Engraph moves head office to repackage itself as a national firm

Leo Benatar gazes out his office window and down onto the busy traffic on Interstate 85 northeast of Atlanta. Many of the trailer trucks rolling by are devoid of any significant graphics indicating who owns them.

This is too much for Mr. Benatar. His voice rising excitedly, he says, ''I want to jump out on that highway and stop that truck, and say, 'Look at all the cars that are passing you, and nobody knows who you are!' What a waste!''

Mr. Benatar is president and chairman of Engraph Inc., a packaging and labeling company that has identified such ''blank'' trucks as one of several significant new markets to develop. Engraph is investing in specialized printing equipment to turn trucks into rolling billboards. The firm has made another strategic move as well: It transferred its executive offices from North Carolina to Atlanta.

This ''change in environment,'' as Benatar likes to call it, was seen as necessary to make Engraph a truly national company. He is loath to say anything negative about Charlotte, which was Engraph's headquarters and remains the site of most of the company's manufacturing. But, he says, Engraph was known as a regional company dealing mainly with textile and snack-food firms.

''It's been amazing how the organization has taken a different character just by moving our executive offices,'' Benatar says. The manufacturing operations in Charlotte are more autonomous now, without the head office on the front lawn, so to speak. The four smaller operations outside North Carolina feel less like corporate stepchildren.

''And moving to Atlanta has given us a little bit more incentive to seek out other marketmakers,'' in addition to Interstate Securities, the Charlotte brokerage that brought Engraph public in 1969, Mr. Benatar says.

Engraph, a modest-sized company whose $60 million in sales nonetheless puts it among Georgia's 50 largest public companies, has seen other benefits from the move: more business press coverage, more trading of its stock, more shareholders , and more atttractive bank loan rates.

Engraph began as a commercial printing company in 1933 and got into packaging and labeling in the mid-'40s. It was an ''opportunistic company'' responding to customer demands as they came along, rather than seeking out the kind of business it wanted. It bought generalized equipment that did many things adequately but no one thing really well. This approach proved less effective as the packaging industry grew more specialized.

When, at the retirement of Engraph's long-term chief executive in mid-1981, Benatar was asked to take over, he set an agenda of markets to pursue:

* Screen printing, particularly for fleet trucks and beverage vending machines. Deregulation means more companies will have their own trucks - which are candidates for Engraph's ''billboard'' treatment.

* Consumer electronics, labels and packaging for cassettes and floppy disks.

* Snack foods, particularly vending-machine packages, which require better-quality wrapping than do supermarket packages.

* Personal care products, from pouches for pantyhose to gilt labels for cosmetics.

* Textile products. Though not a growth market, Benatar says, ''They're the partners that brought us to the dance and we're going to stick with them.''

Engraph had record earnings and sales for the year ending in June, despite recession and sluggish consumer spending. Gary Fodor, analyst with Robinson Humphrey/American Express, suggests that Engraph's earnings may be somewhat restrained this year - ''All this new equipment is costing a certain amount of money, and they'll be on a learning curve for a while, with a certain productivity loss.'' But he recommends Engraph as a sound long-term investment.

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