2011 Hall of Fame : David Pitts - With Intellect and IntensitySeptember 2011 By Erik Cagle
In all likelihood, David Pitts will never win the Mr. Congeniality phase of a contest among printing industry executives. After all, the man describes himself as a "stick in the mud kind of guy."
OK, so Pitts, the president of Charlotte, NC-based Classic Graphics, has no future as a Wal-mart greeter. Who cares? He is one of the most respected Xs and Os executives from a technical standpoint. Pitts, who co-founded Classic Graphics—a commercial, direct mail and financial printing specialist—along with longtime partner and friend Bill Gardner, also had the good fortune of starting his company at the beginning of what would become the nation's longest and most significant economic expansion.
It says more about what kind of person Pitts is when he is quick to defer much of the credit for Classic's success to his partner. And Pitts' willingness to share his vast knowledge base with clients and fellow printers only solidifies his worthiness as a 2011 inductee into the Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame.
Make no mistake about it; Pitts has wielded much influence over the success of Classic Graphics, which opened to $65,000 in overflow work in 1983 and has since catapulted to more than $50 million in annual sales. Between them, Pitts and Gardner have been able to effectively communicate their strategy and vision for Classic.
"Financial discipline is a big thing for me," Pitts says. "When we started the company, I had never seen a P&L statement, never seen a balance sheet. But, because I am very interested in that side of the business, over the years I've gotten really good at budgeting and at understanding the cost drivers. We've managed in the last five to six years to understand that making a profit is not optional. When things change that endanger that goal, we fix them."
The Charlotte native transplanted to Bowling Green, KY, with his family around the age of 10 (Pitts was actually born in Munich, Germany, while his father was stationed there). While in high school, he met a girl in his art class who showed him various jobs she had printed at the local vocational school, which led him to take the printing course.
"Back then, anything that got me out of high school sounded like heaven to me," Pitts relates.
A strong work ethic was firmly ingrained in Pitts' psyche at any early age; he started working at age 15 and never stopped, taking side jobs such as working in a movie theater or grocery store. He had printing gigs prior to and after graduating from high school, but Pitts decided that printing was a dead end. So, he enrolled at Western Kentucky. The path soon led back to Charlotte, where he worked for his grandfather in heating and air conditioning while establishing residency to attend the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC). Perhaps a future as a chemical engineer loomed.
A Date With Destiny
But, a funny thing happened on the way to another future. While in school at UNCC, Pitts took a night job at Belk Printing where he met a man bent on starting his own printing company—Bill Gardner.
The duo borrowed $15,000 from family members to acquire a used camera, paper cutter and press, then hung out their shingle with $600 in working capital to spare.
Classic Graphics enjoyed a perfect blend of economical and geographic timing. In addition to debuting at the dawn of a prosperous economic era, Classic Graphics had the good fortune of serving two local financial entities, the predecessors of what are now Wells Fargo (First Union) and Bank of America (Nation's Bank). The financial work, especially, fueled Classic's growth through the mid-1990s.
One of the happier challenges Pitts needed to manage was the burgeoning growth of his company on an annual basis. Classic's annual growth rate between 1983 and 2000 was a staggering 37 percent, which meant that every two to three years the printer would outgrow its operating systems. That led the company to develop processes that led to ISO compliance; Classic has been ISO registered for the past 14 years.
But what really gave the company balance from a directional standpoint was the complementary relationship between Pitts and Gardner. The two will often disagree, but have the ability to close the door and hash out their differences until they can arrive at a consensus.
"Bill is very much a people person; me, not so much," Pitts observes of Gardner. "I'm a numbers guy, a rules guy and a technical guy. Bill really knows how to motivate people, and is a huge part of the reason why Classic Graphics is so successful."
For many colleagues, Pitts has been a wealthy source of knowledge in all things print-related, and some have picked his brain on matters aside from printing. To his credit, Pitts has always been happy to extend his expertise to fellow printers and clients.
Sharing His Wisdom
"David is one of the smartest guys I've ever met in this industry...and in life, for that matter," notes Andy Shulman, president of Atlanta-based Standard Press. "The knowledge that David has on many fronts is amazing. What truly makes him special is his willingness to share that amazing knowledge and to help other companies in our industry. I can tell you first-hand that I've benefitted tremendously."
Mervil Paylor, principal of Mervil Paylor Design, loves the fact that Pitts is a straight-shooter, a no-nonsense individual. "David is the same person professionally that he is personally—the WYSIWYG factor," she says. "You know where you stand with David. I can call him on a non-printing issue, like if I'm buying some computer equipment, and get his opinion. I know that if I call on him, I can count on him."
The same can be said from an association standpoint. Pitts availed himself of the resources offered by his Printing Industries of America (PIA) local affiliate, The Printing Industry of the Carolinas (PICA), during Classic Graphics' formative years, and he has spent much time and energy returning the favor.
"In the early years, when we were a little tyke—$500,000 to $1.5 million in sales—those associations were the information delivery system, especially for small printers who didn't have vendors beating down the doors," Pitts points out. "PICA and PIA (national) were absolutely invaluable to us when we were growing up. Now, I'm a member because I have an obligation to support the industry as a whole, and I think the PIA does good work representing our interests in Washington, DC. If they didn't do it, I don't think it would get done."
Pitts is also involved at the board level with the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) and is a member of the peer group Print America. The latter is an effective sounding board that also allows members to compare notes on a wide variety of subjects.
Away from the office, Pitts and his wife of 26 years, Wendy, enjoy spending time at their getaway home on New River, VA. He has traveled to Italy, Africa and New Zealand. They have two dogs, Zoe (Lab/Dalmation mix) and Jesse (German shepherd).
An avid hunter, fisherman and shooter, Pitts also enjoys wildlife and landscape photography.
"I've had the opportunity to take thousands of pictures," he notes, "and dozens of really good ones." PI