The Business of GraduationMay 24, 2014
Story by Jonathan Streetman
Photos by Rachel Mummey
Lined up in high schools across southern Indiana, seniors don mortar boards and graduation gowns, just as their parents did and their parents before them. Many of them are in the same school colors. Year after year, students receive their graduation gear — caps, gowns, class rings, sweatpants and open house notices — on time and in perfect order.
For 60 years across the southwest portion of the state, it’s been one family’s responsibility to make sure graduation goes off without a hitch, and that each senior has plenty of mementos to remember the occasion. Graduation is the Sakel family business. First Bob. Then Tully. Now Reid.
Otto Josten started the company, from which nearly all caps and gowns, class rings and yearbooks now originate, in 1897 as a watch repair business in Owatonna, Minn. Several years later, Josten began manufacturing awards and emblems for nearby schools. In 1906, he added class rings to the deal. Business boomed. During the period of growth, Jostens, the company, established a nationwide sales force through independent representatives like the Sakels making and delivering direct sales face-to-face.
Following World War II, Jostens began an era of major expansion. The company added graduation announcements in 1946 and began acquiring manufacturers of education supplies, such as diplomas and yearbooks.
In 1954, Bob Sakel was asked if he wanted a job. He was coaching high school basketball at the time when Huntingburg High School football coach Tony Morrow went to work for Jostens. The company needed another representative in the area and Morrow recommended his coaching buddy.
“So I flew up to Minnesota and spent three days interviewing. I came back and the more I thought about it, I can always go back to coaching but this could be a great job,” Bob said.
When he went to interview, he looked at his 1945 class ring from Jasper High School, and it was made by Jostens.
“I knew then that this had to be a good company.”
Bob’s coverage area ran “from Bloomington South to New Albany to the rivers,” making sure 70 to 80 schools got their rings, announcement, caps, gowns and even yearbooks, an item with which Reid and Tully no longer deal.
“In those days, there were a lot of Spurgeons, there was Selvins and Stendals. There were Hollands,” he said of smaller high schools that have since been absorbed by consolidation. “That’s why I had a lot of schools.”
Bob carried on for years, starting with just two clients and building up his base throughout the state. After about 20 years of hitting the road alone, he got help from a familiar face.
Bob’s son Tully graduated from Southridge High School in 1973 and from Butler University in 1977. He began working with his father, helping with a burgeoning business that fall.
“I just followed him wherever he went,” Tully said. “Basically, you go through an apprenticeship.”
Six years into the arrangement, Bob decided to retire. He hung around a couple more years to help as Tully took over the business in the late 1980s.
“Then I did it for 30-some years, also. Reid started in 2007 and did exactly the same thing (with the apprenticeship),” Tully said.
Tully continued what his dad started, keeping the exact same coverage area, selling many of the same materials while expanding his product line. He brought his wife, Karen, along to help. Reid was often right there with them.
Reid, 30, was positive he wouldn’t follow the family plan.
Growing up, Tully and Karen would drag their son to school after school for presentations and deliveries. He sold sunglasses just to keep busy. In high school, he helped his dad create PowerPoint presentations and guided him through Jostens’ technological changes.
One Halloween when Reid was young, Karen dressed Reid and his brother, Kirk, up in graduation gowns Jostens created for preschoolers. Reid doesn’t remember the costume but isn’t surprised — Jostens has always been a part of his life.
It wasn’t until his final semester in the spring of 2007 at DePauw University, where he studied business and played basketball, that he realized that Jostens would soon become his professional life. He graduated from Southridge High School in 2003 on his 19th birthday.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get into this business,” Reid said. “I didn’t job search as hard as I probably should have, so I called my dad and asked if he needed help.”
As it turned out, he did. In the fall of 2007, Reid officially went to work as a sales representative for his father.
Working for his dad, just as Tully discovered 37 years ago, isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
“It’s funny when you talk to other Jostens people who had sons in the business — there’s always little fights,” said Reid. “We’re both stressed and trying to get things done and we’re hustling because it’s 5:30 or 6 o’clock and you want to get out of here, then all of a sudden you say, “Oh, here’s another order’ and now you have to recalculate everything you just did. Those were little things we’d fight about.”
Reid’s apprenticeship included introductions at area schools, although many people recognized him from the Sakel family Christmas cards. The main duty: Make sure nothing is forgotten. It’s not an easy task when you have more than 100 spreadsheets full of dates and orders and appointments.
Reid stays busy year-round. He is now in his third full year as the sales rep for the area and bears the brunt of the work.
“In the first year, it wasn’t too different,” Reid said. “It started to really hit when I had to start making all the decisions or when I’d walk into a meeting and people would talk directly to me instead of my dad. Or when a problem would come, instead of passing it over to my dad, I was the one who’d have to take care of it.”
He takes care of most of the traveling, too, as his parents’ involvement dwindles. His wife, Crawford County native Bianca (Haverstock), helps out when things get busy. Reid also employs four part-time employees.
In August, Reid makes class ring presentations at each school. He returns in September to file orders. Rings are delivered in November and December. It’s then when he begins making his 15-minute graduation presentations to “get kids excited about their senior year.” He takes orders for the usual caps and gowns as well as spin-off items like sweatpants, key chains, coffee mugs, T-shirts and more. The presentation is choreographed but not stiff. Reid, always dressed immaculately and occasionally in matching school colors, engages the students and lets them know they’re a part of the process. Both students and school employees greet him warmly every time.
The first couple months of the new year is slow. Reid uses that time to organize deliveries, update the text on graduation announcements and mail invoices to overdue accounts.
March is when the madness begins. Reid and his parents have to make all deliveries in a short span. Reid works out of his car for two months — a real-life traveling salesman with a mobile office.
By the end of April and into May, Reid returns to the schools to meet with leaders of the junior class. Together, they select and design the next year’s announcements’ colors and emblems. Reid sends them to printers to be completed over the summer.
During the slow period on a February afternoon, it’s organized chaos in Reid’s basement office tucked beneath an insurance agency on Huntingburg’s main drag.
A large shipment of caps and gowns just arrived and has to be organized by size, color and school.
In a room where different colored tassels, pins and buttons each have their own labeled compartment, dozens of boxes are stacked haphazardly floor to ceiling.
“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” Reid jokes as he tears into another box, listing off the color and heights of the gowns to part-time employee Linda Lichlyter.
As one stack of boxes dwindles, another comes into focus. Reid covers 52 schools in 15 counties across southern Indiana, making him the representative with the largest geographic area in the state.
While all schools don’t all have individual colors — many schools stick with common hues such as royal blue, white, black, red or green — they all must be organized separately.
Down a narrow hallway, Reid has adapted hanging closet organizers to hold gowns. During a school year, Reid will travel close to 40,000 miles to make presentations, take orders and deliver goods. On this day, though, he can barely move 2 feet in any direction as he stuffs everything into its proper place.
“This is the stuff nobody gets to see — the behind-the-scenes operation,” Reid says underneath a pile of green graduation gowns.
He’ll be happy to get back on the road.
They all say the business has changed since Bob first joined 60 years ago. Years ago, Bob sold senior keys. Tully’s big hit were memory books, now made obsolete by social media. For Reid, sweatpants and hoodies are a favorite.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bob said. When he first started, schools delivered products to the students and collected the money directly from families. Schools called Bob, asked when he wanted to come and assembled the students for him.
Now Reid — and Tully before him — has to make all deliveries, collect money, schedule with the schools around students’ free time and get in and out of buildings without disrupting the educational flow. Reid keeps extras of some items because he knows people are going to make last-minute calls scrambling for something they forgot.
“It’s a lot more difficult than it used to be,” Tully said.
“I had a lot of free time and (Tully) had none,” Bob said.
“And Reid has even less than that,” Tully added.
On a calm afternoon in a quiet office, a few weeks after the last graduation delivery in April, Reid reflected on his seven years with Jostens.
“It’s had its ups and downs. You’ll have your good years and maybe all of a sudden the next year isn’t as good,” he said. “But it’s all about students and the amount of school spirit they have. If a school traditionally buys a class ring, they’ll continue to do that. Traditions in a school are the biggest for us.”
Just like it’s now tradition for a man named Sakel to be the one selling the ring.
“Even though we do a lot of online orders, they only count for 5 percent of the total,” Reid said. “So 95 percent are still done in school or mailed in. Over 90 percent are done in person. Nobody (but Jostens) does that anymore really.”
While things change — some class rings are now designed online rather than picked from a catalog — someone still has to make the sale.
First it was Bob. Then Tully. Now Reid.
“Talking traditions, you don’t want to get rid of everything. It’s a unique business aspect that you do use a lot of new (material),” Reid said, producing a stack of graduation announcements dating back to 1977, “But the same crest has been on all of these. So you want to bring all that together into one.
“I just hope it’s a good business for me as much as for my dad and grandpa.”
Contact Jonathan Streetman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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