MARKEM was and even still continues to be an anomaly. Until 2006, the industrial printing company was a private, family owned business whose owners resided in the same city as many of its workers, Keene, New Hampshire. Focusing on doing what was best for the company and community as a whole, MARKEM held the business model of old, yet continued to evolve and expand to keep up with the changing times. Sailing through the business world while others sank in debt, MARKEM and the Putnam family that controlled it were well known in the City of Keene. That’s when things changed. With its purchase by Dover in 2006, MARKEM moved from the private to the public realm. With both pros and cons coming out of the acquisition, it is safe to say that no matter your opinion on the matter, Putnam’s MARKEM and its sale to Dover was a major factor in both the company as well as Keene itself.
Through much of its lifetime, MARKEM has been a family. Co-CEO James Putnam’s earliest memory was with his brothers and Grandfather during the construction of the Congress St. location. From a childhood playing at the work-site, to running the company with his brother Tom, James was part of MARKEM’s life-blood.
Tom and James Putnam at Markem’s Congress St. location in 2002.
The family connection however, wasn’t just limited to the Putnams. Starting in the 1970’s, people were more likely to make investments in or purchase a company with more debt and less equity. By using money that wasn’t your own, it was much easier make more returns with less risk. With this however, much of the profits of the company that had once gone to wages, benefits, and paid vacations now went to paying off debt. Owners and workers got less of the profit share, while bankers made a fortune from the interest. For the US as a whole, between 1980 and 2000, a considerable share of profits from non-financial corporations was going to pay off interest, as shown in the graph below.
MARKEM however, didn’t take out major debt it couldn’t repay for the sake of useless acquisitions. Taking advantage of Free Trade through the international market in locations like Japan, while offering generous programs to allow employees to purchase a computer to better their skills in the digital revolution and making huge philanthropic contributions in Keene, MARKEM and its workers managed to maneuver over the pitfalls of the changing age.
In our class, we studied a fictional family firm through a book written by the CFO of Cummins Engine, John Hackett, Race to the Bottom (2004). Hackett suggested in the book that family firms with strong ties locally are the ones that create a strong middle class community. Like the fictional firm in the book, the Putnam’s Markem made smart purchases and did its best to give back to the very people that supported the company. In this way, Markem held itself to a standard above the greedy corporate stereotype. Its CEO’s were truly in it for the long haul, refusing to treat their company simply as another name on a glowing resume.
Even if the firm had stayed in family hands, the Putnam brothers would have had to make the firm a much larger multinational than it already was. This would have involved taking out debt, cutting costs, and laying off employees to make debt service payments as they grew the company. The Putnam family instead decided to sell to a company with bigger pockets than its own: Dover.
The acquisition was bitter-sweet for some. People in Keene recognized that the family run model was coming to an end, and employees noticed that things were changing. In a frank conversation, James Putnam mentioned that that he and his brother Tom’s original hope was to keep the business family owned, and that he was a bit disappointed about Dover’s decision to move MARKEM’s headquarters out of Keene. Even so, he strongly supports the sale and feels that Dover has and continues to do great things for the community, including maintaining philanthropy to organizations like the United Way.
An easy benefit of the Dover sale would be the fact MARKEM still exists and is thriving, unlike many of the companies of its day and age. In an age where industry is often thought to have fallen from grace, MARKEM seems to be doing quite well. It’s true that the family model no longer is the force it used to be, an effect of globalization that expands in the modern age. With this however, companies will hopefully organize themselves into a better manner that can benefit both themselves, their workers, and the communities that contain them.