Striving for a Better In-plant

Having run in-plants in three states, Catherine Chambers has made a career of improving and advancing the print operations she leads.

It is not altogether clear whether Catherine Chambers believed in fate when it came to choosing her career as an in-plant manager. As the director of Printing and Mail Services at Virginia Tech sees it, it just “kind of happened.”

But make no mistake about it, Chambers loves what she does.

In the tight-knit circle of college and university in-plant managers, Chambers and her husband, Ray, are as close to celebrities as this space offers. As a tandem, they developed a consulting business, the Chambers Management Group (CMG), that has provided guidance to more than 100 college, university and non-profit in-plants. Any in-plant director who has bothered to step outside his/her shop to tap some sort of association knowledge base is undoubtedly familiar with the dynamic duo.

Catherine Chambers’ career path took off in 1986, when she was manager of the secretarial pool (which she changed to “word processing center”) at Sewanee University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. The center, which reported to Printing Services, provided support for all faculty on campus. During this time, she helped set up the school’s first computer network, and taught virtually every staff member how to use their computers, along with programs such as Word and Excel. (Many attendees of the 1995 Association of College and University Printers conference recall seeing the Internet for the first time when Chambers offered a demo on her laptop.)

Chambers later took the helm of Printing Services, which she operated in conjunction with the word processing system. Along the way, she also took control of the student post office and mailing on campus. Chambers remained on board at University of the South until 1997.

It was during her term there that she met Ray Chambers at an IPMA conference in Florida. Watching a session on team building and management, she saw one of his employees conducting a “trust walk” where people walk together in line—hand to shoulder—while blindfolded. Chambers was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

“The session was being taught by one of Ray’s employees,” she observed. “The University of Louisville printing facility (where Ray was then vice president of IT) was moving toward team-based management with the Joiner Model. I was interested and wanted to learn more about it.”

Ray suggested she attend their three-day session. It proved to be fruitful on several levels. She went on to implement the Joiner Model at Sewanee, and several years later, he asked for her hand in marriage during an IPMA conference in 1996.

Since Chambers couldn’t work with her husband, she ended up taking a position at Louisville managing the business of the animal research program. When he took a position at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, she helped him set up a print center there. They also teamed to create the aforementioned CMG, and Catherine Chambers attended graduate school at Penn State.

Another opportunity came along in 2006 for her as the director of printing for the State College Area School District. She’d always wanted to direct a larger shop, so she took the reins while Ray concentrated exclusively on the consulting business. There, she implemented a district-wide copier management program and brought digital printing into the former offset operation.

Improvements at Virginia Tech

Since taking the reigns at Virginia Tech Printing and Mail Services in 2009, Chambers has met and addressed a number of challenges. The shop had become known for slow turn times on jobs and high prices. Chambers helped the in-plant drastically reduce expenses, add new services, change production processes and improve its reputation. Business card production has moved to digital machines. New services like poster printing, standard mail processing and management of survey research projects have been added.

Color volume has grown substantially at the in-plant, buoyed by a bevy of new equipment (including a Konica Minolta bizhub PRESS C8000, a Graphic Whizard Tri-Creaser and a Spiel Sterling Digibinder). Chambers also manages a fleet of about 700 Konica Minolta MFDs across the commonwealth.

To enhance efficiency, Chambers consolidated two digital print centers in different locations into the main facility; last summer, Mail Services was relocated there as well.

To fortify mailing operations, an envelope inserter was obtained. New infrared dryers enable jobs to dry quicker.

“We have put PrintSmith into place as a production management system,” she says. “That’s been a big change over the last three years, and now we’re integrated into it. We have a one-stop shop.”

Printing and Mail Services regularly benchmarks its prices against local printers. Chambers purchases all university printing that uses state dollars. In the process of procuring printing, she pays attention to the branding and quality of the printed materials.

The in-plant has streamlined its processes during this challenging economic period, and is able to do more with fewer people by making better use of technology and “working smarter, not harder,” Chambers stresses. She credits her self-starting employees for making the operation the success it is today. Their performance has enabled the shop to justify its existence, a challenge for many in-plants, particularly during the 2009-10 time frame, when the threat of facilities management takeover was especially rampant.

“If I’ve had any success, it’s because of them. Not me,” she emphasizes. “They’re dedicated people with great work ethics who enjoy producing quality work for the people at Virginia Tech.

“If we continue to provide quality products at a reasonable price, according to the clients’ time frame,” she adds, “then we don’t have to worry about outsourcing threats.”

Award-winning In-plant

Printing and Mail Services has won a number of awards, both from a group and individual level during Chambers’ tenure. It captured a Best in Print Award of Excellence in 2010 from Printing Industries of Virginia (PIVA), which was gratifying considering the shop was competing against commercial printers. Chambers also earned her Certified Auxiliary Services Professional designation last year from the National Association of College Auxiliary Services.

In addition to her involvement with the Association of College and University Printers (ACUP), where she is on the board of directors, Chambers has also participated in Canadian and UK in-plant conferences. She and Ray Chambers do numerous workshops for in-plant managers, providing insight on management and battling against the scourge of outsourcing.

“Our world is so technical, and it changes all the time,” she says. “It’s important to keep up with the industry. With respect to ACUP…I can call anybody, and often do, to ask them a question about something I don’t know about, a piece of equipment, where I can get a certain substrate. That contact is important.”

Going it alone, she stresses, is a recipe for disaster.

“No man is an island,” Chambers observes.

Related story: A Virginia Turnaround Tale

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