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Visual Systems Inc. -- Deeper than Transparent

October 2005
by chris bauer

Managing Editor

At first glance, a firm known for producing overhead transparencies seems fairly simple. But as you focus in on what Milwaukee-based Visual Systems Inc. (VSI) is all about, you realize that the company's core of ancillary products for educational and supplemental textbook publishers is thicker than it may first appear.

"VSI is a family owned company dedicated to serving the book industry," notes Jeff Hengsbach, vice president. "We provide publishers with high impact and cost-effective printed products that communicate clearly. We've committed to a best workplace culture that serves our community and surrounds itself with extraordinary employees, suppliers and customers."

Founded in 1961, VSI provides the educational publishing market with a variety of visual communication products, including book components, binders, textbook inserts, CD packaging, overhead transparencies, supplemental workbooks, teaching aids, lenticular promotional products, on-demand printing and slide duplication.

Hengsbach reports that, in some areas, the overhead transparency market is still growing—but it has peaked in others—and is starting to decline in some segments. That is where the different parts of VSI's business become even more crucial.

Looking at Opportunities

"Although we will always be committed to the transparency (market), book components represent our largest growth opportunity, by far," Hengsbach says. "To develop book components, we have created new, high impact and cost-effective products and effects. In doing so, we've added value to our publishing customers by helping them sell more books through better covers and jackets."

One technology being used at VSI is called BaseOne, which was the result of a joint venture between VSI and eight other companies. BaseOne has created an alternative to traditional book cover printing.

"We've created a process that will change the way book covers and jackets are produced," Hengsbach enthuses. "BaseOne allows for printing directly on a plastic substrate, eliminating the two-step process of printing on paper and then adding a laminate. BaseOne not only eliminates a step, but it also offers more durable book covers with more design options."

BaseOne was shown at the BookTech Conference & Expo earlier in the year, where Hengsbach led an educational seminar titled, "Book Covers: Design, Production and Manufacturing Tales." A representative from Velasquez Press, in El Monte, CA, spoke about the company's experience using BaseOne to print its Spanish/English dictionary that hit bookstores this spring.

Another joint venture resulted in the introduction of Lextra to the educational publishing marketplace. VSI formed an exclusive partnership with Fort Collins, CO-based specialty printer FiberLok this year to unveil Lextra. It is a combination of heat transfers with multi-colored direct transfer technologies. The product, which was initially used for decorating hats and caps for promotional items, is now patented and used to develop products for the fashion, uniform and automotive industries.

VSI and FiberLok partner with publishers to create decorative book covers and jackets. Lextra offers a variety of features such as rich texture, intense color and durability.

"Adding the Lextra product to our book cover capabilities has generated a buzz in the industry," explains Brad Haywood, manager of business development. "Publishers are always looking for a fresh finishing technique that will help their products stand out in the marketplace. Lextra offers design and decorating capabilities that have not been seen in the educational publishing world."

What the Future Holds

Book components are VSI's future, Hengsbach says, and BaseOne is the future of book components. Lextra is also an important addition to VSI's book component capabilities.

"BaseOne reduces the cost of the cover while improving its appearance, increasing durability and reducing weight," Hengsbach points out. "Special effects and innovative products like Lextra are also an integral part of BaseOne and book components—they feed each other."

With moves such as these, VSI is poised for a bright future. The company experienced a 60 percent growth spurt last year while maintaining profit leader status. It boasts annual sales of $14 million, houses a staff of 76 employees and fills 64,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

To help out with this boom in business, so far this year VSI has purchased a new multi-color Heidelberg sheetfed press; a Creo platesetter; a Polar cutter; a multi-station collator; and a new bindery line. Heidelberg's Prinergy workflow was also implemented.

On the drawing board, Hengsbach says, is a new digital press, a new perfect binder, as well as additional laminating, foil stamping and embossing equipment.

"VSI constantly looks at improving production through new equipment, technology and overall process improvement," he maintains.

Keeping up on the latest industry trends and equipment has payed off mightily for VSI. The company has been honored with numerous industry awards, including Gold Ink Awards (Printing Impressions/PrintMedia), Premier Print Awards (Printing Industries of America) and Graphic Excellence Awards (Printing Industries of Wisconsin).

It has also been named a Best Workplace in America four years in a row by the Printing Industries of America and recognized as "the best best company to work for in Southeastern Wisconsin" by Milwaukee Magazine and The Management Resource Association.

"It is an honor to be recognized on both a local and national level for the culture at Visual Systems," says Brenda Aulik, human resources manager. "We take great pride in developing and training each of our associates, and go the extra mile to recruit and retain the best of the best."

No Stopping Now

The company has no plans to stop and admire what it has already accomplished, however. In the next few years, VSI plans to continue to grow rapidly due to three points:

* Providing new products and offering creativity.

* Strong market growth.

* A stable history and highly competent associates.

"The challenge will be to keep the growth orderly and the costs reasonable," Hengsbach concludes. "BaseOne has every chance to revolutionize the way book covers are produced, and VSI will be putting every resource into making a lasting improvement in book manufacturing."

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