Al and Dorothy Haslem are the definitive picture of business success the American dream embodied in a couple of immigrants who built their family owned and operated company from scratch.
Their roomy new print shop on 72nd South near State Street is abuzz with the whirring of presses, the chatter of engaged couples picking out wedding announcements and the nervous finger-tapping of job applicants. It's the perfect setting for a documentary about the rewards of small business ownership.After a visit with the chatty, effervescent couple, it's hard to imagine they've ever experienced anything other than the success that now surrounds them. Yet less than six years ago, the Haslems filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. Seagull Printing the business they had built from the ground up was on the line.
It was a mental blow to both of them. A well-disciplined Al Haslem, whose business-minded father set him up in the printing business in his native England at age 15, married Dorothy and got her involved in his life's work. They made it such a success that he retired at age 42. "I never needed to work again," he remembers, smiling.
They decided to emigrate to Canada in the early 1970s, but to do so, they had to leave 30 percent of their wealth in England. After investments in Canada turned sour, they decided to move to Salt Lake City. "We lost all our money in a year and a half. By the time we moved here, all we had was our home in England," Haslem said.
As converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they felt Salt Lake City would offer them a fresh start among friends. They opened a print shop at 909 S. State. "By the time we started here in 1972, all we had was one offset press," Haslem said. But they worked hard and made a go of it, eventually opening another shop. Business was good, but in the early 1980s, the recession took its toll on them as well as many other small companies.
By mid-1982, the economy, combined with a bad business deal that cut their customer base by 40 percent, left them holding huge debts they knew they wouldn't be able to continue paying.
"It looked like an impossible situation as soon as we realized what was happening," Dorothy Haslem said. "We had people standing outside our home at night with subpoenas and summonses. It was very frightening because there was no sympathy. We decided we had to do something about it."
Through their attorney, they filed a Chapter 11 reorganization petition in September 1982. Under his direction, they worked night and day to come up with ways to pay off the debts.
"Every night, Al would spend hours on end working on the problems. Because the company had a lot of expensive equipment, Al was the guarantor on the loans, so we had to file personally as well as filing as a corporation, to keep them from taking the equipment and our home," Dorothy Haslem said.
"As soon as we had filed, we both felt relieved that we were covered by the law, and that no one could persecute or harass us anymore."
Against what seemed insurmountable odds, they managed to keep a positive attitude. "I wasn't depressed," Haslem said. "I've always been a fighter. I wasn't depressed, but we were both very, very concerned."
"He's always been the kind of man that would never cheat anybody," Mrs. Haslem said. "He was determined to pay everybody and do all he could to make sure that happened. He never thought of giving up."
They filed a plan with the court within six months, and it was accepted. They religiously made the monthly payments, all the while keeping their business operating. No one was laid off.
Even before they filed, Haslem tried to arrange with the companies they were leasing equipment from to keep their contracts going, so they could avoid bankruptcy. But only a few were willing to work with them.
"We had to pay a very high rate of interest, and everything had to be paid up front. It was hard, but I'm grateful they were willing to work with us," he said.
With creditors stayed through the bankruptcy court, the Haslems were able to build their business up again during the five years it took to complete their repayment schedule. They take great pride in the fact that they paid every creditor 100 cents on the dollar a rare occurrence, according to bankruptcy court officials.
"When it got to the last check, we wrote a letter to every single creditor and told them we were pleased that this was our last check," Mrs. Haslem said. "I felt sure people would write us and congratulate us for paying every penny we owed. But not one did it. That was incredible to me. But we took everybody in the company out and celebrated anyway."
By the time they made the last payment to creditors in July 1987, their business had grown to more than three times its original size. They moved to their new location in January and now offer a full range of printing services including color printing, color separation, bindery work, embossing, foil stamping, wedding announcements and booklet printing. Haslem expects sales of over $2 million this year and said he plans to open a downtown location sometime in the future.
Looking back, the Haslems say the experience is one they never want to repeat. But they did learn some things as a result.
"Now I know what it's like to be down on your luck," Haslem said. "There's not enough forgiveness around. Too many people want to drive a man down when he's down. If people could only be a little bit more honest and long-suffering with each other, we'd all be better off. It's changed my whole outlook on people, and it's done some good for my character as well as my pocketbook.
"The bankruptcy law is there for good reason, but it's only to protect the honest in heart. It's a great law because it helps hold off the wolves from the door while you catch your breath."
Even with the future bright, the Haslems say there are still some scars from the experience that they would like to see changed in the future.
"The sad part about bankruptcy is that it becomes a stigma you carry with you for many years afterward, through credit bureaus and banks. To get equipment or finance a home, you reveal every single aspect of your finances to them, but they say, `You have been in bankruptcy,' and look the other way," Mrs. Haslem said.
"I think people who have come out of bankruptcy should be given more credit for their determination to pay their debts. But the way things are now, it sticks with you. That's the very sad part about it. It's like the mark of Cain it doesn't come off."