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Knepper Press : Extreme Makeover

May 2010 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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OLD NOTIONS tend to die hard, whether they involve people, places or entities. Pittsburgh has a reputation as a smokestack city, and some still harbor images of closed steel mills and massive jobs lost.

A new punching bag is needed, as this isn't your father's Pittsburgh. The city is now considered one of the most livable in the world by several publications, and boasts a bustling economy and strong corporate giants. Smoky is so 1974. So pick on someone else.

But cities aren't the only ones in need of a good PR makeover. Take Knepper Press, which is but a stone's throw from the Steel City in the suburb of Clinton, PA. Bob Hreha, company president, has had to correct many misconceptions regarding the product and service offerings of the commercial printer.

"We've had prospects say to us, 'We hear you run Didde presses and that you're in the newspaper business,' " Hreha relates. "Until they come out and see our operation first-hand, they really don't know what Knepper Press does. We have our work cut out for us to continue to improve that image in the marketplace, both locally and nationally."

Facts, Not Fiction

Certainly there's nothing wrong with Didde presses or newspaper work, and it is true that Knepper once used that equipment primarily and boasted a trio of weeklies. But that information stopped being relevant upwards of 30 years ago. For your convenience, we've prepared a brief FAQ on the subject of Knepper Press:

Q: What exactly does Knepper Press produce?

A: The company runs the full gamut of general commercial printing. Chairman Bill Knepper—who represents the fifth generation of direct family leadership—calls his company a true commercial job shop. Large corporations, consumer goods companies, colleges/universities, business-to-business catalogers and direct mailers account for much of its client base.

"We serve a diverse customer base across many different industries," notes CEO Ted Ford, who has known Bill Knepper since the age of two. "We're not locked into any one customer. The diversity of our accounts give us strength."

Q: What's the deal with being known for using Didde presses?

A: The company once did one-, two- and three-color spot work but, since the Berlin Wall fell, Knepper Press has moved into four-color sheetfed and web offset printing. Knepper still has an eight-color, 23˝ Didde web, but the current mountain kings consist of a new five-color, 38˝ manroland Rotoman heatset web press with in-line folding and Vits Rotocut sheeter, as well as a 10- color, 40˝ Roland 700 HiPrint sheetfed perfector. The 16-page Rotoman is the printer's first full-size web, while the Roland 700 has been retrofitted with a roll sheeter.

Q: Is Knepper located in one of those closed steel mill plants?

A: OK, no more stupid questions and put away the Terry Bradshaw Steelers jersey. Less than two years ago, Knepper Press relocated to an immaculate, new 100,000-square-foot facility, a move that took nine months to complete in 2008. Yet the company didn't miss a beat with its deliverables. manroland was instrumental in assisting with the relocation process.

Walking the Talk

The irony of it all is the perception of Knepper Press stands so far behind the times, yet the company is ahead of the curve. The printer purchases 100 percent of its electricity from wind-generated sources; in fact it was ranked 15th on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Power Partnership Top 20 printer partner list. It is top ranked in the state of Pennsylvania. It ain't easy being green, as Kermit the Frog once opined, and Bill Knepper himself would confirm that it's not cheap being green, either.

Still, Knepper Press is not to be construed as the Rodney Dangerfield of printers; it receives plenty of respect, particularly from its wide roster of satisfied customers. The company has averaged 10 percent annual growth during the past 20 years, and Bill Knepper has ushered in an entirely prosperous era that saw revenues climb to $24.5 million in 2009. Through the first quarter of 2010, company sales have increased 20 percent, in stark contrast to what most of the industry is experiencing.

Moving Made More Easy

The move, perhaps above all else, underscored how unflappable and focused the Knepper Press team has become in its quest to continue on an upward trending path. Any printer that has undertaken such a move, which includes substantial mapping out of gear relocation, emerges with a firm resolve to never take up such an initiative again.

"What really helped us out was being able to compartmentalize it," Hreha remarks. "I focused on the production portion. Bill kept the building process flowing. And Ted continued our push on the sales front. So, not having one person control all three aspects made it all a little bit easier for us."

The benefits have been many. Aside from the obvious gains in manufacturing space (which nearly tripled) and a more orderly, efficient and streamlined workflow, Knepper Press enjoyed a psychological bounce that permeated all aspects of its operations.

"We experienced a lot of employee and customer satisfaction due to our new, state-of-the-art building that looks gorgeous," Ford remarks. "Bob has been able to recruit some very talented employees. It's the same with customers, especially when they see the cleanliness of our shop and the brand-new equipment. We've probably gained more than 200 new customers in the first 12 to 18 months."

Knepper Press has also done its part to restore Pittsburgh's greatness. Over time, the company noted a lack of full-web capacity in Western Pennsylvania. Knepper says that Pittsburgh-based work was getting fulfilled by out-of-town providers, and he set out to reel it back in, using the Rotoman as bait. In came huge productivity gains and the jobs began to stay local, as evidenced by the bevy of new customers.

"The Rotoman is giving us more of an edge in our markets, like magazines and catalogs, and the quantities demand a full-web press to win the jobs," Ford remarks.

Customers are especially enthused by the flexibility offered by the Rotoman, and Knepper Press in general. "We run it like a job shop," Knepper says. "We're running a wide variety of full configurations, a wide variety of stocks and running roll-to-sheet. We mix it up pretty heavily. We have a lot more flexibility than some of the other web shops. Some companies seek 8-3⁄8x10-7⁄8˝ books and that's all they do."

The Roland 700 (710 to be precise) is actually the second such model to be installed at Knepper Press, the first arriving five years ago. The newest machine boasts five-over-five printing, the roll sheeter and closed-loop color control with an in-line spectrophotometer.

"The productivity of printing one pass instead of two passes seemed to make sense for a lot of the sheetfed work that we do," Ford remarks. "Putting the roll sheeter on it adds to the economic advantage we have in buying rolls; U.S. manufactured paper instead of Asian paper."

The first 700 series was at capacity 24/7 within half a year. Overall, Knepper Press has the capacity to reach the $35 million to $36 million level, and the company is now taking a long, hard look at digital printing capabilities.

Bill Knepper also jokes that manroland is measuring his shop up for the next Rotoman to be installed. "I've averaged a new press every three years for the past 30 years," he says.

Single-Source Solution

Incredibly, the company has been able to resist the urge to lay off employees or cut back on salaries, which has become commonplace in most markets the past 30 months. With many of its own customers facing difficult choices regarding staffing, it has become more urgent that Knepper Press carve out a niche for itself as a single-source solution, making life easier for clients. A digital solution will "complete the puzzle," according to Hreha.

How has the company been able to sidestep much of the turmoil that's befell many printers in Knepper Press' market? Quite simply, hard work by all of its employees.

Hreha notes that Knepper Press' reputation has enabled the company to attract the city's finest workers. And, while it is no longer the newspaper publisher that was founded five generations previously, the company enjoys a stout reputation within its region and among its clientele.

While other companies in its back yard have been rolled and unrolled by consolidators, Knepper Press remains happily independent. No smoke and steel involved.

"We've literally averaged 10 percent annual growth for each of the last 25 years," Knepper says. "There've been some flat years and some with big jumps. We've laid no one off or made any pay cuts. Slow and steady wins the race.

"We'll just keep picking up the right pieces that will help move us up the ladder, and keep reinvesting in our company. That's how you get it done." PI


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