PINELLAS PARK — There are machines for everything from making cars to printing newspapers, but Susan Wilson discovered 15 years ago that there are some things that must be done by hand.
"A lot of people say, 'I never thought of that,' " said Wilson, owner of Handy Ladies, a firm that picks, packs, sorts, bundles and, in whatever necessary way, manipulates paper, products and other materials for companies large and small. "There are some things a machine just can't do."
Like remove stickers. Sports Illustrated had 2,000 books with the wrong price sticker on them. Wilson took shipment and had her crew manually remove stickers from each book. Another job they did for the magazine included sorting commemorative baseballs and display stands as part of a subscription premium. It was 6,000 pieces, which sounds like a lot but is small by industrial standards.
"What they do is what those other companies can't do," said Howard Leibowitz, plant manager of Roberts Printing in Clearwater.
You could build a machine for each of Handy Ladies' tasks, Leibowitz said, but it wouldn't be cost effective for runs of a few thousand items. But other jobs are more than machines can handle.
Leibowitz has Wilson's crew working on a project for Masonite, a door manufacturer. Roberts printed pieces for a book of samples that allows the customer to bend clear-plastic door images around in a book to see how they'd look in different colors or textures. The acetate images stick together and foul up collating machines, so the books must be assembled by hand.
"You can't use a machine," Leibowitz said.
Almost all of Wilson's employees are women, with "a few good men" thrown in for good measure, she said.
Wilson said when she started the business on a pool table in her garage, friends helped and referred others. Soon she discovered a population of women living in shelters or hiding from domestic abusers. They needed money to right their lives but couldn't interview, or were afraid of working in a public place. So Wilson gave them a chance.
Today, armed with a steady crew and an on-call list, Wilson rarely visits the shelters for employees. She must, however, keep repairing a business that is going through its own turmoil.
Some area jobs will always remain because the cost of shipment is too great, but Wilson has lost work to Mexico and China, where labor costs offset the price of transport. And losing other clients like Eckerd Drugs or Molex puts a crimp in a company striving for
$1-million in annual sales.
"My biggest hope is that I can keep 20 girls working steady 40 hours a week," Wilson said. "I just can't seem to get there."
Most work comes in spurts. When a client calls with misprinted phone books, Wilson puts together a crew that will turn around a fix quickly.
Wilson keeps busy with smaller jobs, like putting together a "book" of leather samples for Toyota dealers, or repackaging window advertisements for Busch Gardens. Roberts is a steady customer, and R.R. Donnelley still calls, even after it closed its St. Petersburg facilities. But Wilson wants a nice, big steady contract.
"We attempted to do this in house, but we feel they can do it more accurately and more timely," said Joe Brown of Ceridian Corp., which is considering hiring Handy Ladies to collate benefits packages for its human-resources clients. "It's a valuable service they provide."
Wilson has done similar work for other companies, not only compiling stacks of papers but doing so based on the individual recipient's needs. Health benefits work requires confidentiality, as does the work Handy Ladies does preparing admittance packages for patients at Tampa General Hospital.
Wilson has also added a mailing center, both to ship completed jobs and as a fledgling direct-marketing business.
"I've had to fly by the seat of my pants," Wilson said. "We've come a long way from that pool table."
Paul Swider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 892-2271.