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Citation Press--Rags to Riches

August 2000
Tom Tran arrived in the United States in 1975—broke and alone. Today, he owns a successful printing operation in the Silicon Valley.


Tom Tran's story is the very definition of an American dream.

It is the story of a penniless refugee who finds his way to America and, through sheer determination, hard work and a little bit of luck, builds his fortune. It is a story many people have come to regard as myth and legend. But Tom Tran has proven that legends do exist.

Today, Tran is the owner of Citation Press, a $6.5 million company located in Santa Clara, CA. But 25 years ago, Tran's life was in a state of serious flux.

In 1975, a 21-year-old Tom Tran found himself living in a Pennsylvania refugee camp. He was broke, alone and unable to speak the language. Tran, a jet mechanic for the South Vietnamese air force, had escaped to the U.S. by boat following the fall of Saigon.

After three months in the camp, Tran landed a job as a janitor in the printing department of GTE in Marion, OH. It was to be his first encounter with the printing industry.

Within three months, his supervisor—recognizing Tran's willingness to work hard—promoted him to utilities helper. Meanwhile, Tran had enrolled in printing and business classes. He was learning to adapt to his new world; but there was one thing to which he just could not quite adapt: the weather.

"I wasn't used to Ohio winters. I came from a country where it was always 90 degrees," he says with a laugh. So, in 1980, Tran headed to California.

On the West Coast, Tran held a variety of jobs, but finally found work with a printing company, eventually becoming the manager. But there was one hitch: The owner could not provide health benefits. It was then that Tran knew it was time to strike out on his own.

He opened his first print shop in Santa Clara in 1981. Tran had hoped to capitalize on the large Vietnamese population in the area. Yet, within six months of opening, his first business failed. "I lacked funding, I lacked a business strategy and I was too immature. I was too young to work long hours," he recalls.

"I learned a lot from my first mistake. I learned to recognize what can be done and what cannot be done," he reflects. Even so, he was not one to give up easily.

Soon, Tran went back to work for another printing company. He enrolled in Small Business Administration-sponsored classes and began to save money for his next startup. "I knew that I could create future opportunities for both myself and for other people," he remembers. In 1984, he was ready to try again.

Tran Finds Success
An older and wiser Tran found success when he opened Columbia Press, in Sunnyvale, CA. This time, Tran did not fail. The company grew to 22 employees with $2 million in annual sales. Although successful, Tran was not content. He wanted more; he was ready to take the next step in the printing industry. But he realized that the culture at Columbia Press was not what he was looking for.

So he sold his interest in Columbia to his partner and, using the $360,000 he had in cash and securing an additional $3 million in loans, he built a 10,000-square-foot facility in Santa Clara and launched Citation Press. It was a calculated risk, but one that turned into gold. Tran's business plan originally projected revenues of $5 million by the year 2000. Citation passed that mark in 1995, and Tran believes he will surpass the $10 million mark this year.

Tran Success Strategies
When you ask Tran about what makes Citation successful, he points to technology and his employees. Tran is a firm believer that both have to be nurtured in order to ensure Citation's growth.

"We are a very modern company," he reveals. In 1997, a $6 million re-engineering project at the plant added two Heidelberg presses: a six-color, 28x40˝ Speedmaster CD 102 with in-line aqueous coater and infrared drying; and a four-color, 28x40˝ Speedmaster Classic 102 perfector, also with in-line aqueous coater and infrared drying. Citation's all-Heidelberg press department also includes a five-color, 19x251⁄2˝ M05 perfector with in-line aqueous coater and infrared dryer, and a two-color, 13x18˝ Printmaster QM-46 press.

Citation also offers customers complete prepress capabilities, which includes a CreoScitex Dolev 800V imagesetter, four Macintosh workstations, a Kodak 9000 digital color proofer and Fuji Color-Art proofing systems. The bindery department includes a Heidelberg Sheridan 455 saddle stitcher, a 45˝ Polar cutter and several Stahl folders.

Technology Is Key
Citation Press is always working to keep up with the latest in technology, according to Tran. The company is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, and is the printer of choice for companies such as Sony, Cisco Systems, Lucent and Sun Microsystems. These companies demand the latest in cutting-edge technology, Tran notes.

The high-tech industry also turns to Citation Press because of Tran's "guaranteed delivery or your money back" philosophy. "We work primarily with the high-tech industry, as well as with the advertising and design agencies that serve these high-tech businesses," notes Lucia Panini, Citation's marketing manager. "We've been able to develop a special niche, which is the specific need for quality within very tight deadlines."

To meet that demand, Citation has increased the size of its operation to 25,000 square feet and runs two shifts, six days a week; it could run three shifts if a job demands it. "It's really flexible; we run 24 hours on an as-needed basis," she explains. And that flexibility comes in handy when you consider that Tran considers it a streak of luck if he has 32 hours in which to complete a job.

While technology has improved turnaround times, it's Tran's employees who ensure that a quality job is delivered the next day—something that is not lost on Tran.

His own experience as a refugee has given him an insight into the lives of his employees. After all, it was Tran's inability to procure medical benefits at one of his first printing jobs that sparked his desire to own his own business. "It's very difficult; but if we want to make money, then we have to spend money. We have to take care of them. If we look after [our employees], they will work hard, and we'll reap the benefits."

So how does Tran inspire loyalty and hard work? For starters, more than a quarter of Citation's 70 employees are graduates of the Welfare to Work Partnership. "I try to create opportunities for them and help them out, just as people created opportunities for me in the past." It's these opportunities that have encouraged people to stay at Citation Press. "We give them a skill," he points out.

Tran also sponsors immigrants from Latin America and Asia. He handles issues of limited English skills by color coding instructions and bringing in an English teacher, sponsored by a state program, two hours a week. "I've earned a lot of loyalty from my employees," he observes.

But hard work and commitment to a job isn't all that Tran asks from his employees. He also encourages them to be part of the decision-making process. Tran believes in an open-door policy. Each Friday, he buys lunch for his employees in an effort to keep the lines of communication up and running. He says that the lunch sessions encourage feedback and brainstorming among workers. "It's very enjoyable and everyone sits down, has lunch and talks about what is going on and what can be done."

Always mindful of the future, Tran sees Citation's next big expansion occurring in cyberspace at "The dotcom phenomenon offers a worldwide market and it offers a lot of opportunity for the printing industry," he predicts.

Citation plans to conquer that market by launching its new Website, which will give the company an online solution for printing. Plans for the site include pricing, proofing and job tracking—all online. "It's going to give us a competitive edge and position Citation Press as an Internet express printer," he remarks.

While Tran is looking around the corner and plotting where he is going to go next, he still has not forgotten how he arrived at his success. In fact, it's something that crosses his mind each day. "I'm very grateful for what I have. And I thank everyone who has helped me. It really is an American dream come true."

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