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EPI Companies — On the Move

May 2007 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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FOR MOST printing companies, moving the entire business from one facility to another is a daunting task, particularly if the relocation is expected to be a seamless process logistically, without any interruption of business for the client base.

Now take that same process and change the parameters: Instead of one, it’s six plants being consolidated into two facilities, not one. And it’s business as usual from the vantage point of the customer base.

Welcome to the world of the EPI Companies.

This Marietta, GA-based firm pulled off this Herculean task between June 2006 and this past January, without skipping a business beat. It entailed relocating 116 machines, selling off or trading in about a dozen pieces of equipment, acquiring two new presses, installing more than 56 miles of copper wire, as well as transitioning 275 full-time employees into a new 267,000-square-foot headquarters and a 127,000-square-foot sister location in the northwest Georgia city of Chatsworth.

“Our customers knew we were moving, but didn’t feel that we were moving,” notes Bill Blair, COO of EPI Companies. “That was important to us, because we had to do the move while conducting normal business operations.”

In truth, the move resulted from EPI Companies being a victim of its own success, but victim is hardly the appropriate term. Founded in 1969, the former Executive Printing had billowed to its current level of $53.5 million in annual sales. According to CEO Bill Woods Jr., son of the founder, the company had gained optimal bang for its buck over the 15 years it had operated in its 32,000-square-foot headquarters.

Business Is Booming

As the company grew, the work spilled into additional buildings until EPI swelled into seven plants. Business was booming, but it was clear to Woods that something had to be done in order to make operations less unwieldy and more efficient.

“You wake up one day and realize you have full-time drivers who do nothing but courier things from one building to another. You have CSRs and salespeople in transit all day long, driving back and forth,” Woods notes. “I started doing the math and concluded, first of all, that we couldn’t continue to grow this way. Secondly, we couldn’t be very efficient. So we put a massive restructuring plan into place that moved us into two buildings we didn’t even occupy a year ago.”

EPI markets itself as a diversified marketing support services provider; the “printing” name was dropped in 2003, as Woods sought to reel in clients that wanted to reduce their number of vendors. The diversified service model is still print centric, according to Woods, but EPI’s inclusion of value-added capabilities—including mailing, fulfillment, warehousing, Web-based ordering, creative services and promotional products—allows the company to address more needs of the client. These complementary services, incidentally, have also driven more print-based action.

“You can’t count any one service as being more important than the other, because with every client, there’s a hot button,” he says. “If we take away any one of the services, we lose the ability to give a customer a single point of execution.”

In terms of printing, EPI boasts six 40˝ Heidelberg sheetfed presses, a pair of digital presses (an HP Indigo 5000 and a Kodak Digimaster) and wide-format printers. The Chatsworth facility provides laminated and mounted retail display products, fulfillment, warehousing, mailing and various promotional items.

Printer and Marketer

By definition, EPI performs general commercial work, but it is wound tightly inside the yarn of their complementary services. As a quasi-marketing agency, the company focuses on projects that are a hybrid—perhaps a variable data direct mail campaign, print promotional items that are kit packed, or fulfilling product samples out of their warehouse. Its customers range from pharmaceutical, technology and telecom to home improvement and agency clients.

However, wanting to escape the trappings that come with being all things to all people, EPI focuses on a core of “bread and butter” clients who leverage multiple facets of its diversified services offerings. Woods has always been mindful of not falling into the commodity cycle of chasing bids and, in turn, slashing prices.

“It’s not that we aren’t competitive price-wise—we certainly have to be—but we have a lot more to offer as people and thinkers,” Woods says. “It’s somewhat of an insult if you have to put all you have to offer in the context of, ‘Were you the low bidder on that last quotation request?’ ”

The desire to diversify was a push-pull process; not only wanting to escape the commodity pigeonhole, but also in response to customer needs. “Some of our clients were saying, ‘If only someone could do our fulfillment like you do our printing,’ ” Blair adds. “Promotional items is another area. It seemed like we were always kit packing promo items, and that’s the part we were often waiting for (from other vendors).”

Many of EPI’s clients with diversified needs came on board by requesting non-print products and services. One example is an international tire manufacturer, a newer client that already had its printing requirements addressed elsewhere. The firm needed a vendor to distribute tire samples with an e-commerce front end, including warehousing and shipment tracking, as well as storing and sourcing promotional items that accompany the samples. EPI won the account.

“We’re proud to have many, many skids of tires in the back of our plant,” Woods says. “That doesn’t sound like a printer, now does it?”

Speaking of oddball fulfillment items, EPI houses the photo props for a major home improvement chain—sinks, hot tubs, microwaves, patio furniture, grills, etc., by the thousands. The home improvement company’s photography studio goes online, selects items needed for the photo shoot, and EPI delivers. After the shoot, EPI packs the items up, catalogs and disposes of them, either back to the manufacturer, the warehouse or to Goodwill.

“By doing all of the tracking and inventory management of these photo props, the by-product is that we’ve been able to grow our business by also printing the catalogs that result from these photo shoots,” Blair notes.

Still Rooted in Printing

Not that EPI has abandoned its print roots—the company has just gained more “wallet share” with its customers. In fact, the company has dedicated a good deal of resources in revitalizing its equipment dossier heading into the new facilities. Aside from the new HP Indigo 5000, topping the acquisitions list are a slew of Heidelberg products: two- and four-color 40˝ Speedmasters, the Prinect workflow, two Prosetter violet platesetters, a Varimatrix diecutter, an ST-450 saddlestitcher, a Stahlfolder TH/KH folder, a Stahl Flexomailer and two in-line closed-loop spectrophotometers.

“We look at equipment as being our tools,” Woods remarks. “When I was growing up, my dad was proud that every tool in his toolbox was a Craftsman tool and, back in those days, they replaced a broken screwdriver free for life. We look at Heidelberg as our choice for the supplier from which we’d like to buy our tools. The machinery is obviously superb and has been for more than 100 years, but it’s the people that back up the promises. And it also doesn’t hurt that Heidelberg’s headquarters is eight minutes from our doorway.”

Cindy Woods, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for EPI Companies, points out that not all salespeople opt to include an equipment list in their prospecting packages. In fact, aside from a passing note on its Website, EPI doesn’t really talk about the equipment brands.

“To a client, it’s less important what equipment you have, but rather what can it do for them,” she says. “So while our equipment list is available for the taking, if someone wants it, that’s not a big part of our marketing plan. It’s more important for a client to understand what it is that we do, rather than how we do it.”

Given the company’s massive relocation effort, it’s not surprising to see EPI Companies subscribing to the Digital Smart Factory variety of automation and computer-integrated manufacturing coined by the NAPL’s R&E Council. Bill Woods relishes the continuous improvement philosophy.

“The Digital Smart Factory theory is really internal. It’s a method of saying, ‘How can we take current technology and leverage it to become more productive and profitable?’ It’s a never-ending quest, but we’re definitely pretty far down the road.”

Another area that has led EPI Companies pretty far down the road is its company culture. Much of the success it has enjoyed can be traced to an atmosphere and a “culture of yes,” established back in the firm’s infancy, when it lacked printing experience and knowledge of the so-called rules that govern the industry.

“We had to learn that the print world had certain rules as to when you might expect a quotation, a proof or delivery of a job,” Cindy Woods notes. “Many of those expectations have changed today to be ‘drive-through window’ expectations, without the sacrifice of quality or service, but we developed a reputation of saying, ‘Yes. . .now what was the question?’ It continues today and is the reason we have developed so many fantastic relationships with our clientele.”

So while continued growth is a given expectation and the Digital Smart Factory is helping to keep EPI Companies on the continuous road to improvement, Bill Woods does share a couple of ingredients from his recipe of success. Though EPI scores points for a high degree of difficulty in its relocation saga, he recommends a different tact for other growing companies.

“The move was hell. I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my peers or competitors,” he says. “Well, maybe my competitors.” PI
 

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