Settle in and let me paint a mental picture for you. A young man in his mid-30s, a man in the prime of his life, a man named Jeff Hadden, sits at a large table in a non-descript office building accompanied only by his lawyer. On the opposite side of the table is a corporate group of businessmen and their lawyers interested in buying Mr. Hadden’s family-owned printing business. The contract is on the table. The pen is in his hand. The offer is for more money than this small Augusta business owner has ever seen, much less been privy to. The money will ensure that he will never have to run another printing press again in his life. In fact, the money ensures that he doesn’t have to anything at all moving forward if that’s what he chooses. He’ll be set for life. His wife—his children—all taken care of with a stroke of a pen. Now, once you have that picture clear enough in your head, I’d like to back up and tell you a little bit about how he got there, and an interesting story about a small printing company named after a mythical flaming bird that Jeff Hadden really never expected to be in charge of in the first place.
Phoenix Printing has been a staple and well-known establishment in the Augusta area ever since I can remember and I’ve lived here for more than 35 years. But I was surprised to find out that the business has actually been operational since 1876. Started by a man named Mr. Jowitt and later employing a young teenager named John Hadden, the company did well. Its modest earnings made enough to keep food on the table and served as the backdrop and playground for John’s son, Jeff. By the time Jeff was 10, he was on a first name basis with all of his father’s friends and employees and could run almost every piece of machinery at the press. He loved the business but Jeff had no plans to follow in his father’s footsteps. Jeff had plans of his own. By his teenage years, he’d begun a successful landscaping business that had allowed him to own his first house at the age of 17 and he’d been accepted to Clemson University right out of high school. Well, not unlike Jimmy Stewart’s infamous character, George Bailey, from Frank Capra’s classic film, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, it would seem that the universe had a different plan for Jeff Hadden. Jeff’s father’s health was failing and without someone new to help take over the helm, it would seem the days of Phoenix Printing were coming to a close. Jeff detested the idea of seeing everything his father had built being dismantled but what bothered him even more was the same question I asked him in our first interview. “What would happen to the group of employees he’d come to think of as family—the same group of people that practically raised him and taught him the trade, the people that passed down his love of the printing process? For Jeff, the choice was obvious. “Ink ran in my veins,” he told me. The decision weighed on him, but finally he passed on his opportunity to expand his own business or attend college and went to work full time at his father’s printing press. There would plenty of time to chase his dreams later. In the 70s Jeff’s father and his partner, a man named Rabun, bought Phoenix. In 1981, Jeff replaced his father’s former partner and Phoenix Printing for the first time became a true family-owned business. Not long after that, in 1985, Jeff married the love of his life, Roxanne—a now 30-plus-year romance that is still going strong—and by using his own successful business savvy, he was able to weather the storm. The business was going to be okay. The phoenix had risen from the ashes and not soon afterward, Jeff began to dream of school again. Of course, yet again, the universe stepped in. In 1987, tragedy stuck. Jeff’s father suffered a massive stroke that he would never fully recover from. So aside from taking care of his father’s newfound condition and helping his mother cope with the catastrophe, Jeff also found himself suddenly thrust even further into his temporary role of head of Phoenix Printing. The word temporary had been forcefully removed from his title. He told me about those first few days fondly but tinged with sadness. “I remember when I first took over for my father, I sat down at his desk: my desk now—and I saw three things—notebook, a telephone, and a calculator. My father would take an order over the phone, calculate his cost, add 10 percent, and that would be the quote on the job—any job. His method was simple and honest. That’s just who he was—a good man.” But as much as he respected his father’s way of doing business, Jeff knew that to continue that way just wasn’t sustainable moving forward, so he dug his heels in and recreated the business from the ground up. By 1991, after it had become obvious that his father would not be coming back to work, Jeff made his father a generous offer and bought him out. It was time for John Hadden to rest and Jeff became the sole proprietor. The company was his ship to sink or sail and sail it did. That same year, Phoenix Printing had a milestone year. Not bad for a kid in his late 20s who decided to pass on school and go to work fulltime for his dad.
After that first year with Jeff at the wheel, Phoenix began to slowly absorb smaller local printing businesses at a premium. Phoenix also attracted the attention of larger printing businesses like Sun Printing in Columbia, S.C., whose owner would become a mentor to Jeff, one who would make all the difference during the financial crisis in 2008. “Right before the stock market crashed, I received a call from my good friend at Sun Printing who asked to buy a piece of Phoenix. It felt like the right thing to do at the time so I agreed. And that one decision, made on nothing but a verbal agreement, ended up providing the necessary capitol that kept us afloat while we watched so many other smaller companies go out of business.” I liked the way Jeff used words like us and we when he relayed that story instead of me and I. It was something I found he did quite often. Jeff smiled with well-earned pride as he told me that he didn’t have to let one single employee go, or dock a wage, or cut any of his people’s hours during the worst financial disaster of our generation. “I was able to take care of my own.” Once again the Phoenix rose from the ashes and not only endured, but thrived. The pride in his voice didn’t come from a place of vanity or just because he was able to keep his business alive, but from the heart. Jeff was able to ensure that his people—his employees—his family—were all able to endure along with him. “These people out here are Phoenix Printing,” he says as he walks past his employees through the vast maze of cubicles and machinery. I look around and the genuine smiles I saw on their faces—the laughter and all the hellos—tend to make me believe him. The people who work for Phoenix want to be there. They enjoy working there. A lot of them have been with Jeff since the beginning. Some of them remember him as the little kid hanging around his father’s shop. Some of them were recruited from other printers and are happy to have found a home. If Phoenix acquired another printer, Jeff nearly always took the crew with him. “We never stepped in and dismantled another business and left their people high and dry. We always brought their people on board and made them feel welcome.”
Jeff Hadden’s dedication to the people that work for him brings me back to the beginning of this article. Do you remember the mental picture we painted of a younger Jeff Hadden sitting in that office? Do you remember me telling you how he’d just been made an offer to sell his Augusta-based business that would have had him set for life? That encounter happened in 2003, but before he signed his name on the dotted line he asked the potential buyers what would happen to his employees. He needed assurances that they would be taken care of—assurances the buyers on the other side of the table couldn’t make. What happened next was an act of integrity so gallant and entertaining that one might think I pulled it out of a movie. Jeff Hadden put the pen down. He stood up from the table, peeled the top page of the contract from the stack of paper in front of him and tore it down the middle. And without a bit of hesitation he nodded to his lawyer, collected his things and walked out. I wish I could’ve seen that. The next day he was back at work. I asked him if he ever regretted it—regretted leaving that kind of money on the table and his answer was an unequivocal “No. Not for a second.” He motioned back toward the folks working hard at the presses and computers behind him. “Those people back there are my family. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have any of this. I could never—and will never—walk away from this without knowing they were taken care of and taken care of well.”
George Bailey couldn’t have said it better himself.
Photos provided by Phoenix Printing
Article appears in the February/March 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.