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Strength in numbers

Jul 1, 2008 12:00 AM

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Founded in 1981, Einstein Printing (Dallas) is a $1.4 million printer. There's nothing flashy about the nine employees or the mix of digital and offset equipment in the 5,800-sq.-ft. operation. And founder Keith Einstein seems like many other entrepreneurs — a hard working guy who isn't afraid of a challenge.

Like any printer, Einstein must contend with an uncertain economy, fierce competition and the usual operational and human resource issues. Unlike many printers, Keith Einstein has a secret weapon: CPrint (Certified Printers Intl.). CPrint is the brainchild of veteran quick print consultant Tom Crouser (Charleston, WV) as an evolution of his performance groups. Launched in 2004, CPrint helps printers succeed through business advisors, peer-based meetings and educational programs. Additional benefits include special services and products that facilitate customer file creation, job submission and more.

Einstein's goal is to maintain a minimum of 5 percent growth each year over the next three years. “If you're not growing, you're declining,” he says. “We're not comfortable at our current size.”

Ending months of Mylanta moments

Eighteen years ago, however, month-to-month survival took precedence over long-term planning. Could Einstein meet his payroll? Pay his paper bill and other monthly expenses? “I hated [my job],” says Einstein. “I was living hand-to-mouth and it was very stressful.”

Today, Einstein serves as a mentor to some of his fellow CPrint members. While printers tend to think of themselves as each facing unique hurdles, group members quickly discover they have a lot in common. “Everyone's had some hard knocks,” says Einstein. “We rarely see a new issue, and people take some comfort in that.”

As a student at Kent State, Einstein dreamed of being a photographer. But as graduation loomed, he had a “Big Chill”-like epiphany. “I realized I wouldn't make much of a living as a photographer,” he explains. “I had some print courses, so I got into printing, eventually managing a shop in Buffalo, NY, for three years.”

Einstein enjoyed his time with the company, but the lack of growth opportunities frustrated him. The family-owned shop had two sons and a daughter in line to take over the business, eliminating any further career advancement.

While Einstein doesn't miss the notorious Buffalo winters, his motivation for moving to Texas wasn't meteorological. Upstate New York's economy was dismal while Dallas' was booming. “I wanted [to work] every possible angle to succeed.”

In the waning days of 1980, Einstein and his wife, Judy, prepared for the big move. They rounded up their two cats, packed their car and set out for Texas. In January 1981, Einstein Printing opened its doors. “I was pretty na├»ve,” concedes Einstein. “We were located in a new office building and I assumed all of the other tenants would buy their printing from me.”

A bumpy start

Three months later, Einstein's cash was almost all gone. “I knocked on doors,” says Einstein. “I got a couple of good accounts.”

Judy helped in the early days, but as the business struggled, she took a teaching job. Amazingly, at the end of the first year, Einstein was profitable. “There was no question that we were going to make it,” says Einstein.

Things went well for the next three years. “In the beginning, we were strictly a quick print shop. One color, preferably black, was all we knew,” Einstein recalls. “Along with printing and copying we did a lot of blueprinting.”

In 1983, the bottom began to drop out of the Dallas real estate market. In those days, Einstein derived about 40 percent of its business from the financial and real estate sectors. One day Einstein opened the paper to see his biggest customer featured on the front page. “Our No. 1 customer was arrested for tax evasion,” he says. “We lost more than $20,000 that [the company] owed us and a huge percentage of our regular business.”

The next three years were difficult. “It was gut-check time,” says Einstein. “I was plugging away, knocking on doors. We landed a couple more good size accounts and gradually things started to pick up.”

Having learned his lesson from the real estate downturn, Einstein strove to diversify his product offerings as well as his client base. “I wanted to offer a service that provided a high level of quality and knowledge but was more responsive to shorter deadlines and price points more in line with quick printers,” he says. “We developed the attitude that we're going to help our clients be successful.” Currently customers include a book retailer, a software developer, a museum and several restaurants.

In 1991, Einstein, a former NAQP board member, heard Crouser speak at an association meeting. “I liked the idea of a facilitated peer group,” Einstein says. “People were prospering from his meetings, [and] I could see this was good stuff.”

Crouser created the peer performance groups as an extension of his consulting practice in 1985. Over the years, as Crouser expanded his company's services, the business model changed, too. Legally speaking, the former consultancy was now considered a franchise. Three years ago, Crouser formally made the change with the creation of CPrint.

In two or you're through

“CPrint isn't a performance group. It is a new printing franchise model,” says John Giles, the group's technical advisor. “Most performance groups are informal and participants share information as they attempt to improve their own organizations. [Typically] there is no real accountability.”

As with the former Crouser performance groups, CPrint members must follow a prescribed business model. Members are organized into boards that meet twice a year and communicate on a regular basis. Participants join for a two-year period and must achieve minimum performance standards. “A printer who meets the standards is ‘certified,’” explains Giles. “CPrint monitors each members' financials on a monthly basis. A consultant visits each participant annually to inspect the operation and [provide ratings toward] certification status. At the board meetings, the participants review their successes over the past six months and prepare action plans for the next six months.”

Einstein says that certified printers essentially have earned a seal of approval. “[It] means the printer follows best practices, offers competitive wages and benefits, is financially strong, has adequate insurance, adheres to a [proven] production management system, uses proper prepress software and hardware, trains its staff and the list goes on.”

Printers that don't meet the CPrint's standards can't remain in the program. “This is a major difference from other franchises and keeps participants working toward their goals,” says Giles. “CPrint holds its members to higher standards.”

Once a company has signed up, a CPrint advisor visits the shop to work on budgets and action plans as well as to help with personnel and competitive issues. The advisor remains on call — a CPrint member can get expert help via phone or e-mail whenever it's needed. (See “By their bootstraps,” April 2007.)

Geographic exclusivity fosters trust — member companies aren't competitors and generally are about the same size. Most participants' operations range from 4 to 12 employees, with sales varying from $200,000 to more than $3 million. CPrint participants join a board of directors made up of similarly sized member companies. Each board is comprised of up to seven other companies that meet in the spring and fall with their advisor. Another veteran owner, such as Einstein, is designated a mentor and chairs the board meetings.

The bottom line

Each of CPrint's 115 members strives for a 2:1 current ratio, a 15 percent sales growth over a three- year period, and 20-percent profit before the owner's compensation. In 2007, six affiliates achieved this goal: imPRESSive Printing (Tampa, FL); St. Charles Printing (Boutte, LA); K-Team Printing and Imaging in (Hammond, LA); Wax Family Printing (Murfreesboro, TN); Peacock Printing (Mt. Vernon, IL); and The Reprographics Center (Farmington, NM).

“CPrint has been vital to our growth,” says Einstein. “It's provided stability and [a clearer financial perspective]. Prior to joining, we were cash poor. With CPrint's [guidance] we've consistently had a strong balance sheet.”

Katherine O'Brien is the editor in chief of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at

How are you doing?

The National Assn. of Quick Printers (NAQP) has just released its 2008-2009 Operating Ratio Study.

According to Steve Johnson, NAQP president and CEO, sales volume has grown but payroll costs have risen as a percentage of sales, cutting into industry profitability. While net owner's compensation rose on average from $60,100 in 1983 to $148,440 in 2007, it is down significantly as a percentage of total revenues (17.9 percent to 12.6 percent over the period).


Behind the logo

Tom Lout, principal of Tom Lout & Co. (Dallas), created a distinctive logo for Keith Einstein in the mid-1990s. The two met when Lout gave a presentation to Einstein Rotary's Club on corporate design. “I really liked Tom's style so I asked him to create a look for me,” says Einstein. “We've been friends ever since. It's worked out for both of us. Tom likes our quality and sends us printing from his clients.” Lout says the printer in the logo bears a slight resemblance to Einstein. “I tried to make it look like him,” says Lout. “He's an absolutely fabulous guy. He's found a great niche.” Einstein was pleased with Lout's efforts. “I loved the 1930s industrial style it invokes. The apron gives it that craftsmanship feel. The sunburst gives vibrancy. And of course the rollers and the paper say it all…we're printers!”