Type Dream

A used printing press and plate-maker were all this entrepreneur needed

by Janet Essman Franz

Tom BrassardTom Brassard started Paw Print & Mail in 1990 with a printing press in his father’s Burlington basement. Now his award-winning company operates in 6,000 square feet at 12 Gregory Drive in South Burlington. Lucy is the company mascot.

Working in a restaurant seems worlds apart from managing a print shop, but for Tom Brassard, president and general manager of Paw Print & Mail in South Burlington, these worlds share a very important requirement: customer service.

Brassard founded Paw Print & Mail in 1990 with a single printing press in his parents’ Burlington basement. By focusing on customer care, sales, marketing, and staying current with new technologies, he grew the company into a business that today serves 250 customers and generates $1.2 million in annual sales.

A native Vermonter, Brassard grew up in Burlington’s New North End and attended Rice Memorial High School, Class of 1973. His father, Norm, was a printing equipment salesman for the former McAuliffe Office Products, and his mother, Claire, worked in McAuliffe’s retail store. He is the oldest of four siblings, and all three younger sisters are entrepreneurs.

After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1978 with a bachelor of science in business administration with a marketing concentration, he set off for the West Coast to take up motocross racing, surfing, and scuba diving. After a year, he returned to Vermont where he settled into an apartment on the beach in Malletts Bay. It was a great lifestyle, he says, “skiing, cycling, windsurfing, motorcycling, diving, and sailing during the days, while waiting tables and making good money at night.”

Dan King and Dave ThompsonPaw Print was one of the first in the area to accept digital files. Now, using Web2Print, customers can make edits, proof, and place orders through secure online portals. Dan King (left) is bindery/press operator; Dave Thompson is a press operator.

The “good money” came from restaurant work, where, he says, he honed his skills at customer relations and developed a work ethic. He bused tables at the former Stagecoach Restaurant in Burlington and then waited tables at the former Déjà Vu Café, working his way up to assistant manager. 

 “I was always the top waiter, both in the number of tables I turned and in tips that I earned,” says Brassard. “I understood that it was all about making sure the customer was happy.” 

Brassard met his future wife, Sue Woodman, at Déjà Vu, where she worked as a waitress. “She knew we were meant for each other,” he says, laughing, “when I let her keep her job after she spilled a cappuccino all over a customer’s expensive mink coat.” They married in 1986. 

When the owners of Carbur’s Restaurant purchased Déjà Vu, they made Brassard general manager of their new restaurant in Northampton, Mass.

Living in Northampton, Brassard grew weary of restaurant work and missed his family in Vermont. In 1987, he and Sue returned to Burlington and he took a job selling point-of-sale systems for Hammond/Epco; but the entrepreneurial bug had bitten, and he looked for a business to buy.

 “I wanted my own business, so with a partner we bought the Italian sausage cart and hamburger stand on Church Street,” he says, noting that it is still there today. He found he enjoyed business ownership and wanted to take on a larger venture. One day in 1990 he discussed this desire with his father, who had recently taken a small press and plate-maker in trade as part of a business deal. 

“He’s a bit of a pack rat,” Brassard says. “He would collect stuff thinking that he might have a use for it some day.” Norm offered to sell the press and plate-maker to his son and let him set it up in their home.

Brassard had never thought about going into the printing business before that conversation with his dad; he just knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I bought it for $1,500 and started a printing business in their basement, next to the washer and dryer and canned tomatoes,” he says. 

For the next several years, Brassard worked his sausage cart by day and printed at night. “I’d clean up after the lunch crowd, pack everything away, and hit the basement by 4 o’clock. Then I would print until midnight. My overhead was very low, and the company made money from day one.”

During this time, their daughter, Abby, was born, and he and Sue built a house in Colchester. “Sue was a saint with her patience and support through tumultuous times,” he recalls. 

Brassard named the company in honor of his cat, Ted, a Church Street stray that he and Sue rescued. A few years after Ted passed away, they adopted another stray — a dog they named Lucy — who is a fixture at Paw Print & Mail. “We call her the receptionist,” Brassard quips.

Sharon Besette, Bill Kaigle, Rick Edmonds and Rusty NicholsonPersonnel receive frequent training in all facets of print production, mailing, personnel, and troubleshooting. Sharon Bessette (left) is the bookkeeper; Bill Kaigle is prepress coordinator/graphic designer; Rick Edmonds is prepress technician/graphic designer; Rusty Nicholson is production manager; and Lauren Mumley is project manager.

In the early days, Brassard gathered printing clients from the Church Street lunch crowd. When people would buy a sausage, he chatted with them about their businesses and ask if they needed any printing. His big break came when his cart partner, Tom LaBarge, referred the Pomerleau Agency and Brassard began printing the company’s letterhead, business cards, and forms. “That was a springboard for getting more business and referrals, and I started to make a living at printing.” 

He sold the sausage cart and incorporated the printing company in 1993, and moved the business from his parents’ basement to a house in a commercially zoned district on North Avenue. He hired a press operator and focused more on sales, marketing, and management. Business grew steadily as he built lasting relationships with clients such as the Visiting Nurse Association, Champlain Valley Exposition, Exemplars, and Chittenden Bank. 

During the next five years Brassard added four employees, prompting him to seek a larger location. 12 Gregory Drive in South Burlington was just being developed, and he became the building’s first tenant in 1998, moving into a 4,600-square-foot space. He purchased the building with three partners — his sister Lynn Ferro, Jeff Nick, Jeff Carr — in 2004 and expanded to 6,000 square feet a couple of years ago.

 “I had the luxury of completely designing the floor plan and work flow because it was just a shell,” he says, noting that most print shop owners must retrofit space to suit their needs. Brassard designed his shop for job flow efficiency, with rooms arranged so work progresses sequentially through the building. “A job comes in the front door to customer service, to prepress, to press, to mail, to bindery, to delivery out the back door.”

As his company grew, Brassard found it challenging to persuade other business people to take the Paw Print name and image seriously. He considered changing it to something less “cute” but did not want to risk losing the equity he had built. He decided instead to change the logo in 1999, adding a tiger and claws to the paw print to convey power, strength, and confidence. This helped, he says, but “I know the perception still exists that Paw Print & Mail is smaller and less robust and capable than we actually are.”

Brassard ensures his competitive edge by staying current with technology. Paw Print & Mail began accepting digital files from customers before many other print shops could, and in 1999, he installed a computer-to-plate work flow. “It changed the traditional plate-making process from using a darkroom, processor, and stripping to a fully electronic digital output. The work was able to go through faster at higher quality and at a lower cost,” Brassard explains. Now, using Web2Print, customers can log onto secure portals to access their documents to make changes, proof copy, and place orders.

While staying current provides a competitive advantage, it also presents an enormous challenge. “We have to embrace technology to keep pace with customers’ needs,” he says. “It drives us a little crazy — there are so many new things to learn all the time. To stay on top of it and train employees is mind-boggling.”

Brassard keeps up with technology and business standards through a trade association called Certified Printers International — or CPrint — which certifies printers according to industry best practices. He proudly explains that Paw Print & Mail is the only CPrint-certified printer in Vermont and that it received the association’s highest achievement award four times.

He also takes great pride in the culture he’s created at his company. Now 10 employees strong, it is “a place where people like to work,” he says, not only for recurrent social outings, but also for a strong sense of teamwork. Personnel receive frequent training in all facets of print production, mailing, personnel needs, and troubleshooting. “We live by our ability to do good work and protect our customers by cross-training our staff. There is always somebody available to do the work at hand.” 

Julia Andrews, marketing manager for Comcast, values Brassard’s approach. “He runs a very customer service–focused business and has highly trained people working for him,” she says. “He’s reliable and honest. That permeates the way he runs his business.”

The environment and the community are important to Brassard. He purchases carbon offsets for power use and uses vegetable-based inks, hazardous waste–free printing, and recycled paper. He annually supports a project for each nonprofit customer, donating printing services to VNA, COTS, Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, and others for fundraising events. Away from work, he drives a hybrid car, buys products from local vendors, and urges people to save energy. 

With his family, he enjoys boating, skiing, and cheering for their favorite sports hero, quarterback Brett Favre, who announced his final retirement in February. “One of my current passions,” he adds, “is cycling.”

Sue is a trusted adviser, he says, whose career in human resources at UVM makes her a valuable resource for helping handle the company’s HR matters. “Though she doesn’t physically work in the business, she is my partner and consultant in every way,” he says.

Brassard has come a long way from waiting tables, but lessons learned there stick with him, he says.  “It’s all about making sure the customer is getting the best value, and that we’re doing what they need to help them with their business.” •