When You Come to a Fork in the Road – Don’t Take It?

I have never witnessed a time during my 27 years in this industry when more printers (and other small-business owners) feel like they are at a fork in the road. They have, no doubt, faced similar divergent choices over the years, but this one is more agonizing.

  • One road takes them down the same path they have been on for many years—staying a traditional printer with basically the same type of customers.
  • The other road, or roads, leads down a new path of diversification into new markets, new customers and even new ways of running a business. Take your pick—there’s the most talked about path of becoming a marketing services provider or a sign business, packaging printer, promotional products provider, fulfillment house and a host of other options.

So what’s the message in this? Based on my observations, the above headline’s “don’t take it” kicker from one of my favorite philosophers, Yogi Berra, may be interesting—but confusing—advice. If you don’t pick one of the paths, can you successfully take another or follow multiple paths? Do you have the resources and staff to take more than one path successfully?

I read and hear stories about printers attempting to diversify into new services or markets only to fail and retreat to the old road most traveled. Too often, the attempt may have been made without devoting adequate resources to the venture or with poor strategy. This may be the time to call in outside resources to help evaluate the business directions that are open to printers. In the franchise world, this is what we do every day with our members. If you are not in this world, then it may be time to call in the outside consultants.

The other message I want to leave you with is this: Don’t forget to resurface and take care of the road you are on. Again, I have observed too many cases where people have tried the diversification programs, but lose focus on their current markets and customers. The result is a substantial loss of business while attempting to develop the new markets and customers. Don’t fall victim to this rocky road.

Carl Gerhardt is the chairman of Alliance Franchise Brands LLC, the parent company of Allegra Network LLC and Sign & Graphics Operations LCC, and a world leader in marketing, visual and graphics communications, linking more than 600 locations in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. The company’s Marketing & Print Division, headquartered in Plymouth, MI, is comprised of Allegra, American Speedy Printing, Insty-Prints, Speedy Printing and Zippy Print brands of marketing, printing, mailing and Web services providers. Its Sign & Graphics Division, headquartered in Columbia, MD, is comprised of Image360, Signs By Tomorrow and Signs Now brands of sign and graphics communications providers.

Carl and his wife, Judy, owned and operated their own successful Allegra franchise for nearly 20 years before selling the $2.3 million operation in 2003. He is a PrintImage International/NAQP Honorary Lifetime Member and was inducted into NAPL’s prestigious Soderstrom Society in 2010 in recognition of his contribution to the industry.

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  • Patrick Whelan

    Fantastic article Carl. Thanks for sharing.

  • Joe Manos

    Great post Carl. I agree with your thoughts and would add one additional thought.

    When evaluating the future invest in areas of opportunity that afford your company the greatest growth over the long haul. Not all opportunity areas are created equally.

    This is why I am bullish on marketing automation for today’s printer. It is a natural extension of the print business as many printers are already producing marketing materials.

    The key reason they should consider this area is because marketers will continue to invest more dollars in Cross Channel Marketing and this area of opportunity is slated to grow to over $85 Billion Dollars through 2016.

    If a printer is committed to following a strategy of growth while keeping their core business healthy by becoming "more relevant" for their customer’s most pressing needs they can achieve success in both areas.

    We have hundreds of printers that have done this successfully but you need more than technology alone.

    You need a partner that is vested in your success and provides you with the training, tools and support to make the journey successfully.

  • Art Coley

    I agree Carl. There is more opportunity for us today than ever before. Great article.

  • Carl Gerhardt

    Thanks for the comments guys. I continue to be amazed how difficult many shop owners are finding it to get out of the rut. Some that get out of the rut face the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath h20…..taking their eye off the core business that still pays the bills. But then all of this creates opportunity for those of us who are supposed to be helping them