Roadtrip Day 8: Pencils and Towels and Mugs (Oh My!)

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We headed further south and finally got to Chattanooga where we spent the night at the Read House, in the downtown area.


The Read House is a classic old hotel out of the 1920’s with a grand old lobby with dark paneled walls and crystal chandeliers everywhere you look. It makes a nice first impression.

First thing in the morning we packed the car and were off to the next factory on our Made In America tour.

Gold Bond is located in a factory building in nearby Hixson, Tennessee. It’s a large building with walls colored in orange and charcoal two-tone, and with a distinctive graphic at the entrance, a hint of the graphic imprinting work done inside.

It started in the pencil-making business in the late forty’s, around the time the troops came back from World War II. The Gold Bond wood cased pencil became a classic. Over the years the company added rulers, yardsticks and wooden nickels to the line. Most of their products are custom-imprinted and are used to help businesses promote themselves. Gold Bond was one of the early players in the 'advertising specialties’ industry, and is still a big part of this industry today.

Currently, Gold Bond has left most of the manufacturing process to others and focuses on imprinting. It imprints hundreds of different promotional products from nylon bags to coffee cups. And yes, wooden nickels are still in their lineup.

And although many of their items are imported, there are about a dozen items that are still made in the U.S.A. And because we’re on a #MadeInAmerica road trip, these are the items we’ll focus on.

Sarah, a service manager, Britney, a marketing manager, and Mark Godsey, the company’s president, lead us on our tour through the plant.

We find our way through twisting corridors and rooms full of people – there are 300 employees at Gold Bond. There are people answering customer service calls, folks fixing customer artwork, managers discussing todays operations, an IT department, an accounting department, an HR department. Whew! And we haven’t seen the factory yet!

Finally, we pass through double doors and the sounds get a bit louder. We’re in the production area.

First, we pass through the digital printing area where people are between computer displays and huge digital inkjet devices, outputting poster-sized sheets of colorful company logos. These sheets will be cut into smaller pieces and transferred to a broad range of products from bags to coffee mugs.

Then, we pass through the screen-making department, where folks are cleaning old screens and making new ones. In every direction, there are neatly stacked piles of metal-framed screens, each ready for a new job to tackle.
cleaning old screens

Turns out that Gold Bond is more than a digital printer or a screen printer. They also do pad printing, laser engraving, debossing and heat transfer. They’ll imprint with whatever it takes.

The sound gets louder still as we pass into the sublimation department. Here, people set up blank products – a nylon bag perhaps – with a section of pre-printed film that carries a customized imprint. The bags and film are pressed together and pass slowly by conveyor belt through a large machine where the custom imprint is eventually bonded to the nylon bag.

The next machine does a similar process for coffee cups. We look around and there are dozens of people working on other machines doing similar things with mouse pads, USB chargers, notebooks and backpacks.

imprinting promo products

At the far end, there are a few stations set up for laser engraving. Here people are setting up equipment to etch imprints onto metal pens, keytags and buck knives.

The screenprinting department is whirring. People are filling the intake side dozens of machines with golf towels, plastic pens, travel tumblers, and USB chargers. The products are pulled through, receive their imprint via ink, screen and squeegee, pass through a UV light to cure the imprint, and pop out the other side into a plastic tray, and rolled out to the shipping department.

cleaning lint from screen

Many of the folks who are working the equipment have been working here for years. They know how to set up the trickiest projects, know how to breakdown and set up jobs without skipping a beat, and watch for quality issues before they become issues.

We move through a room surrounded by shelves and boxes. At its center, about a dozen workers are sitting at long tables, each with a few boxes in front of them, making kits out of multiple promotional items. A travel mug has a brochure and a coaster inserted, or a nylon bag has four bottles of lotion added. Making a customized kit using various imprinted items is a special feature Gold Bond offers.

packing and assembling promo items

Some of the people we meet have been with the company as its grown from making pencils to imprinting ‘everything’. Some started before they had families, and now their kids have jobs at Gold Bond, too.

I realize that Gold Bond has grown in a way that many successful American companies have grown: by adapting.

If all you do is make pencils, then you’ll always be at the mercy of the pencil marketplace. But if you see yourself as providing solutions to what your customers need, then you can grow as your customers grow.

For Gold Bond, they’ve learned to adapt to the needs of the Ad Specialty industry. And as the industry has grown, gold Bond has grown with it, providing products and imprinting processes that people are looking for.

It’s about entrepreneurship, and re-discovering your business and your marketplace every day. It’s about learning. and being flexible, and not fearing risk. It’s how McDonalds became McDonalds, how FedEx became FedEx, how Apple became Apple.

We saw the ‘American Way’ happening in this Tennessee factory. In fact, we’ve been seeing it in all the factories we’ve visited on our Made in America roadtrip.

It gives me hope for the future of American industry.
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