2013 Hall of Fame : Bob Lothenbach - Imagine! the PossibilitiesSeptember 2013 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
Standing in the middle of the parking lot, Bob Lothenbach was keenly aware of a few facts. One, he no longer had a job. Two, he didn't have a set of wheels to exit said parking lot; he'd been using a company car. Three, he had $1,800 to his name and, four, it was only Monday. Not the best way to start the week.
Incredibly, it would turn out to be the greatest day in Bob Lothenbach's professional life. He would finally embark on his deferred dream of owning his own printing business. Little did Lothenbach know that on this day, April 4, 1988, he would be setting the wheels in motion on creating one of the printing industry's largest privately held printing concerns. At the time, obviously, he wasn't feeling so triumphant.
"I worked in sales at Crosstown Printing and became a part-owner of that business," explains Lothenbach. "I'd been there seven and a half years but, on that Monday, we had a falling out. We were going to acquire another company and I wouldn't do it, so I quit and walked out. It was only when I got out into the parking lot that it dawned on me...I didn't have my own car."
Tireless Work Ethic
Perhaps Lothenbach wasn't overly concerned with what would happen next, because he knew in the simplest terms that it was time to go to work. Loyal customers, upon learning of Lothenbach's departure from Crosstown, still wanted him to print their jobs. So he would collect the orders early in the day, pick up the paper in the early afternoon and print at night. The next morning, Lothenbach would cut, package and push the work out the door.
How did he produce the jobs? An equipment dealer had been at Crosstown when Lothenbach departed, and called him the same day to offer the use of its equipment. "He told me I could pay for the equipment when I could afford it," Lothenbach recalls.
He used a warehouse garage as the shop's home. His first hire was someone with a car, and Lothenbach slowly staffed up as sales grew. That first year, the company—Bob's Printing—did roughly $1 million in sales. It's gone through a few name changes (Challenge Printing and now Imagine! Print Solutions) but, 25 years later, it is still performing at a break-neck clip—30 percent annual compounded growth.
Today, Minneapolis-based Imagine! Print Solutions is on track to post annual sales north of $200 million. Its tale of amazing growth makes Lothenbach, the firm's president and owner, a fitting member of the 2013 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame class.
Through it all, Lothenbach was only following the work ethic guidance provided by his mother and father. The youngest of three boys, he grew up in Bloomington, MN, in what he describes as a typical, working-class experience. His father and two aunts purchased a cabin, and 19 family members would pile into it for unforgettable summer weekends. The elder Lothenbach would soon purchase his own cabin, but priorities were always set.
"When we went to the cabin, we'd bring our clothes in, then immediately go outside, open the shed and start the lawnmowers," he recalls. "We didn't do anything until all of our chores were done.
"My mother and father stressed honesty and integrity. My dad always said, 'If I teach you a good work ethic, I'll never have to worry about you being able to take care of yourself.' That's something he instilled in all three of his sons. It's benefitted me, and all three of us have done well."
It certainly helped that Lothenbach was blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit. Sure, he had a paper route when he was around 10, and he had Bob's Snow Plowing in the winter. But, while in high school, Lothenbach made out like a bandit by being one of the youngest concert promoters. As a junior, he put on five shows in the Paradise Ballroom featuring multiple acts.
"I hired three bands and advertised the shows on two radio stations," Lothenbach recalls. "I literally came home with a leaf bag full of cash."
There was little doubt, however, that printing was his destiny. Not only did he take printing classes in high school, Lothenbach worked for an Insty-Prints franchise 40 hours a week at the same time. "That's probably why I barely graduated...I was nuts," he quips. "It's probably against the law nowadays."
Lothenbach stuck with Insty-Prints until he was 21, which is when he assumed the sales position at Crosstown Printing. That seven-year stint helped whet his appetite for striking out on his own, and while the genesis of "Bob's Printing" wasn't as smooth and planned out, Lothenbach was fully prepared to expect the unexpected.
Suffice to say, the company has evolved over the years. Initially a 40˝ sheetfed general commercial shop called Challenge Printing, the company migrated from its Eden Prairie, MN, facility and rechristened itself as Imagine! Print Solutions, taking up residence in a 400,000-square-foot facility in Shakopee, MN. (In 2012, the company embarked upon a 300,000-square-foot addition that brought it to a current size in excess of 700,000 square feet.)
Aggressive diversification and a willingness to invest in new technology have helped keep the ledger sheet in an upward tilt. "Getting into large-format printing really set us apart," Lothenbach notes. "In the mid-1990s, I analyzed segments of the industry for growth and profitability, then started targeting areas that were showing good profit. That led to large-format, rollfed labels, UV and point-of-purchase work. We just kept broadening our offerings so we could sell more to our existing customers."
Still, Lothenbach channels much of his focus upon Imagine! Print Solutions' 850-odd staff of employees. In the early days, Lothenbach doted over customers but, while he still takes good care of them, it's the employees who are the key to success.
"If I take care of the 850 people here, they will take care of my clients," he says. "As printers, we can all buy the same equipment and consumables. But, it's the dedication of your workforce that can make you look good. My employees have proven to be the secret sauce."
Not an Ivory Tower-Type Leader
Lothenbach utilized team-building strategies before they became en vogue. Just to make sure employees didn't view their boss as some distant chief executive who was somewhat detached from the company and what went down on a daily basis, Lothenbach took off his dress shirt and tie, then—for the next 18 months—scrubbed the toilets and urinals. He wanted employees to know there wasn't anything they couldn't accomplish as a group.
Jimmy Rathmanner, a paper vendor who has served Lothenbach for more than 20 years, credits some of his own success to the printer's friendship and support during that time. "Throughout his meteoric success, I have been impressed by how Bob manages to stay grounded and remain humble," Rathmanner notes. "Running at a dizzying break-neck pace, Bob still always makes time for his family, friends and, of course, his customers. He has an unparalleled passion for the business and has never been afraid to take the road less traveled."
One industry perspective on Lothenbach comes from someone who's both a competitor and a client. Jim Cartwright, executive vice president and managing director for Saatchi & Saatchi X, was formerly a third-generation printer who plied his trade in the Midwest. During that time, Cartwright lost a vice president of sales employee to Challenge Printing and was curious to see what was so fascinating on the other side of the fence. The former worker stayed in touch and Cartwright soon learned what was so special about Lothenbach's business.
"Bob has put together a national presence in a space (sheetfed) that has required other printers to rely on acquisitions in different regions to establish a national base. Whereas Bob has an approach of a centralized vision that has achieved the same strength, presence and equity, coast-to-coast," Cartwright relates.
Eight years ago, Cartwright also became a client of then-Challenge Printing. The very first job Challenge performed for Cartwright had an issue, but he was impressed with the expedience and effectiveness of the solution that the printer provided.
"We've developed a strong relationship with them that's blossomed to the point where we look for Imagine! to provide us with very innovative approaches to our needs," Cartwright relates. "They have come up with product solutions that, in some cases, literally no one else was able to figure out and execute."
Lastly, Cartwright points out that Imagine! Print Solutions passes the walk-through test, where visitors can learn much about the atmosphere at a printing company by observing the eyes and mannerisms of the employees on the shop floor, along with their reactions to visitors. "I was there for the 25th anniversary of Imagine!, and there's an engagement between the people on the floor and Bob," he says. "There were healthy, genuine exchanges between them. It shows a respect of his leadership. And it tells you that things are going to get done right."
Away from the plant, Lothenbach enjoys traveling and spending time with his children—Clare, Audrey, Michael and Ryan. Other passions include golf and horses; he has 60-plus race horses.
Despite all of his success, Lothenbach is reluctant to pat himself on the back. "I'm just some dumb, lucky kid blessed by God," he says. "I'm a regular Joe." PI