AJ IMAGES--All in the Family
BY SCOTT POLK
The seeds of the relationship that drives one of the country's fastest growing printing companies were sown nearly 60 years ago on a rooftop in Newark, NJ.
That's where Arnold Greebel's parents would take him on nice days—allowing the toddler to bask in the sunlight and soak in the panoramic views such a vantage point provides. Sometimes, as his parents would relate to him years later, Greebel would cast his eyes to a nearby building, where a young Janet Biddelman was also enjoying the weather from a rooftop carriage.
Fast forward some 20 years later. Arnold had earned an engineering degree from Farleigh Dickinson University and was working for a chemical packaging company. Janet, meanwhile, had finished her studies in accounting at Boston University and had recently purchased Whitcomb Printing in Roselle, NJ. Both single, their lives were about to change drastically thanks to a blind date.
"Our families knew each other and my cousin was friendly with Janet," Arnold recalls. "I knew of her, but our parents weren't that close."
So the engineer and the accountant were fixed up; they went out that evening in 1966 for a romantic dinner and dancing. It must have been romantic, because they married only two months later. "We just hit it off," Janet declares.
Thirty-five years after that blind date, the Greebels are still together. "It's kind of strange, but the business has helped to keep us together, believe it or not, because we have so much in common," Janet notes. And their union is paying off in many ways. AJ Images enjoyed a sales growth rate of 112 percent in 1999 and 2000 was also a very successful year.
In the Beginning
Whitcomb Printing started life as a broker, farming out the production of business cards. It was Arnold's idea to change Whitcomb into a full-fledged printer, so the couple purchased a Multi and a letterpress, and set up a shop in their basement.
"The first big move was just getting out of the basement and into a small office building," Janet recalls. "I never thought it would grow like this."
Before long, however, Arnold decided to start his own company and, in 1967, Dimensional Graphics—a traditional prepress business—was born. Throughout the 1970s, Dimensional generated nearly twice as much income as Whitcomb and Arnold became a prominent member of the New Jersey Typographers Association, serving as its president from 1978 to 1981.
In 1979, the Greebels purchased one of twin side-by-side, 5,000-square-foot buildings to house Whitcomb. Eight years later, they acquired the neighboring building for Dimensional.
Trying Times for Type
But the typography industry began to die out in the late 1980s and, to counter the decline in business, Dimensional became one of the first prepress firms in New Jersey to install desktop equipment. While the new technology helped to rejuvenate profits at first, by 1992 Whitcomb accounted for 60 percent of the businesses' annual volume.
On January 1, 1993, they merged the two companies, creating the sole entity of AJ Images. Janet serves as the president, while Arnold is vice president of marketing and sales. It was a move that would lead the company to where it is today.
AJ Images was buoyed by the fact that both companies already had the equipment, staff and client base needed to succeed. With such a head start, the merger began a six-year period of aggressive growth.
AJ Images became an incorporated business in 1995 and two years later expanded by adding bindery equipment, including a large MBO folder. The following year, however, it made the first leap toward becoming a serious player in the printing market.
Arnold and his son, Aharon, attended Graph Expo in 1997 and were waiting for a bus to take them back to the airport when they struck up a conversation with a Heidelberg dealer. The Greebels were in the market for a five-color press, but were and still are a MAN Roland shop. The Heidelberg dealer was not deterred, locating a used 40˝ Roland perfector in Wales. With Aharon playing an important role in the deal, the Greebels purchased it soon after.
"That's when we really took off," Janet notes.
True enough, though the Greebels really hit the jackpot at the 1999 edition of Graph Expo. They attended the show intending to buy an Agfa Sherpa 43 ink-jet proofing system, but that became a bonus when they bought Agfa's automated Galileo computer-to-plate (CTP) system. They also acquired Apogee Pilot, an upgrade to their Taipan RIP, and the cherry of the purchase—a six-color MAN Roland 700 perfecting press.
"It was only supposed to be a $15,000 purchase, not $2.5 million!" Janet exclaims.
Two weeks after delivery, AJ Images was performing 80 to 90 percent of its jobs on the digital equipment. By the third week, they were fully CTP and had shut down their imagesetters.
"I was very adamant about getting into this and doing it immediately," Arnold states. "With that kind of investment, my personal opinion is that it should start paying for itself from day one. I'm not going to experiment and play games. Get everything running correctly right at the beginning and utilize it."
The technology has paid off in spades for the company. For the two fiscal years ending in 1998, the company boasted a 95 percent growth rate, with annual sales jumping from $865,000 in 1996 to almost $1.7 million in 1998. Sales topped out at just under $2.3 million in 1999, a 112 percent growth rate over sales of $1.07 million in 1997. And Arnold expects the figures for fiscal 2000, which closes out this month, to top $3 million. All of this is done with an employee base of 21 and a one-shift work day.
Now 60 years old, Arnold doesn't plan to rest any time soon. "I feel I can take this company to between $5 million and $6 million myself," he predicts. And when he says myself, he means it. Arnold is the sole member of the AJ Images sales force.
"Good salespeople are very hard to come by," he remarks. "It's also a big risk when you're dealing with a salesperson that is carrying a good portion of the company.
"One of the things that I've always relied on is my sixth sense. That's the way I try to guide myself and my people," he continues. "Using common sense, I try to envision the future of the industry and the needs of my clients. I try not to rule with an iron hand because I want the company to run itself."
Both Janet and Arnold know they will soon step away from the business, as their children, all in their 30s, are preparing to assume larger roles. Aharon is director of plant operations, Steven works in the bookkeeping department and the front office, and Linda works part-time in the bookkeeping department and is setting up a new accounting system. Another daughter, Lisa, formerly worked in sales.
Being able to see her family on a day-to-day basis is something that Janet cherishes. "My daughter is here part-time and comes in with the baby two, three times a week," she reports. "On a personal side, it's nice being a grandmother and getting to see your grandkids as often as we do. It's an added treat that has nothing to do with business."
And the business will continue to run smoothly should the Greebel children follow their parents' lead.
"Lean and mean is the way we do business," Arnold states. "In order to bring business in you have to have three things: quality, price and service. We put them all together and give clients the best of all three. And we're always on time."
"Our major concern is staying in touch with customers," adds his wife. "We don't have voice mail and we don't try to evade an issue. We answer the phone, talk directly to our customers and I think they appreciate that."
Those are the same ideals that started with Whitcomb nearly 40 years ago. The loving relationship between this team has lasted just as long.