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Fast-Track Firms : Creativity Goes a Long Way

December 2011 By Erik Cagle
Senior editor
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Every year, Printing Impressions profile a small cadre of printers that have exhibited strong year-over-year growth. If we had the space and time to do so, we’d spotlight every printer that didn’t end up in the red when compared to the previous fiscal year. Even if your firm’s growth was 0.1 percent, take a bow.

As for the biggest gainers, the commonality between these businesses is their ability to be uncommon. In an economy that has discouraged capital outlay, these printers go against the grain, investing in new equipment and technology, as well as acquiring other printers that mesh with their own offerings. Their chief execs are hard-working and relentless, some on the road constantly, pressing the flesh with customers and finding creative ways in which to ferret out new business.

The following printers offer hope in an industry that has seen its share of adversity in recent years. Perhaps they may offer an idea or two that is applicable to your own business. But, to those who cast the printing industry in a doom and gloom scenario, the following three examples prove that, somewhere, there are sunny skies.

Foxfire Printing and Packaging
Newark, DE
Latest sales: $42.32 million
Previous: $24.10 million
Change: 76 percent

Many companies share a common bond in that their product and service offerings have evolved as time and technologies have dictated. One day you’re manufacturing typewriter ribbon, the next, you’re in search of a niche that will grow legs.

Foxfire Printing and Packaging debuted 20 years ago with a turnkey solution for software packaging. According to founder and CEO John Feretti, Foxfire would design, print and kit the packaging for 31⁄2˝ and 51⁄4˝ discs. Foxfire also acted as a warehouser and distributor.

“Basically, we did all of the back office processing to support (clients’) retail activities, so they could concentrate on being sales and marketing companies,” Feretti recalls.

The software discs soon went the way of the long-playing album (not to mention typewriter ribbon), so Foxfire called an audible and gravitated toward providing in-store signage for large-scale retail chains, ranging from groceries and drugs to apparel, automotive and dollar store environments. A grocery client may need 5,000 signs per week, per store, and a large chain may mean several million signs a week. Feretti notes that since the cost to hang a sign is about eight to 10 times the cost of the sign itself, his company decided to focus on ways clients can reduce their labor costs.

Instead of sending printed, perforated sheets to customers—which then need to be broken down and sorted—Foxfire’s Rapid Signs software circumvents that laborious process. Using client data, Foxfire commingles all of the merchandising and advertising programs, prints a unique set of signs for every store, and sorts it in Plan-o-gram order.

“We marry up all the Plan-o-gram databases for all the stores within a chain against the prices that are supposed to go to those stores for the products that are supposed to be on sale,” he says. “They can receive, if the customer has granular data, a unique set of signs for each store. We’re giving them to clients as cut signs, like a deck of cards. The store operator now doesn’t have all of the front-end labor.”

The Rapid Signs software played a significant role in Foxfire’s ability to harvest market share in the past year. With the price of signage already low, eating away at the installation cost resonated with new customers.

Foxfire added to its equipment arsenal, buying a Xerox iGen4 and two additional Xeikon 3000 series digital presses in the past 18 months. Feretti also expects to add a wide-format flatbed digital device by year’s end, as well as a large-format offset press in 2012.

On the acquisition front, Foxfire obtained Pinnacle Business Products of Nashville, TN, a reseller that had been outsourcing its print work to Foxfire. Feretti’s firm will benefit from Pinnacle’s kitting and fulfillment operation. Incredibly, the addition of Pinnacle’s sales only accounts for a little more than half of Foxfire’s impressive growth total, with the remainder being organic.

Walsworth Publishing
Marceline, MO
Latest sales: $143.65 million
Previous: $115 million
Change: 25 percent

It’s hard not to like a family-owned business that’s approaching its 75th anniversary, is still in growth mode, and is aggressive about keeping pace with technology and investing in gear that allows it to better serve customers. Throw in a strategic acquisition, and the description fits Walsworth Publishing to a T.

Founded in 1937 by the Walsworth brothers (Don, Ed and Bill) and currently led by the second and third generation executives (CEO Don O. Walsworth and his son, President Don Walsworth), Walsworth Publishing provides web, sheetfed offset and digital printing to the catalog, book and periodical markets. Widely known for producing yearbooks and fast approaching $150 million in annual sales, the firm also operates a wholly-owned specialty publishing subsidiary, Donning Company Publishers.

Walsworth Publishing operates two Missouri facilities (its Marceline headquarters and another in Kansas City), along with plants in Saint Joseph, MI, and Virginia Beach, VA. It was the addition of the Saint Joseph business, acquired from Journal Communications in December of 2010, that helped augment Walsworth Publishing’s organic growth. The deal provided Walsworth with a broader set of sheetfed, web and binding options that increased capacity, and aided its commercial printing endeavors with mailing and fulfillment capabilities.

While the company preferred to keep specifics close to the vest, Walsworth has bolstered its equipment arsenal in recent years, buying a new saddlestitcher and picking up gear to better streamline product flow. Its production lines were redesigned to improve ergonomics (reducing lifting and operator fatigue), and new hardware and software have helped reduce time-consuming steps. In-line inkjetting, product bundle banding options and sort options were all enhanced to cut down on customers’ postage outlays.

On the personnel front, Walsworth Publishing is adding new sales territories in select markets to improve customer service. It is part of what the company terms its customer-intimate market leadership focus.

“Customer-intimate companies are those that define themselves as not just providing goods or services, but as helping their clients be successful,” notes Don Walsworth, president.

“To that point, Walsworth provides the best customer experience in the markets that we serve. We believe a customer-intimate approach helps us retain more customers and attract new ones that are looking for a print solutions provider.”

Direct Impressions
Richmond, VA
Latest sales: $30.69 million
Previous: $21.89 million
Change: 40 percent

An amusing and interesting tale surrounds Direct Impressions’ acquisition of Mars Graphic Services in Westville, NJ (a little more on that later). But perhaps what makes Direct Impressions Founder Mark Smith proudest is the fact that his company has been faithful to its direct marketing mail manufacturing space without venturing into ancillary services.

“Today, you read about the need to change or die—the printer has got to change, grow the business or do things other than print to survive the digital revolution,” Smith notes. “We’ve been in business 25 years total, and we really haven’t changed much. We still produce direct mail pieces that are placed into envelopes, then delivered to mailboxes all over country. Direct mail is still effective, no matter how much they try to kill it.”

Smith points out that his firm has experienced sometimes explosive growth during the past five years, yet has done so on the strength of “very few clients.” In fact, Smith is the company’s lone outside sales representative, though inside reps do a lot to take care of the customer.

Over the years, Smith has made some strategic moves to satisfy the needs of his client base. Four years ago, he obtained Pittsburgh-based Typecraft Press, a coldset web publication printer churning out directories, journals and newsprint products. The $3 million company was losing money, so Smith (along with partner and CFO, Michael Muldowney) installed sheetfed equipment there and transformed it into a general commercial printer. It is now a $3.8 million performer.

Two years ago, Direct Impressions’ web presses were filled to capacity, so Smith either needed to buy more web gear or add another firm. He’d sent some overflow work to Mars Graphic Services in Westville, NJ, but that shop was in dire financial shape. When Mars filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Smith tried to pull off a deal but couldn’t find a willing lender. But, when Mars was switched to Chapter 7, the bank on the hook for Mars’ debt saw the light and contacted Smith. Soon after, a deal was struck.

Smith reopened Mars in early 2010, and the company was profitable by year’s end, buoyed by the overflow work Direct Impressions was sending up Interstate 95. The extra web press capacity enhanced Direct Impressions’ efficiency and allowed Smith to set up the presses to specialize in a given area (such as continuous forms and coated products).

However, Smith recently sold both firms. Typecraft didn’t really mesh with Direct Impressions, and Smith—spread thin by splitting much of his time shuttling between Virginia and New Jersey—wanted to find local management for Mars. In stepped IBS Direct of nearby King of Prussia, PA. In the creative deal struck between the two sides, Smith will now represent Direct Impressions, Mars Graphic Services and IBS Direct to all current customers.

Despite divesting of Typecraft and Mars, Smith envisions his firm registering about $40 million in sales in the near future. To do that, he says it is imperative to deliver on promises.

“We’re a $30 million printer and our average job size is $3,500,” Smith notes. “A lot of work flows through our shop, so we have to be consistent in our accuracy, quality and cost-efficiency. It’s a very simple business model, but it works.” PI
 
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