Originally Published: September 21, 2014 6:04 a.m.
Mel Lawyer loves to fish.
At work, he is a fisher of men, casting for good, hard workers to stock Printpack, one of the largest employers in the area.
And, when he has time away from his Prescott Valley office, he likes to fish - for fish.
Conveniently enough, a fishing trip to Alaska illustrates his management style. Lawyer had a great big salmon on his line that was splashing around as he tried to bring it in. Suddenly, his fishing partners further upstream started screaming at him frantically.
Lawyer looked away from the thrashing salmon and saw a grizzly bear rushing at him.
Would his reaction be fight - or flight?
Neither. Like a skilled conflict manager, Lawyer quickly assessed the situation, stood his ground and cut the line. The fish swam away, and the big bear - which was attracted by the thrashing - quickly lost its interest, stopping about 15 feet from Lawyer, taking a sniff and then turning away to look for another meal.
As for the fisherman himself, Mel Lawyer has been running Printpack as plant manager for the last 17 years in much the same way. Relaxed and low-key, he keeps his cool under stressful situations, doesn't yell and scream to try to get results, preferring a thoughtful "How can we both win?" approach.
Lawyer manages a staff of 130 employees at Printpack, a printing manufacturing facility that prints flexographic material; the plant does a great deal of printing on plastics for food packaging. It's a 24/7 operation, with 12-hour shifts running day and night, weekends and holidays included.
With an easy smile and soft-spoken manner, he cheerfully calls his younger employees "the kids." Lawyer's office sports mementoes, masks and other artifacts, a photo of Abraham Lincoln and - of course - stuffed fish.
Daily Courier: Where did you grow up, and how did you decide to get into this field?
Mel Lawyer: I grew up all over the world - my father was in the military. So I got so see Asia and Europe, and all over the U.S. I never really decided to get into this field - after I got out of the military, I was looking for a job. I was driving by a packing plant, saw they were hiring. Started at the bottom, washing pots and pans in the pressroom. That was in Portland, in 1971.
DC: How long have you been with Printpack?
ML: Forty-three years. I worked for Crown Zellerbach/James River in Portland, Oregon. Printpack bought James River, so I came here to Prescott Valley in 1996.
DC: What are some of the big projects you're working on here?
ML: We do a lot of fresh vegetable packaging. The main thing we try to do is keep that vegetable alive once it's in the package. So we do a lot with oxygen transmission rate - OTR. It's really important to expel oxygen out of the bag.
DC: Who is the one person most influential in your business success?
ML: My father. I worked with him growing up. When he retired from the military, he had a farm and did some logging in Washington state. He instilled a work ethic. Doing what was expected and then some.
DC: What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
ML: "Treat people like you want to be treated."
DC: What jobs are in demand with your company?
ML: In this plant we're in need of press operators, exterior operators, the whole gamut of running equipment. We have a pretty low turnover rate. Our management positions and technical positions, we haven't had any turnover in years.
DC: Must be nice place to work?
ML: It is. It's a great place to work. We have no problems getting people to come to work here. Most people once they get a foot in the door, they don't want to leave.
DC: If a parent would come up to you and say, "I want my high school senior to be secure in a job for the rest of his or her life - what field should he or she pick?"
ML: (grinning) Everybody's got to eat. And we make food packaging, So...
DC: Advice to younger folks?
ML: I always suggest to kids they do what their heart tells them to do - not what someone else tells them to do. I was supposed to be a career military officer, like my dad. I went in the military and decided that wasn't going to be something for me.
DC: How have you been able to balance work and family life?
ML: I leave work at work, and home at home. It's something I had to work on - it's very easy for me now. I try to give the kids here advice - they should make the workplace a place to go and leave everything else outside.
DC: Just about every employer wants employees to do more, more, more. How do you lead employees to be more productive?
ML: By giving them the opportunity to have a stake in it. We do a lot of team concept here. We have hourly folks who run machines that are also team leaders ... We don't expect people to do more without giving them the tools to do it. We do a lot of training. We ask folks to be a part of running the business. DC: Do you remember the first person you fired?
ML: I remember, yes. (smiles) They weren't doing what was expected of them and taking advantage of others. Expecting someone to do their work for them. That's one of the hardest things in the job, letting people go. Especially when we get to know people's families - then people get in hot water. Fortunately that doesn't happen here too often. What I learned is I really don't fire people; they fire themselves.
DC: You don't seem like a yell-and-scream kind of guy.
ML: Not anymore. When I was younger, it was a lot easier. But no, I don't yell; it doesn't get you anywhere.
DC: During job interviews, what are some really dumb things you've heard people say?
ML: I've had people say they don't like to get dirty - we're a printing plant! A lot of things around gaps in the resume. What were you doing these three years? "Prison." One guy sailed around the world. Sometimes they'll say they just didn't want to have a steady job.
DC: Describe the worst manager you worked for.
ML: Oh! (laughs) I worked for a man who thought he knew everything about everything, and thought he knew enough about the business that he knew everything about it. That led to micromanaging. Which led to chaos. He liked to argue. He wanted everything the way he felt it should be, never seeking other people's advice.
DC: What kind of leader do you see yourself as?
ML: I like to think people view me as someone they'd like to work for because I understand where they're at, because I've done it. I like to treat people how I'd like to be treated. I try to be understanding - our guys work 12-hour shifts, long days and nights. I worked 15 years on nights, so I can relate to it.
Follow Tom Scanlon on Twitter @tomscanlonpress.