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A great transition

Business owner trades lectures for labels

Today, Michael Tilley’s career path is night-and-day different than it was a decade ago.

The Bellingham business owner was a tenure track biology professor at Missouri’s Central Methodist University, having previously spent four years as a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University.

Having achieved a doctorate in molecular genetics, Tilley spent time researching the complexities of drug addiction and autism and taught numerous college courses. While he was offered tenure in 2014, he declined, having made the decision to move to Bellingham to be closer to his two children.

The move necessitated a new career choice, and Tilley decided to acquire two Bellingham businesses. The first was a  Pak Mail shipping location in the Barkley Village neighborhood; the second was a Minuteman Press printing operation downtown.

“This was a very new thing for me,” said Tilley, 54, of the career switch. “I wanted a business that was established and had a reasonably good framework. These were two existing businesses, they were a franchise, and the appeal to that was they had a business model that was working pretty well because there were a few hundred of each of them across the country.”

Adaptation

The differences between being a business owner and a professor presented a real learning curve.

“The nature of the type of work — learning what we did and how to do it — was quite a challenge, especially initially,” Tilley said. “The work environment, the work culture, is quite a bit different between academia and the private sector.”

Tilley had to manage everything himself, no longer being able to rely on teaching assistants. He did, however, have the expertise and experience of existing employees, and it helped greatly. He also had to learn marketing skills — something he’d never had to think about in academia.

In 2020, Tilley acquired a third business — a Print and Copy Factory in Bellingham’s Irongate neighborhood. He then merged Print and Copy with Minuteman, moving from downtown and consolidating in Irongate.

The move from downtown came at a good time, as Tilley said several employees had begun expressing concerns about people camping behind their building and doing shady things.

“I talked to other business owners,” he said. “They felt that downtown had greatly deteriorated as a safe and profitable business area during COVID. I think that it appears to have come back some.”

Tilley said he is happy with his current employees, of which there are three at  Pak Mail and four at Minuteman. Having weathered the workforce squeeze of several years ago, when it was hard to get any applicants for posted jobs, Tilley hired two people this past year alone. He is, however, still having trouble getting experienced applicants for positions like graphic design.

“The job market is still pretty tight in that regard,” he said.

Growing together

Minuteman Press creates a wide array of promotional products, ranging from office forms such as non-conformance report documentation to pens, cups, books and apparel.

“Basically, anything you want to name-print your logo on, we can produce,”  Tilley said. “Generally speaking, we can print or produce about anything that someone would want done.”

The client base is several hundred businesses deep and includes local entities such as Cisco, Bellingham Cold Storage, Security Solutions, First Fed, Louis Auto Glass and Phillips 66.

Minuteman also has some clients in Skagit County and others even as far away as Missouri and Illinois. Tilley takes pride in helping local employers get the high-quality, good-looking products they want and need to run and promote their business, whether it’s a stack of business cards or a
coffee mug.

“I think that, in that regard, we have a lot of almost-like business partners: they grow, we grow,” he said. “We help support the local economy, so I feel really good about that.”

There also can be personal elements to what Minuteman produces, such as a customer printing a book written by a deceased loved one. The business also produces product packaging materials and direct mail marketing.

At  Pak Mail, shipping a variety of variously sized items to far-flung places requires logistical know-how and plenty of packing tape.

Sometimes Tilley’s employees are handling a simple letter or non-fragile material; other times, they’re dealing with heavy, bulky or easily-breakable items. And over time, Tilley has encountered some rather interesting shipping projects for him and his employees.

Several years ago, someone came in seeking to ship $150,000 worth of Tiffany-brand china. Another time,  Pak Mail had to ship a dermal laser — commonly used for certain skin condition treatments — that was six feet long and weighed more than 300 pounds.

Larger items require Tilley to construct sizable wooden crates to ship items, such as the time he built an enormous 10-foot-by-7.5-foot crate for an eyeglass grinding machine. One of the most unique items, however, involves the United States presidency.

A while back,  Pak Mail helped ship from Bellingham to North Carolina a desk that once belonged to President Woodrow Wilson. 

The story is that the grandfather of the person receiving the desk had once worked for a railroad line on the East Coast. Wilson had needed to quickly get from upstate New York to Washington, D.C., and the grandfather had arranged a private and direct train to get him there. As a result, Wilson gifted the man a desk, which eventually wound up in the local home of the man’s son. When that son passed away, the settlement of his estate saw the desk take one more cross-country trip, to the home of the man’s grandson.

Another time, the business shipped three 4-foot-long model ships owned by a man who’d passed away. He had left them to a best friend in California, and the safe transport of the ships was of considerable importance to the man’s family.

“We ship a lot of things that have monetary value, but also a lot of things that have a lot of emotional value sending or receiving them,” he said. “It’s really nice that we can fill that need.”

Looking ahead

Tilley said he hopes to further expand Minuteman’s client base for books, booklets and direct mail marketing, and he hopes to move into digital marketing at some point.

Though his children are now both young adults, Tilley said he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. He still talks to former academic colleagues, though, and occasionally reads scientific studies.

Tilley doesn’t miss the research, he said, but he does miss the teaching. If the right opportunity opened up not too far from Bellingham, he said, he might consider a foray back into lecture land.

“I taught quite a few classes,” he said. “I really enjoyed that a lot.”

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