A Good Sport

Ed Coats applies the lessons he learned as a star athlete to the challenges of growing a publishing enterprise

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

1995 was a good year for Ed Coats, the publisher and president of New Market Press, parent company of the Burlington Vermont Times, the Addison Eagle and the Rutland Tribune. He launched his company in July and got married in October.

There was a time when Ed Coats could walk down any street in his hometown of Canandaigua, N.Y., and be recognized by all he encountered. In 1974, the year he graduated from high school, he was named Most Valuable Athlete and had earned letters in baseball, football and bowling. Baseball was his main sport, though; he was so good he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds upon graduation and played in the Minor Leagues for two years.

Coats is not forthcoming with this information, however, and without a tip from one of his editors, it would not have been part of this story. These days, he'd rather be acknowledged through the accomplishments of New Market Press, the northern Vermont publishing company he runs.

New Market is the parent company and publisher of the Vermont Times and Auto Times with offices in Shelburne; the Addison Eagle with offices in Middlebury; and the Rutland Tribune. Coats founded the company in partnership with Dan Alexander, the owner of Denton Publications in Elizabethtown, N.Y., in 1995 when they entered the Vermont market by buying the Vermont Times from Nancy Wood and Nat Winthrop. Although the papers' prepress work and printing are done in Elizabethtown, Alexander has little if anything to do with the day-to-day affairs of New Market, which is Coats' baby.

Rosalyn Graham, editor of the Burlington Vermont Times, heads off to an interview and photo session.

Coats and Alexander go way back. After his two years in the Minors, Coats studied business administration at Rochester Institute of Technology. His first jobs were in food service: as a supervisor with McDonald's Corp. in Buffalo, where he worked with five stores, and as a manager for Pudgie's Pizza shops in Buffalo, "until the franchisee group folded, and I was out of a job," he says.

"I came running back home [to Rochester], and I sold Kirby vacuum cleaners for about a year. I tell my salespeople, 'If you want to know what sales are all about, try to go sell Kirbys for a living.'"

One day, Coats was approached by a fellow named George Park. "I had athletically been involved with George," says Coats.""We had bowled together, played golf and so on."

Park told him of an opening in advertising sales at the Canandaigua Daily Messenger. "He said,"'I know you don't have any experience in the newspaper business, but I know you can sell, so why don't you come to work for the Messenger and do some sales work?'" Park added,""Once you get in this business, if you're good at it, you'll never, ever want another job."

"How right he was," Coats says.

Three years later, Alexander entered the picture. "Dan was the regional vice president for W.H. Greenhow Newspapers," says Coats.""They published newspapers in Wellsville, Hornell, Bath, Dansville and Pen Yann, N.Y. Dan called me out of the blue and said,"'You know, I'm looking for somebody to run a daily newspaper, and your name's been given to me.' I hung up on him."

Alexander was persistent, though, phoning Coats again a week later. "He told me, 'I'll buy you lunch; it won't cost you anything, and we can just talk.'"

Alexander told Coats he was bringing in a new editor to the Wellsville paper "and wanted a new face to be the point guy there,"'and how about you?' And I said Yes!" Coats exclaims.

The offices of the Addison Eagle are the largest of New Market's three locations. From left are Eagle staffers Laura DeVoid and Kathleen Jones, sales representatives; Mark Brady, general manager; and Lou Varricchio, editor.

Things went well for the next three years, until Greenhow was acquired by American Publishing Co., a large company with centralized management. "Some of us managers who did the buying and the hiring and the firing, when we got snapped up by American Publishing, we saw that coming to an end," says Coats.""It was all going corporate, with decisions made out in Ohio."

Alexander bought Denton Publications, and about six months later, he asked Coats to join him.

In 1990, Coats moved north, and "we started to build and grow," he says. Denton owned five newspapers in the region. As part of the Denton acquisition was one tiny Vermont paper, the Valley Voice, "but Dan sold it off to the lady who was the manager," says Coats,""because he was in New York, and Vermont became a distraction because it wasn't a big paper."

A major push was seeking more printing for the presses the company owned. "We had had conversations with Nancy Wood and Nat Winthrop to print them [the Vermont Times], and all of a sudden, one day out of the blue, they called up and said, 'Hey, we'd like to have a meeting with you.'"

Expecting to obtain a new printing job, Coats admits he and Alexander were taken aback when Wood and Winthrop asked if they'd like to buy the paper. "We got their printing, but we had to buy them to get it," says Coats, laughing.

Realizing the purchase of the Times opened the door to a Vermont presence, Coats and Alexander formed a new corporation, New Market, which Coats would run. They closed the deal in July 1995.

The transfer was not without its stresses. "We had to get a handle on expenses," says Coats. "They were spending more than they were making they were going to close the doors so we had to work at bringing costs in line with what sales were."

It would be an understatement to say that many employees were unhappy with the transfer. "When we walked through the door of the Vermont Times, I believe there was a staff of 15 people there, and immediately upon entering, I would say at least 50 percent of them left," says Coats. "There were some good people who left, I'll be the first to admit it, and some who could have certainly helped us in the short term but for whatever reason didn't want to work for us. They thought we were the bad guys.

"We had to mend a lot of fences, build a lot of bridges. We worked a lot of hours to regain the respect and reputation of people and to show them we knew what we were doing. We're still here 10 years later, so I guess it worked," he says.

Fortunately, 1995 also had its positives. In October, he married Christine Ashline, a woman who worked in Denton's production department and whom he had met in 1992. They and their two children live in Keeseville, N.Y., and Coats commutes daily by ferry.

The first thing Coats did with the Times was trim circulation, because "we had to bring all our management skills into play for living within our means," he says. "Whereas before it was very much a columnist paper, we wanted to evolve it into being a community newspaper. We had done that with Denton in New York and thought: Well, why wouldn't it work over here?"

Frank Boucher, the owner of Pier 1 Imports and the Ashley Home Store, likes what New Market has done. "We've worked with Ed for as far back as he goes," Boucher says.

"Ed really watches out for his customers, or at least he watches out for me. He is always thinking about my business, and he really works to optimize his product for us. I really can't say enough about how well he works with us. We use newsprint to wrap in to help with recycling, and occasionally, during the hot holiday season, we'll run out of newsprint, and he will bring us by either the ends of rolls or returns that have come back in. He's an ace."

In March 2002, New Market picked up a second struggling paper, the Rutland Shopper, from Bob McGuire. McGuire had bought a couple of papers in Arizona and was looking to go to Arizona to run them, says Coats. "He had had a competitor start up in town, and his paper was struggling." The Shopper's name was changed to the Tribune and it, too, became a community newspaper.

In January 2003, Coats was approached by the owners of the Addison Eagle, a newspaper launched in 2000 that was struggling financially. "It was a good situation for us, because we had the paper in Burlington, one in Rutland, and there was an empty spot in between. The Addison paper fit perfectly with what we were looking to do, especially with the sales synergies with New York. We go as far north as St. Albans, so we basically now circle the Lake Champlain basin," says Coats.""We can offer 120,000 homes every week."

Each paper has its own staff. At the Times, Rosalyn Graham is the editor and Tom Schmidt is general manager. Lou Varricchio is the Eagle's editor, and Mark Brady is the GM. Marie Fitzgerald is editor in Rutland and Tom Jackson is GM. Including sales reps, each newspaper has four employees. Four delivery people have been with the Times since the beginning.

Friday is deadline day for all three papers. All the production is handled at Denton, where the presses are located. "Everything goes across electronically to them," says Coats.""They put it on the plates, print it and we bring it back."

Coats spends a lot of his week on the road: in Shelburne Monday, Wednesday and Friday; in Rutland on Tuesday; and Middlebury on Thursday. He calls on major accounts, holds sales meetings and works on special projects, "because we now have the ability to produce a lot of other products than just the Vermont Times out of the Shelburne office," he says. New Market produces promotional pieces for clients such as the Burlington Department of Parks and Recreation, Church Street Marketplace and Champlain Valley Exposition, including some glossy flyers and brochures.

His commute depends somewhat on ferry schedules, especially in winter, when he needs to catch the last ferry out of Charlotte at 5 o'clock. He's still big into sports, he says, especially hunting, fishing and golf, and he's an avid gardener. "I actually won first prize last year for my gardens at the house in Keeseville."

Coats' competitive spirit is never far from the surface. He proudly cites readership numbers. "For the Times, it's in the mid 70 percent readership; Addison is in the 80th percentile range; and Rutland is in the 70th percentile range, so obviously readers like what we're doing or they wouldn't be reading us. Seeing as how dailies are in the 40s, that's why we're audited," he adds.

Coats admits that, as George Park predicted, he still loves the business. "We have a lot of fun doing what we're doing," he says. "We're always looking to grow; continuing to look at papers that maybe we can acquire, that fit what we call our footprint either in New York or in Vermont. Everybody has something to get printed and published out there, and that's why we have to be on the top of our game at all times, because there's just a lot of other fish ready to gobble you up if you're not." •

Originally published in May 2005 Business People-Vermont