Frank H. Lawton founded Lawton Printing Service in 1940 in a converted chicken coop behind the family home.
The chicken coop still stands in the Perry District Neighborhood, but the business has come a long way. Since 1984, Lawton and sister company FILE-EZ Folder have operated out of a sprawling facility near Spokane Community College.
From old-fashioned type-setting to contemporary digital printing, the company has continued to adapt, but one thing remains unchanged – it’s family-owned and -operated.
Laura Lawton is president of Lawton, her brother, Aaron, runs FILE-EZ, and their cousin, Dana, works in the bindery.
“We all worked here as teenagers during the summer,” Laura said.
The siblings moved into leadership when their dad, Gary, and Uncle Ray, decided it was time to pass the baton. Laura has been president of Lawton since 2001.
“Our story is the ever-changing evolving world of design technology,” she said.
The two-man shop started by her great-grandfather is now a full-service commercial print and marketing company. If you’ve found a lawn service door hanger at your home, perused a Best of Broadway playbill or pulled a political campaign ad from your mailbox, you’ve seen a Lawton product. More than 1.1 million direct mail pieces went through the facility last year.
On a recent morning, stacks of purple playbills for Best of Broadways “Six” sat ready to be delivered. Piles of school levy mailers, already addressed, were also set to go.
“We do a lot of mailing prep,” Laura said.
The company prints all kinds of envelopes, from basic business styles to fancy customized ones.
Area sports teams, from Gonzaga Basketball to the Spokane Indians, are valued customers. In 2011, the first-ever outdoor hockey game between the Spokane Chiefs and the Kootenay Ice ushered in the age of the quick-turnaround poster.
“Before people left the game, they had the poster,” Laura recalled. “It was exciting!”
Since then, they’ve repeated the quick turnaround for other area teams.
She’s proud of how they weathered the 2008 recession and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were considered essential and didn’t have to lay anyone off, which was great because production people can’t work from home.”
Likewise, FILE-EZ has been able to adapt to changing times and markets. The company was launched in 1950 by their grandfather, Frank A. Lawton.
“He saw the need for manila file folders and saw an opportunity to make them,” said Aaron, who took the helm in 2017. “He built some of the machines himself.”
Frank A. Lawton designed and developed specialized equipment to produce file folders for a client because the equipment to automate the production of these folders wasn’t readily available.
The company pivoted from manila folders to double pocket portfolios and theme covers when Frank had an eye-opening experience at a local store.
“One day, my grandfather walked into Costco, and they were selling manila folders cheaper than he could buy the paper to make them,” Aaron recalled. “That’s when we went to two-pocket folders.”
A rainbow array of solid-color folders lined the production facility. With paper sourced from Lewiston, Idaho, these items are found in offices and classrooms across the nation.
“To the best of our knowledge, we are one of the only companies still making these in the U.S.,” said Aaron. “The million-dollar question is will we always need this type of folder? For now, the answer is yes.”
The family vibe extends to more than just the siblings and their cousin.
Dana Lawton said the two businesses enjoy holiday celebrations and regular “soup days” together.
“It’s been great! I actually get along with them most of the time,” he said, grinning.
Laura said working with family has its pros and cons.
“Sure, some days I’ve gotten frustrated and wanted to do something else, but I know these guys – I know what I’m getting.”
Aaron nodded. “It helps that we do separate things. We don’t interact every day,” he said.
Still unknown is how long the businesses will have Lawtons in charge. Laura and Aaron each have two kids.
“None of them has raised their hand yet to take over the family business,” Aaron said.
But in addition to blood relatives, there are employees who’ve become family. Laura listed five current workers who’ve been with the company for 33 to 46 years.
“These are people I don’t remember not knowing,” she said. “These people all worked with my grandfather. I’ve grown up around them.”
The three Lawtons feel confident that their predecessors would be proud that 84 years after its inception, the business is thriving and operated by a fourth generation.
“This is what our grandpa wanted,” Laura said. “Us all here working together.”