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from Quick to Commercial

Nov 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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Taking chances, going digital and just plain moxie put these printers a step above

Despite the blurring line between quick printers and commercial printers, the former remain distinctive from the start. Unlike commercial printers - many of whom have a long history in the graphic arts - quick printers are more likely to be entrepreneurs who went into printing because of it was an attractive business opportunity. (See "Quick print profile," July 1999, p. 34).

AMERICAN PRINTER spoke with three such entrepreneurs, all of whom have been in business for more than 20 years and have grown their quick-print shops into graphic arts enterprises. None of them fit the traditional view of a printer - they are instead experts in business development.

They also don't have all of the answers: They've had their share of missteps, whether in their business plan or equipment purchases. These execs have, however, learned from their trials and recognized opportunity in apparent miscalculations.

PRINTING FOR THE MASSES Richard Blake came to work for his dad in 1970. Blake Printery was established in 1949 by Richard's father, Emmons, and specializes in high-quality work - in particular, wine labels. Richard Blake realized, however, that fulfilling the needs of Blake Printery's winery clients was becoming more difficult due to the rising volume of smaller, general jobs coming in from other customers. The business cards, resumes and one-part forms were obscuring Blake Printery's focus as a specialty printer. As a result, the younger Blake founded Poor Richard's Press (San Luis Obispo, CA).

"Even though the original idea was to free up Blake Printery, by producing print at lower prices, a new market emerged that made printing more practical for the masses," explains Blake.

Since the first Poor Richard's quick-print shop opened in 1972, the company has grown to five locations, 70 employees and $7 million in annual sales. Its strategy is to keep its shops small but increase their locations - which currently stand at five - to fully access the local businesses and organizations that have become Poor Richard's target market.

When the printer first started out, however, it might have been difficult to predict its future success. Its equipment consisted of one A.B. Dick press, one used platemaker and an old cutter. "During our first week of business, we did $25 in sales; the next week we did $50. Sales went up 100 percent - I was ecstatic!" recalls Blake.

Things quickly escalated from there. At the time, quick printing was still a novelty. According to Blake, customers were thrilled that they could get printing in a few days. "The '70s and '80s were great days for quick printing. Because of faster turnarounds and lower prices, people were finding new ways to use printing. There was constant expansion," he explains.

BECOMING DATED Because Poor Richard's is in a college town, it became expert at printing and photocopying resumes, as well as company manuals, booklets, posters and mailers, all mostly one-color work.

It was the introduction of the high-speed office copier and Laser-Writer that helped convince Blake that Poor Richard's traditional quick print services were going to become dated. "In the '90s, black ink on paper is pretty rare," he notes. "What's left for quick printers are more demanding jobs, such as two-color work on different types of paper."

To stay progressive, Poor Richard's went into digital printing. "When we bought the digital press, it was a solution for a lack of a problem," explains Blake. He adds that had Poor Richard's been a smaller printer, it would have been very difficult to survive the period between equipment purchase and full customer utilization. To counteract that learning curve, the printer had to intensively train its salespeople on how to sell digital printing, and convince clients of the benefits.

Poor Richard's has an in-house training room with a full-time instructor dedicated to educating its salespeople and customers on digital printing technology. Most of the instructor's time is spent teaching employees in about a dozen formal print courses. The rest is spent leading classes for clients on how they can interact with Poor Richard's more effectively, how to prepare digital files, maintain a database and more.

Blake remains modest about his own printing savvy. He is, however, cognizant of one major strength. "I've never run a printing press, and don't have a clue how to preflight or turn on a Xerox," he admits. "But I know how to hire people. I've never hesitated to find the best people and pay them what they're worth."

Poor Richard's is in an advantageous geographic position for finding skilled labor. Located in the same town as California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), one of the few U.S. colleges offering four-year degrees in graphic communications, the printer often employs students as interns. Poor Richard's is also reportedly the largest single employer of Cal Poly printing graduates in the nation.

Blake believes that the current capabilities of variable imaging exceed clients' abilities to fully utilize them, and expects a two- to three-year catching-up period until customer databases are sophisticated enough. "Clients who recognize the benefits of variable imaging have the opportunity to get a jump on the competition," he notes. He also warns that those quick printers likewise who fail to recognize business opportunities, technological and otherwise, are certain to fall behind.

KNACK FOR BUSINESS "In 1979, Jeff Alexander started Alexander's Digital Printing with one Xerox 9400 copier and a single pallet of paper." So begins the legend of the retail copy center that grew up to become an $8.5 million digital printer with 110 employees and a 41,000-sq.-ft. facility.

Jeff Alexander, president of Alexander's Digital Printing (Lindon, UT), didn't exactly dream of becoming a printer. He did, however, have a knack for business.

During a trip to Salt Lake City, Alexander noticed a few copy centers popping up in town. That's when he decided to set up shop in Lindon, 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

"It was me and a couple of part-time people," remembers Alexander. "We had no bindery equipment because we really didn't understand printing. We weren't part of a franchise so we didn't have any printing expertise from a parent company to rely on." He says it took a year and a half before he and his associates finally began to learn the ropes of running a printing business.

During that time, some Salt Lake quick printers began adding on locations. In an effort to keep up, Alexander's added three. After a few years, however, Alexander grew discontent with the multi-location approach.

The exec decided to close the other locations, and instead operate one main plant with a production center. "My management style is more comfortable with that. I saw the successes of others who cut off retail and gone straight into commercial."

METAMORPHOSIS One of the company's first acts in making that transition was to redecorate its offices. Clark Caras, director of public relations and marketing, was a former customer of Alexander's. He recalls the moment that signaled the company's metamorphosis: "They did away with the front counter. I walked in and saw desks and customer service representatives (CSRs)."

But going commercial wasn't just a matter of rearranging employees and furniture. One of Alexander's hardest decisions was having to "let go" of customers that didn't fit in with the business plan. "We wanted to establish a printing company where small to medium-sized software companies could get documents printed and not have to order thousands at a time," Alexander explains. "We're looking for a customer who does a lot of documentation, who is willing to do more one-to-one marketing." Customers who didn't meet those criteria were a hindrance to Alexander's expansion into digital printing.

In November 1993, Alexander's purchased a Xerox DocuTech, the first in Utah. It began Alexander's development into a digital printer. "Like any technology, it took a long time before people felt it could benefit them," notes Alexander. Although the printer is has no formal client education program, the salespeople inform clients about digital printing advantages.

But, says Caras, "Our best marketing tool is our building." The printer hosts barbecues for its clients, who are also given tours of the facility. Each piece of equipment is supplied with samples of the type of work it can produce, so clients can see how an ordinary-looking piece of machinery can produce an impressive piece of marketing.

"Our biggest challenge is that large commercial printers are trying to print shorter runs so they can take back volume from on-demand printers," notes Alexander. He contends that Alexander's survival lies in its willingness to not always play it safe.

"Before our first DocuTech, we became complacent," Alexander observes. "You have to be willing to take chances. The hard part is keeping up with technology."

THE COMMODITY OF LUCK Do not inconvenience Dee Tozer. In the 1950s and 1960s, Tozer managed Dee Tozer Advertising, which had offices in Chicago, San Francisco and Palo Alto, CA.

One day, Tozer arranged for a local print shop to prepare and mail some press releases. When Tozer discovered a few days later that the releases had not been shipped when promised, she called the print shop... and offered to buy the entire business, equipment and all. The owners negotiated a price and a deal was made.

"I started out as a one-press print shop," says Tozer. "I always got my press releases out on time."

Now president of American Business Communications (ABC) (the company changed its name in 1977), Tozer has managed to transform that "one-press print shop" into a $13 million print and fulfillment services provider. Company headquarters are in South San Francisco, from where Tozer oversees her nine locations throughout California and Nevada, including: two quick-print shops; a printing and mailing facility in Reno, NV; a literature fulfillment and mailing house in Sunnyvale, CA; a digital printing center and House of Tabs, a tab manufacturing plant, both in Santa Clara, CA.

Ask Tozer why she is so successful, and she'll offer you no talk of carefully managed growth, or a business plan faithfully followed.

"We got around with an element known as `good luck,'" she laughs. "I know a lot of people who haven't made the mistakes I have made, and who are a lot smarter than I am. But, they do not have this commodity."

BUY THE BUILDING YOU'RE IN If you dig a little more, you'll discover that Tozer relies on sound business practices just as much.

"I've always told people that their very best bet is to buy the building they're in," Tozer notes. ABC owns two of its 50,000-sq.-ft. buildings, and the exec wishes she owned them all. "I resent the other buildings I rent," she laughs, noting that it's much easier to control costs when you aren't at the mercy of yearly rent increases.

Tozer also prizes employees who pay attention to the details of a job. "First, I want people who are curious. Second, I want our people to be very good at minutiae." And she treats them well. One manager has been with the company since 1963. When a recruiter called Tozer and asked why an employee of hers left ABC, she jokingly suggested, "'It's a genetic defect.' He only lasted at ABC for 14 years."

Tozer is modest about her success and business acumen. If anything, she sees herself as conservative. "I'm a little backward - I want to be sure things work before I buy. Seldom am I the first," she admits. "People who are true entrepreneurs are first. I don't see myself as entrepreneurial in the sense of wanting to grow. It just sort of happened. It's somewhat astonishing. I like it."

What's the difference between a quick printer and a commercial printer? Some would argue, "Not much."

"`Quick' and `small commercial printing' has always been in the minds of the printers, not the public," states Thomas Crouser, principal of Crouser & Associates, a finance and management consultancy for small printers (Charleston, WV). "Everyone was quick by the early 1980s, and it was no longer a marketing niche. It has persisted, however, in the minds of some printers who don't know much about their competition. Today, everyone prints quickly. Not everyone prints well."

The two terms, however, persist in the graphic arts community. For some, "quick print" has acquired negative connotations, implying a purely retail business with off-the-street customers and unglamorous black-and-white leaflet printing and copy work. Others consider it a limiting term, devoid of such modern catch phrases as "solutions" and "digital." It's especially telling when companies and organizations with their roots in traditional quick printing opt for a more expansive name.

In 1998, the former National Assn. of Quick Printers (NAQP) (Chicago) changed its name to PrintImage International, a decision based on its members' transition into the digital age. "Many of the small and franchise printers originally known as quick printers have grown and evolved to embrace newer digital technologies," explained then-president Al Karnavicius.

Similarly, this past July, American Speedy Printing Centers, Inc. (Troy, MI), a franchise organization founded in the quick-print heydays of the 1970s, announced it was changing its corporate name to Allegra Network, Inc. Explained president and CEO William D. McIntyre, "Customer needs have evolved far beyond quick printing to include variable data, digital color output and on-demand printing. Rethinking our market strategy was essential to our continued growth as one of the world's largest printing franchises." As of press time, 170 of American Speedy's 400 centers have switched to the Allegra name, a transition that requires shop owners to adopt digital printing technologies, become highly customer-centric and a "total solutions" provider.

Is the term "quick printer" obsolete? If so, what is a more accurate way to describe businesses that specialize in short-run product with quick turnarounds? Crouser suggests "small-press printer," since small-format presses produce the envelopes, forms, brochures, business cards and other items typically offered by these smaller businesses. Readers, e-mail your thoughts to associate editor Samantha Hoover at The best of the suggestions will be revealed in an upcoming American Quick Printer feature.