Ripon Printers : A Midwestern DelightAugust 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
Good luck trying to find Andy Lyke's ego. He probably keeps it at home, in a file cabinet, along with those other documents most people hang on to but know they will never need.
Perhaps it is a Midwestern phenomenon, that work ethic of German immigrant descendants. Lyke serves as president and CEO of Ripon Printers, headquartered in the Wisconsin city that bears its name. The family-owned firm, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was spun off from its roots as a newspaper. That weekly paper, Ripon Commonwealth Press, has been in business since 1854 and has been named the top weekly paper in the state three of the past 10 years by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.
Lyke's mother and Ripon co-founder, Audrey, serves as vice president of finance emeritus, and brother Tim leads its publishing division as publisher of the Ripon Commonwealth Press, a 17,000-circulation shopper called The Express, a 128-page annual community guide and the Green Laker summer vacation tabloid newspaper. Andy's wife, Jeanne, is a practicing pediatrician.
Wisconsin loves its printing and is home to some of the most respected firms in the industry, including Quad/Graphics. It's a wonder that the image of Quad founder Harry V. Quadracci wasn't chosen for the back of the state quarter. Herein lies the rub: Midwesterners aren't noted for their braggadocio or self-promotion. Pride is something you have in others, not one's self. If this notion is not taught, it's engrained in folks from the Badger State.
Thus, the irony was more than evident this past spring when Andy Lyke was named the 2012 recipient of the Harry V. Quadracci VISION Award by the Printing Industries of America's Web Offset Association. The honor is presented to industry executives who reach an unsurpassed level of excellence and achievement through hard work and determination.
The mere mention of the VISION Award virtually embarrasses Lyke, a man whose economy of words is generally spent on others. "My first reaction was disbelief. It's very humbling to win an award named after someone like Harry Quadracci, a giant in our industry," he says. "I think it reflects well on our employee base and what we've accomplished as a team, starting with my parents and all the other people who have worked with the Lyke family over the years."
This is as close to a touchdown dance as one will see from Lyke. Humility hasn't robbed him of a sense of humor, however. "I'm suffering from a detached retina and cataract…it was kind of ironic to win a 'VISION' award," he adds.
Lyke has reason to be in great spirits, as 2012 has been kind to Ripon Printers. In addition to Lyke's award, the printer of catalogs, directories, manuals and soft-cover educational products acquired certain assets of Sells Printing, based in New Berlin, WI. Among the assets: a digital division in Milwaukee—Traxion—powered by two Xerox iGen4 presses; along with a 10-color, 40˝ Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 102 sheetfed perfector equipped with a CutStar roll sheeter.
A Perfect Match
The two companies were kindred spirits; both bolstered sterling reputations within the industry, combining top-drawer customer care with unparalleled printing quality. When Sells intimated that it was looking for a capable partner to move forward and serve its clients with the same caliber work, Lyke pounced on the opportunity.
Lyke began due diligence in August of 2011, and talks with Sells ownership became serious last December. The deal closed in late March and, thus far, Ripon's chief exec still finds himself in the honeymoon phase.
"A catalog (Sells) printed digitally on its iGen4 won Best of Show in 2009 at the Wisconsin printing awards," Lyke points out. "So, their printing quality has always been tops and their customer relationships are tremendous."
While Ripon boasted incumbent Heidelberg sheetfed offset perfectors in the form of an eight-color Speedmaster SM 74 and a six-color Speedmaster CD 74, Dennis Darnick, vice president of production, notes that several of Sells clients had relied on the 10-color press for years. He felt the machine could also be leveraged to serve existing Ripon accounts.
"We're still feeling our way through the work mix that will be produced on the 10-color sheetfed (which was in the process of being installed in Ripon's facility at press time)," he says. "Currently, we are producing much of the work on our existing sheetfed and web press equipment during the installation of the 10-color press line. We feel the 10-color definitely represents a growth opportunity for us in the future."
The acquisition is easily the boldest endeavor in the history of Ripon Printers, which has grown through measured, well-calculated investments in technology while adding capabilities along the way. The company added its first coldset web press in the mid-1960s—Lyke retains many of the original 1960s newsprint accounts cultivated by his late father, Doug—and has migrated toward more heatset work, which now accounts for a larger percentage of its work.
These days, the $37 million performer can provide heatset and coldset web and sheetfed offset output, along with digital printing. The heatset web division consists of two manroland Rotoman N presses, with a Goss G18, Goss Community and Hantscho Mark 16 pounding out newsprint and other coldset products. Ripon's original Rotoman N features four units, a dryer and chill stand placed on a mezzanine, and a duplicate set on the floor—making it the first "stacked" Rotoman N press installed in North America.
On the digital printing front, in addition to Traxion and the Xerox iGen4s, Ripon operates a pair of Canon imagePRESS C6000 full-color presses and a monochrome Canon imageRUNNER 110 at its main facility.
In addition to offering saddlestitching and perfect binding, Ripon offers spiral binding, inkjetting, co-mailing and fulfillment services. Much of its work is business-to-business, with some business-to-consumer, according to Jeff Hopp, sales and marketing manager.
Printed Catalogs Still Needed
While competing in the catalog and directory space does pose the risk of lost share to electronic alternatives, Hopp points out that most customers—even those who briefly flirted with online-only marketing—appreciate the value offered by hard-copy catalogs.
"We weathered that storm for about two years, and most of our clients realized that they still needed to mail physical catalogs to drive customers to their Websites," he says. "Print runs are down, as are page counts, but versioning has increased."
Deba Horn-Prochno, Ripon's quality/resource director, notes that one of the keys to avoiding digital erosion is making it easier for clients to stick with Ripon. "Customization is increasing and we're offering our own digital editions," she says. "We're fulfilling a need for them and keeping it in-house at the same time."
Darnick adds that an emphasis on auxiliary services has helped Ripon Printers combat the low-price mentality that is prevalent in the market. The company has made inroads with creating mobile apps for clients, as well.
Customer "delight" and education have become significant forces in the way Ripon Printers has conducted business in the past 10 years. Hopp points out that the "delight" factor filters down from Lyke and is embraced across the 290-employee network.
The fact that employees have embraced the customer-focused approach has made for a point of differentiation. "(Competitors) can certainly buy presses like ours," Hopp states, "but they can't hire employees like ours."
Ripon Printers has also taken an aggressive approach toward educating customers. Its prepress department has dedicated staff members who provide customer guidance on proper job files and the company hosts four Webinars a year on various relevant topics. A twice-monthly e-mail blast keeps clients abreast on topics impacting their work, from market trends to ongoing postal updates.
Lyke & Co. also keep the hard copy faith with a quarterly printed newsletter, PressLines, which touches on current issues and keeps customers abreast of what's going on at Ripon Printers.
In keeping with its quest to provide high-quality printing in conjunction with competitive pricing, Ripon is six-plus years into its lean manufacturing initiative. While continuous improvement has always been a goal for the firm, the lean playbook has provided the tools to allow it to become more disciplined and augment efforts to eliminate all types of waste in the office and production. The company has also received more than 3,000 suggestions from employees as part of the movement, both subtle and substantial, which have helped spur now-implemented innovations.
Horn-Prochno notes that the firm's four cornerstones are efficiency, quality, turnaround time and safety. She has a soft spot for spoilage reduction. "If we get the percentage of spoilage and waste down to a minimum, that's a great accomplishment in my book," Horn-Prochno says. "If that percentage drops, it tells me we're doing a better job."
While Lyke isn't ready to throw his hat into the M&A ring and become the next Joe Davis of Consolidated Graphics fame, he is focused on realizing measured growth through strategic investments in equipment. Fiscal responsibility has long been a hallmark for Ripon Printers, and the path to growth in the catalog space is paved with ancillary offerings.
"We also see an uptick in direct mail and digital personalization," Hopp says. "We're working on implementing PURLs and other personalized elements into direct mail. We stop short of being a full-blown marketing services provider; the customer still needs to have a marketing plan, but we can help them with the implementation."
As Ripon Printers embarks on its next 50 years, Lyke envisions taking the same fundamental approach that has produced positive results during the first half-century of business. Its unwavering loyalty to both clients and employees—as evidenced by their strong length of service record—and the modest, hard-working Midwestern ethos should provide the groundwork, regardless of what new technologies come down the road.
"We're not clear on what the future will hold," Lyke concludes. "Obviously, we face some real challenges with paper pricing, the postal situation, too much competition and equipment overcapacity. But, we've hung our hat on being nimble and able to react to any forces we encounter in the industry. That has served us well." PI