By Annie Greenberg
The Kansas City Star
Aug. 11, 2011
Susan Christie laughed as she picked up an envelope hot off the press, stamped with a reminder to pay bills online.
As the vice president of sales for Tension Envelope, she said there had been predictions for years about the demise of the traditional mailed statement.
“We kept hearing that paper was going away, and it’s not,” she said. “The fact is, there’s still a lot of mail out there.”
Tension is based in Kansas City and just hit its 125th anniversary. Run by the same family that founded it, the company is expected to bring in about $200 million in revenue this year.
Over the last decade, the volume of mail has fluctuated. The U.S. Postal Service reports it handled 171 billion pieces of mail last year, following a steady decline from 2006’s high of just more than 213 billion.
Still, Tension president and CEO Bill Berkley said the vast majority of its business continues to come from envelopes.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not planning for the future.
“Mail remains dominant, but we’ve continued to grow other businesses,” Berkley said. “We focus on understanding the industries we sell to and what our customers need. That’s why we have more patents than anyone else in our industry.”
Tension has spent the last several years expanding its international and automated packaging divisions. It now has plants throughout the United States and in China, Taiwan, and Australia, which produce more than 11 billion envelopes every year.
On the packaging side, Tension has sold automated packaging equipment to companies like American Eagle Outfitters and Overstock.com. It has also created prescription-packaging systems for mail-order pharmacies to dramatically reduce refilling costs.
Ken Myers, director of packaging and automation, said he expected his division to continue to expand as online shopping increases.
“E-commerce, faxes and emails are all affecting the mail stream, but it’s going to be a long time before you’re able to sit at a desk and (download) a shirt or blouse,” he said. “There’s always an order fulfillment system.”
He credits Tension’s longevity with its ability to adapt with the changing marketplace.
A lot has changed in Kansas City since the envelope company was founded in 1886.
Originally named Berkowitz & Co., it first specialized in advertising novelties and business stationery. It started focusing on envelopes 15 years later.
According to local historian Bill Worley, Kansas City was perfectly positioned to become a printing hub at the turn of the 20th century.
“Because it was at a central distribution point with the railroad, the larger companies that were attracted here were the ones going to be needing envelopes while doing mailings to customers, to suppliers, to all kinds of people,” he said.
Business-related printing hit its heyday in the 1950s, Worley said, as companies started branding themselves.
“Products used to be produced locally and consumed locally, but that begins to change,” he said. “Envelopes were a very early method of branding to a broader base … using logos to create brand recognition.”
For right now, Berkley said, a hybrid of online exposure and direct-mailing campaigns is the most effective way for advertisers to market their products.
Although the day of the handwritten letter may be ending, he said, mail is still a very viable medium.
“This is not the end of snail mail,” Berkley said. “People still prefer hard copy of some things in their hands.”
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