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2004 Fast-Track Firms -- Success Despite Adversity

December 2004
By Erik Cagle

Senior Editor

Those pundits who, a year ago, predicted that an improved economy would translate to a trickle-down effect for the commercial printing industry were eventually right. After a three-year funk, many observers impatiently watched as 2004 jumped into gear like a lazy teenager preparing for his final spring in high school.

But as the second half of the year garnered steam, so did the industry. Graph Expo & Converting Expo produced solid foot traffic and sales volume, and a number of printers announced substantial capital investment initiatives. By year's end, the confidence in improving numbers was no longer wistfully forced.

As you look at the following fast-track companies, please keep in mind that most of these performances were for the fiscal year that ended December 31, 2003, before the perceived (or real) recovery. That didn't stop these printers from flourishing.

A sampling of the year's finest performers is listed below, in no particular order.

Pictorial Offset

Carlstadt, NJ

2004 Ranking: 86

Most Recent Fiscal Year Sales: $68M

Previous Fiscal Year Sales: $56M

Pictorial Offset, which grew by 21 percent year-over-year, works with customers and supporting advertising agencies to advance their electronic and print promotional marketing strategies within the pharmaceutical, communications, automotive and luxury goods markets.

During 2004, Pictorial Offset added critical sales personnel, resources to expand its "Design to Destination" service offerings and developed Web-based solutions aimed at reducing cycle times, headaches and money spent by customers.

"The driving forces enabling our growth stem from a conscious effort to define and grow Pictorial Offset as a brand that represents a passion for customer satisfaction, superior quality and reliability, as well as community stewardship," notes Gary Pawlaczyk, vice president of sales and marketing.

The company prefers to take a long-term, solutions-based approach to strategic technology investments by projecting ahead up to five years to gauge future client needs. Particularly, Pictorial Offset has focused its recent efforts on prepress technology, adding personnel to expand on its color retouching, print ad distribution and Staccato screening capabilities.

Pictorial expanded its on-site mailing and fulfillment business, Pictorial Mailworks, and plans to install an eight-color MAN Roland sheetfed press with UV coating capabilities.

Trend Offset Printing

Los Alamitos, CA

2004 Ranking: 26

Most Recent Fiscal Year Sales: $230M

Previous Fiscal Year Sales: $187.6M

The masters of coldset and heatset web printing have been on a tear since the addition of strategic facilities in Carrollton, TX, (in 1998) and Jacksonville, FL, (2001). Sales for the fiscal year ending December 31, 2003 were $230 million, up from the $187.6 million performance posted the previous year.

Trend Offset competes in five web offset markets: publications, catalogs, retail, directory and government printing. A lion's share of the work is publication-based, with Trend manufacturing hundreds of weekly, monthly and quarterly niche magazines.

What helped foster success for Trend Offset was a focused sales drive with collaborative selling, creating value for customers and the printer alike, according to CEO Jeff Sweetman, which he terms a "quid pro quo" sales approach.

"During this growth period, we performed well with both a good sales offense closing new deals and good defense, as well, protecting our client base from attack," Sweetman says.

A key element in fueling Trend Offset's growth was an expansion initiative at its Los Alamitos headquarters. Two presses came online: an eight-unit Heidelberg M-655 double-web press with Autoplate plate changing, and a 16-unit Heidelberg 10-web coldset press. Currently, the company is installing an eight-unit Goss Sunday 2000 press with Autoplate.

Outlook Group

Neenah, WI

2004 Ranking: 76

Most Recent Fiscal Year Sales: $72.8M

Previous Fiscal Year Sales: $61M

This publicly traded company has undergone a service identity change. Outlook Group hit its apex in the baseball card printing niche, providing reams of product for the industry's leading card companies. It also produced cards for popular board games such as Trivial Pursuit.

The baseball strike of 1994-1995 spelled big trouble for the trading card industry, and around this point Outlook Group made a number of acquisitions that did not pan out, according to President Joe Baksha.

Thus, in the late 1990s, Outlook Group had a makeover of sorts, moving into new areas such as direct mail, fulfillment and packaging. The printer morphed into a supply chain management company.

What has enabled the company to reap solid growth in recent years is the long-term deals it negotiates with clients. Outlook currently has 80 percent of its business locked up via multi-year accords.

A fair share of Outlook Group's clients are Fortune 100 or 500 companies that delve into consumer product or direct mail campaigns. Not that Outlook has totally abandoned the printed card. The company is slated to produce 1.2 billion postcards in 2005 in order to serve those direct mail efforts.

Outlook Group upgraded its litho presses in order to do more two-sided work, and shored up equipment for doing in-line coating and spot coating. It also fortified the ranks of finishing equipment.

Outlook Group is focusing on its Six Sigma cost reductions; Baksha notes that sales per employee has increased 40 percent.

Challenge Printing

Eden Prairie, MN

2004 Ranking: 84

Most Recent Fiscal Year Sales: $68.7M

Previous Fiscal Year Sales: $58.17M

In case you were wondering, Challenge Printing did indeed appear on this list last year. In just two years, this Minnesota printer, which serves the retail, manufacturing, food and agency segments (among others), has grown its sales by nearly $17 million.

In an effort to diversify its product offerings and bolster its e-commerce repertoire, Challenge added complete in-house temporary display capabilities and plastic card production to complement its Web-based offerings of digital asset management, store profile management, real-time production and shipment status, fulfillment and print management reports.

"Our diversification and solutions-based sales approach have allowed us to take advantage of vendor consolidation efforts in many industries," notes Chris Bixler, vice president of sales.

Of the $25 million Challenge has invested in new equipment over the last four years, perhaps no one piece is more prolific than its 81˝ KBA sheetfed press with interdeck UV drying, which Bixler says is the first of its kind in the world. The company also installed two six-color, 41˝ KBA Rapida 105s.

Additionally, Challenge is relocating two manufacturing locales and one storage facility into a single, 400,000-square-foot headquarters in the first half of 2005. The printer also has sales offices in seven cities, a figure it plans to double over the next two years.


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