BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A friendly, youthful gaze from behind a narrow pair of glasses and a welcoming smile nestled between a neatly trimmed mustache and beard are the trademarks of a local printer whose business is just days away from rolling over 140 years in Fort Madison.
Neal Dodd, owner of Dodd Printing and Stationery at 621 Avenue G, is pulling up on the anniversary in January, but one wouldn’t be able to tell this husband and father has been doing it that long. With an almost hip approach to business and life in general, Dodd, along with his wife Lynn, mold and move this printing and supply shop through the decades with a perceived ease of step. And with megaprinting shops like Staples popping up in most decent sized communities, Dodd’s ease in approach is counterintuitive to the generation of get it fast, get it now.
He says he stays viable with a personal approach to everything past, present and looking ahead.
“I think you just have to,” Dodd said. “You have to reach out and do the right thing. That’s the only difference between us and someone in New York City that you can find online. It’s finding people and letting them know you’re gonna take care of them. It’s hard. I mean you and I can sit here and say ‘take a look at the pricing or whatever your concern is’. But it’s finding out how you get that message across.”
Lynn says Dodd’s bars are set very high.
“He loves to fulfill and excel someone’s expectations,” Lynn said. “He’ll spend way more time than maybe he should. But when the bar’s up here he’ll exceed it.”
The dual store-front location on Fort Madison’s east end of the historic Main Street district, was the third location of the business that goes back three generations to 1877 to Neal’s great-grandfather Hyamsel Williams Dodd, Sr. who published a Pythian publication called the Knights Sword and Helmet which was a national publication for the Knights of Pythius.
“I have the total bound version of all the Knights Sword and Helmet and the first one is dated Jan. 1877. That’s what started it,” he said. Sometime in 1910-1915, not really sure, it got changed to Dodd Printing Co. then in the 60s we changed to Dodd Printing and Stationery and became incorporated.”
Dodd said the building started in the Lincoln hotel which is now where Chuong Garden is in the 200 block of 7th Street.
“If I understand it right, that was an incubator for business…That building was for startup businesses and we started there.”
“Then we moved to James Block where the old Woolworth’s building was and where Humphrey’s had the law office on the side street. Then we moved to where German American Bank was and then we moved here in the 1900s.”
Dodd purchased the neighboring store front which is now the west part of the store in 1982 which gives the current layout of the facility. The print jobs are all done in the back of the building where printing equipment from multiple generations marks the room and dictates the history of the company. Dodd still uses offset models and even has hand-placed block and type equipment still set up like it is just waiting for the next job. On the other side is the state-of-the-art digital printing and copying equipment. All set up on different sides of the room almost like a generational showdown of sorts.
But printing hasn’t always been Dodd’s passion.
“I wanted to work in colleges and universities,” he said.
“I have a part of a Master’s degree in higher education and administration. I worked for the University of San Francisco and I loved the work. But I had a girlfriend back here and thought I better go back and see what’s happening. When I got back, I realized I didn’t have a girlfriend here…and I didn’t have a job back there. So I came in here on July 5, 1977 and I remember walking in the back door with my dad and looking up at the door and thinking ‘I’m never gonna leave’. But I’ve grown to really like it so it’s worked out.”
The business has gone through many changes of services and products, but Lynn says it’s the families history of flexibility that has kept them in the game.
The family has offered everything from printing, to copy/fax equipment to computers, sporting goods and are now even dabbling in creating their own paper for bookmarks and special occasion stationery. Dodd said he has recently taken scrap paper introduced some leaves and soaked the materials in liquid and then pressed them to create a very unique quality paper that is just that something extra special you won’t get at the big stores.
He also says they keep their respective eyes on the big boxes to stay in line with pricing.
“We’re not pricewise too far off from them (national retail outlets),” Neal said. “The deal with staying viable is reaching people. As you well know reaching people now is social media and digital ways. In 1982 I could go out and call on people and I still do it , but 9 times out of 10 I get someone who would rather I leave them alone and they’ll find me on the Internet.”
And that’s an option as well. The Dodds have 24/7 online ordering and Lynn said service oriented offerings are becoming very popular in a very fast paced business environment.
“Services are becoming a little more of a viable product for our customers who need to fax or email something or scan something. The services side has grown quite a bit,” she said. “We have customers who are in the middle of a print job and they’re out of ink… and they’re hoping you have it right now.”
Neal said he’s starting to see things coming full circle from the rampant digital buying craze and how people want to be treated in the retail and service sector.
“I’ve noticed with customers we had for years they’re starting to saying how nice it is to get an opinion from someone if they’re out in left field on something. We’re all used to going online and reading what you can, and then pushing the order button and hoping it comes in the way you think it will. We’re maybe getting a little bit more sophisticated in that we want to speak to a human.”
But nothing seems to rattle the Dodds and the business continues to be a fun and challenging environment. One that nutures creativity and flexibility and the challenge of constant education and research.
Both Lynn and Neal said the future is what the business climate dictates. And they’ll be happy to be around helping their customers with any printing needs they have.
“I’m not concerned about all this digital stuff. You can go into a store through Amazon or something online and put all this stuff in your cart and ‘walk out’ of the store and I’m good with that. We can figure that out and do that here. I’m cool.
“We’re not going away. Its changing but I’m comfortable with it. If you don’t consider everything a moving target you’re going to fall behind. But I think we’re making the right adjustments at the moment. Biggest thing for us to keep contacting people through something and we’ve gotten a little better at it.”