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N2: Modern-day Printing Press

By Susan Hance, posted Aug 25, 2016
N2 Publishing CEO Duane Hixon (above) and Earl Seals launched the newsletter company in 2004. Now it produces more than 900 publications each month across the country. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)

It’s been a steady climb over the past 12 years for N2 Publishing. 

With the tagline, “Turning Neighborhoods into Communities,” the Wilmington-based company publishes print-only community newsletters and has landed on Inc. 5000’s list of most rapidly growing private companies for the last six years straight – including this year, according to an announcement earlier this month.

Acknowledged for its work culture, the growth of N2 offers some new possibilities for products and for giving back to the world community.

Duane Hixon, CEO and co-founder, attributes the growth to a good concept and great employees. He described the company’s humble start in one room of the three-bedroom house he and his wife shared.

Initially Hixon came to Wilmington to study marine biology at University of North Carolina Wilmington in 1995. But with the cost of out-of-state tuition, he returned home to finish his degree at Indiana University. He intended to be a high school physics teacher but took a sales job during college and found he enjoyed the work. After college, he worked in business, hiring and training sales personnel.

He also had the goal of becoming a kicker for the NFL and found opportunity as a kicker in arena football. He went for a trial in Charleston, South Carolina. 

“The first game was on Saturday night, and I missed all three attempts. I was cut on Monday morning,” said Hixon with a smile. 

Looking along the coast, he and his wife decided to settle in Wilmington where they love the beach and the area. While working at an athletic club part time and changing oil part time, the proverbial other window opened: the idea of starting a newsletter business. He and a friend Earl Seals had been watching similar companies, and they shared ideas. 

In 2004, they launched the business.

“In the beginning, it wasn’t great. We partnered with HOA boards to report information. There were no pictures, no stories, just dry information. It didn’t make for great reading,” Hixon recalled.

Over the years, some residents asked to include articles about pets, but thinking as the official HOA newsletter, the idea was rejected.

About four years into the endeavor, an employee encouraged them to get out of that box, and the publications changed completely. 

“People want to know their neighbors and what they are doing,” Hixon said. “We found that you’ll see people and wave or see them at the pool, but if they read about them … it might start a conversation … They make friends because they know something about them from the newsletter.”

The residents contribute the content and photographs, and the free publications are mailed to their homes. Writers describe interesting things their neighbors have accomplished, or it may be a 10-year-old writing about her friend in a Kids-to-Kids segment. 

With more than 100 graphic designers in the company, N2 designs and publishes more than 900 publications every month, serving 48 states. 

There are more than 200 employees of N2, with another 800 area directors who run their own publications as contract workers. Most of them have one publication, but others have multiple ones.

While the company is not big on directives for employees – creativity permeates the headquarters building on New Centre Drive – the “Culture Deck” does rule behavior. 

Posted on the company’s website, a thorough definition of what the work culture is at N2 lets potential applicants know what to expect. N2 seeks radiators (people who radiate energy), not drains (people who suck the energy from others with negativity).

“People enjoy Monday morning. I love that our team enjoys coming to work,” Hixon said. That makes the company strong with only a 10 percent turnover rate each year.

The workforce varies in age with an average around 45-50 years old, Hixon said, and there are more women than men now.

The way N2 treats employees has garnered national attention. Entrepreneur magazine in 2015 listed N2 Publishing No. 8 in its Top Company Cultures list in the category for large companies. 

Fortune magazine took note in 2015, listing it in its 100 Best Workplaces for Women: “Sixty-four percent of the company’s workforce consists of women, who occupy 54% of the firm’s management positions,” the Fortune summary stated.

From $300,000 in sales in 2005, to over $100 million this past year, N2 Publishing is on its way to reaching the goal of becoming a billion-dollar company, officials said.

“We have so many good people now. Our chances of doing a billion are really good,” Hixon said. “We’ll be one of the largest employers in Wilmington.”

N2 is testing other products, and while the ideas haven’t been released yet, they are doing well in test markets, according to Hixon. 

While making a good living for his family – including three children now – is great, the success of the company provides something else for Hixon. 

“The thing that motivates me and excites me about this next chapter is giving back,” he said.

Ask Hixon why he wants to grow the company, and he says it affords the opportunity to have an impact. N2 Publishing is doing its part to fight human trafficking with donations totaling $2 million.

“There are more people in slavery today than in any other time in history,” he said. “Human trafficking from sexual to forced labor. We’re helping because a lot of boys in the Congo are getting kidnapped and made to work on fishing boats. We’re working with a group that’s working against that. We have a partnership with A Safe Place. A lot of prostitutes are not in it by choice. Safe Place is allowing these women to get out, create second chances for them. There aren’t a lot of people willing to help them. Growing [the company] is not driven by money. I’m not excited about a bigger house or a big boat. I hope more businesses will be more proactive with nonprofits. We want to help people who don’t have a voice.”

Hixon hopes that if large companies give more to nonprofits, the organizations that help people won’t have to spend so much time fundraising. It empowers those organizations to do what they’re good at – helping the disenfranchised. 

“I’m really passionate about that,” he said. “It’s great to be able to say, ‘What’s your budget?’ Done.’”

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