WASHINGTON, Mo. — It's not hard to catch the employees at Hodges Badge Company smiling on the job.
It's a happy place to work, filled with bright colors and cheery products — custom ribbons, rosettes, medals, silver, trophies and other awards, things that will become prized possessions by whomever receives them at their equestrian competition, gymnastics meet, dog show, school science fair or spelling bee, hung or set in places of prominence to convey the winner's pride.
That's one of the reasons the people who make these ribbons and awards take so much pride in their work.
"This is really a craft," plant manager Jody Maune said. "Each ribbon is like a work of art."
Some 60 people work between Hodges' two neighboring 25,000-square-foot buildings in Washington's Town and Country Industrial Court. Business here has been growing these past several years as the company has added products and found new processes that allow it to add options to existing products.
"We've always done ribbons, for 90 years, ...flip through any of our catalogs, the first thing you see is always ribbons," president Rick Hodges said, who last month was in Washington with his wife from their home in Rhode Island, where the company headquarters are located.
"We've added what we call the mum — it looks like a flower; we've added ability to do multicolor printing on the ribbons. So what we try to do is, say you come in and you're the jumper extravaganza, and you have a logo, well, we want to get your logo in our computer system. Once it's there, we can put that on the center of the ribbon. We can upsell side streamers — and a lot of this stuff, our competition doesn't offer. So you try to figure out ways to have exclusive products. All of this multicolor stuff you see walking through the plant, nobody else does."
It was about 10 years ago that the management at Hodges sat back to consider what kinds of items it wasn't yet offering customers that they were wanting. Hodges, which is the largest ribbon manufacturer in the United States using more than 12 million yards of ribbon a year, will take orders from anyone for any size — from just one ribbon, to 10 to hundreds to thousands. But its main customer base includes the equestrian industry, fairs, 4-H, schools, gymnastics and swim meets, and dog shows. Currently the company is making inroads into the cat show market.
"We had long shied away from trophies and other things engraved, but now that's become a real focus for us," Hodges said. "So in the back of this book you can see a lot of products, mostly focusing on inexpensive silver items, but we're finding while the bulk of the volume of sales are for the less expensive products, there also is a demand for more expensive things ... The most expensive item in the catalog is a $545 (cut glass) horse head. We've never sold one; on the other hand, we have sold a lot of the $150, $200 engraved pieces with the cut glass on them."
"Customers are leading us in different directions, which is great. We're happy to go there with them," Hodges said.
Trophies, which the company began selling about five or six years ago, is a very competitive field, yet "it's growing rapidly for us," Hodges said, noting the company has seen even faster growth in its plaques.
"Within the last three years, anything that's flat — be it a plaque, a piece of acrylic, a medal, a dog tag — we can decorate that in full color and sell it at a very reasonable price," Hodges said. "We're buying new printers with new technology. One is here. We have three more in Rhode Island, and that part of the business ... is more than doubling every year.
"A lot of sales of medals, we print right on the medal in full color. Usually companies do that with a sticker, but using these new printers, we can drop all of the color right on it."
Hodges, which employs its own team of artists, also has added ways for customers to personalize their products with artwork — even something scribbled on a piece of paper can be scanned into the computer system and digitized — which adds value and interest.
Take what Hodges did with its dog show ribbons as one example.
There are 200 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, so the company has come up with artwork for every breed, and now those images can be used on dog show ribbons, medals and other prizes.
As sales have increased at Hodges, the company has hired maybe a couple of new employees at its Washington facilities — which now include four people answering phones in a call center. But for the most part, the company has been able to absorb the increase with existing staff.
Ten years ago the employees at Hodges had clear-cut job descriptions — printers, stitchers and assemblers, but then the company began a transition to lean manufacturing practices.
"Some people still do same jobs they did 10 years ago, but now they do it in a team environment," Hodges said. "Rather than supervisors, we have coaches and team members within cells, and there's a lot more flexibility as to the types of jobs people are doing throughout the course of the day."
Last year, Hodges made more than 3 1/2 million rosettes — none of them automated.
"Somebody's touching every one of those," Maune, the plant manager, said.