America's oldest puzzle brand is made in Kansas City
Steven Pack was born and raised in Kansas City. He joined his father’s business here, and he raised his family here.
So when the opportunity arose for his East Side manufacturing company, Allied Materials & Equipment Co., to acquire the beloved Springbok Puzzles from local pillar Hallmark Cards, you’d think perhaps his motivation was some sort of civic pride.
“Maybe it could be described as laziness,” he said, laughing.
Hardly. Sloth doesn’t appear to be among Pack’s vices. Current and former employees say at 74 years old he’s often the guy who is flying across the country at the last minute, locking the doors at night and working on Sundays.
Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to hear the president of Allied describe how he converted his father’s shuttered military parts plant into the home of the oldest brand of puzzles continually made in America. But the tale came with a warning:
“My wife will tell you I tell long stories,” he said.
(So, yes, long but fascinating.)
Thus, a story about puzzles begins with something of a riddle: What do military rifle stocks, American flags and jigsaw puzzles have in common?
Nothing, except they’re all made by one company just east of downtown Kansas City.
Several decades ago, when Pack was newly mortgaged, newly married and a new dad, the other two stockholders in Allied Materials — a company Pack’s father founded — said they were retiring.
“It was an extremely stressful situation,” he said.
So Pack performed what these days would be called a pivot. They would stop manufacturing parts for tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles at Allied, and Pack would start a new company that would match vendors with federal contracts.
That arrangement worked out well for several years. Then came a new opportunity: In the 1980s, the government decided to redesign the military’s M-16 rifle, and it included a complicated new design for the rifle’s butt stock (the part you snug up against your shoulder) that could withstand being run over by a tank.
The butt required multiple pieces: a spring, a pin, some dense polyurethane molding that no one had figured out how to make yet. It was, in itself, a puzzle in need of assembly, so Pack resurrected Allied Manufacturing — which had been shut down for years — to create the piece.
“We’ve made millions of these,” he said, holding up a rifle butt in his company’s conference room. “The contract for the weapon itself was $140 million in vintage, mid-1980s dollars. Huge contract.”
The new Allied became specialists in assembling manufacturing puzzles: They searched for opportunities that required many operations from many vendors.
Epitomizing this mission is a Darth Vader-looking hood and gas mask. The apparatus is used by air crews to protect against biochemical attacks. It contains a microphone, a drinking tube and an oxygen mask, among other features. Making the mask takes 150 distinct operations and close to 50 contractors.
It also requires a defect rate of zero. In other words, if one part fails, someone dies.
The product that has become more than 50 percent of the company’s business these days is the assembly and manufacture of American flags. The field of embroidered stars is created in a plant in Louisiana because the machines are too big to move here, but the stripes are cut and sewn here in KC. Walk through the vast upstairs factory at Allied with its swaths of red and white cloth and flags in various states of assembly and you can’t help but want to salute someone or something.
Allied serendipitously ventured into flag-making only a few months before the 9/11 attacks amped up our national patriotism in 2001. Then, as luck would have it, the flag business opened the door to the puzzle business.
“I like to claim it was attention deficit disorder — that I went from this thing to that thing to the other,” Pack said. “But it really was a matter of really fortunate circumstances.”
In search of a sales and marketing person to help them sell flags commercially, Allied interviewed a former Hallmark employee who tipped them off that the company was looking to unload Springbok Puzzles, which it had owned since the late 1960s. Pack said the applicant helped convince him it was not only a great brand but a great opportunity. In 2002, Allied became a manufacturer of puzzles.
“It’s a lot simpler than a rifle stock or a gas mask,” Pack said. “It’s even simpler than a flag to make.”
Today, military manufacturing makes up less than 10 percent of Allied’s business. Flags make up more than 50 percent.
The rest: puzzles.
Putting it together
The puzzle factory, warehouse and distribution hub for Springbok, at first glance, don’t appear all that special.
But then you see that much of the machinery is decades old. When something breaks down, a replacement has to be fabricated on site. When I visited the other day, three men were filing down the edge of a plexiglass shield they had created to help cut down on “puzzle dust,” a chief complaint of avid puzzle fans.
The puzzle-making process is precise but simple: A lithograph (the picture side) is glued to a puzzle board, and then stacks and stacks of the uncut puzzles sit and cure on pallets on the factory floor for at least 24 hours (the entire area is temperature- and humidity-controlled). The puzzles are then cut and disassembled by machine, and bagged and boxed by hand.
The workforce at Springbok is multiethnic, multilingual and multigenerational. The distribution area is set up so an employee doesn’t need to know English to get the right puzzle to the right customer.
“We have a substantial number of people in our workforce who are refugees,” Pack said. “That’s the American dream: They have full-time employment, in an air-conditioned environment, paid a decent wage, have their own cellphone, car, apartment — that’s good.”
His description of his workforce came up because I had asked if making puzzles and flags helped him sleep better at night, compared to the manufacture of weapon parts.
“It’d be great if the country didn’t need any of these rifle stocks,” he said. “The thing I always found satisfying about defense work is that we were providing the government the best procurement they could make in terms of cost. But overall, it’s far more satisfying to be making the flags and making the puzzles.”
Pack jokingly called his acquisition of Springbok a matter of “laziness” because of the opportunity to simply purchase the puzzle-making equipment and relocate it from Lawrence to Allied’s factory on Kansas Avenue, near Prospect Avenue.
And when it came to the creative end, there was no reason for it not to be done in Kansas City.
“We have a tremendous pool of talent here,” he said. “Hallmark has let go an incredible number of artists and photographers. Plus you have the Art Institute.”
What most puzzle lovers want is an image with some depth. Nothing with a large monochromatic area — an infamous example is an all-red puzzle — Red Riding Hood’s cape — that drove puzzle lovers nuts. Among Springbok’s most popular sellers is a candy puzzle, which has a dizzying array of vibrant colors and shapes.
The number of new puzzles Springbok creates annually is growing, from 50 new images a year to a planned 50 for the first six months of 2017. That’s because Springbok is moving beyond specialty stores, where Hallmark originally sold them.
Pack said a given puzzle once had a lifespan of two or three years, and a really popular puzzle could stick around for seven or eight. Not anymore.
“As you move into larger accounts, it’ll be one and done,” Pack said. “Barnes and Noble is into changing images every 90 days.”
Part of what makes Springbok unusual is each puzzle has no two pieces alike. A 1,000-piece puzzle has 1,000 uniquely shaped pieces.
At least it better have 1,000 pieces. No one wants to snap in No. 999 and then tear apart the house in search of a missing piece (usually while the family dog attempts to look adorably innocent).
“When we acquired the company from Hallmark, they told us if we shipped 100 puzzles, expect five calls to be related to missing pieces,” Pack said. “We have it down now to a fraction of 1 percent, and we ship hundreds and hundreds of thousands of puzzles every year.”
Springbok does offer an unconditional guarantee. If a piece comes up missing — whether the factory missed it or a pet ate it — the company will either send another puzzle or send what’s called a “half-cut.” Basically, the puzzle board at the factory is cut halfway through so you can hang it on your wall and show off your “completed” puzzle to your friends, the neighbor kids or Cousin Martha.
“That’s my favorite way to put together a puzzle,” Pack said.
Mary Kay Hogan of Kansas City said she and a group of friends just spent a week completing a 2,000-piece puzzle featuring an image of chocolates, some of which were from KC’s Christopher Elbow.
“You have to eat chocolate when you’re doing the puzzle,” she said. “They look that good.”
Hogan had stopped by Tiffany Town in Prairie Village the other day to buy a 350-piece puzzle for her mother-in-law.
“She’s 93 and she has a little bit of Alzheimer’s,” she says. “Puzzles are good for her, and we just do them over and over and over.”
Which brings us to the final piece of our story.
A number of years ago, a 13-year-old from Boston named Max Wallack contacted Pack, asking if he would send him some puzzles for his birthday. Max wanted to take them up to the nursing home where his grandmother lived so the residents would have something to do.
Wallack said he soon noticed that the puzzles the residents liked had pieces that were too small — especially for patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s — and the puzzles with large enough pieces were made for kids.
A few years later, he asked Pack personally if Springbok could make puzzles with big pieces and an image suited for a grown-up. Something nostalgic or sentimental, with 100 or 36 or even 12 pieces.
“They have donated many, many of these puzzles to facilities caring for dementia patients,” said Wallack, who is now 20 and a second-year student at Harvard Medical School. “They are a company that embraces giving back to society, and they use their profits to help those with cancer, Alzheimer’s and other projects.”
Pack said stores have asked to start carrying the puzzles as Alzheimer’s has become more prevalent.
“Some of the letters I have received will bring you to tears,” Pack said. “We’ve received letters from adults, writing how they helped put together a puzzle and the expression on their parent’s face of being able complete something, which they hadn’t been able to do for years because of dementia.”
Pack beams when he talks of these puzzles he created with Wallack and his “Puzzles to Remember” organization.
“I was very proud when we first produced these, so I took them home to my wife to show her,” Pack said. “After about 20 or 30 minutes of trying unsuccessfully to put it together, I told her, ‘I think we’re about ready for the home.’ ”
David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese
Star videographer Shelly Yang contributed to this story.