OWATONNA — For the first time in nearly 120 years, Owatonna-based J-C Press will no longer be owned by a member of the Whiting family, though it will remain a locally-owned company.
“It was important that J-C Press remain locally owned,” said Sabra Otteson, the president, CEO and owner of the company for 30 years.
That ownership changed hands Tuesday morning when Otteson signed the papers transferring the ownership to Patrick McDermott, who, up until his purchase of the company, was the chief operating officer of the company.
“It was time for me to retire,” Otteson said Tuesday afternoon, adding that she had been working on an exit strategy for more than five years.
During that time, she hired McDermott to be the sales manager of J-C Press.
McDermott, 41, was born and reared in Owatonna and had been working at Viracon for 12 years. In the three years that he had worked at J-C Press, he went from being sales manager to COO and now to president, CEO and owner.
Though McDermott had no experience in the printing business when he went from Viracon to J-C Press, he was a quick study, Otteson said — such a quick study that Otteson began to eye him as a potential successor two years ago and began working on the succession plans 18 months ago.
McDermott’s acquisition of the company made it easier to sell the company that had been in her family’s hands since the mid-1890s.
“It’s been in the family so long,” Otteson said. “It’s easier to give it up knowing who has it now, knowing Pat and observing him.”
Otteson’s grandfather, E.K. Whiting, purchased The Chronicle, an Owatonna newspaper, in 1896. The paper itself had been published in the city since 1859, five years after Owatonna became a city, making J-C Press the oldest still-operating company in Steele County.
In 1906, Whiting purchased another Owatonna newspaper, The Journal, combining the two and incorporating the company as the Journal-Chronicle, from whence came the name J-C Press.
The Whiting family sold the Journal-Chronicle newspaper to what was then called the Daily People’s Press in the 1930s. Though the Journal-Chronicle ceased to operate as a newspaper, the Whiting family continued with both commercial printing and office supplies, now under the leadership of Otteson’s father, William Whiting.
The younger Whiting continued to own and operate the company until he passed the company on to his daughter, Sabra Otteson.
Though she owned and ran the company for 30 years, she’s worked in some capacity in the company her entire life, she said. She especially remembers working in the office supply store that the company owned and operated in what is now the east section of the Wells Fargo Bank in downtown Owatonna. In that shop, she did a little bit of everything, she said, from selling merchandise to dusting.
“To this day, I hate dusting,” she said.
Still, she did it without complaining — at least without much — because it was a family business and she was part of the family. That sense of family is still important to Otteson as it is to McDermott — so much, in fact, that when the two speak of employees in the company, they speak of them by their first names and talk about how long they’ve been part of the company.
“They’re family,” Otteson said. “That’s always important … This company is family-owned and everyone is a part of the family.”
And, in fact, they discovered a familial relationship between McDermott and the company. His great-grandmother’s sister’s husband, Joe Haberman, was the general manager of the company back in the 1940s.
“He ran the company when Dad was off in World War II,” Otteson said.
When Otteson took over the company in 1984, her sole ownership of J-C Press made the business one of the first certified woman-owned enterprises in the state of Minnesota. During her tenure, the company grew from an annual revenue of less than $500,000 to more than $9 million a year.
It is that tradition that McDermott said he hopes and intends to maintain in the future. That will mean investing in the business and changing with the times, something, McDermott said, that Otteson brought to the company.
“We’re still dealing with the recession and still trying to dig ourselves out of it and the downward pricing pressure,” McDermott said. “There are a lot of printing companies out there, and we have to distinguish ourselves from the others. We’ve done that through technology.”
And as the company expands over time, McDermott said, there will be opportunities to increase the number of employees from its current number of 50.
But it’s not just the innovation and distinction that McDermott admires about the company. It’s also the type of community-based leadership provided by Otteson — a member or past member of several Owatonna boards and organizations, including the Owatonna Hospital Board, the KODA Living Community board, the Owatonna Foundation Board of Trustees, the United Way of Steele County Board and Owatonna Rotary Club.
“I’ve worked a lot of places,” McDermott said, “and I have tremendous respect for what Sabra has accomplished. She shows good business sense and a strong commitment to the community.”
As for Otteson, she will continue to maintain an office at J-C Press and will continue on the board, at least during the transition.
And her father, William Whiting, who is now 95, will continue to come to the office every day to get his mail, just like he’s been doing for years.
“His biggest concern was would he have to go somewhere else to get his mail?” McDermott said. “The answer is no, he won’t.”