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Foster Printing: A Happy, Productive Place

February 2014 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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Is it possible to be content, yet not satisfied? Obviously, the minute that a company lifts its foot off of the accelerator, bad things happen...if you're not growing, you're slowing, as the adage goes. But some firms have carved themselves a strong niche, a stronghold that promises a bright future, without bursting at the seams.

That might well be the case for Foster Printing, a large-format trade printer based in Santa Ana, CA. Primarily a provider of color packaging (labels), POP displays, signage and posters, Foster has the capacity to expand upon its $14.93 million annual output, given its explosive growth in UV sheetfed offset printing. Foster's large-format UV capability was given a shot in the arm following its November 2012 installation of a six-color, 81˝ KBA Rapida 205 UV press (dubbed the world's largest press).

So, while Foster Printing does not feel compelled to rule the world, the executive leadership team is fairly happy with dominating their small corner of it. Tim Blackburn, company president, is proud of how far the company has come since it was acquired by his father, Dennis, in 1988.

"The last six years have really been amazing for Foster," he notes. "The growth we have experienced has surpassed what we'd done prior to that in the history of the company. And we feel like we've hit our mark for where we need to be—we've improved on turnaround, quality and capacity."

UV printing has certainly been a driving force for Foster Printing. In addition to turnaround and quality improvements, it has allowed Foster to produce unique, value-added work, as well as comply with California's stringent environmental regulations. Printing on substrates ranging from 50-lb. to 48-pt., Foster can UV print on paper and plastics, as well as matte and gloss coatings. The UV process enables the printed sheets to cure immediately, aiding efficiency and throughput.

A Go-to Source for Labels

Foster products inevitably end up in the hands of big box stores, retailers and the entertainment industry. A lion's share is the production of 80- and 100-lb. C1S label printing.

A large-format printer for the past 25 years, a number of clients had been asking if the company would consider purchasing a 73˝ or 77˝ press. In fact, Foster came close to obtaining the 81˝ model in 2007, but found that many of its customers couldn't convert the 59.5x80.625˝ sheet, so the Blackburns opted for a 64˝ KBA 162a hybrid UV press (which was joined by a five-color 162a conventional press in 2010). In 2012, the decision was made to install the 81˝ UV beast.

"We'd had such great success with our two prior KBAs, we felt this was the best time to go bigger," notes Kris Blackburn, vice president of sales and Tim's brother. "We feel the growth of UV in our shop is attributed to the capabilities of our KBA presses. Ten years ago, you couldn't accomplish a quarter of what can be done today; and today the process is all in-line printing. We print overall and spot UV on different substrates such as paper and plastic."

Buying the Rapida 205 did represent something of a risk for Foster Printing. As a trade printer, the company doesn't have the crutch of contractual work to help in its capex analysis, but the allure of being able to print UV in-line in one pass was too attractive to pass up.

A Workflow Suited for Rush Jobs

Such is the life of a trade printer. It's not unusual for Foster Printing to answer the phone at 3:30 p.m. and have a job request for 100,000 labels, needed in 24 hours. Such requests requires a printer to be at the top of its game, according to Tim Blackburn, boasting an internal workflow that can handle sudden (and unannounced) bursts of work with a group of employees that make it happen.

"We're able to provide that type of turnaround along with competitive pricing, top-of-the-line quality and extraordinary customer service," he says. "Our customers appreciate that we're able to support them with their projects. It's rewarding for all of us to see what we're able to accomplish in such tight turnarounds."

Foster Printing's recent investments haven't been limited to presses (notably, the company has bought a press every even-numbered year for the past six years). Around the time of the Rapida 205 installation, the printer picked up a 110˝ Sabre automated cutting system from Colter & Peterson, as well as a Screen PlateRite Ultima 36000 thermal CTP platesetting system from Fuji. Foster is also in the process of converting to the EFI Pace print management system.

In addition, the company pulled up stakes in 2010 and moved into a new 46,000-square-foot facility. According to Tim Blackburn, Foster Printing was able to design its "dream shop," which included configuring the production area to allow for future growth (i.e., more press hardware). The cherry on top is that the monthly mortgage payment is significantly lower than the rent at its prior building. And, one would be hard pressed to find a cleaner, more immaculate pressroom anywhere.

Another impressive aspect of Foster Printing's operations is its sales per employee. A shade under $15 million in annual sales was produced by just 36 workers. For perspective, the company listed on the 2013 Printing Impressions 400 list of top printers that came closest to matching that percentage (in that sales range) registered nearly $1.5 million less in sales than Foster and had three more employees.

"Our employee-to-sales ratio is lean and mean," Kris Blackburn remarks. "We all wear more than one hat here, and with the economy the way it has been the last six years, that was the path we saw to being as profitable as we could. Tim and I perform a lot of different tasks, so we try to lead by example. We've also got the equipment capacity to handle the workload. But above all, none of this would be possible without our dedicated, hard-working staff.

"The latest addition of the 205 press puts us into a new marketplace. It allowed us to expand our client base and, more importantly, continue serving the current customer base at a wider level."

Tim Blackburn also credits the newer equipment with enabling Foster Printing to produce more without adding payroll. "We've reduced labor in the pressroom through automation, and that has allowed our pressroom workers to focus on what they need to do," he says. "If we had older machines, we'd have to add staff and more shifts. Then we'd be taking away the overtime our current employees have enjoyed. Of course, we don't want to over-work them either. We want our employees to get the most that they can out of what they're great at doing."

The Blackburns are proud of the fact that there is little turnover at Foster Printing; when people leave, it is because they're retiring. Some of the pre-1988, Walter Foster Publishing workers still remain. In fact, Dennis Blackburn—who has owned the firm for 25 years now—loves working with his two sons and isn't afraid to climb aboard a forklift and unload paper from a delivery, when needed. It's the operative phrase, needed, as the Blackburns follow the philosophy of simply doing what needs to be done.

But, while growth is in the forecast, don't expect Foster Printing to be shooting for the stars, size-wise. In many ways, the California trade specialist is already there.

"Companies can lose sight and lose focus of goals, objectives and reasons for what they do every day," Tim Blackburn states. "It can be a blessing—and a curse. We've got to make sure we're still able to provide the same services that we have been doing successfully for the past 25 years. Our clients have gotten use to it, appreciate it...and they keep coming back." PI


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