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2012 Hall of Fame : David Harding - Small Start, Big Aspirations

October 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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What is the difference between a warning and a challenge? Apparently, it's only a matter of one's point of view.

Just ask David Harding. The president and CEO of HardingPoorman Group, a $34 million printer based in Indianapolis, cut his teeth in the industry as the owner of The Printing Co., a quick printing operation located in a strip mall. A small strip mall. In fact, his shop took up just 1,100 square feet of space. The desk accessories section of your local Staples franchise alone is probably bigger.

It was in this context that Harding received a bit of unsolicited advice from a customer: There is no way a small, quick printing business can put (outside) salespeople on the street and make any money, he was told. "It makes you think of a parent/child relationship, when one tells the other, 'you can't do that,' it motivates you even more to do it.

"We put salespeople on the street, made money, moved to a warehouse location and grew sales to $7.5 million a year," Harding adds. Call it the ironic Gipper speech.

That Harding has built a career based upon being up to the challenge of growing a successful printing business is reflected in his earlier induction to the NAPL Management Plus Hall of Fame. And, he defied the odds of being a successful owner not once, but twice, and can add a second distinction as a member of the 2012 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame.

Although he sold The Printing Co. to industry consolidator Master Graphics and remained on board to run the firm another five years, Harding wanted to go in another direction. He and business partner Bob Poorman joined forces in 2003 to assemble a network of printing companies under one roof: SPG Graphics, Ropkey Graphics, Full Court Press, Miles Printing on Plastics, Discom Technologies and Education Connection Publishing.

"We vowed never to sell to an outside party again," Harding relates. "Our goal is to build a sustainable business, owned by key employees, that is still around long after we retire."

Harding has never been afraid to take up Plan B. Upon graduating from Indiana University/Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), he embarked upon a career in radio. Actually, Harding was quite an entrepreneur even before attending IUPUI; perhaps the influence of his father, who owned his own construction business, rubbed off on the younger Harding.

Entrepreneur at an Early Age

Between the ages of 12 and 16, he had a newspaper delivery route, another venture of hanging doorknob advertisements, and a third service that provided piped-in background music for restaurants and offices. The music—reel-to-reel tapes of recorded songs—would be piped in over phone lines.

"My mom would have to rewind the tapes and start them again while I was at school so the music didn't run out," Harding recalls.

Oddly enough, his first brush with printing came in seventh grade, when Harding took a class in vocational printing. But at age 16, Harding fell in love with radio. It started with his high school's radio station, where he did news and sports. His mother would often write notes so that Harding could miss school to cover press conferences and political events. He eventually hosted a talk show and worked for various stations throughout Indianapolis.

"I began to realize I wasn't going be able to make much of a career out of it," Harding says of his 12-year journey on the airwaves. "There's not a lot of money in it; they pay you with ego and the fact that you're on the radio. But, unless you're a jock like Howard Stern, it doesn't pay the bills."

Exiting radio did have its advantages. A close friend who owned a printing business—sensing Harding could cash in on his local celebrity status—hired him for the sales department. Eighteen months later, Harding put it on the line and bought his own printing company. He even sold his car on a trade-in deal to pick up $10,000 in cash for working capital, while the friend co-signed a loan for another $10,000.

"We would pay ourselves a little, but put most of the money in the business," he says of the early years. "My wife would come in and write the checks for us. She would note that we spent a lot of money on paper and we needed to cut back on it."

Harding laughs.

"I can remember living at the shop for a while, with all of my stuff in it," he admits. "Things were more loosey-goosey then. It was easy to get your vision across because you talked to everybody every day."

That ability to share his vision on the granular level was one benefit of operating a small, quick printing operation. While the shop turned into a success—$7.5 million in annual sales with a loyal core of dedicated employees—the process exacted a toll on Harding. A strong, intense fear of failure began to take hold of him, and he finally needed to seek out help.

"We were making good money, I'd just been elected to the NAPL Hall of Fame, everything was good. But, it almost paralyzed me," Harding relates. "I wasn't fun to be around. I wouldn't have any fun on the weekends. There were times I'd call my wife, crying, because I was so depressed at the time and afraid of failure."

Harding felt the time was right to sell, so he arranged a deal with Master Graphics that saw him remain on board to run the shop. After five years, he and Bob Poorman—who had also sold his business to Master Graphics—decided to take a different approach to assembling a new printing dynasty through mergers and acquisitions. Harding believes his company has constructed a better M&A mousetrap.

"We've gotten fairly good at it," he says. "Many times, there is a lack of communication to employees on both sides after an acquisition, so they have a lot of fear. We have an acronym for fear—false expectations that appear real. The more you communicate with them, the better.

"The second thing is, we make decisions fast. We move employees into our building right away and decide who we're going to keep very quickly. The quicker you do things, the better it is for staff members because it alleviates fear."

Not One to Micro-Manage

Nigel Worme, CEO and managing director of COT Holdings, has known Harding for more than 10 years through the NAPL and a peer group. To know David Harding, he says, is to know the HardingPoorman Group.

"Dave is a strategist extraordinaire," Worme relates. "When asked what his role is or what he does on a daily basis, his response is simply, 'nothing at all.' Never have I seen the theory of hiring the right people, training them well, expect the world of them, and then get out of their way and let them do their job put into practice better than as I have seen at HardingPoorman.

"Along with partners Bob Poorman and Steve Anzalone, Dave heads a team that provides some of the best leadership that our industry has ever known," he adds. "They put their people first and reward them handsomely, and they take exceptional care of their customers."

Harding is proud of the fact that he has staff members in place that keep the business humming along, leaving him to ponder big-picture initiatives. "Because we've hired the 'best of the best' and mentored our managers to run their departments like a business, I get to spend most of my time mentoring and dreaming about the future of the business," he says. "I love the visionary aspect."

Bill Caskey, owner of Caskey Achievement Strategies, which provides sales training to HardingPoorman Group, testifies to Harding's quest for knowledge. "While most entrepreneurs have the feeling they 'know it all,' David has never, ever held that belief," Caskey says. "As a consultant who has worked with David and his team for many years, I can attest to the fact that he has built his business on continuous learning and self-improvement.

"David has a knack for seeing the vision and, at the same time, being very aware of his current reality. His head is in the stars, but his feet firmly planted in reality. That's a rare gift that he has turned into massive success."

Away from the office, Harding takes pleasure in golf, Morgan horses and playing cards. He met fiancée Diana through the Morgan horse circuit (Diana and their respective daughters have captured world championships). They collectively own four show horses. Coincidentally, Harding has a 22-year-old son (Andrew) and a 20-year-old daughter (Allison), as does Diana. PI


 

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