Taking Risks is What Earned Chris Pierce, The Dingley Press, a Spot in the Printing Industry Hall of Fame
Potential, like beauty, is in the eye and heart of the beholder. Some gear heads will look at a veritable bucket of automotive rust sitting on cinder blocks, and imagine flying down an open road, music blaring and the wind blowing through their hair. The rest of us will cringe and think of the $100 it will cost to have that hideous vehicular beast taken away.
Still, those who have a clear vision as to what could transform that potential into a reality transcend the bevy of dreamers amongst us who have neither the courage nor the inclination to take a risk that is less than calculated. Chris Pierce fits that description.
Imagine buying the printing company that you worked for after it had lost a customer representing 95 percent of the business. And imagine the press equipment that you use is tailored to an odd size, which was suited for the now-departed customer, but not much else. Top it all off with the fact that you, the new owner, have little—if any—practical business experience.
"I went to a liberal arts college where they didn't talk about accounting," Pierce says of his alma matter, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME. "They talked about Plato."
If you give him points for beginning his professional career somewhat behind the traditional starting line, it's suffice to say that Pierce, chairman of The Dingley Press in Lisbon, ME, has certainly earned his spot in the 2014 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry induction class.
Pierce did, in fact, purchase a customer-less company with odd-size equipment and no prospects in 1981. The company grew from 30 employees and $300,000 in sales to more than $100 million in sales and 500-plus workers. In the process, the firm recorded 24 consecutive years of plus sales growth.
Although Pierce sold the company to The Sheridan Group in 2004, he purchased it back last October at an age when most executives are either contemplating retirement or can already be found on the golf course. Perhaps the echoing words of Plato were resonating with him, but more likely, it was Pierce's son, Chris Jr., who posed the question, "Are you going to read the newspaper for the rest of your life?" that was the catalyst for Pierce's return.
Missed Being Part of Dingley Team
"I'm not a day-to-day person, but I'm not an absentee owner," Pierce says. "It's stimulating to be involved. After I left Dingley...I missed being on a team and I missed the great people at Dingley who have done so much for the company over the years. I missed the business part of life, and thought (repurchasing Dingley) was a good investment. I'm glad to be back."
He graduated from Bowdoin in 1971, and following a six-month stint in the National Guard, Pierce wasn't sure what he was going to do with his life. He reviewed options with large companies in New York and elsewhere, but became aware of an opportunity with a printing company in Maine, The Dingley Press, then a very small operation that happened to be located in the same building as its biggest (and virtually only) client, cataloger L.L. Bean.
"I picked Dingley because I wanted to have an impact on a company at a young age as opposed to working for a big firm in New York," Pierce notes.
For about eight years following Pierce's arrival, the printer cruised along as L.L. Bean's catalog printing caddy. But in 1980, the prized client notified Dingley that it was moving its work over to RR Donnelley. Pierce understood the move—he knew Bean's growth demanded that they opt for a bigger printer—but now Dingley was left with webfed book presses with cutoffs that were geared toward a 9˝ vertical dimension. Standard catalogs weren't an option.
At this point, Pierce decided to buy Dingley and take over. "In retrospect, it was a foolish thing to do," he admits. "But I didn't pay much for it, because it wasn't worth much."
Pierce rounded up some investors, and in the fall of 1980, began the task of building Dingley (Bean represented $5.7 million of its $6 million in annual sales). The staff was reduced to 30 people. Pierce took the sales lead, and in the first year, he convinced a publisher of children's magazines to drop its trim size slightly. A cataloger on Long Island was convinced to bump up from its digest format, and a Buffalo-based catalog came into the fold. Dingley did $3 million in revenue and broke even, which was a relative victory.
Pierce suffered through the sophomore jinx in 1982, losing a client and experiencing plant-related issues, but for its first eight years, the company was able to build up to the $8 million plateau by 1988 with the oddball 7-1/2x9˝ size.
"It was a point of demarcation for the company," Pierce relates. "We thought we could either sell, shut it down or expand it. Selling was not an option—too small, with odd-sized equipment, so it wasn't worth anything. We could have shut it down, but that would have put 75 people out of work, including myself. That was not appealing."
Pierce decided he wanted to go to battle with a machine that produced a 10-1/8˝ vertical trim size, which would save customers money on paper and postage. He convinced a bank that it was a viable move to purchase such a press, and procured a $7 million loan...a move, in hindsight, which was reckless on his part (he personally guaranteed the loan) and the bank's. In 1988, Pierce bought a 21-1/2˝-wide press and had it installed in a new 60,000-square-foot facility in Lisbon, ME.
"By offering a catalog format (8x10-1⁄8˝) that was only slightly smaller than a standard format, we knew it would save money for the cataloger and thought it would not decrease response rates from their customers," he says. "Fortunately, that has proven to be true."
After a slow start that included losing money for 19 straight months, the 8x10-1/8˝ catalog format size garnered traction, and during a 15-year stretch from 1989 to 2004, sales billowed from $8 million to $100 million. Since Pierce estimates that owner/entrepreneurs comprise about 85 percent of catalogers, Dingley's combination of competitive prices and small company culture with instant customer service and corporate flexibility appealed to them.
By the time Pierce was approached by Sheridan, the catalog business was hopping. Dingley was capital intensive, and Pierce felt it was getting too large for him to manage. "I thought, 'we've been fortunate, so let's not get greedy,' " he says. "Let someone else take it to another level."
Pierce stayed on board following the sale before leaving in 2011. He then went to work for the state of Maine as the deputy commissioner of finance for the Department of Health and Human Services. Pierce was essentially a CFO for the $3.5 billion department. While he was able to effect positive changes during his tenure, he left in 2012, after having accomplished what he thought he could.
Eight months into his sabbatical, Pierce's son challenged him to put down the Bangor Daily News and get back in the game. "I borrowed a lot of money to buy back The Dingley Press," he says. "We are expecting to grow the company over the next several years."
Pierce clearly did not purchase a reclamation project the second time around; the first go-around, however, was a different story. Those critical years, especially in the early 1980s, enabled him to turn his company from a one-trick pony to a firm with multiple offerings (not to mention multiple customers).
One of Pierce's defining moments came in 1981, when the owners of Curtis Publishing, Beurt and Cory SerVaas, gave him the break Dingley needed by agreeing to let the printer produce not a catalog, but Curtis' magazines. At the time, Pierce was a 32-year-old entrepreneur, a bit of an unknown quantity, risking everything he had with an unconventional press cutoff. Beurt SerVaas saw a little of himself in Pierce, and convinced his wife to give Dingley their work.
"Beurt said to his wife, 'Cory, you need to give this kid a chance. He'll make it work,'" Pierce recalls. "Beurt died last year, but eight years ago, I had the chance to visit with him, to thank him for what he had done for a young, struggling company and its people 28 years ago. It was the most satisfying moment in my business career. We would not have survived without him, so I was glad to be able to acknowledge him in that fashion."
Benefit of Experience
While not experienced in the printing industry, some family members provided critical business acumen. Pierce's uncle, Benjamin Pierce, ran a very large company in Mississippi and provided a sounding board for Chris. In fact, his Uncle Leonard—who ran a large paper company—his father (a lawyer) along with Uncle Ben, became the de facto board of directors. "They would run us through the paces two or three times a year," Chris Pierce says of the meetings. "It was tremendous discipline, and it taught me a lot about customers."
One customer with whom Pierce has left a lasting impression is John Greenberger, the retired former president and owner of Cornerstone, based in Buffalo, NY. Dingley printed Cornerstone's catalogs for 22 years and, according to Greenberger, Pierce always had a firm grasp on his company's capabilities and could deliver as promised.
"They know their niche and can do it very well," Greenberger says. "Chris really understood his business. If there was a way to save you money, he would do it. He'd call me and say, 'Hey, there's a real good buy on paper, do you want to get in on it?' Chris was really customer focused."
Pierce enjoys doing work for nonprofit groups. He pitches in with the Finance Authority of Maine, which loans funds to small companies, and is involved with the Mitchell Institute, an organization started by former Sen. George Mitchell to provide scholarships for need-based Maine students.
A classical music aficionado, Pierce is also a huge fan of the Boston Red Sox. Chris and Nancy Pierce have been married for 39 years. They have four children, all boys, and are expecting a fifth grandchild shortly. The Pierces are attached to their northern Maine roots and spend a good deal of time at their camp near the Canadian border.
"I love the rural part of Maine. You find a lot of wonderful, independent, hard-working and talented people there," he says. "It's also easier to get back to Dingley when I want to, which is a nice fringe benefit." PI