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Learn by example

Nov 1, 2006 12:00 AM


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Attendees at AMERICAN PRINTER’s 2006 Variables conference already will be familiar with some of the “dos” and “don’ts” of variable-data printing (VDP). Making the transition from traditional commercial printing to adding digital work is a long process that can contain a few pitfalls. A few of the Variables 2006 panelists shared their stories and offered some helpful advice.

The writing on the wall
Seventeen-year-old Lithexcel, a 21,000-sq.-ft., 49-employee company in Albuquerque, NM, started out as a traditional commercial printer but has evolved in the last several years into a communications services provider. When company president Waleed Ashoo saw the writing on the wall in the late 1990s, Lithexcel started down the variable data path.

“Printing became a commodity and it really wasn’t going anywhere,” notes Ashoo. “We really had to do something different or get out of it.” So Lithexcel added a fulfillment and packaging component to the business, as well as variable-data printing. The work was all black-and-white, but the company produced customized letters and information packets and mailed them. The biggest boost to Lithexcel’s budding VDP business came in 2003 with its first digital press, an HP Indigo 3000.

Currently, the company is in the process of adding two more digital presses: an HP 5000 this month and possibly a Xerox iGen after that. “Our plan is that within the next four or five years we will be a mostly digital printer,” says Ashoo. “Instead of doing [our current] 10 to 15 percent digital printing with seven to eight percent being variable data, we expect to be around 60 percent digital and 40 percent variable.”

Selling to the sales staff
Making the transition to digital wasn’t without obstacles, and Ashoo has a few caveats for the traditional commercial printer looking to join the ranks of variable data printers. The biggest problem is training and transitioning the core sales staff. “With commercial printing, they’re used to selling jobs, not selling a long-term project or relationship,” he says. “With VDP, you sell the project, the concept, the relationship and the results. The sales staff that traditionally sells commercial printing is not readily or easily available or able to sell digital printing. They don’t understand it, [because] they look at the projects or jobs and see them as very small orders. What they fail to understand is that digital and variable-data printing is like an annuity. The project each time might be a small project, but you only have to sell it once, and it continues to reoccur every week or every month.”

Ashoo notes that transitioning the sales staff is a long and difficult process, one that Lithexcel still struggles with. “We’re always looking for people who are not from within our industry to do sales, because they don’t have all the baggage of commercial printing—it would be much easier to get them to understand, get excited about and sell solutions.”

The shift in mindset isn’t just a problem for the sales staff; it suffuses the entire operation. If he had to do it all over again, Ashoo would set up his digital business in a separate building, as a separate entity, and hire a totally different sales staff. “I wouldn’t do it in the same facility with the same people,” he says. “It really takes a different mindset.”

Ashoo warns future variable-data printers to keep this in mind when starting out. It’s best to have strategic and marketing plans in place, begin educating sales and IT staff, and start selling the services and results before even investing in a digital press. “The device is the easiest thing to have,” he says, “but if you don’t have an infrastructure, a strategic plan, a marketing plan or the right people, it’s a very difficult and expensive learning process.”

Digital pioneer
Cheryl Kahanec, corporate vice president of marketing and technology for TanaSeybert (New York), is something of a digital pioneer. She’s been involved with digital and variable-data printing for 13 years, the last three of which have been spent with TanaSeybert’s digital division after the merger of Seybert Nicholas and TanaGraphics in 2004. “In the merger, I think Digital Now, [TanaGraphics’ digital division], was looked at as an investment in the future,” Kahanec notes. “We were high-tech, we were futuristic and we were driving the company in that direction.”

Of the commercial printer’s $75 million in sales, $3 million comes from digital work. The 140,000-sq.-ft. company employs 350 people, 10 of whom are in the digital department. Currently TanaSeybert operates two HP 3050s; the first was installed in January 2003.

Mailing services always were a part of TanaGraphics. Kahanec explains, “We took the expertise of mailing and overlayed it on our printing, and that gave us variable data. We actually had VDP but didn’t know it.”

Taking care of business and workflow issues
According to Kahanec, there are two important issues for the traditional commercial printing looking to offer VDP: business and workflow. “The workflow issue is that it’s very different to process a $30 or $300 job than it is to process a $30,000 or $300,000 job,” she says. “[It’s] understanding how to handle lots and lots of little jobs. The business issue is how to have different structures within my company and how to sell them. How do I sell two different ends of the spectrum to the same customer?”

Like Ashoo, Kahanec also acknowledges the problem with educating the sales staff to sell variable data, something she combats with aggressive training. “It’s difficult because we have professional salespeople who have been selling for a very long time, very successfully,” she says. “Now, we’re trying to change their approach, change the people they talk to, change how they talk to them, and their understanding of digital print is ‘It’s just a $200 job.’ They’re not looking at how it could be 2,000 $200 jobs and what that adds up to.”

Kahanec advises that education is key before making the leap into VDP. She notes that when she started out with digital print, “I wish I had spent more time understanding the marketing and sales issues, particularly understanding the marketing industry.” She also says it is important to understand who your customers are as well as their objectives. “If you understand what the issues are, you can be a part of the solution,” she says. “If you don’t, then you’re a part of the problem.”

The software solution
Toledo, OH-based Metzgers Printing + Mailing has evolved from the typesetting world to a 35,000-sq.-ft. commercial printer offering digital printing, wide-format printing, mailing services, fulfillment and kitting, including an additional 12,000-sq.-ft. warehouse with pick, pack and ship services. Company president Joe Metzger led the now $7.5 million firm into the digital world as an early user of color copiers and digital production printing devices. Variable black-and-white work started at Metzgers in the mid-1990s, while variable color with photos, graphics and text became a feature at the end of 2005 with the installation of PageFlex Mpower and StoreFront software, providing database-driven and Web-form-driven variable data capability. The software has proved to be invaluable, and Metzger notes that if he could have done anything differently in the start-up of his variable data enterprise, “I would have purchased the PageFlex software sooner, instead of trying to make lesser programs do what a big software program can do.”

The 50-employee company operates two Xerox presses for its digital work, a DocuColor 8000 and a Docutech-Nuvera 100, both installed in October 2005. “I think we push the DocuColor 8000 to the limits with various paper stocks and demands on the quality, but it’s doing a fine job for us,” he says. Currently, only a small portion of Metzgers Printing + Mailing’s work is variable, around five percent of total sales. Metzger is quick to note, however, that the number is growing along with total sales volume.

Pesky problems
According to Metzger, traditional printers will face problems in the bindery and delivery of finished pieces. “VDP must be 100 percent deliverable,” he says. “There is zero room for spoilage. If you spoil a mail piece, it must be reprinted.” To that end, he recommends ensuring your IT person understands print and your mail/CASS person understands mail. “The two of them must then work together to make the projects happen smoothly.” Metzger also cautions printers to have the proper digital front-end expertise. “It’s not as easy as making color separation or notes,” he warns. “It requires completely different talents and knowledge.”

Problems are not simply an in-house production matter. One of the biggest challenges for Metzger is finding customers and educating them on the advantages of variable-data printing. “It is difficult for a customer to overcome the higher cost per mail piece and to get them to look at the return on cost vs. just the cost,” he says.



Variables makes a splash
By Nsenga Byrd Thompson

AMERICAN PRINTER’s fourth annual Variables 2006 conference, held once again at Chicago’s historic Drake Hotel from July 24 to 25, garnered record attendance from printers interested in learning more about building a variable-data printing (VDP) business. Sponsors for this year’s program included Kodak, Adobe, Meadows Publishing, Xeikon, Objectif Lune/Atlas Sofware, HP Indigo, Pageflex/Bitstream, USAData, and XMPie.

With conference attendance up 25 percent from last year, Jill Roth, AMERICAN PRINTER’s director of brand development and Variables conference program manager, comments, “Variables 2006 was a resounding success. The two days were packed with useful information and the program has gotten rave reviews from attendees.”

New to this year’s conference program, Variables 2006 kicked off with a special pre-conference workshop on Monday, July 24, at 9 a.m. Titled “How to Sell Variable-Data Printing,” this three-hour workshop, conducted by industry veteran Kate Dunn of Digital Innovations Group (DIG), revealed insider techniques for successfully selling VDP. The program was a great resource for printers just beginning to sell VDP, as well as adding insights to more experienced VDP salespeople and managers.

General Session conference highlights included:

  • Documented success stories on marketing VDP.
  • Opportunities in Web-to-print.
  • The power of databases.
  • Partnering with the United States Postal Service.
  • How to implement practical sales strategies.
  • A “Meet the vendors” networking and exhibition session.
In addition to its comprehensive program, an evening roundtable was held Monday as a forum to explore ideas within this printing industry niche. Moderated by conference cosponsor Rick Littrell of MagiComm, it allowed attendees to share their ideas on running a VDP business more efficiently. See http://variables.americanprinter.com.

In 2007, Variables will expand, offering a Variables West in Las Vegas, June 7 to 8, and a Variables East in Charlotte, NC, July 16 to 17. Stay tuned for more information on the program and speakers.

Nsenga Byrd Thompson is marketing manager for AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at nsenga.thompson@penton.com.


Carrie Cleaveland is assistant editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at carrie@americanprinter.com.