A Work of Art

It’s not hard to catch the employees at Hodges Badge Company smiling on the job.

It’s a happy place to work, filled with bright colors and cheery products — custom ribbons, rosettes, medals, silver, trophies and other awards, things that will become prized possessions by whomever receives them at their equestrian competition, gymnastics meet, dog show, school science fair, spelling bee . . . , hung or set in places of prominence to convey the winner’s pride.

That’s one of the reasons the people who make these ribbons and awards take so much pride in their work.

“This is really a craft,” said plant manager Jody Maune. “Each ribbon is like a work of art.”

Some 60 people work between Hodges’ two neighboring 25,000-square-foot buildings in Washington’s Town and Country Industrial Court. Business here has been growing these last several years as the company has added products and found new processes that allow it to add options to existing products.

“We’ve always done ribbons, for 90 years, . . . flip through any of our catalogs, the first thing you see is always ribbons . . . ,” said President Rick Hodges, who last month was in Washington with his wife from their home in Rhode Island, where the company headquarters are located.

“We’ve added what we call the mum — it looks like a flower; we’ve added ability to do multicolor printing on the ribbons. So what we try to do is, say you come in and you’re the jumper extravaganza, and you have a logo, well, we want to get your logo in our computer system. Once it’s there, we can put that on the center of the ribbon. We can upsell side streamers — and a lot of this stuff, our competition doesn’t offer. So you try to figure out ways to have exclusive products. All of this multi-color stuff you see walking through the plant, nobody else does.”

Add Trophies, Plaques, More

It was about 10 years ago that the management at Hodges sat back to consider what kinds of items it wasn’t yet offering customers that they were wanting. Hodges, which is the largest ribbon manufacturer in the United States using over 12 million yards of ribbon a year, will take orders from anyone for any size — from just one ribbon, to 10 to hundreds to thousands. But its main customer base includes the equestrian industry, fairs, 4-H, schools, gymnastics and swim meets, dog shows and currently the company is making inroads into the cat show market.

“We had long shied away from trophies and other things engraved, but now that’s become a real focus for us,” said Hodges. “So in the back of this book you can see a lot of products, mostly focusing on inexpensive silver items, but we’re finding while the bulk of the volume of sales are for the less expensive products, there also is a demand for more expensive things . . .the most expensive item in the catalog is a $545 (cut glass) horse head. We’ve never sold one; on the other hand, we have sold a lot of the $150, $200 engraved pieces with the cut glass on them.”

“Customers are leading us in different directions, which is great. We’re happy to go there with them,” Hodges remarked.

Trophies, which the company began selling about five or six years ago, is a very competitive field, yet “it’s growing rapidly for us,” Hodges said, noting the company has seen even faster growth in its plaques.

“Within the last three years, anything that’s flat — be it a plaque, a piece of acrylic, a medal, a dog tag — we can decorate that in full color and sell it at a very reasonable price,” said Hodges. “We’re buying new printers with new technology. One is here. We have three more in Rhode Island, and that part of the business . . . is more than doubling every year.

“A lot of sales of medals, we print right on the medal in full color. Usually companies do that with a sticker, but using these new printers, we can drop all of the color right on it.”

Hodges, which employs its own team of artists, also has added ways for customers to personalize their products with artwork — even something scribbled on a piece of paper can be scanned into the computer system and digitized — which adds value and interest.

Take what Hodges did with its dog show ribbons as one example.

There are 200 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, so the company has come up with artwork for every breed and now those images can be used on dog show ribbons, medals and other prizes.

Working Smarter

As sales have increased at Hodges, the company has hired maybe a couple of new employees at its Washington facilities — which now include four people answering phones in a call center. But for the most part the company has been able to absorb the increase with existing staff.

“It’s about working smarter,” said Maune.

“We’re getting smarter about how we can handle the work so we can take on more business.”

Hodges agreed. “A few machines have saved us a lot of time,” he said, “but it’s mostly Jody and the team looking at the process” and finding ways to “work smarter.”

Ten years ago the employees at Hodges had clear-cut job descriptions — printers, stitchers and assemblers . . . But then the company began a transition to lean manufacturing practices.

“Some people still do same jobs they did 10 years ago, but now they do it in a team environment,” said Hodges. “Rather than supervisors, we have coaches and team members within cells, and there’s a lot more flexibility as to the types of jobs people are doing throughout the course of the day.”

An employee assigned to a printing press may find herself so far ahead that she moves to help a teammate in another area. It’s a lot about empowering people to make changes, said Hodges.

“That’s one of the big things,” he commented. “You get employees saying, ‘This department isn’t working the way it should. We want to make changes.’ . . . They will have sat down and done the analysis and come to you with a proposal.

“It’s a whole involvement of the employee and getting them to understand that there are activities that don’t add any value and to try to get rid of the non-value added tasks and just do the things that help get the product out the door,” said Hodges.

“Carrying boxes of product from point A to point B to sit on a shelf so somebody else can go looking for them later on doesn’t add any value. The customer doesn’t want to pay you to carry their stuff around the building. So what you end up with in the best case scenario is, I make the product, I give it to Jody, who does something to it, who gives it to you, who puts it in a box and it ships.

“None of this, I make it. It goes on a shelf. When Jody’s ready for it, she looks through all the shelves to find it. When she’s done with it, she puts it on a shelf over there . . . If you see people staring at shelves, this is not a good thing. You try to eliminate that.”

Some things haven’t changed, however.

Last year, Hodges made more than 3 1/2 million rosettes — none of them automated.

“Somebody’s touching every one of those,” Maune remarked.

“We have tried to figure out how to make things by machine,” Hodges added, “and there are machines that help them, but you’ll be amazed at the extent of handwork that’s involved.”

Sales Can Be Unpredictable

Sales at Hodges are strong today — between $10 and $15 million a year, but there were a couple years during the recession when the trend was “a little negative, on the order of 4 or 5 percent,” said Hodges.

The company was able to weather that and other occasional dips in sales, in large part, because of the diversity of its clients.

“It’s really, really hard to figure out what the great American populus is going to do.

“The gymnastics market, two years ago, did poorly; last year, it came racing back,” said Hodges. “Sometimes you just can’t figure it out.

“Sometimes it’s very direct . . . Two years ago there was an equine virus that went through horses in Oklahoma. It started in Florida . . . so it was spreading, and they suddenly stopped a lot horse shows.”

For Hodges, that meant an immediate $150,000 worth of business was canceled.

The company counts a number of local events among its clientele. That includes many of the dog shows at Purina Farms in Gray Summit, both the Washington Town and Country Fair and Franklin County Youth Fair in Union and the annual fire prevention poster contest sponsored by the Washington Volunteer Fire Company, to name a few.

Overall Hodges’ customer base is mostly inside the United States, since the cost to ship its product outside the country can often be almost as much as the product itself.

Family Owned Since 1920

Hodges Badge Company was founded in 1920 by William Hodges, great-grandfather of Rick Hodges, in or around Milford, N.H. He started the company as salesman, order taker and head printer, the Hodges website notes. His two younger daughters, Anna and Emaline, worked for him doing assembly, stitching or whatever other work was required.

Hodges called itself a badge company because in 1920s America fraternal lodges were popular — The Moose, The Elks, The Order of Eastern Star, The Odd Fellows . . .

“Since you didn’t have television what you did for entertainment two or three nights a week was wander over to ‘The Lodge’ and swap stories with your friends,” the website reads. “When the Lodge marched in a parade, had a formal dinner, or buried a deceased member, every member pinned on his badge, which usually consisted of a fancy brass bar at the top, proclaiming member, or president, or the most impressive title that could be invented, a hanging ribbon, and fringe at the bottom. The ribbon was printed with the lodge’s name, on one side gold print on a multicolored ribbon and on the back silver print on black for funerals.

“They required lots of assembly to sew the front and back ribbons together, and to attach the fringe at the bottom. We made reversible badges, so we were Hodges Badge Company.”