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Stepping up

Dec 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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It takes a prudent allocation of resources, commitment and focus—not to mention skill and guts—to believe you can understand, then deliver, what your customers really want. But that’s exactly what GLS Co. ( has done. In 1984, GLS started as a six-person commercial printer with a pair of two-color presses. It grew into a 63,000-sq.-ft. building just 12 years later. Today, GLS does business from a modern, clean, 161,000-sq.-ft. facility on 15 acres in Minneapolis. The company employs 291 people and handles everything from creative through to warehousing and fulfillment. Last year, the company grew 36 percent.

Gary Garner, president and CEO, summarizes the company’s path to success: “We started out as a printing company, but our customers started wanting more.” The first step was adding inkjet and insertion capabilities, using the U.S. Postal Service to expand to new markets with direct mail products. “Our customers wanted something that would be opened,” says Garner. “We figured out how to design things that would get people’s attention. And we found other ways of helping our customers design programs unique to their business needs, like shorter runs with more personalization,” Garner says.

They also found that more and more customers wanted to deal with a “one-stop shop.” According to Garner, “Many of our customers started looking for more services from smaller, more flexible suppliers. We wanted to be everything we could be to our customers, because when we had to farm things out, we lost control. Our business model evolved into being a marketing partner to our customers, rather than just another supplier.”

As demand for more and diverse services has increased with time, GLS has responded by developing new ways to meet far-ranging needs. For example, when GLS recently expanded its facility, the executive team decided to include a 2,500-sq.-ft. learning center. They use it for a variety of events, from internal training programs to ongoing seminars for customers and industry partners. But instead of stopping there, they also offer this smart, meeting-friendly space to customers for their own personal use, which has proven to be a popular idea. What’s more, they have put together a high-end, user-friendly Web site that allows data sharing, online ordering and other services to GLS’ customers.

Solving customer challenges
GLS has positioned itself as a solutions provider with good reason. Brian Kingery, a 10-year account executive with the company, describes an automated system that was created specifically for a financial services client. GLS helped the client create a streamlined process that allows personalized membership materials to be sent to its customer base automatically. This is how it works: Twice per week, overnight, the client sends a data file to GLS through a secure FTP site. The data is linked to GLS’s HP Indigo presses to create four-color, saddlestitched booklets of various sizes, along with personalized, laser-printed letters. GLS then sorts, stuffs and mails. With targeted, high-tech solutions such as these, “Direct mail becomes more than a three to six percent response rate,” says Kingery. And where many printers avoid the complexities and learning curve of color variable printing, GLS has embraced the challenge, simply because it’s a way to offer the newest trend: one-to-one marketing with a focus on a smaller, target group. As Kingery puts it, “People don’t have the marketing budgets they once had. Now you need to tailor production to a client’s specific needs.”

Another creative, solution-minded program involves a large manufacturing client who makes products merchandised in blister cards, with delta holes for hanging. Having more than 270 different cards for a wide variety of items created issues ranging from large volume printing needs (millions of cards a year) to inventory management. According to account executive Dave Tich, GLS put together a system where, once each year, he receives the order for all of the cards the client will need for the next 12 months. Then GLS prints the marketing materials, inventories the cards, bills and ships on a just-in-time basis. It even stocks the customer’s shelves.

Jobs like this one, which requires four-color printing on large (25-up) die cut sheets that contain a water-based adhesive, have created the need to invest in technology to keep up with demand while maintaining quality standards.

Never say die
Troy Bauer, finishing manager for GLS, acknowledges the challenges. “Customers are more demanding than ever—you need the technology to get things done.” Most recently, GLS decided to invest in new machinery when die cutting demand threatened to exceed its capabilities. The firm’s older machine couldn’t handle the increasing orders they were getting. Bauer searched the industry for suitable solutions, including equipment from most of the top vendors. “When Sanwa’s name came up, we took a trip to IMI’s ( facility in Chicago to see a Sanwa TRP 1060SE demo,” he says. Next, he contacted as many Sanwa customers as he could find. “When you talk to other printers, you can usually uncover doubts or problems with their equipment purchases,” Bauer explains. “With the Sanwa, the people we talked to had nothing but good things to say.”

Ultimately, GLS decided to buy the die cutter. “We chose the Sanwa for its competitive price point, quick setup, good features and good references,” Garner says. And the decision seems to be working according to plan.

“Now the old machine does basic scoring and minimal die cutting, but the Sanwa is our workhorse. We run it almost 24/7,” says Bauer. “Anything that is even remotely difficult goes on the Sanwa.”

When asked about GLS’ direction for the future, Garner is quick to say, “Our company goes where our customers take us.”