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Williamson Printing -- In Full Bloom

November 2004
By Erik Cagle

Senior Editor

Sure, the calendar says November, but there's little doubt that spring is in the air for the commercial printing industry.

One of the sure signs of an economic thawing in the United States is the spending confidence being showcased by some of the industry's biggest players. Williamson Printing, of Dallas, is one such company leading the charge out of the post 9/11 funk.

Jerry and Jesse Williamson are two of the most well-known figures in printing—virtual celebrities in their profession. Both have more than 35 years of experience.

The brain trust at Williamson Printing: Jerry Williamson (standing), chairman and CEO, and brother Jesse Williamson, company president.
Jerry Williamson, the chairman and CEO, is a member of the Printing Impressions/ RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame and a 2003 winner of the Web Offset Association's Harry Quadracci Vision Award. His brother, Jesse Williamson, is president of the company and the operations guru of the dynamic duo.

Together, the Williamsons rung in a new era of printing when they traveled to Drupa in Germany this past spring for more than just tire kicking and window shopping. They completely overhauled their sheetfed offset press arsenal with the acquisition of four new presses, including:

* One of the first Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105s in the country, an eight-color machine.

* A pair of 12-color Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 102 perfectors to replace an 11-color and an eight-color. One of the new presses is equipped with a coater, PC2S and CutStar; the other features a coater and UV interdeck drying capabilities.

* A unique eight-color Speedmaster CD 102 Duo press equipped with three coaters, four dryers and an extended delivery.

The first press is slated for delivery in December, with the subsequent three touching down in February, April and May. Williamson is expanding its sheetfed pressroom to over 20,000 square feet to accommodate the longer presses.

For a company that's constantly looking for an edge, and pushing its own research and development people to find more ways to enhance processes, the four-press splurge by Williamson Printing is a significant vote of confidence in how well 2005 should shape up.

"The industry was already in a slump at the start of 2001," notes Jerry Williamson. "When 9/11 hit, it really knocked the legs out from underneath us. Our sales dropped about 25 percent. We're not back to where we were before, but we're making good progress.

"This year was the best we've had in the last four," he adds. "We think the future looks bright."

Williamson Printing, which registered about $75 million in sales for its fiscal year ending June 30, specializes in corporate annual reports and high-end automotive books. With 400 full-time employees, the company performs a majority of its work for advertising agencies and design firms, providing them with high-end commercial work, direct mail and magazine inserts. Long runs are a Williamson trademark.

Thus, with their incumbent Heidelbergs racking up high mileage, the Williamson brothers huddled with their executive team roughly six months before the Drupa exhibition and made the call to upgrade existing presses and add new technology.

"We continue to see improvement in our sales projections," says Jesse Williamson. "In the first quarter of this year, our sales were double what they'd been the last two years. We projected that the market was going to change for the better.

"We produce difficult, non-compromising printing jobs, so the equipment has to be maintained at the highest level," he stresses. "After 150 million impressions, it became a situation where to keep the presses as tight as possible and meet our customers' expectations, we needed to make these investments."

Ironic Financial Turn

Actually, the economic downturn enabled Williamson Printing to better position itself for the equipment investment campaign, according to Woody Dixon, executive vice president of finance and administration.

"We haven't made a lot of capital expenditures in the past couple of years, and that's allowed us to pay down our debt significantly," Dixon notes. "Because of that, we're now in the position to make such a commitment to the future."

The new 41.3˝ XL-105 will garner plenty of attention as it is beta tested. Jesse Williamson was fascinated by what he saw of the press in action during Drupa. It's a larger and faster press (18,000 sph) than its predecessors and a "robust inker," he reveals, and ideally caters to the company's ad/design customer base.

The first Speedmaster 102 to be installed features rollfed capabilities, Jesse Williamson points out. "On the SM Classic, we can pull the blanket washer head out and slide in the flexo unit. We actually have a patent for that. This gives us a built-in feature enabling us to coat before we perfect. We can print, coat and perfect, or straight print."

It has been a long journey for the company that began life in 1884 as a businessman's department store. Henry and James A. Dorsey started out offering office supplies and furniture, as well as sheetfed letterpress printing. Bowen Williamson joined the company in 1940 and bought out the Dorsey family in 1968, the year his two sons came to work with him. The newly christened Williamson Printing debuted in 1970.

"It still had a large letterpress department when we got there, and a pretty good offset department," Jerry Williamson recalls. "Most of the sheetfed offset presses were single color, with a couple of two-colors."

Despite several location switches and the name change, Williamson Printing has remained steadfast in its quest for acquiring evolving technologies and constantly upgrading its sheetfed offerings. The company also delved into web offset printing in 1976 and expanded its sales scope nationwide.

"We've been able to go through all of these market slumps because we have such a broad base of customers," Jerry Williamson says.

Growth by augmenting existing markets and exploring untapped resources have been the key. Williamson Printing debuted its Printing Resources Management with the 1986 opening of its Mequiladora plant in Metamoros, Mexico, for hand assembly work.

The company also bolstered its printing business by tapping work for the Mexican market, then, in the mid-'90s, expanded its scope with affiliations in Europe, South America and Australia.

Williamson Printing has sprouted several limbs from its service tree. The road to variable data digital printing runs through Williamson Express Printing, a part of Williamson Marketing Services Group (a subsidiary of Williamson Printing), which is located in a separate facility. It provides short-run printing with NexPress 2100s (purchased from Heidelberg) to produce four- and five-color digital output and a Digimaster for black-and-white digital work.

Its off-site fulfillment center answers the call for direct mail needs with the marketing, production and dissemination of promotional materials. Among its services are packaging and kit preparation.

And, within the last year, Williamson Printing made an investment in Magic Mailer. "This gives us the ability to individualize and have special finishing on products," says Jerry Williamson. "That is quite unique and expands our one-to-one market offerings."

Costs Get Grounded

It has behooved Williamson Printing to leverage every advantage possible during the past four years. Two of its biggest customers before the 9/11 attacks were airlines. The company found itself needing to reduce its work force. All upper-echelon employees took significant salary reductions. No stone went unturned in reducing internal costs.

But even as conditions have improved, it hasn't stopped the company from pushing its R&D team to find new innovations. For example, Williamson Printing has developed a technique for printing on uncoated paper with an incredible degree of fidelity.

"We've created a special finish, a special UV effect," Jerry Williamson explains. "We work closely with the ink and paper people. We have color geniuses in-house and invest heavily in R&D."

Another area where Williamson Printing has reaped savings is in computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM). The company implemented CIP3 and is on its way to CIP4/JDF. According to Jesse Williamson, integration has reached the guillotine cutters in the finishing department, but he envisions that increasing exponentially with the new pressroom equipment installations.

"We're in the midst of doing our own testing to communicate with our in-house computer management system (Prism), with our prepress equipment (Barco, Creo), as well as with our bindery equipment," he remarks. "We do ink-key settings now. But we don't do all of the functions. We're going to be adding new folding equipment and it is a requirement of ours that it be (JDF) compatible. For us, I see the CIM concept growing and growing.

"We are 100 percent committed to implementing total color management and a complete digital workflow."

So forget about the upcoming winter. With its major pressroom upgrades just around the corner, Williamson Printing is about to be in full bloom.

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