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Heatset Web Printing -- Dead Set on Heatset

May 1998
Direct cylinder imaging, variable cutoffs, gapless and mini-gap printing, pinless folding, shaftless press drives, digitally preset ink, computer-to-plate workflow and data management systems.

Web press manufacturers call these technological advancements. Printers consider them survival techniques—survival of the technologically fittest.

In today's highly competitive heatset web offset market, presses are being designed with high quality, high speed, folder flexibility and paper savings in mind. Manufacturers are constantly improving upon existing technologies and incorporating new automation innovations into their equipment designs.

However, technology is only a tool. It's up to the printers to grow their own business, then reap whatever they sow.

Statistics show two promising areas: direct mail and catalogs. A heatset web printer needn't look any farther than the Printing Industries of America's 1998 Print Market Outlook, which shows that growth opportunities are out there. It's just a matter of cultivating the right ones.

"Direct mail marketing is a growing area for us. And it will continue to grow as marketers get smarter about their mailing lists," says Mike Coughlin, president of Concord Litho Group, Concord, NH. "In the '80s, marketers mass-mailed to everyone. Often, recipients didn't even look at it before throwing it away.

"Sellers are cleaning up their lists. They're going beyond demographics to one-to-one marketing. Marketers know your buying habits, what your hobbies are, what magazines you subscribe to, and to which charity funds you respond," says Coughlin, noting that non-profit fund-raising is one micro niche of the direct mail market.

Another niche-in-niche market focuses on the unique needs of direct mail. Concord found a winning combination by marrying these specific needs with its in-line finishing capabilities. Coughlin says products that interest direct mail marketers—such as self-mailers, tear-off and return envelopes, bill stuffers, mini catalogs, promo pieces, scratch-offs and peel-off labels—are some of the in-line finished products that complement today's direct mail packages.

Special-interest catalogs are also a potential profit center for heatset web operations. Following the same lines as direct mail, Coughlin believes better-targeted marketing is the reason for growth in this area.

Also, with a trend toward more glossy, high-impact printing, catalogs are now creating excitement about products, rather than just displaying them. High-gloss, high-impact products like these are a perfect fit for the sophisticated printing capabilities of a heatset web press, especially with the advancements in press quality and speed.

While high speed and high quality are crucial, strong customer service is the most important value-added service a printer can offer customers, contends David Sand, vice president of manufacturing for Hickory Printing, in Conover, NC. However, Sand emphasizes that service-oriented printing is not only paramount to business growth, it's paramount to business survival.

"How you conduct business determines whether you're going to grow and, ultimately, whether you'll survive," says Sand. "In the '80s, printers offered the customer a choice of good, fast and cheap, and said, 'Pick two.' We offered pretty good printing at a pretty good price. Those were the good old days."

Today, print buyers still want the best possible price, but good and fast aren't good enough. Now printers are expected to provide high-quality printing; and with the demand for just-in-time deliveries, faster is never quite fast enough.

Escalated Expectations
As client expectations escalate, so must the level of customer service a web printer provides. "Employees at all levels must be aware of customers' expectations. From office production to the pressroom floor, getting everyone involved is imperative," says Sand.

"We hold production meetings with supervisors from prepress to bindery to explain each customer's needs," Sand continues. "When we win a new account, the sales rep will tell everyone what that customer wants, how he wants it, and what type of special requirements he has. That's the type of customer service you have to provide in the '90s, not just to compete, but to survive."

To promote such a high level of customer service, Hickory has an "open-door/open-ear" policy.

"I'm an absolute believer in team playing," says Sand. "The staff is constantly advising me on how to produce a better quality product, how to do things faster, how to do things cheaper. We encourage them to make suggestions. Hourly workers on the floor are the best ones to suggest improvements. They do the work day in and day out."

Sand says the key to good business is to hire good people.

"Craftspeople are getting fewer and farther between," he claims. "We've hired managers, technicians and press operators from all over the country. Our plant is in North Carolina, but there is a lot of cultural diversity in our operation."

Cultural diversity is one thing. Operational diversity is another. What about potential problems that affect the printing industry as a whole, such as the ever-looming possibility of a paper shortage and the price increases that can result?

These types of situations need not be disastrous. If printers are prepared for potential problems—such as a major paper price increase and the cutback in page counts it causes—they can continue to grow their business despite seemingly overwhelming odds. A "disaster recovery" plan might help solve the problem at hand.

Prepare for the Worst
Printers should re-evaluate the lessons learned in past situations and come up with ideas on how to avoid them in the future, says Sand. For example, if there's a paper shortage and a customer wants to take his business to radio and television advertising, printers could have a sales strategy in place that would promote the use of print, despite the disadvantages of the shortage.

Why would a customer want to absorb the increased cost of paper? What value or benefits does the printed product provide that radio or television doesn't? The answers could be used to sell customers on keeping their promo dollars in print.

Creative thinking such as this can not only save business during tough times, it may also plant the seeds of future sales. Customer service comes in many shapes and forms.

"Quality, price and service are a given," affirms David Bracken, president and CEO of The Press of Ohio, located in Brimfield. "The difference is in innovation to the customer—how you can save them money, time or provide added value.

"You need to be a partner in your customer's business. A printer must know the customer's product, and the customer must know the printer's capabilities in order to develop a win-win situation."

Once a printer has found success, Bracken says it should concentrate on growing business in that niche.

"Printers get in trouble when they stray from what they're good at, when they try to do something out of their comfort zone," he says. "Too many printers try to be all things to all people. Successful printers stick with what they do best and focus sales and service on improving quality and throughput."

Focused sales and service, contends Bracken, help a printer weed through the potential field of opportunities to find the greenest niche.

"The day of the generalist is over. You have to carve out a niche," says Bracken, who claims his company found a booming niche market, but won't reveal the details for proprietary reasons. "Pursue markets where you do best and you'll be successful, whether it's long- or short-run work. Today, growth opportunities are everywhere."

—Cheryl A. Adams

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