Irwin Hodson Press -- No Average JoeJanuary 2009 By Erik Cagle
Do not count T.J. McDonald among those who extoll the virtues of being a commodity printer. His company, Irwin Hodson Press, of Portland, OR, has survived for more than 100 years by constantly evolving, and never getting settled into a niche or philosophy that could lead to its undoing.
McDonald knew that he needed an out pitch, so to speak. His company had been competing in the six-color, 40? sheetfed plus coat offset printing market. But the Pacific Northwest is oversaturated with such print providers. Plus, the region isn’t exactly hopping these days; all McDonald has to do is take a gander down Interstate 5 in Eugene, where three printers alone had closed their doors within a two-week period late last year.
Still, McDonald doesn’t blow with the wind. He didn’t install a new 10-color, 41? KBA Rapida 105 UV perfecting press with double coaters last month because it was the right time to buy, financial terms-wise. He sought the press for its ability to print five colors and coat both sides of a sheet—all in a single pass. McDonald bought the press because it was different and innovative, and he liked the custom configuration because it makes Irwin Hodson different and innovative.
Investing in the Future
And, the soft economy be damned.
“We boast a history of possessing a vision for our industry and of investing in innovation,” he says. “There’s never a good or bad time (to invest); if you have the right people in place, and you’re doing business with the right clientele, you have a vested interest in making sure you meet their demands.
“Whatever shape the overall economy is in really doesn’t make a difference to us. We looked beyond today when investing in our new KBA equipment. This press will be a Trojan horse for us for at least the next four or five years. There are cycles in this business. If I wait until the cycle moves up, I’ve missed my window of opportunity.”
T.J.’s son, Nick, Irwin Hodson’s marketing coordinator, adds that the company saw a great opportunity to provide efficiencies that will benefit customers, as well as expand Irwin Hodson’s reach well beyond the local area. “The Portland market is fairly saturated with six-color-and-coat presses. Because we now have the only KBA press configuration like this in the Western United States, it will allow us to expand into additional markets north, south and east of us.
“With the technology that the new press offers, we can provide customers with production advantages—printing both sides of the sheet in one pass, maintaining cost effectiveness, the environmental benefits that can be achieved with UV capabilities, along with the toolbox of special effects,” Nick McDonald says.
Irwin Hodson debuted in 1894 as a small printing and bookbinding shop, and has evolved over the years along with the shifting market trends. Today, the printer provides general commercial work—annual reports, marketing collateral, catalogs, art prints and calendars that utilize UV technology. Its digital press division produces self-mailers, brochures and short-run catalogs.
The creative community, design agencies, apparel/footwear, transportation, healthcare and technology sectors can be found among its impressive list of clients. Three of its biggest accounts are among the best-known names in the footwear business.
The 75-employee business occupies two facilities with 80,000 square feet of manufacturing space in an industrial area of Portland. The printer has two sister businesses outside of the graphic arts industry—metal stamping (license plate manufacturing) and a marking division—and a third on the peripheral, promotional products.
Irwin Hodson generated $14 million in sales for the 2007 calendar year, and the printer’s long-range plan includes growing revenues to $25 million by 2012. In order to do this, the company aims to expand beyond its current metro Portland territory by delving north into Seattle, south into Northern California, and east into Boise, ID, and Salt Lake City.
Of course, reaching into other geographic markets without a major point of differentiation is an arduous task; it’s tough to break new ground, even when your company boasts equipment that most firms don’t possess. Ken Kozol, vice president of manufacturing for Irwin Hodson, stresses how important the decision-making process was prior to selecting the 10-color press.
“We wanted to make sure that whatever we did, we weren’t doing more of the same,” he points out. “Especially since the market has become so commodity driven. We sought a press that could facilitate quicker throughput and better efficiencies, but we also wanted something that nobody else was capable of doing. So, we worked hard to create a market niche that would differentiate us to those clients looking for a high-value product.”
The company’s willingness to invest—a decision made long before the depth of the current economic crunch came to light—seemed so refreshing against the dismal backdrop of reduced capital expenditures across all industries that a local television news station showed up at Irwin Hodson to film a piece on companies bucking the trend.
According to Albert England, COO and CFO, a former employee with connections pointed the TV station in Irwin Hodson’s direction. Nonetheless, the tone of the report was “uplifting and inspirational,” according to England.
“From the standpoint of investing during a crisis, this decision dates back to (last) January, at a time when we certainly anticipated a recessionary environment,” he says. “But, at no time did we ever think it was going to last four or five quarters, and that we would see the Dow Jones drop by 40 percent.
“The preparation for our expansion has been two years in the making. We’ve been restructuring, reorganizing and committing ourselves to the idea that print is an exciting medium for marketing.”
Family ties are very strong at Irwin Hodson. T.J. McDonald represents the third generation of ownership there—his great-grandfather became president in the early 1950s—and Nick is the keeper of the flame and heir apparent. In fact, T.J. McDonald has much faith in his executive leadership team and their ability to guide the future of the company.
“We’re innovators, not sheep,” T.J. McDonald notes. “We like to lead the pack. We think that UV printing is the future of where our industry’s going, and we’re going to take our customers there first.”
There are other investments in Irwin Hodson’s future. Heather Brown, manager of business processes, says the company is currently weighing the purchase of additional HP or Xerox digital printing devices. The idea, she says, is to get customers to pair lithographic and digital output within their printing campaigns.
Investing is one path on the road to improvement. “We can continue to invest, educate and innovate,” Brown says. “We believe that by investing in automation and process improvement tools, we can continue to offer customers a superior product, and at a competitive price. We can educate clients on new industry developments, and give them the tools they need to be successful.” PI