Managing the Costs of Your Mailroom


Once pages and files are released to platemaking, there are several areas throughout the process that must work together to produce the final product and get it into the hands of readers. Typically, when the printing is complete, the focus quickly turns to one of the most critical areas of any production department—the mailroom. Some of us refer to this operational area as post-press; others classify it as part of distribution. Whatever you’ve grown accustomed to calling it, its function can range from a simplistic catch and stack-down operation right up to a very complex mailing and processing center that is the heart of your production operation.

Each area of the production process has its own important and unique role in the success of the overall distribution of the final printed product to circulation. In order for everyone to be successful, our mailroom—no matter how simplistic or complex—must operate with a high degree of efficiency. Regardless of the size of your operation, there are several pieces of the puzzle that need to fit into place in order to maintain the necessary workflow and efficiency to run a strong, productive mailroom operation.

Ongoing Maintenance

Many operations look at ongoing maintenance as a cost instead of an investment. As we’ve trimmed budgets in the production area, equipment maintenance has taken a hit. Keeping your mailroom equipment up and running is obviously critical to any degree of efficiency in your operation. I’ve used the example before that none of us would buy a brand-new car and drive it for 100,000 miles without changing the oil and then act surprised when mechanical parts start to fail. Yet this is just what some of us do to the equipment at our own printing operations.

There’s a lot to be said for the statement “Pay me now or pay me later.” It’s just common sense that we’d be a lot wiser to spend a few dollars on an oil change and potentially save thousands on repairs in the long run. Yet many of our operations work with nonexistent or at best sloppy maintenance practices that lead us down the road of putting out fires rather than preventing them in the first place.

Somehow, many of us have been lulled into believing that we’re saving money when we don’t spend it on maintenance, but we’re okay spending what we have to when there’s a breakdown because we have to fix it at that point. Of course, this defies logic but for the sake of the budget it makes sense, right? Not even close.

At one of my previous jobs, I had a well-meaning operator who came to me on a monthly basis to brag about how well he’d done saving money on maintenance verses budget. While I deeply appreciated his efforts to economize, this prompted an ongoing process of me explaining the difference between investing and spending. Sure enough, he’d go months “saving” on maintenance and was very proud of it, right up until a bearing that should have been greased wore into a journal and ended up costing us six months of the maintenance budget to repair. And let’s not forget the loss of productivity that came with it.

Throughout my career in newspapers, a lot of statements from individuals much wiser than me have stuck in my head. One of those statements came from a publisher who, when we were repairing a broken conveyor that wouldn’t have failed if we had done the necessary maintenance beforehand, gently said “Why is there never enough time to do it right but always enough time to do it again?” Setting time aside for maintenance and minor repairs not only avoids major expense but also improves ongoing productivity and prevents catastrophic failure that can disrupt or flat out stop the production cycle. Maintenance is not an option. 

Sharing Responsibility

Some of our shops have the luxury of a dedicated maintenance crew. For others, the responsibility for maintenance falls to an operator or the mailroom crew. Regardless of how you divide up the work, the important part is that it gets done.

Much of what I’d call the small stuff (the everyday maintenance that doesn’t require a significant amount of training and experience on the equipment) can be done outside of your trained and often higher paid maintenance staff. Machine operators or even line workers (when properly supervised and monitored for safe operation) can carefully clean around the equipment, remove built-up waste from under the equipment preventing jammed chains, gears and belts, and avoiding unnecessary downtime.

If you’re lucky enough to have someone on your mailroom staff that is even a little mechanically inclined, you can have them work alongside your maintenance staff (or alone if you don’t have a dedicated maintenance staff) on greasing and changing filters on your equipment.

A mailroom employee recently approached me asking if he could pick up a few additional hours. I walked him up and down one of our GMA straight-line inserters, explained the function of a zerk (grease) fitting, and showed him the locations of the various zerk fittings within the hoppers and drive train. Next, I set him up with a grease gun and put him to work. When he completed the greasing, he cleaned debris from under the unit. This was a perfect example of giving someone an opportunity while utilizing a lower paid unskilled worker on essential shared maintenance. 

Backup in Case of Equipment Failure

While it’s always nice to have a reliable backup to each piece of equipment in your shop, it’s also highly unlikely that you do. Most small and medium-sized mailrooms unfortunately operate under the “all your eggs in one basket” program. No matter how diligent you are about maintenance, it’s a fact that equipment will someday break down.

For some reason I can’t quite figure out, every shop I’ve ever worked in has established a backup print site in case of press failure, but I honestly can’t remember a single shop that had a backup mailroom operation to handle inserting and distribution in case of a major equipment failure.

Most of our shops don’t have multiple inserters. It’s very common for a small property to have one inserter, and when it fails, it can be a miserable situation for everyone involved. Now is a good time to have at least a cursory conversation with other newspapers in your area to get an idea of where they might be able to fit you into their schedule and what degree of backup they may be able to provide.

Depending on the size of your newspaper, there’s always the old fallback at some of the smaller papers: hand inserting. While this thought may bring fear to any production director, there’s probably not one of us who haven’t had to resort to it in our career. Call on all employees in every department, get in a slew of temp help and get down to business. It’s not fun, but I’ve certainly lost count of how many thousands of papers I’ve hand inserted over my career. If you’ve been in production more than a week or two, you’ll quickly figure out we do what we have to do to get the paper out the door.

And what happens if you follow a respectable maintenance program and despite your best efforts still have a major breakdown?

It never seems to fail that no matter how much you plan ahead and stock all the frequently failing components, the one part you need is always the one that you won’t have. Often it takes days, even weeks, to get replacement parts. Try explaining that to your publisher. I don’t know about you, but when a vendor tells me it’s going to take a week to get a part, I simply go into high gear and 99 percent of the time where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I find the part or an alternate solution.  Failure isn’t an option we accept well in this business.

Controlling Costs

We now understand what the cost of poor maintenance can be. Likewise, as my frugal operator detailed at the beginning of this article can now tell you, maintenance is an investment, not an expense. It seems that the cost of everything it takes to operate and maintain a newspaper or printing operation continues to rise. In our mailroom operations, the cost of ink jetting has risen over the past year as the cost of toner continues to go in the wrong direction.

The cost of outside assistance for machine repairs we are unable to accomplish in-house is growing at an alarming rate as more and more businesses struggle to contend with the COVID-19 downturn, parts continue to get more expensive, and vendors cost for raw materials grow. If any of you have had to call an outside electrician or equipment vendor lately, you are aware of what I’m talking about.

Keeping up with rising costs can be a challenge—a challenge that has ended everything for many less financially stable or ill prepared properties. So, what can be done outside of increasing efficiencies through proper set-up on equipment and judicious maintenance processes?

I have a couple suggestions. While these may not be something new, it may be time to everyone to re-explore things and adjust as necessary.

There are two main areas of expense that we incur as we provide goods and services to our outside printing customers: labor costs and consumables.

As COVID-19 continues to affect our economy, it may seem like a terrible time to pass a price increase on to your loyal (and possibly struggling) customers, but it may be just plain necessary. Our costs continue to increase. In a recent article, I stated that one paper vendor raised prices twice already in 2021 as vendors face their own financial challenges, and I don’t see any end in sight.

As far as equipment and maintenance programs go, it’s a simple formula of properly maintained equipment=increased productivity=labor savings.

The second part of this relates to labor cost.

Everything isn’t always within our control. As I write this article, a federal minimum wage of $15/hour is being proposed. I have my personal opinions on this that I choose not to share, but looking at it logically and from a strictly business aspect, an increase of this size would shut down a lot of properties. Right now, minimum wage ranges from $7.25 in Alabama to $15 in Washington D.C.  Of course, wherever you’re located, wages tend to follow cost of living indexes. You simply must adjust your cost to customers based on increases in your cost of labor.

While I truly value each and every outside (commercial) customer, I am more concerned with our eroding margins on commercial printing. If you haven’t evaluated your cost structure in awhile and continue to absorb the escalating cost of consumables, this is the time to take a look at things and make necessary adjustments. While it’s not easy for outside customers to take, it’s necessary for us to increase prices to offset our added expenses and maintain a margin of profit that allows us to stay in business as well.

Continue to access and strengthen your maintenance programs, explore efficiencies in your mailroom operation, fine-tune staffing needs, and adjust your commercial cost structure to maintain profitability and productivity in your operation.

Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at simpkins@tds.net.


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