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Lithocraft Co. : UV Cures Need for Growth

April 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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Southern California, perhaps as much as any region in the country, can be brutal on printers looking to grow and thrive. It has claimed many casualties in the past 10 years, including some rather large concerns that could not sustain their rapid expansion and eventually burned out or merged with other firms. For those who remain, it is a hotly-contested market.

Down the road from Los Angeles and Hollywood, where dreams of fame and fortune also burn out quickly, lies Anaheim, CA, where Mickey Mouse and Albert Pujols reign supreme over roughly 350,000 residents. One of the lesser-known, but increasingly burgeoning stars that is making a name for itself is Lithocraft Co. But this commercial sheetfed printing operation seems to have taken a more conservative approach in its growth, which has enabled the printer to maintain a steady pace as it approaches its 40th anniversary this year.

“We don’t want to be the biggest printer,” admits Brad Thurman, president and founder of Lithocraft. “We’ve seen several large companies come and go, especially in the L.A. market, where there’s been a number of closures for major industry players. Attempting to grow to that size is not conducive to what we’re trying to do.”

Growth doesn’t always equate profitability, and it’s the latter that Lithocraft has focused its energies on enhancing. The 70- employee shop, which posted sales of approximately $12 million in 2011, is projecting to approach the $16 million plateau this year. Thus, growth is not an issue, either. But, for a conservative firm operating in a city founded by German immigrants, its recent decision to invest heavily in an automated UV offset press to enter new print markets is downright bold.

Founded by Thurman in 1973, Lithocraft’s philosophy has been to go with full-sized sheetfed presses to help differentiate itself from many local shops that had taken the half-size route. With three six-color, 40˝ Komori presses, Lithocraft had been successfully producing direct mail, annual reports, high-end menus, free-standing inserts and point-of-purchase materials for a number of vertical markets, including automotive, retail, restaurant/food and beverage, along with health care.

But, three years ago, it became clear that continued success would depend on entering new markets. According to Robert Navarro, vice president of operations, existing clients' evolving product needs dictated that Lithocraft offer UV printing output. Going down the UV road would also help to bring in the high-end designer/agency work that often requires seven or eight colors. Equally as important, Lithocraft wanted a solution that would enable it to crack the highly coveted, high-end package printing market.

"We saw where the industry was heading," notes John Cosgrove, a partner at Lithocraft. "We were also seeing some windows of opportunity closing due to our lack of UV printing capabilities. We wanted to get into retail, and the fact that we were seeing demand by our restaurant clients for printing on synthetic materials, it became pretty clear that we needed to jump into the UV market."

After researching UV for about a year, Lithocraft decided to start the vetting process for a UV press (which included a trip to Graph Expo in Chicago). Six months later, the company opted to install an eight-color, 41˝ KBA Rapida 106 UV press equipped with the makeready-free DriveTronic SIS (Sensoric Infeed System). The press, which went live last July, was aimed at keeping the UV-craving clients from jumping ship and to enable Lithocraft to begin its foray into high-end packaging. But, a pleasant surprise awaited the printer—the phone began ringing off the hook.

“One of the things that surprised the heck out of me was that we started getting calls from people looking for UV printing vendors,” Cosgrove notes. “One large client that we had not worked with previously was looking for someone to use because they weren’t happy with the UV vendors in the area. To have a customer like that walk in the door was pretty amazing.”

Navarro notes there were a number of advantages in selecting the new Rapida, including on-the-fly color control that helps reduce press makeready time and startup waste. While there was a slight learning curve along the way, Lithocraft has enjoyed a sharp uptick in productivity, thanks in large part to the UV offering.

The packaging mojo has been slower to come, however; Cosgrove says Lithocraft is still trying to find its niche in the packaging market. The executive team is confident it will be able to identify and perform in scenarios that call for high-quality, low-volume packaging.

“We’ve learned to work a little bit more with different substrates,” Navarro points out. “That’s the key for cosmetics or food-type products.

“I was experienced on the UV end, so the transition hasn’t been too great other than having to learn what makes the press go, chemistry-wise,” he adds. “In our state, it’s pretty challenging because of the chemistry limitations that we face.”

New printing processes are important to help Lithocraft maintain stride with what its competition is offering, but the company relies on strong customer service just as much to maintain a point of differentiation in the marketplace. “New technologies and workflows are making it incredibly easy to bypass the relationship aspect of our business,” Cosgrove says.

“Despite that, we foster a culture where everybody here understands the value of knowing customers and their unique demands, and we make it ‘Job One’ to meet those demands. It sounds kind of corny, but most of our clients have been with us more than 10 years. It’s a hard concept to market to prospects, but once we get new clients in the door, they stay with us.”

Future equipment acquisitions are likely to come on the bindery end, where the printer is looking to add joggers and automated material handling equipment. Its fleet of delivery vehicles will also need some upgrading, and Navarro says Lithocraft is aiming to become more efficient and greener in its choices.

Cosgrove feels that, of the markets his company serves, health care may offer the greatest growth potential. Reform legislation passed by the Obama Administration and the changes made along the way have prompted Lithocraft to go back on-press repeatedly. Also, the company produces the packaging for the promotional campaigns sent out by health care companies, and Cosgrove sees the potential for extended programs.

Clients are often struck by the cleanliness and efficiency of Lithocraft's operation. It follows Cosgrove's customer mantra that once they've come through the door, clients are hooked.

“We take pride in our shop and it impresses our corporate clients,” Thurman concludes. “They see how well it’s organized. They take one look at us and think, ’I want to work with these guys.’ That’s a message we always strive for here.” PI



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