All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy got it all wrong about happy families. At least, that’s the lesson I take away from a morning with Roberta Allen and her Post Envelopes co-workers–very much a family, very definitely happy, and beyond question unique.
Though it’s been in Lindsay for 83 years now, you may not be aware of Post Envelopes. It sits at the corner of Peel and Victoria, a nondescript beige structure with “Post Church Envelopes” and “Post School Envelopes” discreetly stamped onto the vinyl siding.
It’s late December when I drop in and the last of the orders for 2018 are being processed.
Roberta, owner and general manager, and working at PCE for the past 34 years, invites me into her small office to share a little about the operation, its history, and the staff, who are on a break.
The company fills an important niche. Since 1936 they have creating customized envelopes for church collections, and since 2001 envelopes to help schools keep track of money and other information sent between home and school.
From this plant, tens of millions of church offertory envelopes are sent out to churches across Canada and as far afield as the United States, Bermuda and Canadian Forces bases in Europe. (Later in the morning Roberta will point out a carton bound for Aklavik in the Canadian Arctic).
It was all started by Leroy Wilson (“Mr. Wilson” to Roberta and everyone else there) as a division of Wilson and Wilson, which also included the Lindsay Daily Post.
“Mr. Wilson loved machinery,” Roberta tells me, “and he was always inventing ways of making the printing presses more productive.”
There’s laughter and commotion nearby. “The girls have finished their morning break and are starting their exercises,” I’m told.
Exercises? Girls? More about the exercises later, but “girls” needs explanation. It’s Roberta’s term of affection for the team whose commitment and hard work she sees as responsible for the firm’s success. Women, really; in fact, the “baby” of the group–Roberta’s daughter, Jane–is entering middle age.
The staff have lots in common. No fewer than 12 of the 13 are women. (The exception is Mark Costco, the machinist who acts as plant mechanic). All but two have been at Post Envelopes for 25 years or more and one, office manager Cathy Algar, has been part of the company for 36 years. (The exceptions are Mark and Accountant Lynda VanSchaik, who have only been around for a decade.) A number started right out of high school and this is the only job they have known. All are full-time employees. No short-term contracts or precarious employment here.
As they exercise, Roberta introduces me around. JoAnne Davies, the plant manager (“forelady” is Roberta’s term) agrees to take me on a tour.
Roberta had already told me a little about JoAnne, her commitment to the business and to the staff, her mechanical knowledge and meticulous record keeping. (Throughout my time here the compliments will flow in all directions.)
The basement first. A Harris Press, guillotine, polymer plates — equipment from the labour-intensive era of mechanical letterpress and hot lead — all sit at rest, retired and sharing the space with a staff lunchroom. It’s a kind of industrial museum and reminder of an evolution that has seen a gradual replacement with safer and more efficient digital and inkjet technologies.
Upstairs everything is in choreographed motion. Everyone has a role–press operator, feeder, collator operator– though all could also fill in elsewhere if needed. Envelopes are a blur as they are whipped along a conveyor belt.
Surprisingly, it’s still possible to carry on a conversation without raising voices.
JoAnne wants to tell me more about the technology, especially the delivery tables for envelopes, fabricated by Mark, who also set the timing for the many envelope feeders. (Mr. Wilson would be pleased.)
And she wants me to see how everything contributes to a better product: higher quality graphics, with no pen lines or blurring, the ability to print in everything from Inuktitut to Chinese. She pulls out a binder of samples to illustrate.
But what I want to know from Joanne is this: What has made this such a harmonious, productive operation?
“Number One is the atmosphere,” she says. “Roberta treats us all like family.”
Family. It goes beyond benefits, holidays and Christmas bonuses. Roberta herself uses two words to define the values that define this family: mutual respect and caring. Maybe especially caring: “When you care about people you bring out the best and when they care for you, you don’t want to disappoint them.”
Which takes us back to the exercises, which show that it’s all more than just words. Work on the floor is physical. The women are on their feet much of the day, and there are repetitive actions and bending and lifting. Just over 25 years ago staff began to experience tendinitis and other repetitive strain injuries.
Roberta brought in a workplace health consultant who tailored a stretching and strengthening routine to their needs. The program was introduced over a catered lunch and two of the women took a “train the trainer” workshop so they could run sessions.
For the past 20 years two 10 to 15 minute exercise sessions have been built into the workday. It’s all voluntary, but all participate.
Since the program began there have been no repetitive strain injuries.
By now the routine is so familiar that when I first meet the staff after they arrange themselves in a loose circle they can chat and banter as they work on flexibility and strength.
The last time I see the group assembled is just before I leave. Everyone available comes back for a few photos.
It’s like taking any family portrait. Tell ‘em to line up and look at a camera lens and everyone stiffens up. It’s the un-posed photo as they’re assembling that tells all you need to know about the Post Envelopes family.