The Printing Express : The Right Man for the JobAugust 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
Michael Meredith was a picture of frustration. After 19 years as a commissioned salesman for an industrial chemical company, he officially despised his job. The company had been taken over and Meredith did not appreciate the changes that were taking place.
So, when his friend, Mark Earley—a Republican running for governor in the state of Virginia—asked him to work for his campaign as a statewide operative, Meredith jumped at the opportunity. Earley, however, was unsuccessful in his 2001 bid for the state's top post, losing a tight battle to Mark Warner. Meredith was back at square one.
As the countdown to election day ticked on, he ambled into The Printing Express—which had produced flyers in support of Meredith's historical book printing hobby—and chatted with the proprietor. "The owner asked me what I thought I would do when our candidate lost," Meredith recalls. "I jokingly said, 'Ed, would you hire me?' "
The two were kindred spirits, as 'Ed' also hated his job with a passion. Ed had purchased the Harrisonburg, VA-based print shop three-plus years earlier, was in full regret mode and made that clear with some colorful adjectives. Printing and Ed, apparently, did not go well together.
"He grumbled a few obscenities and said he'd be interested in selling the f&*#! place," Meredith notes. So began the absolute worst sales pitch in the history of the printing industry. But 60 days and one second home mortgage later (coupled with one-third financing by the overjoyed former owner), Meredith was the proud new conductor of The Printing Express.
Just one problem...he had absolutely no printing experience whatsoever. What Meredith did have, in spades, was sales experience and a confidence that if it was possible to turn The Printing Express into a winner, he was the man for the job.
Up to Challenge
"I had a fascination with the free market, along with what I thought was my ability to build business relationships," he says. "I was quite accomplished in sales and cocky enough to believe I could do much better than most people. I absolutely love the opportunity to operate in a country that avails itself to people, like me, who take a chance, work hard and receive a reward for their efforts. That motivates me every day I come into work."
Meredith likely harbored a few regrets himself during the first six months of operation. He didn't have Internet connectivity and had just one person to operate the firm's lone press, an ABDick 9810. His other employee was a waitress who wanted to try her hand at customer service.
"I found myself buried," he recalls. "I'd be answering the phone while pasting up a layout on the light table, folding on a Baum 714 tabletop, cutting on a small electric cutter, then trying to squeeze in a delivery here and there."
Humble beginnings, to be sure, and it's difficult to believe that Meredith has been at the helm for just 10 years, yet his company has experienced incredible growth. The company now employs 24 people and sales, which stood at roughly $300,000 in 2002, registered nearly $4 million in 2011. The company is on target to post revenues of $6 million to $7 million this year.
The Printing Express was holed up in just 2,000 square feet of space in 2002 and now occupies a 48,000-square-foot facility. The company installed a pair of 28˝ Komori Lithrones—five- and six-color sheetfed machines—in an 18-month span. A reconditioned, half-size, eight-color Didde 860 web press just came online, and The Printing Express recently invested in EFI Pace print management software.
Despite the quick printer impression given by its name, The Printing Express covers a wide range of commercial items, including stationery, business cards, and forms and envelopes, along with newsletters, brochures, folders, books, posters, postcards, signs and greeting cards. Its clients range from political and nonprofit groups to agencies, small colleges and government.
Direct mail accounts for 40 percent of its overall business, and 23 percent of dollar volume comes from the digital department (two Kodak Digimasters, two Ricohs). Its mailing operation is capable of churning out 200,000 letter packages and 400,000 self-mailers per day.
Meredith also provides data list research for prospecting, copy writing for non-profit and political groups, as well as fulfillment. The company farms out wide-format printing, but he envisions adding variable signage in the future (more on that later).
Exactly what has fueled the growth spurt, especially in recent years? Meredith points to old-fashioned relationship building which, despite the technological temptation to fire off a text or e-mail, still resonates with customers.
"I'm not a big fan of Internet marketing for sales purposes," he says. "I like the traditional business-to-customer relationship. I also shy away from the low-bidder method of acquiring work. Someone can always be a lower bidder.
"We take advantage of every opportunity and you'll never hear us say 'no' to a job; we will figure out a way to get it done. We're bullish in a weak economy and customers like that. When a new account calls, either myself or one of our customer service reps or salespeople will jump in the car and go see them. I once drove 400 miles to do this, and we landed the account."
Politics of Printing
Political work certainly has stoked the presses at The Printing Express. The second half of the third quarter and the first half of the fourth quarter is silly season at the printer, when the mailing facility is pushed to its limits with about 400,000 pieces per day during a five-week stretch. But the profits enabled Meredith to bulk up on needed gear.
While more MIS software is on the near-term docket, Meredith has visions for other additions. He won't rule out a 40˝ Komori, "which has bells and whistles they don't put on their midsize press," according to Meredith.
"We get a lot of work out of the lobbying groups in DC," he notes. "Some of these groups aren't concerned about pricing; they just want the job to look nice and they want it tomorrow."
Moving from its former 11,000-square-foot building to its current 30,000-square-foot space, simultaneously bringing in new hardware and other equipment, The Printing Express experienced workflow issues. The shop has rectified those issues and provided itself with more elbow room courtesy of an 18,000-square-foot addition. Another hope for Meredith is to someday fill that space with a flatbed printer. The firm recently added a Kluge diecutting and foiling machine, along with an AnaJet mPower garment printer.
"There's a lot of signage work out there, and so much of it is still done with screen printing," Meredith explains. "Not many people have taken advantage of variable printing when it comes to the sign market, where you can actually print out 300 signs and have every one of them be different. You can't do that with screen printing."
But, while every printer can have the same type of equipment, that's not the case with employees—and Meredith believes his crew differentiates The Printing Express from the pack. He extends to them the same professional and personal courtesy afforded customers. Meredith also believes that in order to attract the best people, it's important to offer a scale that's more than just competitive.
"We have an exceptionally high employee-to-sales ratio," he concludes. "And we have very happy employees with great attitudes—our customers constantly rave about this.
"There's a culture that exists in businesses. One of the first things I look for in an employee is how well they fit into the culture of our shop. If they don't, it doesn't matter how good an estimator, how good a salesperson or how good a press operator that person may be. They still have to be a good fit."
After all, The Printing Express is not for everybody. Just ask the former owner. PI