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Finding Answers Any Way You Can --Cagle

February 2003
It's early December, as I write this, and the first major snowstorm rocks the City of Brotherly Love. The storm takes a rare path of traveling due north up the eastern seaboard.

For those of us living in southern New Jersey (or South Jersey to all us separatist hawks) this is odd. Weather reports always show major storms striking north and west of Philly, meaning those of us on the eastern side of the Delaware River get to enjoy light precipitation, primarily rain. But on this morning, the storm is making its way north via Washington, DC.

What a time for PRINT Outlook 03. Four inches of snow is enough to turn snow-challenged cities such as Philly and DC, which become gridlocked with anything over two inches, into a traveler's nightmare.

Though a grizzled industry veteran of four (count 'em, four) years, it was this reporter's first encounter with Kip Smythe, Bill Lamparter and the NPES gang. It was nice to shake hands with the legendary Chris Colville, the Alex Rodriguez of the commercial printing industry. I wish I had a baseball, or a mock sales agreement, for him to sign.

And it was also an opportunity to dine with PI Publisher David Leskusky—who became engaged recently—and enjoy a dish of pasta with rabbit Ragu...the enjoyment part didn't come until after I had dismissed the notion of chowing down on Thumper and Bugs Bunny.

Listening to Harris DeWese discuss the sorry state of industry merger and acquisition activity was more than a little enjoyable. Harris sounds like someone on the bar stool next to you, talking plain English about his job.

One by one, the speakers delivered the same viewpoint, with only a localized modification. Andy Paparozzi, chief economist with the NAPL, spelled it out clearly: a rising tide will not lift all boats. Our industry's fortunes, which for years were tied to the economy's health, now have a mind of their own. So when the economy does rebound, not all commercial printers will be swinging with glee from the chandeliers.

The answer virtually all speakers gave for rectifying the uneasiness printers are feeling these days was nearly universal: diversification. Spread your wings beyond the realm of printing. Most of you are already offering creative services, mailing and fulfillment. A good many, according to the NAPL's State of the Industry Report, also provide client training/consulting, database management and variable-content digital printing, among others.

It only took one inquisitive soul to ask the question that would be on the minds of any printer presented with the diversification edict. How are we supposed to pay for it? Especially when banks aren't exactly a printer's best friend these days.

Good question.

Not the answer anyone wants to hear.

Apparently, fate and ingenuity play a pivotal role in bringing the how-to in line with the why-to. Paparozzi, et. al, were correct in the analysis that "printers" need to think of themselves as communications providers, whereby an entire suite of services augment the base product. For while the printed product will never go away, the ways and means of producing and distributing are being led by those "printers" who are willing and able to offer the entire complement of services. You don't have to like it and you don't have to agree with it, but it is true.

There's something to be said about having a forward-thinking plan in place. Some time ago, during the height of the current recession, I interviewed the head of a large commercial printer. I asked him about his company's economic outlook over the next 12 to 18 months and how his company was going to approach the near-term future. His answer floored me.

"My answer to that is I don't have a clue, and how would you expect me to? How would you expect anyone to be able, in these times, to make a forecast relative to the economy for the next 12 to 18 months? (Voice rising) Can I possibly know whether there are going to be more terrorist actions? Can I possibly know what the Senate, the House and the president are going to do? I mean, you're asking me a question that has no answer."

Me: "I asked how is your company going to approach the next 12 to 18 months?"

CEO: "Very cautiously. We are very concerned. Beyond that, I don't know what you imagine I'm going to tell you...the truth of the matter is, we have no clue as to how the economy is going to react."

My blood boiled like rabbit Ragu popping against the stovetop backsplash as the CEO continuously berated me. After thoughts of running his response verbatim went away, I wondered why the head of such a large, public printer would go out of his way to say he has no clue. Perhaps he wasn't lying; maybe he didn't know what to do.

The company's ranking in our December Printing Impressions 400 revealed it lost more than 20 percent of its sales volume over the previous year. He was being honest.

Bottom line: If you don't have the answers, you find them. A rabbit's foot isn't going to do you a damn bit of good (I already ate it). You may not have to answer to the friendly industry publication, but if you don't have a plan in place, there's going to be more than a little tapdancing on someone's desk.

By Erik Cagle

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