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Company leader says no to the status quo

At Hammer Packaging Corp., the only constant is change.

"Status quo doesn’t really fit well with us," says James Hammer, president and CEO.

To drive that point home, Hammer carries a copy of the book "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson M.D. The book, a parable about four characters that confront change, is given to new employees, customers and vendors.

"When you proactively deal with change in a positive manner, you will have met the expectations of the company, as well as your Hammer associates," reads the inscription Hammer writes for each book. "World-class organizations encourage and embrace change."

The key to the success of the company, Hammer says, is change.

"If you can’t get used to change, you can’t be here. If you want to press a button at McDonald’s with a hamburger symbol on it all the time, you won’t change. You’ll press that button forever. But that’s not what we’re about," he adds. "If I have to hand three or four copies of the book out to the same person in a short period of time, they’re usually not here anymore."

Hammer has learned a great deal about change in his nearly four decades with the company his great-grandfather built. Since he took the helm in the early 1980s, the company has grown from a $4 million, 60-employee regional firm to a nearly $100 million, 400-person global organization.

Hammer Packaging ranks first on the Rochester Business Journal list of commercial printers, based on the number of local employees.

Herman Meyering founded the company as Genesee Valley Lithographic Co. on Exchange Street downtown in 1912. It began as a printer of seed packages. In the 1960s the company changed its name to Hammer Lithograph when Meyering’s son-in-law, Walter Hammer, took over the business.

In the early 1970s, around the time James Hammer joined his family in the business, the company moved to Metro Park in Brighton. Hammer started the company’s customer service department and eventually moved into sales and upper management.

In the early 1980s Hammer bought out his father and grandfather and took on the leading role he continues in today.

Hammer Packaging still operates a facility at Metro Park, as well as a 250,000-square-foot facility at Rochester Tech Park and its corporate headquarters, situated on a 14-acre parcel adjacent to Rochester Institute of Technology.

Finding a niche

Hammer Packaging focuses on producing labels for the food and beverage industry, including Campbell Soup Co. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. The company offers the popular shrink-sleeve labels, as well as cut-and-stack labels and roll-fed labels, among others.

"One thing about the print industry that I learned early in my career is you need to focus on what you’re good at," Hammer says. "Equip yourself to be a lower-cost manufacturer in that niche, whatever that niche is. Then grow your market share."

Too many commercial printers traditionally have been generalists, he says, but success comes with finding a place in the market and growing by looking ahead.

"We look at innovation as being the key driver to our business," Hammer says. "We don’t want to be a ‘me too.’ We want to be leaders, not followers."

By leading, not following, the company breeds risk takers.

"We have a phrase, ‘If it’s not broken, break it,’" Hammer says. "Look for something, break it and redo it. You need to be a risk taker in today’s world. The days of status quo are gone."

Hammer Packaging reinvests a minimum of 10 percent of its revenues annually in new technology.

"You’ve got to have leading-edge technology so you can lower your costs constantly," Hammer says. "If you can’t do that, especially in the printing business, you’re not going to be in business."

Hammer Packaging’s vice president of sales and marketing, Louis Iovoli, says that at the company’s core is its adaptability.

"Jim is a risk taker, because he’s been willing to put big capital back into the business with the objective of either expanding the range of products and services that we offer or lowering our cost of production," Iovoli explains.

Hammer says the company’s success is a result of its shared values: integrity, respect, trust, credibility and continuous improvement.

"We stuck to our knitting. We’ve done what we say we’re going to do," he says. "Our shared values are key to us."

Growth is an important company goal, and Hammer and his team plan their targets a couple of times a year. Goals are published and reviewed with each of the employees.

"So everybody in the organization knows where we’re going," Hammer says. "People are our most important asset and always have been. And part of the empowerment of our people is to give them as much knowledge as we can."

With empowerment comes the ability to make decisions, Hammer says.

"Having a middle management that tells people what to do, we’ve never been there. We don’t want to go there," he says. "You can’t afford it, No. 1. And No. 2, people should be empowered to make their own decisions."

Hammer’s executive assistant, Susan Bauch, says the regular communication lets people know what has happened in the company, what is happening in the industry, what is going on with customers and where the company is heading.

"I think that helps create an atmosphere of being creative and being able to exchange ideas and what’s going on with us and within the company," she says.

The atmosphere

Hart Swisher, who has been with the company two decades and serves as chief research and innovation director, says the environment at the company is one in which each day brings new challenges.

"But you always have that understanding of what direction we’re going in," he adds, "that servicing the customer and growing the business is really what we’re all about."

Iovoli calls the atmosphere dynamic.

"Every day is different," he says. "It’s very fast-paced."

Swisher describes Hammer as both a hands-on leader and one who can step back and let his people do their thing.

"He certainly allows you the freedom of coming up with your own suggestions and ideas for direction, but when the situation warrants it, whether it’s dealing with suppliers or customers, he’ll probably get more hands-on than most owners," Swisher says. "But I think that’s a positive. He gets out in front of the customers a lot."

Hammer says he is not as hands-on as he used to be.

"We have grown to the size that I need to have a good executive team to depend on, which I have," he explains. "My leadership style is to set an example and to measure people and keep people accountable."

Hammer believes in rewarding employees and giving back. The company has a program in which employees are recognized for exceptional work with Hammer "bucks," each one worth four hours off work.

The company also offers gain sharing, in which employees receive a bonus each quarter when they beat the previous year’s quarter in sales.

Employees say the way they are treated and the atmosphere at Hammer Packaging make them feel that they have a stake in the company.

"I think Jim has done that with allowing people to make changes in their own areas and implement improvements," Swisher says, "and with the structure he’s set up for profit sharing, for growth incentives, gain sharing. All those things are meant to get people to feel like they’re involved in the ownership of the company."

Adds Iovoli: "If you erased the logo on our letterhead, in invisible ink it says Iovoli Packaging."

Hammer says his strengths are his people skills.

"It’s all about people. That’s the key," he says. "I travel a lot and I’m in front of customers a lot, and that’s where it happens. So I think that relationship is important."

He has a hard time letting go sometimes, he says. It is one of his weaknesses.

"I get too deep in some of the responsibilities I’ve got my executive team to do sometimes," he explains. "It’s hard to let go when it’s yours, your financial investment, your life invested in it. At least I’m aware of that and I try to pull back."

Bauch describes Hammer as driven.

"I think the biggest asset to his leadership style is being involved on all levels without being in the middle of them," she adds, "letting people express their opinions and concerns and giving them the freedom to move forward if he sees that it will better our processes or better the company.

"We’re not a company that has a lot of tiers and tiers of management, which keeps the lines of information and communication flowing."

Iovoli calls Hammer demanding, but within reason.

"Jim has an expression he uses all the time: ‘You have to do what you say you’re going to do.’ Once he gets you to say you’re going to do something, he has an expectation that it’s going to get done," Iovoli says. "There’s just no compromising that. You lead by example."

Iovoli also describes Hammer as hard-working, energetic and dedicated.

"He approaches everything with a smile, but he’s very focused," he adds.

The business can be challenging, Bauch adds, but Hammer is able to keep his sense of humor.

"He has a hearty laugh, and he’s very personable," she says. "For me, working with him, that’s a positive thing. People respect him and there’s a sense of loyalty to him, and I think that works both ways."

Longtime friend and financial adviser Thomas Bonadio adds, "He doesn’t ask others to work harder than he does, and he has excellent vision."

He also describes Hammer as high-energy, a good businessman and growth-oriented.

What keeps him grounded is the excitement of dealing with a successful organization, Hammer says.

"We have a lot of pride in what we do," he says. "We don’t really say things that we don’t believe in."

Indeed, as visitors step inside Hammer Packaging’s corporate office they are greeted with a Hall of Fame: dozens of plaques lauding the company’s success, from Printing Impressions 400 to Best Workplace in America to Premier Print Awards. In 2008, Hammer himself was chosen as the recipient of the Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award and was inducted into the Rochester Business Hall of Fame.

But the success that gets him out of bed in the morning also can keep him up at night."Just being profitable enough in a com-

petitive environment to enable us to continue to borrow money from the banks to invest in technology, that’s always a concern," he says. "That’s our biggest concern. If you’re not growing, you start going backwards."

His biggest challenge is finding the right people, Hammer says. When he interviews job candidates, he looks for something unique.

"Some people have been in that corporate atmosphere so long they don’t think like entrepreneurs. They get up and they do things 9 to 5 or 8 to 5. We’re not that way," he explains. "We need people who take risks."

The best part of his job is the satisfaction of meeting goals, while the least favorite is letting people go.

"That’s why it’s so important when we interview people; we overdo it. We go through five, six, seven interviews," he says. "But it’s so important that you go through that process first, because if somebody gets through the door who doesn’t fit that culture, you’ve got to fire him or her."

As with many industries, the recession hit commercial printers hard, Hammer says.

"You have a lot of companies that have been hanging on who won’t be able to hang on any longer. I think you’re going to see a further reduction in the overall amount of printing companies, especially the commercial printing companies," he says. "It’s been going in that direction anyway. The recession just sped it up a little bit."

At home
Hammer lives with his wife, Donna, in Mendon. They have three grown children: Lisa, Jason and Ashley. Jason started at the company in 2001 and now serves as manager of production services. Ashley joined the company last year as marketing assistant.

Hammer and his wife are involved in several local charitable organizations, including the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center and the Mary Cariola Children’s Center.

In his spare time he enjoys golf and spending time with family, especially his four grandchildren.

While Hammer might not call himself a workaholic, he says he does not always leave work at work.

"No. Let’s leave it at that," he says, laughing.

If he could pass on a piece of advice, Hammer says, it would be about risk and reward.



"You’ve got to take risks to get rewards. Never be status quo," he says. "And surround yourself with good people."

James Hammer
Position: President and CEO, Hammer Packaging Corp.
Age: 62
Education: B.A., business administration, Drake College, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 1971
Family: Wife Donna; daughters Lisa and Ashley; son Jason
Home: Mendon
Leisure: Golf, spending time with family
Quote: "We look at innovation as being the key driver to our business. We don’t want to be a ‘me too.’ We want to be leaders, not followers."


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