Two very different careers within one marriage is not unusual, but two very different businesses that function under one umbrella as well as within one marriage certainly is, especially when both companies are consistently profitable. And as Don and Judy Puffer can attest, the metaphor of husband and wife as a team has never been more appropriate.
He owns a printing business; she owns a salon.
He taught school for several years; she’s always had an entrepreneurial itch.
But while some differences are evident, Don and Judy Puffer, two successful business owners and prominent community leaders in Westfield, share many similarities in addition to that distinctive last name, a home in Southwick, and two grown children.
Married for 35 years, the two have forged a unique professional presence in Western Mass. in almost the same time. Judy’s business, Puffer’s Salon and Day Spa on College Highway in Westfield, is now entering its 30th year and is bursting at the seams with a fast-growing client base. Don’s business, Puffer Printing, which opened in Westfield in 1990, expanded in 2000 to include a second location in Easthampton, and both shops are on decidedly solid ground.
Not bad for two kids from Minnesota, who moved to Western Mass. just one year into their marriage largely out of curiosity — Don had visited once before and liked the area, and Judy had never been to the Northeast and wanted to give it a try.
But as the saying goes, it stuck — or at least, the Puffers decided to stick around, and in doing so have created a name for themselves with two businesses that are vastly different in their services, but very similar in terms of how they’re run: with a strong emphasis on continuing education, employee retention, and careful, incremental growth.
In a candid interview with BusinessWest, Don and Judy Puffer frequently credited each other in large part for their individual successes. They also finish each other’s sentences and laugh at each other’s jokes — skills that enhance any partnership, business or otherwise.
“You can’t do it all by yourself, but with the two of us, we can share the load, take on different things, and grow together,” said Judy. “And, he’s my best friend.”
The Puffers first entered the Westfield business world in 1976, when Puffer’s Salon was founded. At the time, Judy ran her business from a rented room in the back of an existing salon, while Don taught printing at Southwick High School. Later, the salon moved to Church Street, where spa services were first added. Ten years later, it moved to its current location.
“I’ve always had a passion for this,” Judy said, “and it was that passion that drove and developed the business.”
Don noted that a layoff from his teaching job, and not a burning desire to dig an entrepreneurial path of his own, was the original impetus for opening Puffer Printing. He even returned to teaching at Westfield High and later Westfield Vocational-Technical School. But he said the business, which has carved a niche as a short-run, multi-color commercial printer and accompanying copy shop in Easthampton, has been rewarding nonetheless.
“We’ve weathered the storms that printing businesses often face,” he said, “and we’ve constantly grown. Between the two businesses, we’ve gotten to know a great many people, and this community has been good to us.”
In turn, the Puffers have become recognizable faces in the Westfield community and the Western Mass. business landscape. Don currently heads the capital fundraising committee for the Amelia Park Children’s Museum in Westfield, slated for completion in 2007 (see related story, page 40), while Judy is an active Westfield Rotarian and also a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, the Noble Hospital Advisory Board, and the Cosmetology Advisory Board at Springfield Technical Community College.
“Being involved keeps us in the loop,” she said. “It let’s us know what’s happening in the community and keeps us visible.”
Inking the Deal
It also helps the pair bolster their already solid reputation in the business community.
“We have worked hard to build a good reputation, and we can’t walk away from that because it doesn’t stay that way unless you continue to work at it,” said Don. “It’s never over — this is a 24/7 operation we’re running.”
That notion resonates even more when the Puffer business model is further examined. Puffer Printing and Puffer’s Salon and Day Spa actually function under one umbrella corporation, Puffer International, which allows the Puffers to operate under one tax identification number and one payroll.
There are some challenges associated with the unique arrangement. The two businesses already translate into long days for both owners, and an S corp. adds a few clerical concerns.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get a true picture of how each business is doing from year to year at first,” she said. “There’s a little more math.” What’s more, when vacation time rolls around, more often than not both principals of Puffer International are gone at the same time.
But the two agree that, over the years, they’ve built a strong network of employees and managers with whom they both feel comfortable leaving their businesses temporarily, and also agree that, overall, pooling their talents and resources was the best decision they could have made.
“We do take time to unwind,” said Judy. “We’ll never be able to go away for weeks or months at a time as things are, but we’ve built a good staff. I think even if people make mistakes, which we all do, leaving our businesses in the hands of staff we trust makes them stronger.”
“Working together is what makes us successful,” Don added. “When all is said and done, everything goes into one pot anyway, so it makes sense to share.”
The Cutting Edge
That emphasis on creating a strong team is one tenet the Puffers share, and low turnover at both the salon and Puffer Printing speak to their success in that arena. Don, for instance, said he rarely refers to his longtime manager, Tim Champagne, as his employee, but rather his business partner.
“We’re good friends,” he said. “I taught him the ropes, he has run my business for me in the past, and now I think there are a few things he’s more knowledgeable about than me.”
Similarly, in an industry that typically experiences very high turnover rates, Judy will honor several employees this year at her annual holiday party who have been with Puffer’s for five, 10, or 15 years. Gina Yelle, Puffer’s senior stylist, has been with the company for 20 years, since its early days as a one-room salon and ‘micro-spa,’ a term Judy laughingly coined.
“Without our staff, neither of us would be sitting here,” she said. “I can’t stress that enough, because our people are what keep things going and what essentially causes growth.”
“Do you know how many weddings and baby showers we go through?” added Don with a grin. “It has become part of our job to remember all of these names — our employees, their spouses, their children … it’s not easy.”
But he agreed that, indeed, a strong set of employees — 30 at the salon and four at Puffer Printing — is a big reason for both companies’ steady growth. The salon and spa typically sees between 5% and 15% growth annually, and has never had a down year. Puffer Printing, as a younger business, continues to grow at a slightly faster rate, recording about a 25% increase in revenues last year.
Both companies have had to stay abreast of technological trends and make necessary upgrades — the salon, for instance, recently abandoned its appointment books in favor of a computer-based, automated system, and continues to expand internally to meet the needs of a growing number of clients. Puffer Printing has converted to an entirely digitally based printing system, and complements its core business with the Easthampton copy center.
But it’s that focus on the human factor that both Don and Judy Puffer return to when looking at the reasons for their success.
“We have to stay on the edge, to stay with what’s happening globally,” said Judy. “But it’s not just the technical equipment we use that brings that edge to the area. We also need to keep educating ourselves and our staff.”
Puffer’s stylists, for instance, are frequently exposed to new trends and techniques through New York-based seminars and shows as a matter of course. And within the printing business, the majority of Don’s employees are former students.
“We’re very software-driven, so we routinely send our people off to get trained,” he said.
The emphasis on training is an aspect both Don and Judy Puffer plan to hone in coming years. While both businesses continue to move forward steadily, Don said other than the renovations and additions already in the works — particularly at the salon and spa, which has already undergone a redesign and remodeling project and will continue to change throughout next year — no major changes to either facet of Puffer International are expected.
“We have this footprint that we grew into, and now we plan to make good use of the locations, the space, the staff, and the clients we both have,” he said, to which a nodding partner, in life and business, added a wrinkle.
“We’re thankful, because we know it could all change tomorrow,” she said. “That’s a feeling we like to keep in our minds. And we’re also proud of what we do — what we do together.”
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]