The little company that could – Penworthy

Accelerated technology, focus on ‘now’ help Penworthy book more business

Laurence "Larry" Compton says you can’t change the past and you can’t predict the future. That’s why his mantra of doing business is ".now," as in "dot now."
"Just get things done. When we do well, we just get it done. We have .now. Whatever you’re working on now, just focus," Compton says. "And keep your ethics pointed north. We have a very focused organization."
It wasn’t always that way when Compton bought half of a business that was struggling along with several corporate names for its various missions in 1989.
By 1992, Compton became the sole owner of the firm and set out to consolidate the business into one name with one focus: The Penworthy Co., a provider of prebound books for school and public libraries.
"We buy a book from a publisher, and we rebind it to make it much more durable for multiple uses," Compton says.
Most folks aren’t aware that out of Penworthy’s office in Milwaukee Historic Third Ward, the company provides books to more than 7,000 customers in every state, except Hawaii.
Penworthy’s business concept is quite simple, but its process is quite complex and advanced.
Penworthy buys books appealing to children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The company sends the books, mostly paperbacks, to a bindery subcontractor in Indiana, where the books are sheared, and the pages are stitched, bound and glued into a laminated spine. The copy of the cover of the original book is scanned in by an Iowa subcontractor, and a more durable cover is applied to the reinvented book that can now withstand the wear and tear of repeated usage at a library.
Along the way, Penworthy has rebound books bearing very familiar titles to parents with young children: "The Little Engine That Could," "Curious George," "Sesame Street" and "Scooby Doo," to name a few.
"At any given time, we have 800 to 900 titles," Compton says.
Penworthy has 37 employees who help 20 field sales representatives sell books to libraries throughout the country.
When Compton bought the company, it had a staff of seven office staff people handling business for $2.1 million in annual revenues. Today, Penworthy has only four office people, but its revenues have grown to more than $8 million.
That kind of efficiency has happened because Compton decided to invest in accelerated information technology. He added four information technology specialists to his staff.
The IT specialists used the Lotus Notes platform to create customized software that streamlines Penworthy’s entire customer relationship management program in 2000. With the new software, the company’s field reps can see the inventory back at the Third Ward office, they can make purchasing transactions and they can order the books to be delivered a couple days later through an integrated program with the United Parcel Service.
Meanwhile, Penworthy’s staff in Milwaukee uses an integrated mapping program to steer the field reps to new appointments.
"We have made massive changes in how we do business through technology. We integrated our database. The place is paperless," Compton says. "It’s been very important. As an ROI (return on investment), it’s one of those things that, once you bit the bullet and did it, it changed how we did business with our customers. It runs like a machine … Dot now."
As the company’s flywheel began to gain momentum, Compton and his staff added one other wrinkle to their operation. They hired a professional artist who created the Penworthy Bear. The logo of that bear now appears on the backs of the firm’s prebound books.
"We’ve heard anecdotally that people look for a book with the bear on it," Compton says. "It gives us a common theme in which we can promote our products. It has enhanced our image. We are known as the bear.
"We operate our business in a world of children, but we’re not children. We’re adults, and we wanted a bear that reflected a bear, not a teddy bear," Compton says.
The final piece to Penworthy’s puzzle was getting the entire staff to focus on the company’s evolving core mission. As business grew, some of the employees weren’t understanding that mission.
"We had some dissension and conflict from some people within the organization," Compton says.
Compton hired Milwaukee business consultant Joan Lloyd, who suggested the company conduct a production meeting every other Wednesday at 10 a.m. A manager and an employee from each of Penworthy’s departments attend the meeting and bring the others up to date about what they are doing.
"I selected Joan to help get everybody thinking on the same page. She did that and did an excellent job," Compton says. "What it was was communication issues. People found there wasn’t anything secret going on. It really worked wonderfully."
Dot now.

Laurence "Larry" Compton
The Penworthy Co.

Age: 57
Education: Bachelor of science degree in business and master’s in business administration from the University of Nebraska
Company’s annual revenues: $8 million
Employees: 37 employees (in-house) and 20 field sales representatives
Role model: "None, really. I used to read a lot of Peter Drucker, and I guessed I learned to look for the incongruities. There was Joe Schojnacki, a businessman in Texas who was a University of Wisconsin graduate who was a ‘get it done’ kind of guy."
Leadership philosophy: "Just get things done. When we do well, we just get it done. We have ‘.now’ (as in ‘dot now). Whatever you’re working on now, just focus," Compton says. "And keep your ethics pointed north. We have a very focused organization."

May 30, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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