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By their Bootstraps

Apr 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Most printers agree that to succeed in this industry, you have to love it. For partners Marya and Brigid Kaye, working low-level printing jobs in their Texas hometown wasn't enough. They struck out on their own in 1995, moving all the way to Philadelphia and founding Creative Characters, a burgeoning digital and offset print business serving medical and educational clients across the country. Cofounder and sales manager Brigid Kaye recently shared Creative Characters' story with us.

For the past two years, Creative Characters has won CPrint's ( coveted “2/20&15 award for superior performance in print shop management.” Kaye explains the 2/20&15 benchmark: “It means we have to do at or better than a 2:1 current ratio, 20 percent income before owners' compensation and a fifteen percent minimum sales growth over the previous three years. But the truth is, for the last three years we've had at least a 25 percent sales growth — so we're looking at about a 75 percent sales growth over a three-year period.” The company's current sales figure is $755,000, a number the partners expect to grow exponentially following their move to a new, larger facility.

Breaking down barriers

“We used to work for an overnight copy service in Dallas,” says Kaye. “It's a good-old-boy network — Texas is what it is, you know — I was born and raised there.” After she and Marya worked there for many years, they became frustrated by the lack of opportunity for promotion. “We hit a glass ceiling where we couldn't go any further, and we just felt that we could better serve ourselves as people by doing something else,” she explains.

A friend with a legal copy service in Manhattan had been asking them to come and work for her. “For years, we'd said, ‘No, what's a Texan doing in New York City?’” says Kaye. But, she and Marya decided they were ready for a change of scenery. They drove to New York and worked a six-month stint for their friend, eventually moving to Philadelphia to work for themselves.

They ran a home-based typesetting business for a few months. “We wanted to just be typesetters, but we couldn't make money at that,” says Kaye. She phoned a family friend back in Texas, who just happened to be a banker, and took out a personal loan for $10,000 to start a retail copy business.

Creative Characters opened for business in a 400-sq.-ft. shop with two folding tables, two PCs, two Mita copiers on lease, a hand cutter and some other used finishing equipment from a local GBC dealer. In the beginning, they hauled supplies on a bicycle. “We were struggling hard,” says Kaye.

The business was all walk-up retail until, one day, Kaye got a call from Arthur Pressman, a top lawyer in Philadelphia. “He said, ‘I'd like you to come down and talk to me about my newsletter. I hear you're doing some pretty good type,’” she explains. “I said, ‘Alright, but I just want to tell you right now that I'm not going to be coming in a dress and heels like those office girls. I'm wearing my jeans and sneakers.’” Fortunately, that was fine with Pressman. “I really was very uncouth in the beginning, and I didn't know what to do,” she explains. “We started out thinking we wouldn't have bosses. But, once you own your own business, you have a lot of bosses. Every customer is your boss.”

Taking on offset

Creative Characters started out brokering offset print jobs, and continued to grow the business on word of mouth and referrals from existing customers. “Two or three years in, we decided that we really needed to take control of our printing,” says Kaye. They knew someone who repaired presses, so they hired him to evaluate a used AB Dick 9850 that was available, and to teach them to run it. After buying the press, they moved into a 900-sq.-ft. facility. By 2003, the company was making $396,000 in annual sales.

“We had good growth for several years, but then our sales started to slip,” says Kaye. “We knew we needed help from somebody who knew something about printing — not just us or our friend in New York City — because anybody who's close to it can't look at it objectively.” They'd read about several industry consultants, and ultimately called on CPrint to come out and appraise the business. “To be honest, neither of us really knew how to read a financial statement,” she explains. CPrint's evaluation came up with a $100,000 deficit. “We were about to tank, and we didn't even know it,” she says.

CPrint's George Yoxtheimer spent eight hours on the phone with Creative Characters, one Saturday, talking about the business and what they could do to turn things around. Marya had a new baby, and they wanted to make sure moving forward with his action plan would be beneficial. “After some soul searching, we decided to take a leap of faith,” says Kaye. She invested all of the money she'd recently inherited from her parents in signing a long-term contract with CPrint and moving forward with the steps they recommended. “They came in, looked at us and said, ‘Here's what you've got to do,’” she explains. “And we just started doing each thing and checking it off.”

Learning the ropes

In exchange for a monthly fee, CPrint provided a roadmap for Creative Characters that included determining each partner's role in the company and training them on how to carry out those responsibilities. While Brigid manages sales, Marya is GM and production manager. Kaye explains, “[Marya's] role as general manager is to make and meet all budgets. Somebody's got to have the final say, so it's her.”

The partners each took CPrint management training courses, and they participate in ongoing roundtables with a peer group that gathers in Chicago biannually. Marya won CPrint's “Production Manager of the Year” award for 2006, and Brigid won 2006 “Salesperson of the Year.”

They have three employees: Jared O'Donnell, production specialist; Eric Banks, graphic designer; and Janice Rowland, finance manager.

Once a year, CPrint comes in and does an on-site evaluation. “They look at everything we do, from our financials to our employment guidelines,” Kaye explains. “The point of having CPrint here is to come in and tell us how to run our business better so we can have more time and more money for our families.” They also look into whether they're putting enough money away for retirement.

“CPrint is very hands-on,” Kaye notes. “We talk on e-mail every single day. I do a weekly sales report and Marya does a weekly general manager report to our group, and twice a year we go to Chicago and meet with our board of directors.” The board is comprised of eight noncompeting companies that are similarly situated. “During the meeting, they'll do educational sessions,” she explains. “For instance, they suggested we get a specific Web site type that would plug into the larger enterprise management systems, because that's coming down the pike for smaller printers. And, they brought us variable-data printing before VDP was in any of the magazines.”

Fast forward

Today, Creative Characters runs a stable of digital production printers and three sheetfed offset presses. They also do postpress work in-house, from folding to lamination. They broker high-end digital press work and offset runs over 50,000 out to nearby printers, as well as ad specialties and other print-related items.

“We're knee deep in the ink,” says Kaye. The partners and their employees produce brochures, newsletters, fundraising campaign pieces and stationery for a variety of clients, mostly medical and educational companies and associations.

“Our primary focus over the last several years has been variable-data printing,” says Kaye. “So we are focusing heavily on marketing and how we can bring a better return on investment to our customers through our marketing efforts.”

Most of Kaye's accounts are long-term customers. She says, “We really want to be involved and be a hands-on partner.” For VDP projects, she explains, “We strategize with them and plan out who we're going to target and how far we'll go in targeting the ideal customer. We want to make money for them — that's the point.”

With new customers, Kaye focuses on relationship building before suggesting a VDP project. “It is a pricey product for some customers,” she says. “With VDP, you have to trust in your printer to do that job. It isn't just cost of printing plus variable data. It's a package.”

Kaye oversees the entire VDP project, from initial meetings to list management and on through graphic design. Creative Characters doesn't use templates. “We treat each job individually — we don't try to put anybody in a box,” she says.

A recent VDP project for a local engineering firm consisted of three postcard campaigns in two versions, for a total of six highly personalized cards per recipient. The list included developers, construction managers and architects, and the cards included the name, photo and contact information for a person in the engineering firm.

“I didn't know it, but they had their marketing company on the list we mailed to,” says Kaye. After receiving the postcards, the engineering firm's marketing company called them and gave it a rave review. “They got at least three jobs out of it,” says Kaye. “An average job for this customer is a quarter of a million dollars, so this little postcard campaign raked in nearly three quarters of a million dollars, for them.”

For other VDP jobs, they use personalized URLs (PURLs) to track response rates.

A bright future

Creative Characters runs half offset, half digital, with VDP and PURLs representing about 10 percent of their work.

“We're getting heavier into PURLs and marketing consultancy,” says Kaye, noting her ongoing efforts in testing markets and tracking campaign response rates. For their own shop, the partners use VDP in their monthly newsletter, which is distributed to customers and prospects, as well as six to eight postcard campaigns per year.

In the new, 3,000-sq.-ft. facility Creative Characters is moving into as this issue of AMERICAN PRINTER goes to press, they're moving forward on a plan CPrint helped them plot out years in advance. “One of the things CPrint brought to the table was the ability to plan,” says Kaye. “I'll tell you — it was the best thing we ever did.” They're adding new finishing equipment from Morgana, increasing their VDP marketing efforts and setting their sights on another year of 25 percent or better sales growth.

Visit Creative Characters online at

What is CPrint?

Certified Printers Intl. (CPrint) is a program from Crouser & Associates, Inc., ( offering management consultancy and peer networking for printers. One printing company per market is permitted to participate. Kaye explains that this fosters a collaborative environment among noncompeting printers.


Denise Kapel is managing editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at