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Charmed Life

Pushing the Envelope

Michelle Gienow

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/12/2003

The first time I heard it, I thought it was car trouble: a low, throbbing hum that made my steering wheel buzz as I waited at 25th Street and Loch Raven Boulevard. Eventually I figured out that the vibrations came from Oles Envelope Corp., whose clever green logo--the letters OE stylized to look like a postmark--I'd often admired from the road. Mystery solved, and questions raised: Why aren't there any Oles brand envelopes at the pharmacy? What, exactly, makes the hum? And where's the factory entrance? The site between 25th Street and the CSX tracks appears, from the main drag, too small and too inaccessible for a serious factory, so I used to assume that Oles was a mom-and-pop enterprise, struggling along in some odd niche market.

Not exactly. Despite its small acreage and scant visibility in the retail world, Oles is one of the largest envelope makers in the mid-Atlantic region, cranking out nearly 2 billion envelopes per annum--including a significant chunk of what's in your mailbox. At the same time, it's a family-owned business that has stayed at one Baltimore location for almost 80 years. The reception office sits at the foot of huge modern storage sheds on the eastern end of 26th Street, hidden from all but local traffic.

The folks who send you junk mail know the Oles brand well, as do such loyal Oles customers as Geico insurance and the National Geographic Society.

I got the company history from J.T. Young, production supervisor and son of Jay Young, Oles' president and CEO. A Johns Hopkins- and Harvard-trained engineer and printing specialist, Jay Young bought the company from his then-employer, Lion Brands of Philadelphia, in 1977. Lion, in turn, had acquired it from the Oles family five years earlier.

Founder Burdette "Bert" Oles started out in 1912 with a plant on Lombard Street. The company moved uptown in 1924 and has continually expanded its operations since, partly by buying neighboring buildings but also by cramming a remarkable amount of technology into what's now a 130,000-square-foot plant. (It helps that envelopes are skinny things.)

Plant manager Ray Price, an Oles employee since 1958, says the company's greatest growth has taken place in the 25 years since Jay Young took over: Employment has doubled (from roughly 95 to 193 workers) while production has bounded from a million pieces a day, five days a week, to more than seven times that number. J.T. Young credits much of the company's success to investments in high-tech efficiencies and software-guided machines. Meanwhile, in the marketplace, electronic media have failed to beat direct mail.

"When the fax came along, and e-mail . . . all these things were supposed to make envelopes useless," Young smiles. "[New technology] may have replaced some mail, but it has also generated mail"--such as bills and promos for Internet services.

My tour of the Oles plant led from the squeaky-clean cubicles of the marketing department to the cavernous, cacophonous machine rooms. I asked to see gee-whiz machinery, and they showed me plenty, starting with a room-sized complex of computers linked to a high-speed electronic cutting table. The system is used to design and create sample envelopes, one by one. Some wag in the graphics shop stuck cartoon eyeballs on the cutting head, which skates around the cutting table like a hyperactive water bug.

Next came the sprawling industrial space where massive rolls of paper and envelope-window material surround the sheeter, a garage-sized machine that chops paper into sheets for the plant's three die-cutting machines. A much smaller room contains Oles' newest gadget, a precision ink mixer, basically a bigger, smarter version of the computerized mixing machines at paint and hardware stores.

Housed in the old brick buildings along Loch Raven Boulevard, die-cutters and web machines comprise the loud, beating heart of the Oles operation--the source of the hum. Envelope dies resemble giant cookie cutters, razor sharp on the bottom edge, thick at the top, as heavy as stones. A die is mounted onto a revolving disk at the end of a robotic arm; a human being fits thick pads of paper into a frame; the die, descending as it rotates to prescribed angles, chops the entire pad into hundreds of perfect blanks, ready to fold. Web machines, fed by paper rolls, can do nearly everything: chop, trim, print, glue, and fold. Finished envelopes are boxed and inspected by workers and sent down an ingenious network of roller conveyors to be sealed, scanned by computers, sorted by hand, and forklifted onto gigantic storage shelves for shipping. The company serves mid-Atlantic customers with its own small fleet of tractor-trailers; for farther-flung customers, such as the Mexican edition of Reader's Digest, Oles hires out.

The most remarkable aspect of the whole operation is its large-scale, yet minutely precise, meshing of heavy machinery, up-to-date software, and human skill. Hundreds of operations have to be carried out, thousands of times every minute, 24 hours a day, five days a week. Nothing, it seems, is overlooked--in keeping with Lean Principles, Total Quality Management, and other business strategies adapted from Japanese models. Oles strives for an upbeat company culture, festooning the workplace with slogan-bearing banners (positive attitude is contagious) and putting an enthusiastic sales pitch on the company's voice-mail loop in place of a bland hold message.

If the above sounds a bit like I've joined the Oles marketing team, let me mention the company's ultimate by-product: corporate bulk mail. J.T. Young and I talked about unsolicited business mail, in particular, and the closely related topic of paper recycling. He made sure I saw what Oles does with its own wastepaper: turns it into trailer-sized bales for sale to paper mills, each bale weighed, recorded, and bar-coded by computer. The plant recently put in a water-recycling system, too. "It's saving us $50,000 a year," says Young with satisfaction.

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