Maybe we have to start by thinking about how we value ourselves and how we value Hammelburg –  from Race to the Bottom (2004) by John Hackett, p.351

This fictional account of a family firm in the Midwest was written by John Hackett, the former CFO of Cummins Engine, and the story evokes the Putnam family firm Markem and the tight relationship that Markem had with the Keene community.

In the Public Eye: Putnam’s MARKEM and the Transition to Dover

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.





(Left to Right) Frederick Putnam, Mr. C. A. Putnam, Thomas Putnam and James Putnam at the breaking ground of MARKEM’s Congress St. location around 1950. This is one of James Putnam’s earliest memories.

James Putnam on the photo

I was present when they broke ground on the new location at Congress St. It was about 1950. I don’t really have a very clear memory of that but there’s a picture of me there by the shovel as its being put into the ground together with a couple of my brothers and my father, and grandfather. So that would have been around 1950, and then later, somewhat later in the early 50’s we used to go there on Saturdays, my dad would go down to work, and we’d go down there Saturdays to play. And we used to get into trouble with the departments because we would have some accidents. In fact, I broke my ankle when a forklift truck fell over on my ankle. Luckily it wasn’t crushed, early on when I was 10.


(Left to Right) Tom Putnam and James Putnam at MARKEM’s Congress St location in 2002. This photo’s important because it shows how close James and Tom had to be as Co-CEO’s, even sharing a conference table.

James Putnam on sharing an office with his brother

Most of the time we were Co-CEO’s, we shared the same office. We had a rather large space and had our own private cubicle if you will, but we shared the same conference table in the middle of this place.

MARKEM in the Keene State Sentinel (2006)

January 19th, 2006


James Putnam on overseas competition


For many years, in the early years of the company, my dad said we were lucky because we don’t have any real competitors because we were really specialized, but that changed over time. A number of our competitors were companies from other countries. There was a major one in England, there was a major one in France. The Chinese were copying our equipment, so it quite a challenge to overcome those competitive forces. I think that’s what you’d be referring to for those international pressures. Today, there’s all this talk of free trade or not free trade and tariffs. This period that we were leading the company was very much a period of free trade and we benefited very much from that and believed in it. It was good for Markem and its employees.

August 16th, 2006

8-16-2006 pt 18-16-2006 pt 2

James Putnam on the Dover Sale

Markem was at its strongest and most successful about the same time we sold the company, and those two things are connected. At the time, the company was very successful around the world and there were many opportunities to do justice to the company, to our employees, and our customers. We would say to the community and to the family that the right thing to do was to find a company that had deeper pockets then our family did, that could invest in the company without putting it at risk. My brother and I often said if the two of us owned the company, we might well have tried to take it public or borrow the needed money to make the additional investments the company needed to expand in Europe and in Asia beyond what it had already. We would have taken that risk, but since the company was widely owned within the family, virtually all members of the family owned part of the company, they were not all willing to take those risks and they saw the success of the company. They were very supportive of us. We did not have a family revolution that said you gotta sell the company so we can make a lot of money. That wasn’t it. But it was really more trying to be responsible owners and trying to find a good new home for the company where there would be ample financial resources to make additional investments.



GS Precision vs “Modern Times”

Last week, our class watched Modern Times, a film made in 1936 about human relationships with machines in factories, and then visited G.S. Precision, a machine shop located in Keene, NH.

Comparing the factory we visited to the one from the film is like comparing apples to oranges. Sure, they’re both factories, but the function/treatment of the employees as well as the role of supervisors are extremely different.

In the film, the employee is essentially a machine cog. They’re ignored when functioning, battered into working shape when not efficient enough, and disposed of when they can no longer keep up with the job. They’re treatment is satirized in one scene when Chaplin literally malfunctions, his arms continuing to jerk like a machine that won’t turn off. The supervisors are more like machinists themselves, torqueing employees into order as if they we’re just another part. From this, the respect between employee and supervisor is based in pay and efficiency; anything beyond that holds an element of disdain.

The factory we visited on the other hand, was much more comforting. Employees we’re skilled, and therefore had more of a purpose. Unlike the movie factory, where a trained animal could likely pick up the task, workers at GS Precision knew that their skill separated them from others, for without their technological expertise, the factory simply wouldn’t function. They made specialty parts as well, making them feel less like another cog. In short, no random kid off the street could just waltz in and take their place. With this, the supervisors had an element of respect for the workers. They couldn’t just mentally batter them, for the workers had the skill to get another job and wouldn’t be as easy to replace. The supervisors and workers had to work for a mutual benefit that assisted them and the company, which is why I feel GS Precision seemed to run like a well-oiled machine.

New Ownership

James Putnam on MARKEM’S switch from private to publicly owned and Dover.

Very kind people said that they wish that we were still running the company. On the other hand, most of the people that I have talked with have been very satisfied with the way that Dover’s been running the company. They have invested, they’ve taken advantage of the large scale they have now. I had hoped Dover would maintain headquarters for the Markem business in Keene, and they chose not to. That was disappointing to me and some of the others that were involved in that, and were working for the company. It was about a year after they acquired the company that they decided not to have the headquarters here. Those things happen. One of the aspects of the sale was that Dover agreed to continue to have a strong budget for philanthropy like the United Way, and even now as the time of that has gone by, they’re still matching all the grants, all the United Way gifts just the way that Markem did.

MARKEM employee on the company’s switch from private to publicly owned.

It’s a public company instead of a private company that’s one thing, the other piece is that because it’s owned by Dover Corporation, Dover Corporation owns probably I’m going to estimate or guess 20-30 companies over the world. So it grew in order of magnitude, it grew over 10 times like that (snaps) and those two things, public company instead of private, they’re looking for bottom lines so you gotta satisfy stockholders and you also have to feed in to again a central company that is 10 times bigger, in a sense its 10 times bigger. So that does change those dynamics, probably a reason for these much more formalized processes.

Race to the Bottom

“Maybe we have to start by thinking about how we value ourselves and how we value Hammelburg” – p.351

Race to the Bottom (2004) is an account of how the relationship between a family firm changes between 1970 and 2000. Though the story is fiction, the author John Hackett was CFO of Cummins Engine for decades, and has insights that our class is using to understand some of the changes in Keene, NH over the same time period.

The quote I’ve used above is the book’s thought provoking ending. In it, Jimmie, a union member and spokesperson, is trying to find what steps to take after finding out that corrupt financial executives and members of the board of his company fraudulently wasted away both much of the profits and employee retirement program. At face value, this quote carries weight in discussion on the state of business and selfishness/corruption, but it really serves a purpose in the change of how business has changed from a local, personal system to a colder, corporate model.

In the book, there were two major and contrasting CEO’s: J.W. Rieff and Adam Fulton. For J.W., Hammelburg was just as vital as the company. He made sure that the community received assistance, encouraged a union, and did his best to keep the company prosperous and functioning. Adam on the other hand, simply cared about himself. Unhappy of the location and wanting to move on to bigger and better things, he had the company unnecessarily spend on buying out other companies so he could be in Fortune 500, then allowed for an irresponsible union plea just to prevent conflict so he could look good and get a better job.

Similar to the dedicated executive in the book J.W. Rieff and those that came before him, the Putnams had and continue to have a major connection to the City of Keene. Instead of going the route of personal status, the Putnam’s did what they thought was best for the business, and therefore, the employees and Keene. They had success in buying companies that would suit the business’ needs like laser printing, thermal transfer printing, and inkjet companies, instead of just diversifying for the sake of quick return stock revenue. Also, Jim Putnam, even after the sale of Markem, continues to live in Keene and be a source of philanthropy and assistance to the community as a whole. In other words, the Putnam’s as a whole have not been a Fulton or Kramer type, interested in power or money at the expense of others, which is why they were successful in building and maintaining their business in the manner to which they did.

Meeting James Putnam

I was unsure of what to expect during my first encounter with James Putnam. Having an encounter with someone whose name was part of my daily routine when I lived next to the Putnam theater is a bit overpowering at first glance. Surprisingly however, before this semester, the name itself was all I knew about both the person and the family. Finding out that its roots in Keene’s heritage as well as its success intrigued me, which motivated me to meet one of the figures behind it all.

Meeting James Putnam was rather surprising. Hearing the stories of how he was involved with such a massively successful business, the image of a stern, suit and tie wearing individual whom had a disdain for wasted time came into my head. This however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. A cordial man whom you’d place as a therapist before a tycoon, it was quickly apparent that Mr. Putnam had a genuine care for more than just his business, but both history and the community as a whole. I hope I can further display that in this blog.

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