The 5 O’Clock Split
When Phil Van Kirk joined The Taunton Press 18 years ago, he came on board as one of several production managers. Now as the senior production manager for the Newtown, Conn.-based publisher’s periodicals—Fine Homebuilding, Fine Woodworking, Fine Cooking, Fine Gardening and Threads—Van Kirk is responsible for getting those magazines onto the newsstand and into subscribers' mailboxes.
PE: Can you offer any practical tips for other production directors?
PVK: Keep a very good library—with samples of things you’ve done. Becoming a bit of a historian or librarian is really helpful. Collect some of the promotional stuff that the paper mills create, and tutorials on color and image resolution. I’ve also collected projects that we’ve done here. Just being able to show the people within our company some of the history has been a major help in giving them a sense of what is possible. Being a pack rat has paid off.
PE: What are some of the tricks you’ve picked up over the years?
PVK: It’s really a simple suggestion, but it’s saved my bacon a lot. I have a composition book—one of those things from Mead. It has a leopard-[print] black and white cover. I keep notes of phone calls and my to-do list. I just run it in chronological order of my commitments. When those things have finished, I gray them out slightly so I have a history of open projects and commitments I’ve made. Half the time, I can juggle fine with the assignments just in my brain. Having them down in writing has been instrumental in sorting out occasional disputes and problems.
Occasionally, you get so many interruptions throughout the day. I keep a ball of string in my desk, and I’ll put a no trespassing sign in my cubicle if I need a few hours. Once in a while, I have to do it.
PE: What hours do you put in?
PVK: Roughly a 40-hour week. At any one time, we might have five magazines in process. I have a staff—including myself—of three of us to handle our 50-odd projects. We try to stagger them so they’re well-paced for each of us.
The cycle of a magazine from the ad close to when it has landed on the newsstand is 60 days. There’s a lot of milestones within those 60 days where you’re busy. I have a five-foot calendar on my wall that I build a visual set of bars on to show the project milestones. It helps me keep my life sane. When you’ve got many projects that overlap, a visual depiction of them really helps- it seems much easier to grasp than a page full of dates.
The [project management] program I like is Fast Track. It’s very easy to use. I’ve used it for the past eight years. It’s saved my life in terms of knowing where I am and what projects are under way. It’s a nice thing.
We don’t get our schedules disrupted by the advertising department. It happens very irregularly. The scary thing for me would be a power outage or the Internet is down. We’re transmitting all our files and our transmissions electronically now.
PE: What’s the secret behind successfully juggling the production of five magazines?
PVK: I’ve come to appreciate how important the culture is as far as the success of a business. Taunton was started by a family, and their belief was that you meet deadlines and you keep your agreements. And I have been the beneficiary of their vision—it's a great way to do business. Because it starts at the top, it’s a core principal. I don’t have to have a stick to enforce schedules. It’s just a cultural belief here. If someone is struggling with deadlines, it’s because the culture has made it OK. ...
We’ve had a lot of veteran staff. Even though we do have some turnover, we still have a core of people that have been here 15 to 20 years. It makes it easier to be successful because you’re not dealing with gobs of training issues.
Occasionally an advertiser will [need to fix a typo in his/her ad at the last minute]. We’ll accommodate them and fix things as long as the issue hasn’t printed. In terms of selling late, we’ll bend a little, but our final cutoff happens before it drives our prepress crew too crazy.
PE: What’s the secret to maintaining a balance between your professional and personal lives?
PVK: I certainly don’t have any complaints in that area. Occasionally, I’ll have some spurts where I’m doing some training. We have a really interesting feature of the company: We started a university—Taunton University. Managers create classes that help the employees know more about the publishing business. The more you live within a magazine publisher, the more respect you have for how complicated a business it is.
We have two semesters every year, and there's about 30 classes a year. There are classes on advertising and production, and who we are in the marketplace and who our competitors are. It’s a fascinating way to get everybody in the business to have a better understanding of the dynamics of publishing. And it brings a lot of context and a lot of culture into our workforce and helps us all feel in on things at Taunton. Teaching a class like that is usually a large commitment. Other than that, it’s been a pretty sane thing. I work eight hours to try create a really healthy and fun place for my team to work, and then I can go home and have fun until I come back.