Dick Blick getting healthy

by Mike Kroll

There is a business on the southeast side of town that's known around the country as having its home in Galesburg but which is often taken for granted locally -- Dick Blick. Dick Blick Art Materials is a Galesburg enterprise that grew from nothing into a national presence only to slightly falter during the 1980s and 90s. It is now experiencing a reemergence as the company prepares to build a new 140,000 square foot warehouse in Galesburg's industrial park.

The Dick Blick Company was founded modestly in 1911 by none other thanŠ Dick Blick. (That was really his name.) Dick Blick was a small entrepreneurial operation founded by a businessman with a singular and unique product line of specialized lettering pens for the professional sign painter that eventually grewŠ and grew. Blick began selling his pens by mail order from his kitchen table. In those early days, Blick and/or his wife would make daily trips to the Galesburg Post Office to collect and fulfill orders. Today Dick Blick, the company, continues to sell art supplies promoted in a catalog of nearly 500 pages and with a product line exceeding 30,000 items -- most of which are decidedly not pens.

In 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, Blick sold the business to a pair of men who dreamt of greatly expanding it. One of those men, Robert Metzenberg, later became known as Dick Blick's second ''founder.'' While his partner soon left the business, Metzenberg was instrumental in the postwar growth of the company into full-line art, graphic arts and sign supplies dealer serving a nationwide audience.

Today, Metzenberg, like Blick before him, is gone and the company has had to adjust. Metzenberg's youngest grandchild, Robert Buchsbaum, is CEO of the Dick Blick Company today. Buchsbaum is young and has never lived in Galesburg but his business acumen and desire were enough for the rest of the stockholders of this very family business to hand him the company reins. Some locally have viewed him as brash and arrogant but that is not the way he came off in an interview.

He came on board during some of the company's hardest times and wasn't exactly welcomed warmly by many of the old guard employees, particularly those in management. Buchsbaum took over a company at a crossroads and has been laboring to reposition it for a changing marketplace. While it has never been admitted publicly by any of Metzenberg's descendants, there were moments when the very future of Dick Blick was in doubt.

Computers took over the graphic arts industry and hand-painted or hand-set type signs are now few and far between. These areas of Dick Blick's business took a brutal hit -- with the company getting out of its Sign Press manufacturing business totally. The firm has also ceased manufacturing its own tempera paint and other products; they are now private-labelled by others to Blick's specs.

''Bringing me in was certainly a culture shock to Dick Blick and I am the youngest one in my family generation by at least 10 to 12 years. In any business each new year offers another opportunity to go bankrupt or sell out and no company can approach a century in business without more than a few scary moments. There was a lot of nervousness here and a virtual absence of trust. But the board is composed of family members and they felt it was time to take more direct control of the business.''

''The business' operating margins were declining throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Dick Blick had no real operating budget before I took over and the company has suffered through some major accounting mistakes. I was brought in by the family to turn things around and we are just beginning to see some indicators of success. In 1999 all of the divisions stunk up the place at the same time but things appear to be going pretty well right now. I have been telling our employees that they better be enjoying this recent success.''

''We saw that the school market was going away and that was Dick Blick's bread and butter,'' commented Buchsbaum. ''Despite its importance to this company, we nonetheless missed some important opportunities in the education market and Dick Blick failed to adapt to the changing market while our competition increased and filled niches we missed. Dick Blick has always led the art supply market in terms of quality and customer service but we have never been the low price source. As the school market changed, so did the buyers of art supplies and these new buyers were not always in a position to appreciate Dick Blick's strengths -- artificially inflating the apparent value of lowest price.''

Dick Blick's principle markets have long been art teachers and professional artists who were able to factor in the value of merchandise quality and service rather than simply purchasing the least expensive supplies. The professional artist market has always been a small specialized market and it is even more so today while fewer and fewer art teachers make their own purchasing decisions any more. School purchasing agents are often unable to evaluate more than price alone when purchasing art supplies and when funds are scarce, art has been one of the first areas cut by administrators.

''The outlook for our education sales is brighter now. The market for educational art products has expanded somewhat and we have taken steps to better position Dick Blick. We really do offer a great selection and customer service second to none in this field and that has left us open to pricing competition in the past. We have improved our customer service by doing everything, order taking and fulfillment, in-house and as we continually improve our distribution systems we regularly outperform the competition. Our customers now know that Dick Blick offers the best value, if not the lowest price, in the market. Buying by price alone destroys the morale of the art teacher who needs to teach with this stuff and they are sharing their feelings with purchasing agents successfully.''

Buchsbaum is both a product of 1980s and 90s and a man who appreciates the lessons of history. In a letter to his customers posted to the Dick Blick web site <www.DickBlick.com>, Buchsbaum pays allegiance to the company's family tradition. ''Although my grandfather was never a great artist, he loved serving artists and art teachers, and he had an eye for quality merchandise. It was his dream to see that every artist, art teacher, and sign painter had mail-order access to the tools of the trade.''

''My grandfather and Jack Wyatt really built this company into what it is today,'' explains Buchsbaum. ''We are very proud of the set of core principals which have guided this company since its days as a literal mom and pop shop but this company has grown and prospered because it has been willing to expand and innovate without compromising either quality or customer service. Not every effort or move can or will be successful but you can't let that discourage innovation.''

Dick Blick began its life as a catalog merchant and that still accounts for the bulk of the company's business but it made a major foray into direct retail sales during the 1980s that met with mixed results. A number of stores have since been closed or relocated and their western warehouse in suburban Las Vegas was phased out (''it was too small to be effective''). Even Dick Blick's Galesburg retail store on East Main Street was closed in favor of a retail service window at the main facility with access to everything in the warehouse. ''That other building was built to be a fast-food restaurant and that's the purpose it should serve.''

''Properly selecting store locations and product selection is key to retail success and Dick Blick made some missteps there. Some of our stores were located in markets without sufficient potential sales and there is simply no way to duplicate our catalog selection or pricing in a retail store. The products available in a Dick Blick retail store are a carefully chosen subset of what we offer in the catalog and, by necessity, the retail pricing must be somewhat higher. We want our retail stores to be a convenient source of basic art supplies that are always in stock at fair prices.''

''Our company has tried a lot of different things in retail and despite the problems we have encountered we continue to operate 33 out of 38 stores. Hopefully we will begin expanding our retail store during the first quarter of next year but our level of confidence hasn't yet reached that point. Our Galesburg retail store is in by far our smallest market yet sales have remained stable with the combination of the Galesburg retail and warehouse operations. The store here does interfere with efficient operation of our warehouse. We need to address a system where customers can get what they want but our employees don't have to interrupt what they are doing to fill a small retail order.''

Dick Blick is about to embark on the company's ''Šmost ambitious project in my tenure and it is not without risks,'' wrote Buchsbaum in a press release at the groundbreaking for the new warehouse last Thursday morning. The project will total over $6 million before it is completed and will result in the most unique structure in Galesburg's industrial park. Every other building constructed within the city's industrial parks are metal pre-engineered Butler buildings constructed by Johnson Building Systems.

The new Dick Blick warehouse will be constructed in a fashion heretofore unseen in Galesburg. What they will build is a specialized concrete structure intended to be incredibly energy efficient and present the most comfortable warehouse environment to be found anywhere in the region.

''Our warehouses can be extremely hot in the summer, which is when we ask our employees to get the most done,'' wrote Buchsbaum. ''A main goal of the building is to provide a cooler environment for our employees. In addition, the high cost of energy makes it important for us to have a building that is as efficient as possible. We are very proud that our new Enterprise Zone facility will be the first building employing this advanced technology in western Illinois.''

Solarcrete Building Systems of Union, Ill. will be principally responsible for the new building. The Solarcrete literature explains the system: ''the system uses the constant temperature which is found below the frost line 365 days a year to maintain a constant temperature inside the building. A Solarcrete building is insulated like none other, with a patented wall construction system playing a large part in producing energy savings.'' The company claims that Solarcrete buildings can be as much as 90 percent more efficient than traditional industrial designs and aims to maintain indoor temperatures at 72 degrees (plus or minus eight degrees) year around.

Buchsbaum figures that the new warehouse will offer a variety of benefits to Dick Blick. The significantly larger size will accommodate not only additional product storage space but, just as importantly, more space for workers. Today Dick Blick operates on three shifts during the summertime and Buchsbaum admits that it is hard to find enough good workers willing to serve on third shift. ''Let's face it, third shift work hours do not particularly appeal to most employees. The new warehouse will allow us to operate larger first and second shifts during the busy summer months thus minimizing or eliminating the need for a third shift. We wanted to build a facility that is employee-friendly as well as attractive and cost-efficient to operate. I think those goals will be realized here.''

With the addition of the new warehouse, Buchsbaum says all of Dick Blick's warehousing operations in Galesburg will be relocated there. The company also plans to consolidate most of the office functions that today are scattered across town at the facility on Knoxville Road. These moves will leave a large empty warehouse unused for the time being but Buchsbaum is not worried about that. ''A mail order operation like ours never knows when some extra warehouse space might come in handy and we do plan on growing this company. Hell, we wouldn't be building the new warehouse on such a large piece of ground if growth wasn't in our long-range plans.''

''The way to make sure that we continue doing well is to leverage our recent successes into improving and expanding what we do best at Dick Blick. While bad things happen to all businesses, more good than bad are happening here right now. We are one of the smaller guys remaining on the block in this industry but we remain a player because we are incredibly focused. The key to both mail order and retail is being a good merchant. You must know your product and your customers. Even the best systems in the world won't save you from bad product selection or poor customer service.''

Buchsbaum lives in suburban Chicago where he works out of an office tower with a small executive staff. He travels regularly to Galesburg (and some other Dick Blick locations) but relocating was never really an option for his family. ''When my family asked me to take this job on my wife wasn't about to move from Baltimore to Galesburg but she did agree to move to Chicago -- in two years.'' Buchsbaum and his wife are pretty well settled in suburban Chicago where they just celebrated the birth of a child.

''The best thing I can hope for is that both our employees and the board will continue to have trust and confidence in me. The board and I are committed to taking care of our employees and building this business but we will do nothing that unduly risks the continued success of the company.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 5, 2000

Back to The Zephyr