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VALLEY BUSINESS | MASTERS OF MARKETING

Junk in the Box

Canoga Park Firm Puts Its Stamp on Reaching Out to Potential Customers

February 27, 2001|CHRISTOPHER WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CANOGA PARK — You may grumble about receiving junk mail, but don't shoot the messenger. Bob Bowen is just doing his job.

As owner of AAA Direct Mail in Canoga Park, Bowen moves 12 million to 14 million pieces of direct mail a year. It's his job to find just the right audience for clients with something to sell, be it life insurance or aluminum siding.

"Direct mail is usually the finisher," he said. "Most of these companies have their own ad agencies, and direct mail is part of the overall [marketing] program. Companies come to us because it's too expensive to do in-house."

In his 24 years in business, Bowen has taken a lot of ribbing about his occupation. "When I tell people what I do, they say, 'Hey, you're the guy who sends me all that junk mail,' " he said. "I just smile at them and say, 'That's probably me.' "

But he believes if he's doing his job right, his mailers will be sent only to the people who need what his clients are hawking. "We really don't want to mail to people who aren't interested," he said. "You don't want to waste the time or money."

Besides, the way he sees it, being in direct mail is a lot better than being in telemarketing. "With telemarketing there's the annoyance factor," he said. "With direct mail it's more of a soft touch."

*

Bowen's entry into direct mail is an outgrowth of an invention by his father, Wayne. He came up with a machine, the "Stamp Master," that moistens and pastes regular stamps onto envelopes to give mail a more personal feel.

A stamp, Wayne Bowen said, strikes a deep psychological chord with people. It goes back to early memories, such as receiving that birthday dollar from your aunt or opening a stamped envelope from a loved one.

"When you get a piece of mail with a stamp, there's just a feeling it's very important to the family," said the elder Bowen, 84.

As a result, direct mail that has a stamp rather than a printed postal marking can improve the response rate by 5% to 15%, he said.

Wayne Bowen knew that would mean big savings for advertisers, so beginning in the late 1960s he began his quest to develop an automatic stamp machine through his company, Bowen Industries Inc.

Some of the big magazines and direct mail outfits had workers who applied as many as 2,500 stamps an hour, but Bowen came up with a device that would apply 10,000 stamps an hour and that attached to a standard Pitney Bowes mail meter.

He began traveling the country demonstrating the contraption, and soon he had customers such as Reader's Digest, Look magazine, television evangelist Jerry Falwell and U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) using his invention for their mailers.

"We were selling machines faster than we could make them," said Bowen, who estimated the machine at its peak brought his company $1 million in revenue a year.

As with any profitable niche, however, other companies started designing their own stamp machines beginning in the mid-1980s. The Stamp Master peaked in about 1989, and only a handful of the machines remain in service today.

Bob Bowen joined the family business in 1977 as a salesman. Like his father, he took to the road to sell the Stamp Master and related mailing equipment.

However, the young sales and marketing graduate from Brigham Young University soon saw the writing on the wall.

"Looking into the future I could see we might run into a wall with the Stamp Master," due to growing competition, he said.

He knew he had to diversify the business, and since the company had already been doing limited mail runs to test the Stamp Master, direct mail seemed the logical extension.

"I started aggressively looking for accounts we could develop," he said. "That's basically how AAA Direct Mail got started."

*

Working out of a small warehouse on Alabama Avenue, Bob Bowen oversees an eight-person crew. There's a constant clatter as operators run the machines that fold letters and stuff and seal them into envelopes.

The old Stamp Master is still at work, methodically wetting each stamp on a special wick and applying them to envelopes.

Bowen has machines that apply the newer adhesive stamps, but he said he still uses the Stamp Master because it works just fine and "there's the sentimental value."

AAA Direct Mail caters to insurance companies, credit card companies, banks and charitable groups--anyone and everyone with something to sell. His clients often use their own mailing list or Bowen will buy lists from other companies.

The stacks of mail in Bowen's warehouse attest to the nature of AAA's work. This is a high-volume business, and to make money Bowen has to move the mail through quickly.

"We're working for pennies," Bowen said. "If you had a mailing that, with postage, cost 30 cents each, we might pick up 4 cents of that."

Because the margins are so thin, Bowen has to pay close attention. Any mistakes, such as using the wrong mailing list for a piece or sending out mail first class when the customer wanted bulk rates, could cost the company hundreds or thousands of dollars.

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