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Penn Lithographics--Partnering and Progressing

May 1998
Nearly a decade of economic recession has made life hard for a number of California printers. No surprise considering that many clients moved away from a tough economy and took their business with them, while others underwent reorganization. Most of the rest slashed budgets just to survive.

Despite this difficult period, Cerritos, CA-based Penn Lithographics has thrived, exhibiting measurable growth in quantity and quality, while positioning itself as an important regional competitor. The question, of course, is, "How?"

On the Offensive
"At a time when many printers reduced or eliminated promotions and ignored growth possibilities, we did exactly the opposite," explains Penn President Bob Howington. "We extended marketing and our definition of the marketplace, finding work in Reno, Seattle, Portland, all of California, anywhere possible. In a tough time, we went on the offensive and expanded our sights."

Just as importantly, the company did not attempt to become all things to all clients. "We widened our net, but remained true to the high-end, direct response market because that's what we do best," Howington declares.

For example, year-to-date, 60 percent of Penn's press impressions have required a finishing line, one of the company's recognized strengths. In fact, Ted Robison, vice president of sales and marketing, believes that not making optimal use of the company's twin six-color Heidelberg Harris M-90 and M-110 heatset half-web presses with full in-line finishing capabilities "is like having a four-wheel drive vehicle and never taking it out of two-wheel drive."

"Having matching presses similarly outfitted with in-line capabilities offers our clients huge advantages," he says. "Large and/or time-sensitive jobs can be run in half the time, and we eliminate downtime by alternately running jobs."

Another reason for Penn's growth is a shift in corporate culture, which now emphasizes long-range planning. Founded in 1934, Penn, a $40 million company, was purchased in 1988 by JSJ Corp. of Grand Haven, MI. According to Howington, the parent company believes in thinking globally (more support for that regional outlook), lean manufacturing and continuous improvement.

Plus, JSJ demands the discipline of five-year plans. "Printing is an industry that demands you focus on your niche while keeping up to date on the opportunities and challenges that new technologies bring," Howington states. "Planning with JSJ is a given, not an option. The benefits of that cannot be overlooked."

One of the biggest benefits realized has been the optimization of personnel. Robison explains that the company had more sales reps 10 years ago than it does now, yet volume has steadily increased. To accomplish such efficiency, Penn enhanced the level of internal support for the sales staff by upgrading customer service representatives into project coordinators.

"We did that with training," Robison says. "Project coordinators have more client contact and now work as a true part of the sales team. They watch over work while it's in-house, which enables sales reps to be out where they belong—with the client."

A positive outgrowth of this closer sales rep/client interaction has been the repositioning of the rep as a resource instead of a vendor. "Our people work with the client to create new products and services," Howington maintains.

The development of the Penn-Pak—a press-finished, all-in-one CD holder—is the perfect example of how this process works. Several Penn reps heard clients describe a need to replace loose support materials with a single, unified marketing piece, thereby lowering unit costs by reducing assembly, postage and shipping expenses.

With that in mind, the reps worked with the Penn manufacturing department and created a prototype that was tested extensively. Today, the product is used by many clients, including two of the world's largest high-tech companies.

"With the Penn-Pak and other products we've developed for the finishing line, the reps aren't asking, 'Do you have anything we can bid on?' " notes Howington. "They're providing options to help a client in selling his or her product. They're working smarter."

Continuous Improvement
Three years ago Penn launched a company-wide continuous process improvement effort: Penn Quality Management. An ongoing "investment in the future," as Howington sees it, the program is designed to improve quality, break down barriers between any two positions and remove the need to place blame.

"It's no longer about each person," Howington says. "Penn, as a whole, wins the gold, or nobody does."

The program calls for and rewards "bottom-up" communication—which has provided managers with invaluable suggestions—and client awareness on the part of all employees.

To encourage this team commitment, Penn employs Director of Training Thomas J. Barry, who says his position is probably not a common one at most printers. "The fact that I'm here proves Penn's commitment to the program and to improvement," he says. "I focus on our ability to create added value for our clients, on improving the way we do things, in process, instead of only inspecting after the fact."

Equipment, too, is better utilized thanks to intensive training. And it is always evaluated in long-range plans to ensure the right upgrades for better service. "New machinery has broadened our scope," Robison explains. The company has added Videojet addressing and mailing capabilities in order to manage a project from disk to destination.

"While still concentrating on what we do best," Robison says, "these are logical extensions of what we offer. Our goal is to provide the client with peace of mind."

Several years ago, Penn created Penn Digital Services (PDS), a highly integrated system of shared databases, communication and management tools and workflow solutions. Via high-speed data lines, and with guaranteed security, clients transmit files directly from their computers to Penn's 64-plus gigabyte server and also access their files in Penn's PostScript environment to make online adjustments to color or text placement before documents are sent to press.

Penn now has 13 Macintoshes for use in PDS, which is staffed with 36 people. "Fifty percent of our current volume is generated electronically," Howington points out. "And that number is only going to grow." For that reason, Penn is gearing up for the future, which is, of course, already part of an established plan.

"By the end of the year, we'll add FTP capabilities via the Web site to our existing alternatives for file transfer," Howington promises. "That's And we're developing other asset management systems utilizing Internet interfaces as well.

"This is still a very challenging marketplace, no doubt about it," he says, "and we can't just be someone who puts ink on paper. Commercial printers must adapt to digital technology, in all its forms, because whoever controls it becomes a partner in its multiple uses. At Penn, we're positioning ourselves to play that partnered role with clients."

And if the last 10 years are any indication, that's a role Penn Lithographics will play with great success.

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