American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Managing through changing times

Sep 1, 2010 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

The National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL), announced its 2009 Management Plus Award recipients at the 2010 Top Management Conference in February. This year, 18 companies were recognized with Gold, Silver and Merit awards, along with this year's William K. Marrinan “Hall of Fame” recipient Classic Graphics (Charlotte, NC). Joseph P. Truncale, NAPL president and CEO, says, “They are the companies that set the management bar for our industry and they continue to move it higher.”

From the bottom up

How do two 20-something, part-time press workers with no management experience and zero staff take a $15,000 family loan and turn it into a $40 million dollar success story?

“While you're young and your responsibilities are minimal, you can go out and start a company with less money than if you were older and had far more expectations,” explains David Pitts, co-owner with Bill Gardner of Classic Graphics (Charlotte, NC), this year's William K Marrinan Management Plus “Hall of Fame” award recipient. “Our expectations were so low, we couldn't help but meet them,” says Pitts. “And after a while, we got better and smarter and were able to continue to grow into a real business.”

With more than 180 employees, state-of-the-art equipment and the addition in 2003 of Opus Direct (a division of Classic Graphics that provides mailing, fulfillment, complex kitting and marketing technology that includes data management), Gardner and Pitts' managerial style has helped Classic Graphics evolve into a premier graphic arts company.

“Bill and I are very hands-off managers. We spend a lot of time talking strategy and about what we are trying to accomplish for the company,” says Pitts. “And we have fantastic people, so we just get out of their way and they do a great job.”

While some might shy away from Pitts and Gardner's laid-back approach, Pitts believes it's important that managers trust the expertise of their employees and create an environment people want to work in. “Employees love to do great work,” he says. “It's about having a fun work environment where people like who they work with and are recognized when they do well.” He says Gardner understands business, printing and how to motivate people. “But he also keeps it very fun. When we have meetings, he's kind of leading the fun quotient. I think it makes us more approachable as managers and I don't think our employees feel like they are separated by layers of management.”

As with any good relationship, the balance of Pitts' low-key, focused leadership with Gardner's enthusiasm and business savvy have proven to be a winning combination. “Neither of us would have been as successful alone,” says Pitts. “It's one of the few partnerships I've seen that has truly worked.”

Growing in a down economy

Good decisions coupled with a broad array of services have supported Classic Graphics' continued growth. “2008 was our touchy year, and we were down about 10%,” says Pitts. “But we replaced all of that and a little bit more in 2009, and we probably will have another growth year for 2010. We probably will be up 15% or more this year.”

Pitts recognizes that quality services and good employees have been a key factor in the company's success in the past few years, but he doesn't discount a little help from Lady Luck. “A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, and some of it is product and customer mix,” he says. “When the economy starts giving us some help, we are poised to make some significant gains.”

Upcoming investments include pressroom upgrades, including wide-format and inkjet equipment, as well as upgrades in kitting and fulfillment, and its information security infrastructure.

“We work with financial companies and banks, and their information security requirements are staggering,” says Pitts. “This year, we will have spent over $400,000 on improving our information security infrastructure just so we are qualified to be a vendor for major financial institutions.

“Big banks we deal with tell us their data has to be as safe when it's at Classic Graphics as it is on their servers at the bank, and that requires a huge investment,” Pitts continues. “It eliminates a lot of companies from even bidding on their work. So we find we are bidding against a much narrower field for those kinds of projects.”

It's the company's ability to penetrate these still growing commercial printing markets that's a critical factor in differentiating Classic Graphics from many of its past competitors.

“Printing is absolutely not scarce, but the ability to combine all of these other services via a one-stop operation for companies looking to trim the friction associated with managing a large campaign — that's what our capabilities give us,” says Pitts. “And you have to be able to show your customers that they can make more money by doing business with you than they can with your competitors.

“But I am not talking about being the low bidder on the print job,” Pitts explains. “I am talking about putting together a system for them that is so compelling that, really, the last thing they are thinking about is the cost of the printing. And the numbers are showing that we are putting millions of dollars back on their bottom line through our services.”


Forward looking, technology driven

Don't call Gold award winner Think Patented just another commercial printer. As the first and only G7 master printer in Dayton, OH, “conventional printing” is something the company does very well. But that no longer adequately defines the depth of expertise it provides for its customers.

When Ken McNerney and Niels Winther teamed up four years ago to take over Patented Printing, the two industry veterans knew they had to reinvent the company's organizational culture. Winther, who serves as chairman of the board and managing partner, explains that in the evolving world of print, “stuck-in-the-past, ink-on-paper-only companies” will be left behind if they don't start looking to the future of the print industry.

“The seemingly prevalent attitude of selling on price to keep cylinders turning is a major threat to the industry. We must embrace the fact that commercial printing means more than just printing, now,” says Winther. “Winning and growing companies understand their clients' business and ‘pain points,’ and they propose programs with better response rates, execute economical run lengths to better manage obsolete inventories, and innovate solutions to give clients a competitive edge with unique collateral material. In other words, they become a valued resource partner rather than just a disposable commodity vendor.”

Managing partners McNerney and Winther have expanded Think Patented's capabilities, focusing on the future of the industry and the changing needs of its diverse clientele. Winther says, “We look for new solutions to help our customers grow their business by producing their marketing collateral as economically as possible — be it litho printed or a digital multimedia integrated solution. Innovation is another key to success; understanding that the easy ‘me too’ and commodity product attitudes generally do not build value and sustained relevance.”

The road ahead

Think Patented installed a new Kodak NexPress 2500 with dimensional printing and glossing in February 2009 and a Watkiss collator last September. Most recently, the company added two Kodak Digimaster 150s and Kodak InSite software in August. “Our recent equipment investment is a focused effort to upgrade our capabilities and speed to meet increasing demand for variable digital black-and-white and color work,” says Winther.

McNerney adds, “We are pursuing expansion through more geographical coverage, two new sales executives in Cincinnati, vertical specialization as well as tuck-in/roll-up and acquisition strategies. New equipment is regularly evaluated to ensure [our] readiness to acquire when sustained demands are experienced.”

Recent and upcoming expansions are just another example of how Think Patented keeps its goals and business practices always pointed to the future. Winther likes to refer to the company as “futurologist,” always looking at potential developments and trends to help shape its business. Because for Think Patented, its ultimate goal is simple: to help reshape the landscape of commercial printing.


Success begins within

Indianapolis-based Gold award winner Harding Poorman Group, established in 2003 by David Harding and Bob Poorman after the purchase of general commercial printing company SPG and wide-format specialist Ropkey Graphics, has since added Full Court Press, Discom Technologies and most recently St. Clair Press to its family of interdependent companies. HPG is focused on offering a broad range of communications products and services to its diverse clientele, while maintaining its own identity, specialized workflow and entrepreneurial management team.

Always at the core of HPG is the idea of building the company through the strength and expertise of its employees. “We listen to each person, focusing on continuous improvement not only in our processes but our values and culture,” explains David Harding, president and CEO. “Each year, we conduct an employee survey to measure where we are headed vs. where we have been. And according to our people, we have come a long way. Our purpose is to make a meaningful difference in the lives of our employees.” That difference includes a 12% profit bonus, spoilage bonus, comprehensive wellness program and college training for its employees. It also includes a commitment to maintaining its existing team.

“Despite our sales being down about 20% last year, we didn't lay off any employees. They still got raises and a bonus, and we still made a nice profit,” says Harding. “This was all due to excellent work by our managers and staff. We met with employees on a bimonthly basis — instead of our normal quarterly basis — to keep them informed. It worked!”

Quality assurance

Keeping its quality management a critical focal point in its organizational culture, HPG recently received certification under the ISO 9001:2008 standard. The company has introduced several new programs to facilitate its lean management style. HPG uses 5S, a system developed in Japan to simplify the workplace and distinguish wasteful from value-added elements, to maintain a productive workspace for each area within the plant. The company also practices Six Sigma, a management strategy used to remove errors and defects in business and production processes. Two HPG employees have received the Six Sigma Black Belt designation.

The company empowers its staff with the “My Idea” system, an electronic tool available to each staff member that allows them to submit ideas to simplify or create new quality procedures. Harding says the system currently has generated over 1,100 ideas. “It is easy to copy large ideas from a competitor, but small incremental ideas are a lot harder to replicate,” he says. “We receive 30 or more ideas every month. Employees get credit on their performance reviews for submitting ideas.

“You have to produce a consistent product, keep delivery promises and look for better ways to help clients,” Harding adds. “We have purposely built a business that can sustain itself because of the quality of our people, training and open communication style.” He believes these important commitments keep HPG competitive in an economic climate and industry that has thrown many challenges in the past several years.


Partnering for success

When Tim Keran purchased Western Graphics (St. Paul, MN) from his father, Bob Keran, in 2001, the role of the commercial printer was changing. But with the expertise his father passed on to him, Keran was ready to take the helm at the Gold award winning company with fresh ideas and a new industry playing field to explore.

While many people in the industry saw electronic media as a sizeable threat, Keran considered it a new opportunity: “A lot more of our communication is electronic, so I think our job as printers is to figure out how we fit into this different communication medium.”

Keran's clients also are navigating through this communication evolution, trying to understand and utilize the new forms of marketing communication now available. “What has gotten tougher for print buyers is that they are no longer just buying print. So we are trying to help them do their job better and we are now in a position to help them,” says Keran. “We want to be a bigger partner and asset to them.” With over 50,000 sq. ft. and 50 employees, Western Graphics has the resources and the service philosophy to assist its customers with front-end document creation all the way through fulfillment and distribution.

Western Graphics claims bragging rights as one of the leading print-on-demand providers in the country since expanding with seven digital production presses. Offset sheetfed includes technology from Heidelberg and complete mailing services.

Leadership is key

Western Graphics hasn't become a premier printer and an NAPL Gold award winner solely through its commitment to diversifying its services in this changing industry. Keran attributes much of the firm's success to its experienced staff and the teamwork they demonstrate daily. Keran's strategy to ensure his team always stays on task has been to trust their abilities and “get out of their way.”

“We are not big fans of management. We believe more in leadership,” says Keran. “Rather than telling employees what to do, we try to ask them what they need. Because at the end of the day, we are just trying to work harder for each other.”

Leadership for Keran also means ensuring each employee stays engaged with the goals for Western Graphics. All goals for the company center around a set of five core values:

  • Speed
  • Excellence
  • Trust
  • Attitude
  • Teamwork

“We come in each day and we do our best. We live up to the values that we've attached ourselves to,” says Keran. “It's based on the fact that we are trying to get people to be a better team. And we believe leading the team is better than managing the team in terms of results.”

Speed matters

Western Graphics clearly has recognized the importance of diversifying and integrating itself into the new era of print, but through it all, Keran says speed and quality are the key attributes that drive the company.

“Speed is our niche, and one thing we are always working on is how to get faster,” says Keran. “We're always trying to make it easier to do business with us.”

Keran says Western Graphics is able to do that through shorter job runs and providing back-end services such as mailing and fulfillment to its clients.

“We don't have web presses or 40-inch presses. Our niche is with the shorter run jobs, as run lengths continue to come down due to the change in how people are buying print. We offer quality, quick turnarounds and we are very dependable,” says Keran. “Our reputation is built around that service model, and it fits us pretty well.”


Nsenga Thompson is associate editor for AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at

Mixing it up

For almost 20 years, Classic Graphics' main focus was being a high quality printer, but in 2000, David Pitts and Bill Gardner realized they couldn't allow it to become a commodity printer.

“We are sort of the poster child for what NAPL has been telling all printers for the last decade. If you are a commodity printer, it's because you have allowed yourself to become one,” Pitts explains. “You have to innovate and sell what's scarce, which are capabilities not everyone can do.”

Pitts admits a level of skepticism and resistance to NAPL's early message, but he says it didn't take long for him to become a believer. “We took a leap of faith and started adding those services, and it's a big reason we've been able to grow, even through some tough economic times,” says Pitts.

In 2003, the company added mailing and fulfillment services, which Pitts says helped Classic Graphics offer the end-to-end solutions many of its customer now require. With these new services, the company began handling more data and digital print. “To manage that more effectively, you've got to have the right software tools for your customers,” he says. “We were very lucky to be staffed with people who had a lot of imagination when it came to solving these kinds of problems, so we let them carry us into these new markets.”

Once the positive results started rolling in and the economy began to pick up, Pitts knew Classic Graphics was on to a good thing.

Employees matter

Think Patented is focused on bringing the ideas and expertise of its talented staff to the forefront of its business. “In this environment, you have to understand and control the total cost, and communicate openly and often to all employees,” says Niels Winther. “Everybody needs to know what is needed, why speed and efficient production are key, why waste is best at very low levels, and why automation and wise spending are key to sustainability.”

“We have an open-door policy and encourage staff at all levels to communicate innovation and efficiency improvement ideas,” adds Ken McNerney. “We have a culture of finding ways to say, ‘Yes we can.’ Understanding that our customers have choices and striving to be the best in all disciplines — from sales to delivery — is important.”

G7 demystified

See “Ensuring excellence” on page 19 for an explanation of the G7 methodology.

Getting green

Along with employee retention, HPG has shown a strong dedication to reducing its environmental impact. The company appears on the Environmental Protection Agency's new “Top 20 Printers” list of the largest green power purchasers in the commercial printing business. HPG was Indiana's first business to purchase 100% green power, and the fifth business nationwide.

Since HPG began its green initiatives in July 2008, the company has reduced its landfill waste by >24% and has implemented a recycling program that allows employees to bring recyclables from home. HPG also purchased two UV presses that produce zero volatile organic compounds.

More winners


Allen Press (Lawrence, KS)

Allstate Legal (Cranford, NJ)

C L Graphics (Crystal Lake, IL)

Classic Graphics (Charlotte, NC)

Daily Printing (Plymouth, MN)

Dome Printing (Sacramento, CA)

Hammer Packaging (West Henrietta, NY)

NPC (Claysburg, PA)

Omaha Printing (Omaha, NE)

Portland General Electric (Portland, OR)


COT Media Group (Christ Church, Barbados)

Midtown Printing Co. (St. Louis, MO)

PDQ Print Center (Taylor, PA)

Square One (Mount Laurel, NJ)

Washington State Department of Printing (Olympia, WA)

For more information, see

Vision 3 Summit

The Vision 3 Summit, March 13-16, 2011, combines the leadership programs of NAPL, the National Assn. for Printing Leadership (; NPES, the Assn. for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies (; and Printing Industries of America ( Printing company and vendor executives will convene at the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert, CA, to discuss industry trends, technology, market research and business management.

This event replaces the three associations' individual leadership programs, including NAPL's Top Management Conference, the NPES Industry Summit (which included Print Outlook and the PRIMIR Spring Meeting) and PIA's Presidents Conference. See