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BINDERY MANAGEMENT -- Flourishing At Finishing

March 2002

Rodney Dangerfield has nothing on bindery and finishing operations when it comes to a lack of respect. Or at least that's how things traditionally had been in the industry.

Process automation—with the obligatory keyboards, LCD displays and digital readouts—is starting to give the machinery that high-tech aura. At the same time, on-demand production and workflow integration efforts like CIP4 are highlighting the integral role postpress operations play in the overall process. The market segment's profile may never have been higher.

It's understandable, though, if independent trade binders still feel a little picked on. Printers have been nibbling away at the market by bringing more postpress capabilities in-house. Also, the onus continues to be put on postpress operations to overcome any shortcomings in job planning or earlier production steps.

Whether they be independent companies or internal departments, successful bindery and finishing operations are finding ways to meet these challenges. There are similarities and differences in their approaches, depending on their positioning in the market.

One success strategy for independent trade binders is specialization, recommends Bruce Boyarsky, president of Ocean State Book Binding in Providence, RI. This means focusing on services that printers can't realistically justify bringing in-house, or at least not at the same productivity and quality level, he explains.

Part of his competitive strategy entails investing in new high-speed, automated equipment. Developing a high level of expertise and proficiency in a specialty is the other part, he adds. This can enable a shop to offer quicker turnarounds and be more responsive than the competition—whether that be another trade binder or in-house department.

Boyarsky personally is optimistic about the business opportunities, and he's obviously willing to put his money where is mouth is considering he just bought the trade bindery about 18 months ago. However, he concedes his search turned up a lot of owners looking to sell their bindery businesses.

All Bases Covered

Ocean State's list of services previously covered the basics, including cutting, folding, stitching, short-run perfect binding, drilling, round cornering and shrink-wrapping. Since taking over, Boyarsky has put his business philosophy to work by investing in automated equipment for mechanical binding (Wire-O, Plastikoil, GBC), adding capabilities to do smaller folds (down to about 1˝) and installing a padding machine.

"Customers had to go a lot further away to get this work done before, which made them less competitive," he says.

Ocean State has grown tremendously over the last year, but it's still a smaller company (10 employees). He thinks the company's size can work to its clients' advantage, since the shop can be more responsive to their needs.

"We're focusing more on being service-oriented in general, but in particular when it comes to turnaround," the company exec says. "Jobs that used to get turned around in three or four days now take a day. We can even get jobs done within the day."

Boyarsky sees being service-oriented as the best way to combat printers bringing capabilities in-house. "We have to be open with clients and offer solutions when-ever problems are encountered with a job, rather than just saying it won't work," he advises. "I'll even drive out to the customer with a sample to explain the problem and suggest solutions."

Boyarsky also believes in making up samples ahead of production to bring any potential problems to light. "Sometimes, that means spending money we don't get back on a job, but I think of it as an investment. The return comes from the volume of work we get from the customer," he says.

Somewhat in contrast to Ocean State, Finish Binders, in Des Moines, IA, strives to offer the widest range of services, according to Mark Beard, president. "We try to be an all-under-one-roof bindery and finishing house. That way customers can send their work to one place to get everything done," he explains.

Included in the company's array of services are mechanical binding, stitching, perfect binding, diecutting, UV coating, laminating and foil stamping. Its slogan, "Done Right on Time," reflects the emphasis management puts on responding to customer needs, especially in turnaround times. The shop has about 50 employees.

Finish Binders serves a range of printing companies, from small (quick printer) to large ($25+ million). The trade binder works closely with its customers, getting involved in the job early on, Beard notes. Whenever possible this includes consulting with clients at the design and layout stage to offer ideas for how a job can be produced more efficiently.

Beard believes part of the answer to printers bringing postpress capabilities in-house is to point out the real costs involved. Buying the equipment is just the beginning, he says, since most processes also require a fair amount of expertise. Even something basic like square footage of available plant space can be an issue, he adds.

For work within a one-day travel time, Beard contends that the speed of its equipment and running multiple shifts enable his shop to turn around work as quick or quicker than a printer could complete the job in-house. "Staying competitive comes down to honest communication and proper plant management," he says. "We let a client know if a job is going to be delayed, even by a matter of hours."

E-mail is becoming an important communication tool, as well. "E-mailing is quick, it's in writing and it's trackable," he notes. Finish Binders' customers so far haven't been pushing to go beyond that point, say to online quoting and/or scheduling, but Beard can see that happening in the not-too-distant future. "First we have to implement real-time data collection internally, which is our next big project," he says.

Bryce Berry at first might seem an unlikely cheerleader for the market segment, given that he recently sold the trade bindery he started about seven years ago. However, Berry agreed to stay on as vice president of sales at Express Solutions in Salt Lake City, UT. The company's business outlook and strategy have a lot in common with Finish Binders' story.

Offering Diverse Services

According to Berry, the 45-employee trade binder is a full-service shop, offering perfect binding, mechanical (Wire-O, coil, comb) binding, eyeleting, grommetting, index tabs, shrink-wrapping, fulfillment and more. "We diversify our services so if we're slow in one area, we'll still be alright," he says.

The bindery exec reports that three of the company's major competitors went out of business in the last 18 months and some of that equipment did go to printers. He still has confidence in the market, however.

"The companies that have gone out of business brought it on themselves. I saw quotes from one company that said it only answered the phone from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.," Berry says. "There is still a market opportunity for trade binders that are customer oriented in all aspects—quality, pricing and turnaround time. You can't just offer two of the three any more."

Like Beard, Berry advocates producing samples and mockups at no charge. "That's something our competitors don't do," he explains, "and I see it as a way to get work from the designer/agency through the printer." Working to get the tagline "Bound by Express Solutions" printed on work the shop produces is another way he tries to get the word out. Sometimes the company goes so far as to give a discount in exchange for the promotional message.

Express Solutions also has made the move to communicating via e-mail with printers, and some have advanced to sending attached files for mockups, Berry notes. "They'll send a QuarkXPress file so we can confirm tab positions, check the gutters on a page layout before trimming and otherwise make sure a job is set up right before it is run," he says.

Berry believes there will continue to be opportunities for trade binders to service all types of printers. "Even large printers may have finite capabilities, so we'll still do specialty and overrun work for those shops," he says. "We do need to be honest in our production time assessments and commitments."

There's a famous saying to the effect of, "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." Whichever category trade binders think printers fall into, knowing how they think can only help.

Color Ink, in Sussex, WI could be the worse-case scenario for trade binders. Bolstered by its more than $20 million in annual sales and large customer base, the full-service printer has expanded its postpress capabilities to include specialty processes along with the standards, like folding, cutting and saddle binding. The in-house department also can handle mechanical binding (Wire-O, coil, comb) and has padding and shrink-wrapping machines.

There's nothing particularly special about the printer's strategy in the binding and finishing area, reveals Bryan Dion, company president. "Doing more in-house enables printers to cut down on turnaround times, provide quality assurance and maximize efficiencies, which makes them more competitive," he explains. "Postpress is a key ingredient in our full-service solution. When we're sitting across from a print buyer, being able to offer all these capabilities under one roof is a major selling point for us.

"Even at our size, though, there is still the issue that you can't be everything to everybody," Dion continues. "There are certain services we want to contract out, not only because the capabilities are cost prohibitive to bring in-house, but also because we lack the required expertise."

The cost/benefits analysis starts with looking at the amount the printer is spending on outsourcing a service versus the cost of the equipment, Dion says. "Then we consider whether we are coming close to not meeting our customers' turnaround demands because of work being in somebody else's queue that we don't control. A related issue is any limitations in the resources available in our area."

Turnaround times and limited outside resources were key factors in Color Ink's decision to add mechanical binding, he notes. "There really is only one other big player in our area that does coil binding. In our turnaround environment and given the amount of outsourcing of mechanical binding we were doing, it just made sense for us to purchase the equipment so we could better service our customers."

At least at that level, the success strategies of trade binders and printers seem to be the same:

"Service your customers' needs and you can flourish. Don't, and you will perish."

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