Come Together: Edward Cook

Andy MacDougall interviews Edward Cook, CEO and president of ECIscreenprint.com, on how he's been affected by COVID-19.

In our continuing storyline featuring viewpoints of screen printers around the world as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in their town, I present some thoughts from Edward Cook, CEO and president of ECIscreenprint.com and the past Chairman of SGIA. Ed is a long time screen printer who built his business from a one-person, one-room operation into a functional print powerhouse over the past 30 years. In this column he shares his unique perspective from Watertown, Connecticut.

By way of introduction, I didn’t know Ed at all until a few years ago. Even then I didn’t know his background, or that he was the chairman. I had written about designer and gigposter screen printer Dan Stiles’ amazing electronic posters, and somehow Mr. Cook and I started a conversation. Ed has a deep interest in art, and screen printing, so we had that in common. And he won an award in his hometown for restoring an old building and creating an art gallery. Cool so far. And he was fascinated by the opportunities presented by this idea of activating a poster using electronics and chips, and wanted to help Dan and I explore the possibility of a workshop for designers who might be interested in exploring the possibilities. Some of my friends in the industrial print side clued me in about ECI Screen Print. I  found out he was the Chairman of the Board at our Association when I started barking about the lack of screen printers in the current SGIA brain trust. Doh. He tuned me up regarding his work behind the scenes and to a whole new group of the younger guys who are printers and stepping up at the board level. Who knew?  

Which all adds up to: shut up, Andymac. Let the man talk…

“People will always find a way. We have a void, an emptiness within us, which many of us never really knew we had to fill. There is only so much time you can spend on the internet, the computer, doing work, or staying at home. There is going to be a new normal, but we do not know what that will be yet. Just being with people has an entirely new importance in our lives.

An amazing transformation is taking place. It does not matter where you are from, or what your background is; all people, whether they realize it or not, are going through a personal retrospection. The current social distancing environment, the mandatory masking, and the protection of ourselves and others has made every human being reflect and reprioritize their lives.

Suddenly, this pandemic is teaching us all lessons from the past. We are reliving a 21st Century version of war rationing from the 1940s. We are all getting an economics lesson in supply and demand better than any university class. It is amazing to see how all things are connected.

During this global event, the pandemic, I feel positioned uniquely as a leader in the community to witness an amazing metamorphosis of people in the world. I find people are much more giving, benevolent, and helpful instead of only focused on themselves. I am seeing it every day. People are wearing masks, and being much more polite and courteous. I believe the forced distancing is creating a yearning to be together. We are all learning to smile through our masks, using our eyes, meaning we have to really look at the other person. We have often been told to, ‘Stop and smell the coffee,’ but now it has a completely different meaning. The thought of health and safety, life and survival, against a common unseen enemy has forced people to stop in their tracks, reflect on their lives, and look at their purpose in a fresh new way. We all have something in common now!

I have often taken drives with my wife through the countryside. In my ‘Red Barchetta‘ (for my Canadian Friends) – actually, in a black Hyundai Kona EV, we tool along the country roads looking at the bucolic scenery where we live in Northwest Connecticut. We call them ‘sanity drives’ and just a reason to get out of the house, but what is different than usual is how people are doing things we used to do when we were all young. Mothers and fathers are outside with the kids, playing ball, or throwing a Frisbee. Others are taking family hikes or flying kites. Now we see folks on a sunny afternoon, just sitting on their front porches talking to each other, a father cutting his son’s hair on the porch, and just saying hello to people walking by. Everyone has had a chance to ’stop,’ and some time to think. To reflect. Think about their meaning. The meaning of their life. This is a very good thing.

People are looking to find ways to balance the free time in their life. We are creating new ways to feel productive, accomplish something, experience nature, and stay connected. We are having virtual happy hours with our children and our friends. For me it is about keeping busy. Building some furniture, making something, or planning a project. When this all started, I tried to envision being completely shut down. I imagined the possibility I could have with nothing to do if I were not able to leave the house. I went out and bought some new power tools and five gallons of barn red paint, things I was planning to do this year but had not gotten to the top of my list. 

The screen printing industry has trained me to always plan ahead and to use deductive reasoning and logic to triangulate solutions. Those of us who are blessed with careers in this craft are hard wired to solve problems, but what do you do when there is no real answer, when your issue is out of your control? Generally, screen printing has trained me for this; to hear it before you can see it, to look for the variable with the highest probability of fault, to understand and refine the process, and to standardize where improvement is possible. But, how do you handle a pandemic? 

Our immediate reaction to the pandemic began as a deep-seated fear of the unknown, where everyone was afraid to make a move, and it was difficult to think clearly. Nothing can help you figure out the never-ending enigma with variables changing by the minute. We are all managing day by day. I remember going home on Friday, March 6 thinking we may be shut down. Monday, March 9, as information was still coming in, I spoke with a colleague from a print company in the Midwest, and 80 percent of their staff did not come to work that day. I was worried. But I looked around and asked my director if anyone was out, and he said ‘Not a single person. Everyone is here because they know how important this is.’ It proved to me that we all need each other. 

From the industrial/functional side of the screen print world, I have been in contact with many colleagues throughout the industry, and almost everyone has been full speed ahead with more business than they can handle. Being an industrial printer has always put an emphasis on our businesses as being manufacturers, in some ways more than printers. So, while the Printing Industries of America (PIA) was working on Capitol Hill doing an amazing job trying to get all printing companies to be included as part of the ‘essential work‘ force, industrial printers already were. ECI had dozens of customers call and write, notifying our business as a critical and essential part of the supply chain. Many of my colleagues in the industrial print market saw the same thing. What this did for our business was to give us some confidence in the near term to continue operations and keep manufacturing. At least it took one element of what a business owner goes through and stabilized it for the time being. We can keep our people busy and employed. So, the major focus had to be staying safe. 

While I witnessed much of the print world switch over to PPE manufacturing (I wonder how many printers did this and the epic volume I imagine was produced), at ECI we had at least 50 percent more production orders booked. Our team was running overtime shifts, six days a week while we all tried to figure out how to handle the new rules of safe and social distancing and appropriate PPE in the workplace. 

About six weeks ago during a companywide meeting I told everyone, ‘You must be safe outside, stay home, limit your potential of exposure. Take care of your family at home in order to take care of your family at ECI. We all need each other. Your managers protect you by watching out for potential risks. We keep things running as long as we can, and we all keep our jobs. We will all come together and no one by themselves can solve this problem alone.’

Since then, I have noticed a real change in our staff. They have really stepped up and turned their fear into more understanding and empathy for each other; it’s something they have become more natural with. Everyone, without being asked, has just started to help more. They pitch in to help each other with any task. I see our people chipping in to help anywhere they can. I see new leaders emerging who were not evident before. It’s a wonderful thing. Everyone is rolling up their sleeves to help the team. And they are all very proud.

All through the last two months, it seemed the rules and laws were changing daily. They still are. But the team took it upon themselves to talk ideas over daily and think of ways to protect each other as much as possible. We immediately spread out our work centers. We moved tables and workstations apart, kept our staff at safer distances, and discussed transferring their work back and forth on roller carts with midway drop points. We immediately enacted a full-dress policy as we do when working on a medical sensor where everyone wears gloves and masks, and only certain identified staff may move through each department. No visitors are allowed to enter the facility. Our team leaders meet staff at the entrance to interview how they are feeling, ask about any potential exposures, and check the employee’s temperature. We eliminated timecards and moved to an honor system. We split up lunches and break times to minimize the number of people together. The response to these changes has been embraced by our entire team, who has been totally amazing.

Sustainability has a whole new meaning during this global health crisis. We must sustain ourselves, our families, our loved ones, our businesses, and charities. Everything is a new challenge, but as we evolve it is obvious that many things have the potential to be much better. 

I have spent most of my career learning and teaching the value of craft, in any form, to anyone who was interested. What I sense now, is a true paradigm shift to the likes we will not understand for a decade or more.

As human beings, we all struggle with many challenges, day after day, and through time and consistency we might be lucky enough to find a career path which enriches us in many ways for a purposeful life. I believe many people will come away from this with the desire for a more balanced life, with more time and freedom to be together as families and friends with a purpose. Just being together. 

Staying home and staying safe has emphasized a stronger need for people to create a segment of their life where they can unplug and take on a more creative lifestyle. I believe that people are getting a taste of it and many will not want to go back fully. People will be stronger, more resilient, less fearful, and take care to be aware of the important things in life. At least this is my hope. 

I have always believed in teaching people to fish, rather than giving them a fish. I feel that a person has to be given an opportunity to grow and to learn, but the chance to succeed is all on them. I believe that every human has an innate need to create and become proficient in a craft. I believe that with hard work, discipline, precision, and focus, anyone can achieve anything. So, I have always lived to a hierarchy of skill advancement, and always watched my staff ‘Learn it, Earn it, Prove it, Repeat!’ Some rise further and faster than others. Some do not. But with good mentorship, many do rise. They become craftsmen, screen printers, die cutters, assemblers. They find the maker mentality. And yes, some find screen printing and just love to make functional products from liquid and substrate. They love the challenge of a difficult job, or repeating the precision, time after time by mastering the variables, and there are so many variables.

I have never in my life realized before how much I need to be with people. I just miss being around people. Working on community projects, deep discussions in the board room, or just hanging out with friends after golf. This situation we are put within, ‘Covidistancing,’ is showing me how much we need the interaction of others in our life, and how my work with people and my connections have had a deep impact on my life.

I have changed in these few short weeks. We all have. Forever. At the end of the day, if we can be safe and standing at the end of this pandemic and know we have done better for the souls we have touched, then we will have succeeded. It is all that matters. I know the screen printing industry as a whole will be there! 

There is something about a crisis that makes you focus on what is really important. To my family, friends, and my many colleagues in the printing industry: be well, be safe."

Thank you, Edward Cook. Check back soon for Part 4 as we journey to Europe and check in with art printer and fine detail print guru Michel Caza in France, Gemma Berenguay at Monostereo in Barcelona, Spain, and our friend Beppe Quaglia in Bergamo, Italy.

Other Articles in the "Come Together" Series

Come Together (original article)

Come Together: "Nick Danger"