PPP: All Things to All People

Diversification has been the key to success for Social Supper, Inc., a custom decorator in Dresden, Ohio.

Pattii Smythe, a Social Supper employee, sits at a Harwell semi-automatic screening machine, which is used to silk screen decorations on cylinders.
“Diversification,” long a buzzword in the investment industry, has gained even greater significance since the recent Enron scandal. But diversification holds an important place in the manufacturing world as well, especially for small companies that can’t afford to corner themselves into one specific niche.

“If you can specialize and only have to do one thing, that can be great. But when you’re a small business, you usually end up dabbling in a little of everything,” says Donna Cole, owner and president of Social Supper, Inc., a custom decorating company located in Dresden, Ohio.

Cole, who purchased the company in 1986 with her husband, Dean, has definitely “dabbled in a little of everything” over the past 16 years. Under Cole’s leadership, the company has found itself filling a wide variety of custom orders, creating a unique giftware line and even leasing out part of its facility to another manufacturing operation. But the paths Cole has followed haven’t necessarily been planned out ahead of time. In most cases, Cole simply left herself open to new opportunities and then followed where the markets led.

“As things happened we became diversified into more than one market, and as we learned our way into these new markets, we then had even more new places to explore,” Cole says.

The company's 40-ft-long Bowman lehr, installed in 1996, features five firing zones and is used to fire all of the company's products.

From Steel to Ceramics

Diversification was a part of Social Supper’s history even before the Cole’s entered the picture. As the Social Supper Tray Division of American Art Works in the early 1900s, the company primarily silk-screened decorative steel trays, such as the old Coca-Cola® trays. When the price of steel skyrocketed, the Tray Division was auctioned off and was purchased by one of the company’s employees. In 1956, the new owner brought the company to Dresden, Ohio, and combined it with another company that decorated glassware.

By the time the Cole’s purchased Social Supper, the company was no longer decorating steel trays at all but was primarily an overglaze decorator for glass and ceramic products used for specialty advertising. Although the Cole’s had no experience in the glass and ceramic business, they were eager to embark on this new enterprise.

“I really thought it was a neat business,” says Cole, who has a business degree. However, she admits that they would not have been successful had it not been for the plant manager, Don Kennedy.

“Don had a tremendous amount of experience in glass and ceramic decorating. The only reason we felt that we could buy the business was that he was willing to stay on as the production manager,” Cole says. “With him handling the production side of it, we were able to focus on the marketing and the financial aspects of the business. We would not have been able to do it—and wouldn’t have even considered it—if we could not have kept him.”

From the start, Cole had her hands full with the marketing endeavor. When the Cole’s bought Social Supper, the company had been on the verge of selling off its equipment and going quietly out of business. Cole’s first step was to let old customers know that the company was back in business.

“We bought the business in November, and in January I went to the ASI trade show in Dallas, Texas, and let all the distributors and the industry know that we were still around,” Cole says. “There were several old customers that had always worked with Social Supper that came back, and a couple of local potteries, such as Nelson McCoy Ltd., subcontracted us to decorate their mugs and some other products, so that helped tide us over. We produced a new catalog and began marketing ourselves through other trade shows and slowly started building the business back up.”

A Basket Bonanza

Around the same time that the Cole’s purchased Social Supper, a handmade basket company called The Longaberger Co. was putting Dresden, Ohio, on the map as a tourist destination. The Cole’s quickly saw an opportunity.

“We’re located on Main St. in Dresden and were right in the path of everything that The Longaberger Co. was doing. So we began decorating products to fill their baskets,” Cole says.

That initiative helped Social Supper establish a new market, and the company soon created its own unique product line for the basket industry, called Dresden Specialties. “We discovered that we could purchase blank ware and print on it with our own custom designs,” Cole says, “We began selling our Dresden Specialties line out of our own outlet, and we also hired sales reps to sell the product line in other giftware markets.

“There are not a lot of products in the general marketplace that feature baskets or a design that would coordinate with baskets, so we’ve tried to capitalize on that and have been very successful,” she adds.

Donna Cole, Social Supper's owner and president, showcases two glass products that were decorated on contract using a decal process. Both products feature a gingerbread and holly design.

Subcontracting Success

Despite the success of the Dresden Specialties line, the majority of Social Supper’s income comes from work that is subcontracted through advertising agencies or other companies. “Ad agencies usually place the largest orders,” Cole says. “Many times we don’t even know what the pieces we’re decorating are for or where they’re going to go. We just work with the distributor—which, in many cases, is an ad agency or a specialty advertising distributorship.”

According to Cole, a great deal of the company’s business has also come from other pottery producers. “Sometimes small potteries only have small kilns that they can get just one firing per day from. We continuously fire on a conveyor belt kiln, so a lot of companies subcontract us to fire their overglaze decorating. Additionally, a lot of potteries don’t like to get into a third firing because it ties up their equipment too much. So if they have any kind of volume that they’re doing, or things that they need to get out quickly, it makes sense to subcontract it,” Cole says.

While Social Supper primarily silk screens designs onto the ware—a one-color process that is ideal for cylindrical shapes—the company does not limit itself to that process. “We can do just about anything,” Cole says. “When we get into anything that is sophisticated or doesn’t have a straight side, we immediately go to a glass or ceramic decal. You can get very good registration and colors through decal decorating.”

The company also places very few limits on the amount of ware it can produce in a production run. “Typically the lowest quantity we do of something is 36 pieces, and that can be pretty expensive because all of your labor is in the initial setup. The highest quantity we’ve done in one run is 40,000,” Cole says.

According to Cole, companies who choose to use Social Supper as a subcontractor for some or all of their decorating have to be aware of pricing issues and time constraints. “The production quantity and type of imprint both have a bearing on price,” Cole says. “If someone is doing a really sophisticated design in terms of multiple colors, or maybe they want the decoration on more than one location on an object—say it’s a vase, and it’s going to be decorated all the way around—then it’s going to be relatively expensive to produce.”

The turnaround time usually varies, depending on the project. “If the design is something we can direct silk screen, the turnaround time is generally two to three weeks. Of course, that also depends on the volume—a really big production run will take a little longer. If it’s a sophisticated design and we have to go to a decal process, it takes us a minimum of three weeks to get decals because we don’t print those ourselves. Then there’s an additional two to three weeks of production time on top of that,” Cole says.

Companies can also subcontract Social Supper to create items that complement existing product lines—but they need to understand the challenges that are often inherent in that type of process. “We have worked with two different potteries where we’ve created compatible glassware for their dinnerware. They gave us the designs that they had on their dinnerware, and we modified them to put them on the glassware. In addition to having the challenge of working with different mediums, the pottery in one case was hand-painted, so they had a little different look on each piece. The company had to understand that duplicating that design by silk screening on the glass would result in each decoration looking the same—it wasn’t going to be a hand-painted look on each piece. But we were able to successfully create glassware that was compatible to their dinnerware designs,” Cole says.

While Social Supper primarily decorates with designs supplied by their customers, it can also create new designs for individuals or companies who might not have access to their own artists. “I work with several freelance artists who are very good—we never turn anything down that we think we can subcontract to someone else. Just about anything is possible,” Cole says.

The Spice of Life

Over the years, the Cole’s have turned down very few projects, no matter how unconventional. “We once decorated 40,000 mugs for a museum, where we also had to wrap each mug and box it in an individual mailer. Another time we decorated 30,000 candy jars for a pharmaceutical company that was promoting a new drug, and we also had to fill the jars with candy,” Cole recalls. The company has also silk-screened game scores on mugs and other products for sports teams—and had them ready to sell within hours of a game.

At one point, the company even leased out a portion of its manufacturing facility to a nearby plastics company. “The company had received a large order that they had to fulfill very quickly, but they didn’t have the means to mass-produce. Someone who worked for them knew that we had a batch oven, which was once used to cure enamel on the metal serving trays. They came to us and asked if they could run a shift of workers over here to cure their parts until they got their oven installed in their plant, and we agreed. That was a number of years ago, but it’s an example of some of the odd things we’ve gotten into,” Cole says.

Despite the difficulties of trying to be all things to all people, Cole believes that diversification will continue to be part of the company’s future. “We’re always looking for things that are different, and we’re small enough that we can change with the trends,” she says.

And there’s some personal satisfaction to be found in handling a variety of projects, as well. “We’ve been in this business for 16 years, and every day is interesting,” Cole says.

For More Information

For more information about Social Supper, Inc., contact the company at 305 Main St., P.O. Box 110, Dresden, OH 43821-0110; (740) 754-2451 or (800) 669-5013; fax (740) 754-2456; or visit "http://www.socialsupper.com.

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