CHURCH HILL - For Fred Cooper and Rick Jennings, decision time came when Quebecor World announced last year it would close its last local book plant and leave Northeast Tennessee for good.
Cooper and Jennings - former Quebecor managers who left the company a few years before - had partnered to form their own business.
Now, Quebecor's final move out of the area presented an opportunity that Cooper and Jennings couldn't pass up.
"It's almost like everything lined up for us," said Cooper.
A new line of work
When they left Quebecor 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.
Early the next year, the two formed Tennessee Valley Manufacturing Solutions. The new business was incorporated in February 2003 and started production a month later in a 4,800-square-foot building on East Stone Drive.
Initially, the business offered short-term assistance to manufacturers, service providers, and other companies looking for detail work for their products. Services included packaging, assembly, labeling and other finishing processes.
The new business was recognized in December 2003 as the winner of the Small Business Start-Up Contest, sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and Kingsport Times-News.
Within a year, Tennessee Valley Manufacturing Solutions outgrew its space, and Cooper and Jennings moved the company in January 2004 to a warehouse on Manor Drive off Riverport Road. The company started using about 17,000 square feet of the building, and 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.
A history in Kingsport
Since its establishment, Kingsport has been a manufacturing town, and books have been one of its mainstay products.
Kingsport Press first started producing books here in 1922. In the 1960s, the company expanded and built another plant in Hawkins County. And later that decade, Kingsport Press merged into Arcata National Corp., and the business - known as Arcata Graphics - grew into the second largest book manufacturer in the country.
In 1994, Arcata sold its local operations to Canadian-based Quebecor Printing. At the time, its facilities in Kingsport and Hawkins County employed more than 2,400 people.
But business gradually eroded. And in 2002, Quebecor closed its Church Hill plant, idling 400 workers.
The following year, the company continued to downsize its local operations by cutting the work force at its Kingsport facilities.
By early February 2004, Quebecor employed less than 1,000 people in Kingsport.
Then in July 2004, the company announced it would permanently lay off roughly half - or 450 people - at its Kingsport operation.
Two years later, Quebecor announced it would permanently close the Kingsport plant. The company completed its pullout in the fourth quarter last year.
Keep tradition alive
Within days of Quebecor's announcement to permanently close its Kingsport plant, publishers who had known Cooper and Jennings when they worked at Quebecor were calling and asking if their business could handle more work.
"What we said was, there's a niche here. There are things that aren't going to be offered to these customers that maybe we can fulfill," Cooper said.
Cooper and Jennings began to recognize the opportunity before them.
"We were sitting there with this set of circumstances that will never happen again - we've got a major plant closing in town, we've got publishers that need things done, and we've got a work force that's sitting there saying ‘I'd love to come work for you.' The decision was kind of made for us," Cooper said.
At the same time, the new owner of the former Quebecor plant in Church Hill contacted Cooper and Jennings about that property. The two drove down to look at the site, and decided to lease a portion of the facility - a 120,000-square-foot building with 65,000 square feet of manufacturing space, a 20,000-square-foot loading dock, enclosed offices, warehousing space, and additional square footage upstairs.
Cooper and Jennings started contacting some former Quebecor co-workers to join them in the effort. John Larkin had worked for Quebecor for 30 years before being laid off in early 2004. Steve Kindle had been with Quebecor 25 years and had been one of the last to leave the company in October before its final closure.
Other former Quebecor employees were contracted to help get the plant up and running, including Dave Draper, who helped oversee construction of the Hawkins County plant in the 1960s, and Norman Carter, a retired mechanic who knew the book bindery business front cover to back.
The newly formed team of long-time friends set to work to build their own book plant. First they needed to acquire the necessary equipment. The Hawkins facility included an old bindery, but it didn't work. So they purchased its sister machine from the now closed Quebecor plant in Kingsport, dismantled it and trucked the pieces to Church Hill, and married the two together to build a workable bindery measuring 210 feet long.
"You should have seen - I counted nine tractor trailer loads of pieces and parts hauled from the Kingsport plant to Hawkins," Larkin said.
The rebuilt machine was cranked up to run the first book order in the second week of January. Cooper said it was an emotional moment.
"When we first turned that binder on, you stand there in the front of that room and watch that thing run, and all the sudden it hits you - we're making books here," Cooper said.
"This stuff gets in your blood."
The business now offers bindery services to local printers who've previously sent finishing jobs out of state.
"They've been sending their stuff to West Virginia, Charlotte, Nashville, and all the sudden, we're offering them something right here in their own back door. And the response to that has been unbelievable," Cooper said.
Not only is the business offering hardbound book binding services, it's also capable of binding paperback books, and that's attracting business from commercial printers "from here to Knoxville and here to Roanoke," Cooper said.
And while their business is still legally known as Tennessee Valley Manufacturing Solutions, Cooper and Jennings opted to operate under another name - Kingsport Book.
Cooper said the new name plays on Kingsport's history as a book manufacturer - even though the company now operates in Hawkins County. In the logo, the "K" and "P" in Kingsport are bolded to honor the memory of the old Kingsport Press.
"If you interview people in the publishing industry, they'll say, ‘The people in Kingsport and East Tennessee - they know how to make a book.' That's what this is all about - the tradition, keeping this going," Jennings said.
Cooper said the new operating name also reflects the company's commitment to Kingsport.
"Everyone of us are Kingsport boys. We've grown up here, and we all want to see this grow and prosper," he said. "I've got a real soft spot in my heart for Kingsport, and if we can do something to create jobs and build a company that we can all be proud of - that's gravy too."
In all, Cooper and Jennings have invested more than half a million dollars at the plant. And so far, they've hired 22 full-time employees - not including management. And more than half of those folks are former Quebecor employees.
"We were able to hire this nucleus of people that had been displaced that had the skills to do what we needed to do," Cooper said.
"And," Jennings added, "they all have this incredible attitude - it's ours to make or break. They recognize that they're building something up from nothing. It's their opportunity to grow and it's their's to make."
Cooper said the company's goal is to produce 20,000 to 30,000 leather-bound books a month. "That's the commitment from the customers. It's coming real soon," he said.
The added work will increase the company's labor rolls. Cooper and Jennings hope to expand employment to as many as 50 people within a year, and up to 75 people in the next two to three years.
"I can see the biggest part of them coming out of that (Quebecor) work force if they're still available when we need them," Cooper said.
He said he and Jennings have come a long way from the small warehouse building on Stone Drive just a few years ago.
"I'm humble enough to know it's not all something that we've done," Cooper said.
"This is something we wanted to do for all those years and never dreamed it would really happen," he said.
Cooper, Jennings, Larkin and Kindle all worked together at Quebecor in Kingsport, and dreamed of operating the plant on their own.
"On those days when the corporate part of it was really rough, we had discussion after discussion about what we would do if it were ours. Well, guess what? Now it's ours," Cooper said.