Kingsport Book, an old school book manufacturer tracing its roots to what was once considered the largest book printing operation in the world, is turning out hardcover pieces of classic literature with gold-edged pages and stunning artwork.
The operation’s leaders are CEO Fred Cooper and Chief Financial Officer Rick Jennings, who worked at the old Kingsport Press that first started producing books in 1922.
When they left Quebecor, a subsequent acquirer of the Kingsport Press plant and its Hawkins County operations, in the fall of 2002, Cooper had worked for the book plant for 25 years, while Jennings had been there 27 years. Both had risen through the ranks — Cooper on the production side and Jennings on the customer service side.
“(Rick) and I were fortunate enough over the years to be involved in a lot of moves within that organization,” Cooper said of the book manufacturer. “There came a time when I was part of a group who knew the ultimate plans for these plants. At that point in my life, I didn’t have the heart for it any more. Buyouts, acquisitions, downsizing, we had seen enough of it to last a lifetime, I decided to leave. (Rick) and I have been friends our entire working life. We started talking about what we were going to do. He made a decision he wasn’t going to be a part of it, either ... Kingsport Press truly was the daddy of this business.”
Jennings said the Kingsport Press operation in its heyday was like a book making university.
“There wasn’t anywhere else you could go that was as diverse and complete as the operations in Kingsport,” Jennings explained. “I told people through the years ‘You couldn’t buy the education in production and manufacturing that you got at Kingsport Press.’”
Early the next year, the two formed Tennessee Valley Manufacturing Solutions and started production a month later in a building on East Stone Drive.
Within a year, they outgrew its space, and moved the company in January 2004 to a warehouse off Riverport Road. They narrowed its focus to offer mainly trade bindery services for the printing industry.
Before long, Cooper and Jennings’ former employer, Quebecor, had become one of their biggest customers.
But business gradually eroded, and Quebecor shut down all its Northeast Tennessee operations. Jennings had been on the frontlines of that effort.
Within days of Quebecor’s announcement to permanently close its Kingsport plant, publishers who knew Cooper and Jennings were calling and asking if their business could handle more work.
“We got on the phone with publishers we had done business with the last 25 years and asked a very basic question: If we get a book bindery and can serve your basic needs, would you be interested in giving us work,” Cooper recalled. “And we got commitments from several publishers. It was almost like the stars lined up.”
Now they’re in a 120,000-square-foot facility off Kingsport Press Road in Hawkins County producing both hardcover and paperback books with a skilled workforce of nearly 50 people. Many are former Quebecor employees.
Books being produced on the floor days ago included classics like The Sea-Wolf by Jack London, The poetry of Robert Frost and a 50th anniversary edition of Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann.
A major customer for Kingsport Book has been The Easton Press, a Connecticut-based book publisher selling high-end collector’s edition books bound in genuine leather and accented with 22-karat gold.
“The (book) printing industry as a whole has been devastated by foreign competition,” Jennings observed. “Because of the product we make, not everybody can do that. And there’s still a demand. We’re serving people who still have an amazing appreciation for the art and craft of a leather bound book. Easton went to people who are book lovers and are into a specific subject, and that forced us to evolve and make books in smaller quantities.”
Cooper added: “It’s a nice position to be in, but we’re without competition now. We can do things no one else in this country can do.”
Kingsport Book can produce large or small book orders, and has a second floor warehouse that can ship books directly to the consumer.
Cooper and Jennings indicate one reason they’ve been successful is they carry the mantle of the old Kingsport Press in the book publishing industry.
“That has followed us,” Jennings said of the Kingsport Press name. “If you’re in the industry now talking to us, they will say ‘That’s Kingsport.’ The name Kingsport is universal. It is so well known throughout the country and the world.”
Books to be produced may need leather from Europe, paper from Brazil and special artwork installed in each unit, Jennings noted.
“We do Bibles while 99 percent of the Bibles that are sold in this country today come from off shore,” Jennings said. “We’re doing the Book of Gospels for the Catholic Church that was last produced 25 years ago. There were nine different operations to do the book’s cover. Technology can’t replace experience in what we do.”
For more about Kingsport Book go to www.kingsportbook.com.