Heritage Businesses in WNY / Tapecon
From vaudeville to biotech
Steve, Jeff, and Greg Davis
Contemporary photo by Nancy J. Parisi
701 Seneca Street, Buffalo
What began as a company making rolling poster machines for continuous advertising outside of businesses (banks, vaudeville theater lobbies) is now a company that specializes in printing solutions for many types of industries.
How old: 100 years old
How many employees: 120
Tapecon, known originally as Davis Bulletin Company when it was founded in 1919, may be the only local legacy business that has used burlesque celebrities as spokesmen. According to president Steve Davis, comedy duo Abbott and Costello endorsed the company for several years during the 1920s. Headquartered at Larkin Center of Commerce on Seneca Street since 1949, Tapecon was originally located at 10 Lock Street, long before Canalside, as we know it, existed. At 10 Lock Street (which connected with Erie Street), Davis Bulletin Company operated in a building overlooking the Erie Canal; early photographs of workers in the factory show the canal a stone’s throw away. The company’s building stood at the corner of Pearl and West Seneca Streets—in what is now a parking lot—until it was decided that the canal should be buried and the I-190 built.
The Lock Street building when Tapecon was Davis Bulletin
Davis Bulletin Company made ornate metal machines that featured continuously rolling advertisements for businesses: in their company lobby they still have an operational vintage machine. Combining light, motion, and color for forceful display advertising, these rumbling machines were all over the US, in banks, theaters, and on city sidewalks.
Today, the fifth generation of Davis family members runs a business that has evolved from its early days of printing signs for its “advertising machines” to becoming a pioneer in various printing technologies. “Specialized application contract printing” is how Steve Davis describes what Tapecon does for the aeronautics, medical, biotech, and military industries. Since 1949, the company has expanded from 10,000 to 90,000 square feet.
Areas of today’s factory can’t be photographed because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the contracted products being made. Tapecon innovations include printed mats with sensors for patient safety within hospital rooms, and “smart inks” for medical monitoring. “Depending on what our customers are making, we make components or produce devices in their entirety,” explains Davis. Tapecon is an original equipment manufacturer (an OEM) for hire: it is also “An OEM of (its) own design.”
Lock Street factory interiors (circa 1920s)
The Davis brothers—Steve; Greg, supply chain manager; and Jeff, sales manager—as well as their uncle, Keith Davis, an application engineer, are well versed in the company’s rich history, as well as the pros and cons of working with family members. In the company’s early days, it was led by their great-great grandfather, Albert Davis, and, later, his son Harlow Davis Sr., followed by Harlow Davis Jr., their grandfather.
“I don’t feel like we have a lot of challenges working together,” says Steve, adding, “I’m not saying we are perfect, but we have created a positive environment here. Sometimes we are maybe more critical of each other, but that might also be a blessing.” “We do speak more brass tacks with each other,” says Jeff.
The three brothers stress the importance of delineating and establishing corporate, as well as family values, and creating what they call a “formal communications structure” that includes a family charter and an updated succession plan. “We now have quarterly family council meetings,” says Steve.
Is a sixth generation of Davises on its way up? Two of the brothers have young children they’d love to see join the company in the future, “If they want to take on that challenge,” Steve says.