LITTLE-KNOWN WASECA PUBLISHING COMPANY FAST BECOMING A MAJOR INTERNATIONAL PLAYER IN YEARBOOK, COOKBOOK, AND SPECIALTY BOOK SALES.
Photo by Jeff Silker
Ideas flow from Mary and Wayne Dankert like newsprint off a high-speed printing press. Watch them go. The ideas flow because the two have so many percolating about in their constantly churning minds—so many ideas printing and collating, printing and collating, so many, one, two, three, four. And the ideas leaving make room for more.
Mary, 59, and husband Wayne Dankert, 60, co-own Walter’s Publishing, a second-generation, more than 50-year-old, Waseca-based producer of school yearbooks, cookbooks and other specialty books. In 2004, the company released over 3,500 unique titles for customers in fifty states and most of the world. It is one of Taylor Corporation’s largest customers in Minnesota. And it has a misleading name of sorts. The homey sign on its N.E. 8th Street headquarters building gestures visitors toward the entrance to “Walter’s Publishing,” but really this company is all about ideas.
It is highly likely that Mary Dankert inherited her flair for ideas from her late father, Bob Mishek, who had more ideas than Einstein. “My father was a teacher in Waseca until going full-time with his own businesses in 1946,” said Mary while seated around a conference table at company headquarters, husband Wayne at her side. “Back in the ’30s as a teacher he had begun his first business, a pen pal program marketed directly to geography, English and typing teachers in the U.S. My dad was a typing teacher and had been thinking of ways to motivate his students to practice typing letters. He also knew geography teachers were trying to get students who didn’t know the Atlantic from the Pacific a reason to learn geography.”
The “pen pal” business ultimately connected thousands of students from 183 foreign nations to write letters in English to American children. In the early ‘70s, Wayne and Mary purchased that business from Mishek and moved it to New York before selling it 25 years later to their New York employees.
“Then my father had the idea to become involved in direct mail,” she said. “He owned a number of catalog companies selling office and school supplies. As I grew up (in the ‘50s and ‘60s), he showed me what an entrepreneur did and taught me the business. He took me under his wings and gave me opportunities to try out my new ideas. Business was all I could imagine doing for a living. I never thought of anything else.”
She went on to graduate in the late ‘60s from Minnesota State University in Mankato, majoring in business administration. She seemed to have a natural instinct for writing effective advertising copy to support her father’s direct mail business.
Mishek eventually owned eight direct mail businesses, through which he sold private label merchandise to schools and churches, mostly paper, ink, stencils, and duplicating supplies. In time he would sell desks and chairs, but preferred disposable items with repeat sales. Besides direct mail and the pen pal business, he also would own a concrete company, credit bureaus, and three H&R Block franchises.
It was Wayne’s turn to speak, and he resumed where his wife left off. “Bob was a dear friend and a true mentor,” said Wayne, his hands folded neatly on the conference table. “He would get extremely excited about new business opportunities. He could see opportunities.”
Compared to Mary’s often rapid-fire staccatos and arpeggios, Wayne’s voice inflections were more fluid and easy-going.
“Bob’s whole philosophy was that he was a teacher first,” he said. “Young people excited him. He would help them get into start-up businesses, get it running, bring in his expertise, and let them run with it. That gave him a great thrill, to see what these young people could develop as a new business, and for them to grow as people.”
For instance, Mishek had helped set up a former high school student in a root beer stand in Owatonna. Years later, when buying a concrete company, Mishek hired that same student to manage it.
In 1969, Mishek one day read about a “Wayne Dankert” on the front page of the local Waseca newspaper—and that this Dankert had recently graduated from Michigan State with majors in advertising and journalism. He’d been hired by the newspaper to sell advertising. It said that Dankert had taken the position in Waseca because the town was roughly halfway between Mankato, where a younger brother was attending college, and Austin, home of his recently widowed mother.
Mary took up the story, saying, “When my dad read about Wayne in the newspaper, the first thing he said was, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy.’” Wayne’s educational background in advertising and journalism would mesh well with a direct mail order business, he thought. “So my father literally wandered the streets in Waseca hoping to stumble on him,” said Mary.
Mary looked over at Wayne. He seemed poised to finish the story for her, a smile cracking his lips, as if they had told the tale hundreds of times. “I was getting into my car in front of the Ben Franklin,” he said. “Someone was tapping on my window, wearing a big smile. A large hand was reaching toward me. ‘Hi, my name is Bob Mishek,’ he said. That’s how it all started.”
Mishek promptly invited Wayne to tour his building in Waseca—and Mary was made responsible for showing him around. Though Wayne would soon take a job out of town with Target Corporation, the two nonetheless would fall in love and marry within a year, in 1970.
After the marriage, Mishek invited Wayne to join the family business, which by then consisted of the pen pal business, the eight catalog houses, the concrete plant, three H&R Block franchises, and a trailer court.
“If he had an idea, he would do it,” said Wayne of working alongside Bob Mishek in the early ‘70s. “He wasn’t afraid to take a chance.”
And Bob wasn’t the only one conjuring ideas and taking chances. Wayne, who Mary described as “a carbon copy of my dad,” had that first year the idea of sending cookbooks as thank-you gifts to church secretaries ordering from their direct mail catalogs. One church secretary especially liked her gift and asked Walter’s to print a cookbook for their church as a fundraiser.
Mary said, “Then one day in 1971 Wayne came into the office waving a Wall Street Journal. He said, ‘Look at this article. It says that for the first time in history cookbooks outsold the Bible. We’re now in the cookbook business.’ Then my dad, Wayne and I sat down at nights to concoct ideas about what we might do in the cookbook business.”
The company began zeroing in on cookbook publishing after Mishek—following the 1978 death of his wife—sold out to Wayne, Mary, and Mary’s two siblings. The children then began spinning off companies, such as the pen pal business, and “kept the things we wanted,” said Mary. But it was fitting that Mishek would live to the ripe old age of 90 in 1997 to see the beginnings of another family idea that would take Walter’s Publishing to the next level of success—and then some.
In 1987, Wayne and Mary decided to adopt. They had never had children, yet wanted them, and through Catholic Charities in Mankato learned of two beautiful, six-year-old Korean girls. When the girls reached eighth grade in 1995, Mary volunteered as a parental advisor on their middle school’s yearbook committee. The first thing Mary did after the initial meeting “was to go back here (to Walter’s Publishing) to talk about publishing yearbooks,” she said.
Said Wayne, edging into the conversation, “And this is where Mary resembles her father. She saw the way schools were making their yearbooks and knew there had to be an easier and more economical way.”
Within 18 months, the company was selling a full-service, elementary and middle school yearbook “program” to independent photographers around the nation. The program, which today includes expert marketing advice for schools, planning materials, and free Walter’s-designed software to help schools with layout, provides independent photographers a great way to win back yearbook business lost to national companies such as Jostens or Life Touch.
“No one does it the way we do,” said Mary. “We tell the independent photographers that we can make them competitive so they can continue operating as independent photographers. They can be a full-service yearbook photographer using our publishing services. We promise never to take or finish pictures. That’s their job. But we do the rest, including creating a private label for each studio to assure a school’s loyalty to the photographer delivering a phenomenal product.”
Wayne added, “We make sure the files or pictures the schools submit to us are all calibrated, so that when they flow through our system and come out, the yearbook reflects the beautiful quality they want.”
Walter’s Publishing works alongside larger independent photographers taking tens of thousands of student pictures at hundreds of schools a year—as well as smaller ones taking pictures at only ten or so schools. In essence, the independent photographers of America have become Walter’s Publishing’s sales force. The results have been staggering. Early growth mainly came from elementary and middle school yearbooks, but more recent success has been through high schools and universities. About 60 percent of the company’s current sales—a company once defined by cookbooks—comes from yearbooks. Cookbooks account for only 25 percent of sales. The remainder of company sales comes from church directories, reunion, retirement and wedding books, and military tour of duty books.
“Last year 123 independent school photographers booked schools with us,” said Mary. “Next year that number will double.”
Such incredible growth would not have been possible without a large printer having state-of-the-art capabilities to grow alongside them, said Mary Dankert. Walter’s Publishing and its 30 year-round employees do some in-house printing with its own four-color presses, used mostly for runs of less than a few hundred, ideal for church cookbooks. But the bulk of cookbook and yearbook printing gets funneled through Corporate Graphics of North Mankato, a Taylor Corporation company, which in turn usually farms out portions of the huge volume to other Taylor Corporation divisions around the nation. In fact, Walter’s Publishing the last few years has become one of Corporate Graphics’ largest accounts in Minnesota.
Walter’s Publishing and Taylor Corporation’s tight relationship began back in the mid-50s, when Bob Mishek and Carlson Craft founder William “Bill” Carlson became friends. Carlson Craft was the North Mankato-based printer Glen Taylor cut his business teeth on and would buy in 1975.
“You notice the outside of this building is blue?” asked Mary, pointing around to the walls and ceiling. “Bill and my dad both built their buildings blue in 1961. The wives picked out the colors.”
Carlson Craft early on printed for Walter’s Publishing. Said Wayne, “I met Bill (Carlson) my first year in 1970. Tuesday was always the day for Bob and I to visit vendors, and to make calls on different associates in the direct mail order business. It was an informal idea swap. I miss those Tuesdays with Bob.”
Mary broke in: “That was a tradition as long as Dad was active in the business. You never knew what they were going to come back with on those Tuesday trips.”
That relationship with Carlson Craft carried over to Taylor Corporation and became a tremendous asset when Walter’s Publishing went full-bore into the yearbook business in 1995. “We appreciate Taylor Corporation; they are good people,” said Wayne. “Many of our vendors, such as Taylor Corporation, know what we are trying to do. Often they see an opportunity, and their ideas come together with ours. Sooner or later something is going to gel. That’s what we enjoy about our relationships.”
The Dankerts said that Walter’s Publishing would not have grown so quickly over the last several years without Taylor Corporation’s superior ability to handle different kinds of large printing orders. Up to four Taylor Corporation divisions spread throughout the U.S. fill the orders during peak yearbook season, in which Walter’s Publishing assembles about 20,000 raw pages in pre-press daily.
“Their printing abilities allow us to do what we do best, which is marketing,” said Wayne. “Our job is to get out there, find the niches, develop new exciting products, and go after it. Our growth would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for Taylor Corporation’s growth. We have a partnering relationship with them, merging their strengths with our strengths.”
ARABIAN HORSE TIMES:
My brother started Arabian Horse Times magazine. Of the three children, he was the most fanatical about the Arabian horses we owned and raised. After my brother left college, he wasn’t interested in selling paper and ink. He began a magazine for the Arabian industry. He went his own direction with it a couple of years ago, and it’s no longer part of Walter’s Publishing. That happened when we bought out my brother and sister a few years ago. We now have controlling stock in Walter’s Publishing. —Mary Dankert, Walter’s Publishing.
FIRST NAME FIRST
Mary’s father named his companies after family members. The name “Walter” has been in the family for generations—Mary’s grandfather was Walter Brown. Bob named another company “Charles,” which was his father’s name. Mishek was the family name—and the name of his catalog business. —Wayne Dankert, Walter’s Publishing.
“We adopted our twin daughters in 1987, which brought a wonderful change in our lifestyle,” said Mary Dankert, co-owner of Walter’s Publishing. “They were six-year-olds from Korea, coming to us through Catholic Charities in Mankato.”
The Dankerts had been married 17 years, always wanting to be parents. “God works in strange ways,” said Mary. “He brought us these girls that have been absolutely at the center of all we do. Parenting them has been the most wonderful adventure you can imagine.”
The daughters, now age 25, are graduates of Columbia University in New York City. One is finishing officer’s training school in the Air Force and this August will begin medical school in Bethesda, Maryland. The other is taking advanced studies in the Korean language and working in Seoul, Korea.
“When they were around, we had a refrigerator full of kimchee,” said Mary, referring to the native Korean dish of spiced cabbage. “And when the girls are home, we keep the rice steamer running all day. We tried keeping the Korean traditions in the family. The girls went to Korean camps growing up and we have taken them back to Korea a number of times.”
Discovering their birth family several years ago, the twins invited the Dankerts to visit them all during Easter 2004.
To help Mary raise the Twins, Wayne, in a sense, re-structured Walter’s Publishing. He made it possible for Mary to drive the kids to school in the morning, pick them up after school, and for Mary to keep working after school. It wasn’t until the twins went off to college when Mary and Wayne traveled together again on the road.
“We wanted to be in all the bleachers and parking lots before games for them,” said Mary. “They were in all the sports and the band, and both of us were always there with them. I wouldn’t trade doing that for anything in the world.”
This commitment to family, this passion for children, has directly carried over in the Dankerts’ attitudes toward their employees and their families. They bend over backwards to re-structure work routines and schedules to, in essence, let their employees do what Mary did. “Wayne even makes it possible for some of our female employees to work at home,” said Mary. “And they get time off if there is anything going on at their children’s schools. We have some employees working the noon hour as school crossing guards. We want them involved in their kids’ activities. As our staff members sign on here, they learn quickly family comes first. We will cover for employees involved in family activities come hell or high water. If there is a choice between business and family, family always comes first. This is first and foremost.”
© 2005 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.