Jim Mitchell and his brother have turned around Atkins into a growing business. They use the technology that fits the job, from this older 1915 printer to computerized systems. Jim Mitchell with his pride machine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

August/September 2008

Article  by Ramona du Houx

The Mitchells have already hired three new employees to meet the increased workload that has happened since Jim and Peter Mitchell bought Atkins Printing in Waterville last January. And with an expansion underway upstairs, creating a specialty digital graphics shop, they will take on additional staff.

“Many customers have expressed an interest in having someone help them with their designs, or to do the graphic artwork for them,” said Jim Mitchell. “To meet their needs, we are expanding on that service.”

Atkins’ move to opening a street-level shop specializing in instant digital printing will make their business more visible and accessible to customers who are looking for a professional, digital printer that can also do every aspect of design and layout for them in a timely way. The large offset printing component of Atkins will remain underground, occupying 22,000-square-feet. The business does highly specialized printing for four-color catalogs and brochures for businesses like James D. Julia Auctioneer and Poulin’s Antiques & Auctions in Fairfield. Atkins also prints stationary, brochures, pamphlets, and even the napkins used at the Blaine House.

Pam Metten will be in charge of Atkins’ new digital department — Atkins Instant Printing. “AIP will be a challenge that I’m really looking forward to. I do a lot of the layout and design work now, so it’s an extension of what I’m doing. I’m lucky, it’s a very supportive environment here, we’re like family.” A sentiment expressed many times during a tour of the printing facility.

The majority of the employees have made Atkins their career. Such loyalty to a family owned company that’s been in business nearly 100 years is hard to find in the global economy. For Mitchell it is part of what makes Atkins so special.

“We have a conscientious workforce — they take pride in their work. They are loyal to the company, and we wanted it to stay that way,” said Mitchell.

“Ralph [Atkins] was a great employer, but he was ready to retire. We wondered who would take over, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief after the sale,” said Sam Gath who has worked at Atkins, on and off, for twenty-eight years in the graphics department. He said with the new technology they are constantly learning new computer programs to remain on the cutting edge. “There’s a new energy here, we’re excited about the future and the expansion of the company. The Mitchells have taken us to new levels. Production goals have climbed. They’ve brought in new business and new ways forward,” he said.

Friday morning briefings between staff and management have led to some changes.

“Every week quarter new production goals are set. At the end of the week we analyze if we’re making satisfactory progress towards those goals, where mistakes were made and how the process can be improved. At first during the meetings Pete and I did most of the briefing, letting people know where we wanted to take the company. Now, they are briefing us,” said Mitchell. “An employee mentioned that everyone should have business cards, because when he meets someone they may not remember who he works for, but if he had a card they would. Everyone here promotes Atkins; it had a family team atmosphere before we took over and that was important for us to continue.”

Atkins Printing had been struggling the last several years.

“It’s been really exciting to take a company that wasn’t doing all that well and turn it around,” smiled Mitchell. “And we’ve only begun.”

They have also earned the reputation for being “the printer for Democrats.” It all started when Ed Muskie first ran for office, and he wanted a union printer. He sat down and had a talk with Atkins, and they have been a union printer ever since. Now they are the oldest union printer in the state, and because of that status and their quality printing, they are generating print jobs from out of state — from Upstate New York and New Hampshire.

“There are places where it’s hard to find a union printer, so they are coming to us,” said Mitchell who strongly believes in being with the union.

So do his employees. “Being part of the union gives me a great sense of security; I’ve got a family to think about,” said Dan Potelle who was working packaging up a job. “There’s a great team atmosphere working here. And they have a great pension plan that was negotiated by the union.”

The company has 27 employees, some of whom have been there more than 35 years. Lenny Cobb has been with Atkins for 28 years and, amongst other duties, is the chief operator of study older machines that are still in use for specific jobs, like one-color prints, or envelopes.

“I remember we did four-color separation printing — where you take each color, one at a time, and layer them. We never knew how a job turned out until the end. That was stressful. The modern machines take a lot of that pressure off, and you can really monitor a job every step of the way,” said Cobb. “We are a family here, and when there is a job that has to get out the door, we don’t mind a twelve-hour day. It’s hard work, but being a real part of a team makes you proud.”

Employees have been given extra motivation to do a job well, for now they own ten percent of the profits. Everyone has an equal share of that ten percent, from the janitor on up to the most senior technician pressman.

Cobb worked on the team that decided the outcome of the profit sharing. “We wanted to keep the family united, so making everyone equal made sense, everyone gets an equal piece of the pie,” he said.

The Mitchells have invested in new technologies and will continue to invest more as the need arises to maintain quality products. The oldest piece of equipment, which is still used to cut out the circle for the door handles, dates back to around 1915. If the technology still services a need, they use it.
Hot off the state-of the art press were canvassing leaflets for an Obama campaign canvas, taking place over the weekend. Atkins had a two-day turnaround from when they received the electronic information, to designing the leaflet, to printing, folding it, and packaging the final product.

“There are three things that are a priority in the printing business: quality, making sure your customer comes first, price, making sure you are competitive, and speed, making sure you can turn around jobs fast and efficiently,” said Mitchell. “We do have a niche in fast turnaround quality printing.”

The printing world may be new to Jim, but being a consultant, and working with teams is second nature. He listens carefully to suggestions and quickly analyses what needs to be done to solve a problem. He knew that in order to be a success he would need to build upon the Atkins’ reputation and their loyal customer base, which he is doing.

“Maine is a great place to do business. People have the right attitudes and integrity. Everyone here will bend over backwards for a customer; we all foster good working relationships with them. We don’t want the customer to worry about the printing aspect of the job they are doing. They have other things to think about. If you come to Atkins, you know you’ll get a quality print job,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell is a nephew of Sen. George Mitchell who grew up in Waterville. The family has special ties to the area and have witnessed changes in the city.

“There is a strong future in Waterville, with the Hathaway Creative Center, the Main Street work, Colby and Thomas colleges, the Alfond Youth Center, strong health organizations, and ongoing downtown revitalization efforts. It’s an exciting place to be a small business. We all grew up here, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the community,” said Mitchell.

Jim has three brothers and three sisters. “Six of us have gone away only to return to Maine,” he said.

Jim is Atkins’ President, a Dartmouth College graduate, and owns James F. Mitchell Co., a lobbying firm in Augusta. Peter, a graduate of the University of Maine, is in the semi-conductor industry and is Atkins’ chief executive officer.

“Over the years, Pete and I talked about how we would like to have a business in Waterville. Atkins was the right opportunity at the right time,” said Mitchell. Their sister, Ann, who is a partner in Jim’s lobbying firm, also helps out in accounting. Ann had worked at Atkins off and on over the years, and Jim worked odd jobs at Christmas time.

Every time Jim visits the shop, he ensures he greets everyone who is working and has a long talk with them, getting updated on the different aspects of the print jobs and any concerns workers may have.

Looking after every employee is important to the Mitchells and so is incorporating good environmental practices into the business.

“We’re going to have Efficiency Maine come in and do an onsite energy audit; we recycle more than 98 percent of our scrap paper, use environmentally friendly inks, and are looking to receive 50 percent of our energy from a green source by January,” said Mitchell.

The company is also expecting to be FSC certified, which means they are helping to improve forest stewardship. And amongst other greening up initiatives, Atkins encourages customers to use recycled paper stocks.

The Mitchells are taking balanced risks to breathe new life into the Atkins printing world, and it’s working.