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Edwards Brothers: partnering for life

Aug 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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Company: Edwards Brothers, Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI)
Executive: John Edwards, president/CEO
Year founded: 1893
Annual sales: $76 million
No. of employees: 750
Sq. ft.: 350,000, in four facilities
Specialization: Short- to medium-run books and journals in one- and two-color printing

As a book printer, Edwards Brothers, Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI) operates web and sheetfed presses. But recognizing that runs are getting shorter even in the book world, this printer is integrating short-run digital printing into its business. In November 2001, it installed a digital-printing center at the University of Chicago Press’ distribution center, the first such facility operated through an American university press.

Edwards Brothers operates three other digital-printing facilities: one at Rowman & Littlefield (Blue Ridge Summit, PA), and one each in its own plants in Michigan and Kansas. In each case, the printer’s web-, sheetfed- and digital-printing systems are tied into the publisher’s distribution channel, “reducing material overhead costs to make cost-effective, short-run manufacturing possible,” explains president and CEO John Edwards.

According to the exec, these partnerships are a key component of Edwards Brothers’ life-of-title strategy: The publisher can place the first printing—either web or sheetfed—at the printer, then transition the title to the appropriate press, regardless of quantity. “It gives printers and publishers the opportunity to manage a title from its larger first printing down to the smaller, digitally printed quantities that will keep it in print forever,” says Edwards. “That makes us more valuable to our customer because we can handle the whole process.”

What is the greatest challenge facing U.S. book printers?
The greatest challenge for book manufacturers is staying committed to a long-term focus, and investing time, resources and money to maximize our value to customers at a time when there is excess capacity in the marketplace. With a slow economy, many people today (including us to an extent) are focused on getting the lowest possible price.

Future success lies in linking systems, working together to reduce fixed costs and investing in state-of-the-art equipment. This requires a significant commitment of our time and money in non-bookmaking activities. Our challenge is to break old buying behavior (securing the lowest price), jointly attack the true costs (transaction and inventory) and share in the savings.

A book has a longer shelf life than most commercial products and can be more readily standardized around product specifications. These attributes offer greater potential to strip fixed costs, either by customizing e-commerce interfaces with publishing partners or by managing the life of the title to reduce inventories and associated costs.

Do you anticipate any of your customers installing and running their own digital presses?
There is more to the process than just digital printing. That includes things like scanning and binding expertise, as well as mailing. Many of our clients have expressed an interest in doing their own digital printing, but after visiting us they realize it’s more difficult than they first thought. Plus, their core competence is publishing, not manufacturing—they are best served by letting people like us handle that part of their business so they can focus on what they do best.

Any suggestions for improving the on-demand process?
The halftone quality is not where we would like it to be. We have some proprietary software that has improved the quality, but it’s still not good enough. We’d also like more flexibility from the equipment manufacturers on long-term contracts, since the technology changes so dramatically.

What service would you most like to add?
Digital color for text. We currently produce covers this way, and the opportunity exists to save customers significant money due to large offset set-up fees.

What printer do you most admire and why?
Valassis, a $700 million-plus coupon-printing company based in Michigan and with plants throughout the country, because they measure success on a long-term basis through customers, employees and shareholders. They are routinely voted one of the top 100 places to work by Fortune magazine.

What is your company’s claim to fame?
President Gerald Ford used to work at Edwards Brothers when he was a student and football player at the University of Michigan in the 1930s.

Where’s the best place to eat in Ann Arbor?
Actually, my house! My wife, Susan, is a great cook. If we go out, the Common Grill just down the road in Chelsea, MI, is the best place to go.

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