the plunge and acquired our own 20,000 facility very close to our previous location. After much clean-up and beautifying, our new Warson Road address looks professional and updated for our next chapter. With this move, we added 2 more automatic presses, bringing our total to 4 autos and 2 manuals. Enough equipment to be a formidable supplier, they can now handle larger opportunities and employ over 15 qualified individuals. We have also added a fully automated packaging line for polybagging, which is especially helpful with larger retail orders or customers who need UPC labels on the packaging.

Welcome Tom Robinson as our Chief Operating Officer

We are very proud to formally introduce Tom as our new COO at Visual Impressions. He brings a wealth of screen print and digital graphic knowledge to our facility. Tom was always our first call when we were challenged with a job in production in the past. We have had a long relationship spanning over 16 years prior to him joining our management team.

He has been in the screen print industry in production and facility management in his earlier years to a long career as a top leader in sales of consumables and equipment in our industry. With all of his experiences, we feel fortunate to be surrounded by his wisdom everyday. Please stop in and say hello to him when in the neighborhood or reach out via email: [email protected].

Where It All Goes

Curiosity got the best of me the other day. I wanted to know what happens to the material when our recycling partner, Pioneer Industries, picks up from Visual Impressions and hauls it away. Pioneer has been an integral part of our sustainability program for over a year now. It was difficult getting a recycler to help with our program, as even though we are a large apparel decorator, we are small potatoes in the manufacturing sense in Milwaukee. It was all a volume deal.

Marshall at Pioneer

Marshall at Pioneer

That was before I met Marty Oxman with Pioneer Industries. A second generation recycler, the guy is an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding secondary materials, and is extremely keen on helping companies achieve their sustainability goals through recycling. My goal was to get a recycling program off the ground, and make it easy for our staff to do the work. The idea was to move as much material we could through a recycling program, and have it not go to landfill via our dumpsters. Pioneer helps us with that task, as they provide, for free, large bins called gaylords that we fill with different materials. We have these all over the shop, segregated by the material and within a few easy steps for our staff. They also give us the big 90 gallon totes with wheels that are commonly used for your trash pick-up at your home, which we put to good use as well.

Recycling Staging for Pick Up at Visual Impressions

Recycling Staging for Pick Up at Visual Impressions

The gaylords have a decent size to them, and there are two kinds. One is a made from heavy duty plastic, and comes with a lid that can be placed on the box for closing. Then these become stackable. We’ve found that we like to use them for our polybag remnants and assorted mixed paper. We polybag our folded shirts for our clients, so they can be handed out easily or presented nicely to their customers. The remnants are from the automatic machine that closes and heat seals the bag, and produces a small 2” x 8” scrap of clear plastic. As we have four of these machines churning out product all day, we generate a lot of these little plastic scraps. The mixed paper is all the general paper that you would think a busy operation like Visual Impressions would generate. Any type of paper can be segregated into this bin. Some good examples that a lot of people just throw away is the waxy backing from shipping labels from your Zebra printer, or the tissue paper insert that comes layered inside button-down shirts that you have to remove before you can start the embroidery.

The other type of gaylord is a little larger and is made from thick cardboard. In these cardboard bins, we disassemble and place all of our scrap cardboard. We try to reuse boxes when we can, but a good number of these get bent, torn or arrive to us in pretty bad shape. Some clients prefer to ship their orders out in their own boxes too. Any cardboard such as collar stays from polos or dress shirts, dividers, or inserts gets chucked into this bin as well. Despite reusing boxes constantly for shipments, it is still amazing how quickly these cardboard gaylords fill up.

Visual Impressions Cardboard Gaylord Truck Loading

Visual Impressions Cardboard Gaylord Truck Loading

The 90 gallon totes are used for recycling smaller items such as aluminum soda cans, plastic bottles and strapping, glass, metal shipping banding, wickets and small parts. We have these judiciously placed all over the shop, near where the material is usually generated, but out of the way enough that people can still work. These totes take longer to fill, but using them is an easier way to divide up the materials, and makes it more convenient for our staff to do the right thing when the big gaylord is too large to fit into a work area.

When any of these containers are full, we pull them out of the line and bring them all to one spot in the building and replace the full container with an empty and start over. We’ve worked a convenient schedule out with Pioneer, and they pick-up every Wednesday and haul off usually 12-16 gaylords of material a week. Visual Impressions started our partnership with Pioneer in March of 2013, and as of today (June 28, 2014) we’ve recycled 44.17 tons of material. This is all stuff that isn’t going to our local landfill. Are we 100% zero waste and landfill free? Not yet, as we still have that dreaded embroidery stabilizer challenge to contend with; but you have to start somewhere. (See “You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit” for more details on that challenge).

Knowing all this you can see why I might be curious as to what happens to all this stuff after the truck pulls away each Wednesday. Marty graciously accepted my “invite myself over” tour, and provided an excellent overview of his operation. So, when his friendly driver Jim backed the semi-truck into one of our shipping docks and our crew loaded up our materials, I pulled my car around and followed him back to Pioneer.

Pioneer IndustriesTruck at Visual Impressions Loading Dock

Pioneer IndustriesTruck at Visual Impressions Loading Dock

The first surprise was that it was only about five miles away. Nestled between an aging old Milwaukee neighborhood and a spaghetti maze of train tracks, Pioneer Industries occupies several large, rambling buildings. I pulled in and parked, and as I was doing that the truck was slowly gliding onto a large truck scale. Marty told me later that this is one method on how they verify the weights for the material for each load. All of the material that is unloaded is weighed individually on smaller scales in the building so they can send us a documented report after each pick-up, but weighing the truck when it comes in ensures that it all adds up correctly later. This is how we know exactly how much of each material type we’ve sent in for processing.

Pioneer Industries Gaylord Scale

Pioneer Industries Gaylord Scale

After I parked, I walked around the building and found the front door. I was buzzed in, and Marty greeted me and issued me my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – hard hat, brightly colored ANSI safety vest, and eye protection. Walking through the rabbit-warren like maze inside the Pioneer buildings, I was impressed on how many different types of material they actually handle. If you didn’t know, Milwaukee is one of the largest printing industry communities in the country, and Pioneer handles a lot of their scrap paper, cardboard and other printed waste that is discarded after the manufacturing process. Each of these different types of printed material scraps are baled, banded and segregated by type into huge stacks of material. Once they reach a full trailer load, these are shipped out for processing to become new sheets of paper, cardboard, plastic or other material.

Pioneer has a staff of fourteen people, and they were all busy working while we toured. Numerous forklifts and bobcat tractors were nimbly moving material around and into balers. Other staff were checking in materials and grading them, or getting a shipment loaded so it could reach its final destination and be recycled. Lots of clipboards, finger and arm gestures and really heavy stuff being moved around with coordinated effort. It’s a ballet really, just without music.

Based on my observation, paper and cardboard is the majority substrate that they handle, which is segregated by type as the material arrives. In one large area they have cordoned off a bunch of different bays made with large, heavy concrete blocks. Each bay is about the width of a small garage, and contains a large pile of a different type of paper or cardboard. From flimsy loose newsprint that is obtained from our Milwaukee newspaper, to thicker printed cardboard scraps that comes from local printing houses, all of the material is piled up like leaves in your front yard in the fall.

Once the pile gets large enough, it is scooped up with the tractors and placed on an enormous conveyor belt that feeds a 20 foot high baler. The belt is about six feet wide at least, and an amazing amount of material travels up the belt and into the hopper bin at one time. The baler squeezes out the compressed material into bales about as big as your couch, but square in shape, and I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a gargantuan Play-doh pumper set that I had when I was a kid. They stack the bales by type of material in another huge room, and just patiently wait for the collection to grow until it reaches the point it can fill a semi-truck trailer. It is then shipped off. Some material is easily processed, as it is very common and there is a known pipeline. Other material, such as paper that has foil or adhesive on it, is harder to find an avenue for processing. Eventually it all goes somewhere though.

Pioneer Industries Bale Emerging

Pioneer Industries Bale Emerging

Pioneer Industries Baler

Pioneer Industries Baler

It was surprising to me that some recycled materials actually go overseas, not processed domestically. Marty showed me a gigantic wall of spice-bags. These bales were made of former industrial sized bags of food spices. Heavy thick brown paper on the outside, but lined with a plastic bag on the inside. Separating the two materials isn’t something that is handled anywhere but China. Once they get enough to fill the truck, these get shipped off to join many others and will go overseas for processing. Evidently over there the labor is cheap enough that these are pulled apart by hand for recycling. The paper goes in one direction, the plastic in another.

As I was driving back to my office at Visual Impressions, I reflected back on my time spent at Pioneer Industries. Finding value in the materials that previously we were discarding is something that is pretty amazing. In fact, Marty and I had a good discussion on the fact that there is a tremendous movement afoot in the world for actually “mining” previously manufactured or processed materials for the core elements that have value. Not everything can be saved obviously, but unlocking the minerals, metals, and other substances is big business these days. When our sustainability committee identified recycling and trying to get to just 50% savings to landfill as our targeted goal for work this year for SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership), we had a difficult time finding a recycling partner that made the work easy on our end. After all, we’re in the decorated apparel industry… not the move stuff around, and sift through trash industry. Building a recycling program is hard work, but finding a company that gives you tools, makes it easy and values customer service makes that chore a little easier. I’m very happy that we were able to start our sustainability journey and build a great relationship with a partner like Marty Oxman and Pioneer Industries.

Making Our T-shirt Shop Promotional Video

Before starting this article, check out our new shop video!  Here’s the link:  Visual Impressions Shop Video

As part of being named a Top Shop from Stitches magazine for the March 2014 issue, they asked us to submit a short video that illustrates Visual Impressions as a company. Sounds easy, but once you get started it’s a daunting task; especially if you don’t have “movie making skills”. Daryl Cardwell, our talented web master for Ink to the People, and I were the main members of our staff selected to build the video. We leaped at the chance to try to learn something new. Soon afterwards, we met and brainstormed, and with some input from Todd Richheimer and Jay Berman, the company’s owners, we put together a game plan. (Also a shout out here to Ross Brandt, a creative and knowledgeable source from Coil Media in Atlanta who gave me some great phone advice during the initial discovery phase)

By the end of the process, we had a great video, learned some valuable lessons and will definitely be doing more shop videos in our future!  I’m definitely not Martin Scorsese, but here’s a step by step outline of how we constructed the video, and some tips that might save you from making the same mistakes we made.

1. Outline & Basics. Our first thought was “what are we going to film”? We discussed interviewing different staff members, and also filming multiple shots of things happening at Visual Impressions. We also Googled tons of other shop’s videos, non-industry business videos and other sources to see what others had accomplished and give us a basic knowledge base. The basis of every video we liked had some sort of narrative, some action shots of processes being completed, on-screen text to describe things, and an overall theme.  We had a series of meetings, and through those narrowed down some key elements that we wanted to discuss. Our core concepts that we would use for the interview portion of the video were decided: Trust, Quality, & Dedication. Tip: Do research. Watch what others have done. Find what you like and take note of it. Think about how it was done.

2. Storyboard. I spent some time storyboarding what we wanted to shoot, and working on arranging the sequence of shots.  For this I just scribbled out some notes and cartoons of people on individual Post-It-Notes. I stuck these to the back wall in my office across from my desk. From here, I would arrange and rearrange them to see if we could come to some sort of agreement on what we needed, and how it would come together. Our goal was to keep it to a short video, and keeping it simple looked like it was going to be a challenge.  This is definitely harder than it looks. Tip: Plan. Storyboard your ideas, and create a solid concept. Don’t just shoot and wing it. Talking about what we wanted to do made the filming much, much easier.

3. Equipment. We wanted to do it cheaply, and by cheaply I mean with whatever equipment we had on hand at the time. Other than our time, our budget was $0. Nada. We used our camera phones for some shots, but most of the filming was handled with an existing Nikon camera on a tripod. Comparing shots from the phones vs the normal camera on the tripod, the tripod shots all looked better. Tip: use a tripod if you can. Shots are steadier, and easier to take. If you don’t have a tripod, balance the camera on a box, ledge or something.

4. Filming. We decided that we wanted an interview style format. I wrote a series of questions that we would ask different people in the shop. The goal was to unearth authentic sound bites that we would use as transitions into video shots of different production processes in the shop. If you watch the video, I’m off camera (except when I was interviewed by Daryl for my shots), doing this way I think gave the video a conversational feel, and a natural look for us. We interviewed a lot more people than we used for the actual final video. Judicious editing to get the video down to 3:30 was necessary. I’m sure there are actors out there that will tell you their best work is on the cutting room floor too. Tip: Check your memory card and battery life often. We had to reshoot two interviews because our memory card on the camera was full and we didn’t realize it. Also, when something like that happens….chalk it up to rookie mistakes and don’t worry about it. It was actually kind of funny when it happened!

We took some test shots around the building to find a location that would work for sound and lighting. This took an afternoon, as we tested a bunch of locations and then would run back to Daryl’s computer and review them. We chose the couch in our lobby, because it had some great natural light and we liked the casual but modern feel. Tip: Blocking and checking where you want to film before you start helps you understand how the final shots may appear. It may also give you some much needed practice with the equipment (we sure needed it!!).

Overall, we filmed about 120 clips for the video. There is a lot of footage we didn’t use, and Daryl did a great job editing and paring it all down to three and a half minutes. Interviewing people was really fun, but the shots of the production processes were hilarious to make. We had a great time thinking up camera angles and planning shots of things moving to make the video exciting. Some of the shots were planned, but others were just us taking advantage of what was going on at the time. Tip: If you are doing an employee interview style, try to get everyone to say or do something that was the same. At the end of the video, we have all of our people smiling and getting up off the couch. I actually asked everyone to “laugh and say something funny”. At the time, nobody did anything funny and everyone just smiled and got off the couch. It actually turned out to be a good way to end the video. It was pure luck, but prompting an action was the catalyst.

 Lessons Learned. In a nutshell, here are our take-aways…

1. Plan. Storyboard your ideas, and create a solid concept. Don’t just shoot and wing it.
2. Know your strengths. Do what you know. If you are more suited talking in front of the camera, do it. If you enjoy shooting and editing, do that.
3. Daryl imported all of the clips into iPhoto and used iMovie to edit it. These were already on the Mac he had, so we didn’t purchase any special software.
4. It only took about a day and half for filming, but over twice that for editing. If you are under any time constraints, make sure you plan accordingly.
5. Don’t go overboard on humor, graphics or transitions. It may be tempting to use a spiral cross-dissolve to transition scenes, but remember…less is more. Keep it simple and professional.
6. Don’t buy background music. There is a ton of free and well organized clip sites. Just do a Google search.
7. We learned that even if you do a sound check, you won’t know the sound levels for each interviewee. After we finished we went out and spent about $10 for a lapel microphone for next time.
8. Review your footage several times to see where the good stuff is before starting to edit.
9. Check your camera battery and memory card often.
10. Take some test footage to get familiar with the equipment, software and different camera angles.
11. Don’t use everything you shoot. Shoot a lot and pick the best clips.
12. Shoot as high quality as you can. You can always make it smaller when you need to.

Well, that’s about it!! I hope you enjoyed our video and admittedly beginner’s effort. Like the former art director in me says, “Done is better than perfect.” If you do try to tackle this, post your video below and let’s share the experiences so others may benefit! You can also always leave a comment for more information or help.