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Half a century at Smead

The last time David Fasbender applied for a job, Alaska and Hawaii had just become states, the Barbie doll was making its debut, "Ben-Hur" was a hit at the box office, and the Explorer 6 was transmitting the first images of Earth ever taken from space.

It was 1959 and Fasbender had recently finished college at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He went to college under the GI Bill after serving in the Army for two years during the Korean War.

Just after college, Fasbender, a lifelong Hastings resident, spent some time working with a credit corporation where part of his job was repossessing property from people, but he said it's just not in his nature to work a job like that.

"It got to the point where I had to brood all weekend thinking about going back to work on Monday," he said.

That's when he found out about a small company operating in downtown Hastings called Smead Manufacturing. He still remembers the interview that landed him the job at which he's been working for the past 50 years.

Up to that point, the only job he'd worked at after college was for a big corporation, so that's naturally what he was expecting to find when he went to interview at Smead for a job as a sales correspondent.

He walked up to the front entrance to Smead in downtown Hastings, opened the door, and saw a set of stairs leading upward. Not exactly what he was expecting, but he climbed the stairs nonetheless.

When he reached the top and entered the office, he first looked to his right and saw a pretty, young woman sitting in the executive office. It was uncommon for women to be in executive roles then, so Fasbender figured she was a receptionist and thought it presumptuous of her to sit in her boss' office while he was away.

Fasbender interviewed with the then-vice president of sales for the company, and when the interview was over, he asked who the woman was in the office.

"'That's Mrs. Hoffman; she owns the company,'" Fasbender remembers being told. "Wow, I couldn't believe it."

That day began a 40-year relationship between Fasbender and the late Ebba Hoffman. His first encounter with her also paints a picture of how much has changed since he was first hired at Smead.

While that day was a beginning for Fasbender, it was also the end of something else. Remember the brooding he used to do when thinking about going to work at the credit corporation? That was completely gone.

"If you can't dance on your desktop every day, you should find another job," he said. "I still enjoy coming to work every day and it shows."

As a sales correspondent, Fasbender's main job was communicating with customers through letters. Forget about e-mail and fax because they weren't around yet, and long-distance telephone calls were too expensive, so business was taken care of in letters.

Fasbender said it was a different way of communicating. Where e-mails are usually short and to the point, the letters he'd write would usually begin with greetings and questions about how a person was doing and what was new in their lives, before getting down to the real business at hand.

"It was a very good way to get to know your customers," he said. "It was more of a conversation on paper."

Today, Fasbender is the senior vice president of sales and marketing at Smead. His desk has two computer monitors on it, a sign that you must change with the times, which is something he said Smead has always done.

"People think, 'How can you make a file folder any better?'" he said. "And we did it."

One advancement that Fasbender helped move along shortly after being hired was color-coded file folders. Today, the row upon row of files at most doctors' offices look like rainbows, with different colors poking out from every shelf. Fasbender helped develop those by working with a hospital in Indiana and identifying needs and figuring out ways Smead products could help them.

Fasbender watched the shift in the U.S. economy away from smaller, mom and pop stores, to the larger, big box stores. Staples and Office Depot are two of Smead's biggest customers today.

He's also seen a shift toward more foreign manufacturing of goods. The decision to move the production of some of Smead's products overseas was a tough one for Ebba Hoffman, Fasbender said. Still, Smead is one of the few office products companies still manufacturing in the U.S., he said.

No matter what the line of business is, it's uncommon for someone to work at one company for 50 years. So, what has kept Fasbender there since 1959?

"I really do think Smead is a different kind of company," he said.

Fasbender spoke highly of Ebba Hoffman and Smead's current president and CEO, Sharon Hoffman Avent.

"Her family has always maintained close relationships to employees, and every decision that's made here at Smead, they think about how it effects the employees," he said.

Fasbender is quick to point out, however, that 50 years isn't even close to a record at Smead. He said someone retired from there recently after 65 years of employment.

"So I've got 15 years to go to just match that record, and more if I want to beat it," he said. "But I don't think I'll do that. Is retirement in my future? Yes."

At a celebration Monday for Fasbender's 50th year at the company, he was presented with three scrapbooks of his career at Smead. They included photos and letters from co-workers, customers, and even competitors, all singing Fasbender's praises.