I once worked for an insurance company," says 40-year-old Zane Tankel, president of Collier Graphic Services in New York City. "That outfit would ring a bell at the beginning and end of coffee breaks and lunch, with a final bell at the end of the day. We all counted the minutes to the next bell. It was like being in prison."

As a recent graduate of The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Tankel knew all the textbook reasons for a strong organization. But the insurance company began his real-world education in how to create structure without stifling people. That lesson has helped him take Collier, a printing and engraving company, from near-bankruptcy in 1963 to $17 million in sales this year.

Tankel's management style is an unorthodox blend of textbook rules and people sense:

Forget what you want; figure out what the guy working for you wants.

Tankel says his earliest lesson in management came during college, where he majored in sociology and did volunteer social work at a Philadelphia crime-prevention bureau.

"I worked with teenaged offenders, and I saw that they got into trouble for very different reasons: some guys because it got them respect from buddies, others because they were hyper, some because they were just plain bad.

"People are motivated in different ways in their work behavior, too. Rules don't make them work; you've got to win over the individual.If I don't have that pressman downstairs wanting to work for me, he'll mentally put in his own work rules and do just so much.

"Typical incentive programs just widen the gap between good employees and marginal ones. The good ones get better and the marginal ones stay marginal. Personally, I believe the ideal is to elevate marginal employees to the same level as the top employees. You do that by knowing them. A guy's incentive to work isn't what I think ought to be an incentive: it's what he thinks it is. Maybe it's because he likes me, or because he just takes a lot of pride in his craft.

"I always try to project myself into the other guy, to figure out what he wants, and I ask my managers to do the same."

Make the union your partner.

Collier started as a letterpress engraver back in 1932. By the time Tankel took over, the printing industry was moving away from letterpress and toward the newer, less costly offset process. "In 1969 one of our major clients was planning to switch to offset," says Tankel. "At the time, we had no offset capabilities, and the changeover cost was beyond our means. But the client guaranteed us a $400,000 chunk of business if we'd figure out a way to do it. With that kind of money at stake, I had to do something."

Tankel figured he might be able to find an offset company that would accept the $400,000 commitment as equity, but where and how would he find it? There was one source of reliable information: the union. They knew who had the skilled people and who was meeting their payroll. "The union also had a vested interest in the success of both companies," says Tankel. "The union collects dues from employed people, not the unemployed."

The plan worked, with the union suggesting a company and putting Collier in the offset business. It had a fringe benefit, too. Tankel's overture to the union went a long way toward gaining the confidence of his union employees. "The men really rallied around me. They would punch out and then stay to look over a job, try to catch errors that weren't their immediate responsibility. They were going way beyond what they'd ever done before.

"And every time they responded that way, I felt -- and still do -- that I should do a little more for them. That doesn't mean you get so caught up in boosting morale that you lose sight of the bottom line. Everyone here knows that he's here to earn money and the company's here to earn money, too.

"My philosophy is simple: A happy employee is a more productive employee so, selfishly, I want my employees to be happy."

Be grateful when employees show up for work.

Sometimes it pays to show appreciation when people simply do what's expected of them, says Tankel. During a transit strike, for example, many of Collier's employees had to struggle to get to work. When the strike was over, Tankel handed out desk sets and plaques to the stalwarts who had showed up regularly.

"At the time, a couple of my managers didn't think we needed the extra $3,500 expense. But they changed their minds; the effect on the people was great."

Then there was the time Tankel gave a case of wine to everyone who came in during a blackout, and another case of wine to those who trudged through a blizzard to get to work. "I appreciate loyalty," he says, "and I always try to let everyone know it."

Fire some of your best performers.

Collier's top salesman in 1969 was also Tankel's top pain in the neck. "He'd come in and completely disrupt the place with complaints, ranting and raving about jobs that weren't done right. It wasn't worth spending hours each day soothing hurt feelings and undoing the damage, so I fired him," says Tankel.

"The place was calmer, although a lot of people thought I was crazy for firing our top salesman. But we did all right, and the experience confirmed my belief that the price of a disruptive person is much higher than that of a nice guy who maybe doesn't sell as much."

While Tankel isn't afraid of drastic measures, he's also quick to try to salvage a good employee who's temporarily off the beam. One of his managers had developed a hot temper with clients, and Tankel saw the attitude spreading. In all other respects, the man was a credit to the company.

"I had some strong things to say to him," says Tanekl, "but I needed to catch him in a receptive mood. One Friday, after hours and just after an employee party, I stepped into his office.

"'You're not handling clients properly when you lose your temper,' I said. 'Maybe you know how far to go, but your people may not. They're starting to think it's all right to yell at clients, and I don't think that's good for the company. I'm sure if you think about it, you'll agree.'

"I planned the timing and the words carefully, and it worked. We had few problems after that."

Let employees know about secret management plans.

"If an employee doesn't have enough background information," says Tankel, "he will always misinterpret a management move. He may see the decision as a threat, or an insult, or as something stupid." That rarely happens at Collier, because of what are called "mini-meetings," quarterly gatherings of all personnel in each department, where company matters are discussed. The meetings are staggered so that one takes place somewhere at Collier every other week.

"I make sure I have an agenda; meetings are not just some crazy attempt to make people pals with one another. We use them to keep plant people abreast of management moves. There are times when we think, 'Well, we certainly can't let anyone in on that piece of information.' But once we discuss it, we often change our minds and put it on the agenda. We haven't been sorry yet."

Tankel's belief in openness paid off last year when the company decided to purchase a computer-automated pre-press system for making four-color, plate-ready film. The system, called CAS 2000, was bought to replace many operations that had previously been done manually. Tankel knew that employees at Collier could view this development as a threat to job security.

"We launched a campaign to sell the idea to our employees," said Tankel. "We sent a personal letter, signed by me, to every employee explaining how good the system would be for our future growth together.

"Then, I invited the system's manufacturer to our Christmas party, and asked him to give everyone the complete audiovisual sales pitch. Afterwards, there were many questions. I tried to show everyone that this was not a labor-saving move -- it was a productivity-raising system."

Then the company newsletter came out with a complete description of the system and more assurances of job security. "Collier has one major ingredient within the company that will set the CAS 2000 apart from any industry system -- our people," said the newsletter.

As the CAS 2000 was being installed, the union grievance committee requested a meeting with Tankel. "How many people will this new system replace?" they asked.

"None," replied Tankel.

"Will the union be able to pick the operators?"

"Absolutely not."

"Why not?" they demanded.

"My signature is on the financing papers," said Tankel. "If the union wants to sign the notes, then it can take part in those decisions."

The meeting went on for two hours. When it was over, the union was satisfied that the CAS 2000 was good for the company and its employees, and that no jobs would be lost. "We showed respect for the union," says Tankel. "That, plus our willingness to tell all about our plans for the new system, resulted in a very smooth transition to the CAS 2000."

Think big in hiring new people, but don't sack old-timers.

Tankel began building a management team a year after he took over Collier; it was finally in place by 1977. "It's like building a new plant," he says. "You hire people more skilled than you need at the time so you can grow, just the way you build a bigger building and grow into it."

Hiring wasn't easy at the beginning because of Collier's small size and weak finances. "The people I wanted told me that I couldn't afford them and didn't need them," he recalls. But he kept trying to find the kind of people he wanted for three key spots: vice-president of operations, of finance, and of sales and marketing.

Tankel snared a big-company financial man by using him first as a consultant, both to show him what Collier's small-company environment could offer and also to see how he got along with the man then handling the money, "a guy who'd been with me since the days when we wondered every Thursday where we'd get the payroll for Friday.

"I wasn't going to throw the old out in order to bring in the new. When you start doing that, everyone down to your janitor starts getting worried. A guy's work begins to look like just a job, not a career where he feels loyalty to a company because he's got somewhere to go within it."

The tactic worked. Tankel got his vice-president, who gradually assimilated finance functions. The more professional approach to finance brought a computer, and Tankel's former accountant took over as head of data processing.

Tankel attributes Collier's growth during the past few years to his willingness to spend as much as necessary to get the right personnel. In the years ahead, he plans to build on that team and on the company structure now in place, while also holding on to the feeling that Collier is a people-sensitive organization.

Tankel's goal? "Oh, I wouldn't mind being at $100 million within five years or so," he says, grinning.