Press: Peg Schmitz

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Production plant start-ups are notoriously fraught with difficulty. But The Gazette’s was truly a nightmare.

It was the late 1990s, and the shaftless press was still a fresh innovation. The Goss press that the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, daily was getting utilized a press configuration that hadn’t yet been attempted with newspapers ? and for reasons that would remain a mystery for a frustratingly long time, it was not aligned correctly.

The Gazette managed to publish every day as it struggled with the start-up, but waste was unacceptably high. Worse, the plant had serious safety issues, according to Chuck Peters, president/ CEO of The Gazette Co. “It was not uncommon for us to have a lost-time incident every 30 days,” he says.

Then, in 2000, he put Peg Schmitz in charge.

Schmitz, the newspaper’s vice president of print operations, arrived at a plant that was ignoring safety regulations. “When you’re spending so much time in chaos trying to get product out, you don’t focus on safety,” she says. “There would be a web break, and you’d see an operator trying to get to it by putting his arm through the press.” Schmitz set about changing the culture in the production plant.

She started by getting key executives engaged in safety issues, and assembling workers for monthly meetings. She took a “holistic” approach to safety, showing how stress at work can affect life at home. The Gazette held classes on topics such as managing stress and substance abuse. “We even showed them how caffeine can be abused,” Schmitz recalls.

It worked. The plant held a celebration when it went 460 days without a single lost-time incident.

Schmitz is leading another drive to change the culture at the Gazette, from a newspaper focus to a commercial printing mentality. “It is a challenging culture,” she says. “We’re treating the newspaper as a commercial customer ? we even have a rate card for them.”

It’s a change that brings Schmitz back to where she started in the business, on the commercial printing operations of a newspaper.

Schmitz was 18 and a journalism student when she took what she figured would be a short break from college to work in the commercial printing division of the Jackson Sentinel, published twice weekly in Maquoketa, Iowa. “I liked the challenge of production, getting engaged with the customer, and getting involved in the details,” she says. By the time Schmitz was 19, she was a supervisor ? and a confirmed production person. She never returned to j-school.

She moved on to another Iowa paper that was then heavily involved in commercial work, the daily Clinton Herald. After 10 years, in 1988, she joined the Gazette just as it was getting serious about taking on substantially more commercial printing. Schmitz built the commercial-side customer service and graphics departments, and worked for a while in prepress.

And then she got the call to come down and help straighten out the mess at the new production plant.

Now the Gazette’s presses run constantly, and the plant has become adept at the versioning so critical to commercial work. Among its steady customers is King Features syndicate. The newspaper also prints the Sunday comics for King, churning out 2.7 million impressions, with about 55 different versions. “We’re always taking jobs, and applying lean manufacturing,” she adds.

The commercial mindset forces a production director to think of how every project will affect the equipment, Schmitz says: “You have to consider, what is the downtime tolerance in any project, and what does that drive in parts, in maintenance, and in support? It’s a big change, and a challenge.”

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