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100 Best: Columbia Printing nurtures a growing family

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Thursday, March 01, 2007



Nurija Tuka, left, and Esmeralda Zepeda assemble notebooks in Columbia’s clean room.

Photo by Leah Nash

Scott Treadwell has been working for Columbia Printing and Graphics for nearly five years, but he’s still a relative newcomer. In fact, the 45-year-old production manager will be closing in on retirement by the time he reaches the average employee tenure of 13 years.

With so few employees going anywhere, brothers Rob and Tim Wehrley talk about staff turnover unlike other business managers. They don’t talk about the number of workers lost and gained in a year, they talk about generational turnover. For instance, about half of the generation of people hired in the 1980s still work at the company today.

What’s the source of that staying power? Accountant John Sherlock took Columbia on as a client in 1980 when the printing company was 2 years old. When he retired in 1997, Sherlock joined the company part time, and has continued to do their books to this day. “Clearly, they feel everyone is family,” he says.

The word “family” is nearly a cliché when it comes to describing work environments. But at Columbia, employees — the number ranges from 29-39 depending on the amount of work — deeply see themselves as part of a family created by the Wehrleys.

Part of that comes from their upbringing. Raised in a Catholic family in Northeast Portland, they describe their parents the same way their employees describe their bosses: honest, hard-working, caring.

The brothers modestly attribute the family-like environment to the practice of hiring people who’re imbued with those qualities. But it’s clear that they also play a major, if quiet, role. Along with heaping devoted praise on the management for the family-like feel, staffers regularly mention how much the company cares about them.

Working for business owners who are that devoted to their employees can be surprising. Treadwell says that if someone is having family issues, the Wehrleys virtually will walk them to the door and kick them out so that they can go deal with it.

“It’s how they are deep inside. In their eyes, this is the only way to do it,” he says.

Columbia’s headquarters — they also have a production facility in Portland and a sales office in San Jose, Calif. — is in Southeast Portland in a nondescript building off Hawthorne Boulevard. There are a few modest offices, including Rob’s and Tim’s. Whirring presses and the smell of hot metal fill one large room; computers and desks occupy another. Around a corner and through a doorway is a clean room, part of the company’s high-tech future.


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Companies that use clean rooms to make microprocessors or semiconductors need printed materials that won’t leave microscopic bits of particulate matter in the hyper-clean environments. That’s where Columbia comes in. In its own clean room, masked and gloved workers in all-white full-body suits create spiral-bound notebooks, notepads, labels, forms, and even custom instruction manuals.

It wasn’t cheap to build: Tim estimates that clean rooms cost about $2,500 a square foot. It’s been a good investment. Rob declines to talk about the company’s sales figures, but in the next two years, he estimates the company’s print and digital output will grow 20% and 50%, respectively. Business from Columbia’s U.S. and European clean-room customers, on the other hand, will grow by 300%.

Standing in front of the clear plastic walls of the room, the brothers — Rob is 56 and Tim is 46 — talk about how excited some of their employees are about the future.

Then Rob speaks up, and as he does, his bro-ther nods in agreement.

“But if you took away this values-driven culture,” Rob says, “they’d probably just as soon work anywhere else.”

— Abraham Hyatt

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