A Family Affair
PROFILE Stephen Spenlinhauer – AUGUST 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photogrpahy Darren Setlow
A father and son move from printing to real estate development
Looking through the tall windows of his Cape Porpoise home on a dreary, rain-soaked day in early June, Stephen Spenlinhauer points out the damage caused by a massive storm that occurred two months earlier. High winds ripped a wooden pergola off the house and patio, and churning waves buckled the stones that cap the home’s protective seawall. Down on the water’s edge, a fluorescent-orange lobsterman’s buoy has washed up on the wet, dark rocks—a small reminder that others have suffered similar losses.
Spenlinhauer shrugs. These are just the little inconveniences that come with living beside the ocean, his gesture seems to suggest. “We couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” he says. Just two years after selling Spencer Press, the printing business his family founded, Spenlinhauer has no intention of leaving Maine. In fact, he has recommitted his still-youthful energy to a high-end development company he started with his son.
Spenlinhauer’s journey to Maine actually began in 1940, when his father, John E. Spenlinhauer, Jr., began Spencer Press in the basement of their Belmont, Massachusetts home. The business grew steadily over the years and moved to new locations in Boston and then Hingham. “From the time we were kids,” Spenlinhauer says of himself and his brothers, “we spent our days after school and during the summers working in the shop’s bindery or shipping room.” When the family’s patriarch passed away in 1972, the business had successfully transitioned from a letterpress printing shop that used hot-metal type to an offset printing business that had just installed its first web press. Even though Spencer Press had grown to a staff of 45 by that time, it was only the glimmer of the company’s eventual success.
With Spenlinhauer and his brother, John, at the helm, Spencer Press moved to Maine in 1981 after the brothers found themselves ready to expand, but landlocked in their Hingham location. “We initially came to Maine,” Spenlinhauer says, “because we needed more space and we needed to be near an active railroad spur—and it was John who suggested we also move closer to our paper source.”
When the press first relocated to Maine, Spenlinhauer himself did not. “I was spending about 70 percent of my time on the road anyway,” he remembers. But by the late 1980s, Spenlinhauer was staying in Maine for long stretches of time, and once his two children had graduated high school and left home for college, he and his wife, Alicia, bought their first house in Maine.
After the move, Spencer Press continued to grow. Spenlinhauer says the company’s decision to expand coincided perfectly with an escalating demand for more direct-mail catalogs. By perfecting their expertise in this particular niche of the printing marketplace, Spencer Press quickly became an industry leader. “In the catalog business,” Spenlinhauer says, “you don’t just need to be able to print—you need to get names onto the catalogs, prepare them for shipping, and get them into the postal system.” Serving major clients such as Macy’s, Filene’s, and Jordan Marsh, Spencer Press’s Maine location became the perfect hub from which to service the entire Northeast.
By the time Spencer Press was sold in 2005, the little shop John E. Spenlinhauer founded in the basement of his home had grown to more than 600 employees working in a 400,000 square-foot facility. Annual sales exceeded $90 million, which made Spencer Press not only one of the largest employers in southern Maine, but also the eighth-largest catalog printer in the country. “It was just time,” Spenlinhauer says of the sale. “The companies we were competing with at that level were publicly traded businesses with sales of over $1 billion a year.”
Though he’s retired from the highly competitive world of the printing industry, Spenlinhauer isn’t ready to sit home and watch waves crash along the shore outside his home. In a role-reversal from the days when he worked as an employee under his father, Spenlinhauer is now in business with his 32-year-old son, Michael. Last summer, the pair founded Seaport Development Group with a plan to build high-quality homes in southern Maine. Although Spenlinhauer whet his appetite for home design and construction while overseeing the renovation of four old homes for himself and his family, he admits that his real passion in starting Seaport Development is the opportunity to work with his son. “This is really Mike’s business,” he says.
The father-and-son team completed their first project, a house on Kennebunk Beach, last month. Situated on the corner of Beach Avenue, the sprawling Shingle Style home may be aesthetically traditional, but—because it rests on pilings above the waterline—it is also an example of the most up-to-date building techniques for residences built within the flood plain. “I think that house sets the tone now for that street,” Spenlinhauer says with evident pride. And it appears he has good reason to be proud—as the April storm pounded the seawall at Spenlinhauer’s own home, water simply washed right under the new house and into the marsh behind. “We want to do it right,” Spenlinhauer says of the company’s attention to detail. “And we work closely with the Department of Environmental Protection and local code-enforcement officers in order to achieve that.”
At a time when some are viewing the real-estate market with hesitation and suspicion, Spenlinhauer appears entirely comfortable about his company’s prospects. He believes that while many things go through cycles, the desire and need for high-quality homes does not. “Southern Maine, and Maine in general,” Spenlinhauer says, “still has such massive growth potential—it’s still waiting to be discovered by people who are stuck in the crowds and the traffic down on Cape Cod and on islands like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.”
“When we sold our own summer house on Cape Cod,” Spenlinhauer admits, “Alicia and I thought that if we were to ever sell the printing business, we’d move back down to Massachusetts. But now that we’ve lived here in Maine, I don’t think we’d ever move away.”