Allied Printing--Crowning Customers
Allied Printing has developed a reputation for treating customers like royalty through full-service capabilities and a deadline-conscious, dedicated staff.
BY ERIK CAGLE
Allied Printing is celebrating its 50th anniversary by following the credo instilled by its founder, John F. Sommers: Never say no to a customer. And while the landscape of the commercial printing industry has witnessed numerous changes in the way business is conducted, it seems that Mr. Sommers' motto has enjoyed a nice, long shelf life.
Never saying no, naturally, means always saying yes—an expensive proposition—yet it is one that has worked for Allied Printing Services Inc. Located five miles east of Hartford in Manchester, CT, this independent commercial printer boasts state-of-the-art equipment.
Included are Heidelberg web and sheetfed offset presses (along with a second eight-color, 40˝ Speedmaster CD press installed late last month); a digital photography studio; complete electronic prepress capabilities, with 16 Mac PowerPCs, 18 proofing units, various imagesetters, direct-to-plate systems and an Internet server with WAM!NET connectibility; as well as duplicating, diecutting and letterpress departments. Did we mention a full bindery; warehousing, shipping and receiving departments; and a fleet of company trucks?
Perhaps it is simpler to say Allied Printing has everything a customer could ask for, and a lot more. But it is an impressive laundry list of products and services.
"Many times, when customers come to us with a printing project, they just found out about it themselves," notes John G. Sommers, 44, chairman and president of Allied Printing. "They're under tight constraints on their side of the business. They want a quality job and they need it yesterday. We excel at providing that type of service. That philosophy has been instilled in all of us growing up here at the shop. Our salespeople don't conjure up all these near-impossible deliveries. Customers need quick turnarounds for a reason, and that's good enough for us."
"Our philosophy has always been: If you just print and bind, you'll have 100 competitors in a one-mile radius," adds Gerald F. Sommers, executive vice president and marketing director of the company he co-owns with his brother. "If you start adding services and differentiating yourself from your competitors, you'll have one competitor in a 100-mile radius, which is more conducive to growing your business and doing well."
Jon Kaufman, 39, vice president of technology development, has worked at Allied Printing for 16 years and was also greatly influenced by the teachings of John F. Sommers, who passed away in January 1994.
"Over the years, Allied has skyrocketed because of the reinvestment the Sommers family has made in the equipment we've brought in to handle different types of work," Kaufman says. "The company has expanded its potential, which has grown our customer base. Our clients are very loyal—some have been with us since the beginning."
Change of Heart
The elder Sommers started the business as a two-person operation out of a store front in 1949 and gradually built it into a 250,000-plus-square-foot establishment employing more than 300 workers. A World War II pilot who met his future wife in England, where he was stationed, John F. Sommers actually was attending school to be a lawyer before being called on to defend his country. Upon returning, he had a vocational change of heart.
While perusing an Army business survey, he took notice of an industry that ranked with the least amount of bankruptcies and with the average age of the owner in the mid-50s. Thus, commercial printing seemed like the perfect career. Indeed, it was, and still is, as far as Allied Printing is concerned.
The company continues to flourish, largely due to its ownership's willingness to invest and reinvest in new technologies. Over the last 15 years, Allied Printing has welcomed the opportunity to be the alpha or beta sites for technology manufacturers such as Hell, Scitex, Gerber, Agfa and Apple, among others. Allied owns one of the biggest server configurations under one roof, with two SGI Octane 2000 servers with 28 CPUs and 14GB of RAM. The first mainstream sector installation of Fiber Channel Raid occurred here, and the ATM Fiber Network Imprint Publishing debuted at Allied, as well. According to Kaufman, Allied Printing went thermal computer-to-plate with a Gerber (now BARCO) system before DRUPA 1995 and, at the start of this year, the second generation of Agfa Galileo thermal platesetting devices were installed.
Kaufman is particularly proud of the company's digital proofing capabilities. Allied reportedly was the first company to feature multiple Presstek proofers using Imation Matchprint Laser Proof materials and the fifth company overall to have a unit installed. The proofers were customized and Allied had a code written that allowed for screening with ABS (AGFA balance screening) to the Presstek devices.
"Screening has been very critical to us and we're very critical with the type of screening we've had over the years," he says. "That's what makes a quality product. With that screening, if we output conventional off one of our two Avantra 44 imagesetters—or go thermal CTP or digital proof or conventional proof—we're able to use the same screening.
"Our philosophy behind digital halftone proofing vs. the IRIS or laser ink-jet type of proofs is that we do a lot of high-end work for car manufacturers," he adds. "If you have a grill on an automobile, you can't see a moiré [pattern] with a non-digital halftone proof. Or if you're doing an annual report that's going on a full-size, six-color web press, you don't want to find out when the job delivers—the day you're contracted to deliver that report—that the CEO's herringbone suit moirés."
Allied Printing has invested heavily in its server capabilities in order to not only stay in stride with technology, but perhaps remain a step ahead. It also helps to have the range of capability, even if it is not always utilized, according to Kaufman.
"We have a Dalim-scripted, automated workflow that resides on that server, which allows us to have an entirely automated workflow for a varied amount of jobs. This allows huge throughput with a 64-bit operating system vs. Windows NT," he says. "Multiple processors, multi-tasking, multi-threading allows us to have a huge amount of throughput instantaneously. It all goes back to performance. Are all the CPUs being used every minute of the day? No—we'd be making movies like 'Toy Story' or 'Jurassic Park' if we were doing that. But, when we have the need, we're able to ramp up and deliver a product like no one else can."
A Simple Plan
Allied Printing installed its digital photography studio following DRUPA 95. The company saw its scanning revenue stream drying up because designers were doing their own desktop scanning and designing around their capabilities there rather than the capabilities of a high-end system.
By showing customers a considerable savings in color separations as well as their photography bill, it gave them even more money that could be spent on printing.
Sommers feels it is vital to have Kaufman out in the field in search of the most recent and relevant technologies (Sommers refers to them as "toys") and the company receives justification in the form of an independent board, which will evaluate and judge whether or not a particular "toy" belongs in the Allied Printing toybox.
"We have to look closely at what we're doing today and listen to find out what the industry is doing tomorrow," Sommers remarks. "With the way commercial printing is changing and evolving, we need someone out there tracking new developments and reporting back to Allied. We have an independent board to put [proposals] through the process of justification. It's not a rubber stamp by any means—our board asks many tough questions before we receive approval to purchase any new equipment."
It seems Allied Printing, a staunch independent printer, and a number of other commercial printers have found a way to circumvent at least one of the so-called advantages enjoyed by commercial printing consolidators: namely purchasing power.
Two years ago, Sommers, a member of the Young President's Organization (YPO)—an international organization that boasts a multitude of vocations, including 30 to 40 printers—founded a purchasing group that featured YPO member printers. Only YPO members are considered for inclusion in the purchasing LLC, which boasts considerable consumables buying leverage because its versatile membership prints on a variety of substrates.
"We've had to aggressively find ways to compete with consolidators," remarks Kaufman, who has spoken on the very subject at several VUE/Point conferences. "The YPO allows us to buy in volume. We have a very diversified base within that group, which gives us a strong position in negotiating with manufacturers. It's a highly ethical group; there are certain criteria printers need to achieve to be a part of the group."
As the company looks to the new millennium and monitors how the Internet will affect the way future business is conducted, Sommers is confident Allied Printing will continue to flourish.
"One of the main tenets that has made Allied Printing so strong is its employees," he says. "Our employees take an ownership in the company—they want it to succeed. Our people are our greatest asset. They're very enthusiastic about the company, which helps us concentrate on our customers. If we stay focused on our customers' needs, we'll be very well off in the future."
Data Collection Is Key to Success
When Allied Printing decided it was time to upgrade its management information system, executives commissioned an accounting firm to go out and narrow down the options within set parameters.
"We realized that we needed to be a little smarter about the information we were getting," admits Allied President John Sommers. Allied had had a custom MIS for a number of years, and an off-the-shelf system from a third-party provider. But company execs realized that they were missing data. And without the data, getting a handle on cost centers was lost.
So they asked a national accounting firm to sort out the systems for them. When all was said and done, and after an extensive study of the costs and capabilities of competing systems, Logic came out on top.
Allied purchased a turnkey Logic Management System and the full PlantManager data collection suite to go with two of its web presses, which already had the venerable, but reliable, Auto-Count.
"What resulted was a welcome surfeit of data. It almost overwhelms me with the information that's available," says Sommers. "It's just a matter of what you're looking for; you ask for it and it's all in there."
A principal benefit accruing from the new system has been automatic, real-time data collection from the shop floor. Allied operates three web presses, half a dozen 40˝ sheetfed presses (running two, six and eight colors), some smaller machines, and a full bindery with a diecutter, folders and a saddle stitcher. All of the machines are now linked by Logic's PlantManager data collection system with DMI.
Using Logic's Open DMI Protocol, piece counts are automatically fed into the PlantManager server in real-time, and the stats are available from the management system at a keystroke anywhere in the plant. When Allied purchased a new heatset web press, the Auto-Count 3000 signature counting system—with its patented, waste-weighing technology—was an automatic choice. And, adds Sommers, they used data from the Logic system to optimally configure the machine.
The installation went smoothly and uneventfully. Allied brought in Rich Fletcher as manager of information systems. Fletcher had run Logic systems before and brought a welcome level of expertise.
"We were able to get up to speed extremely quickly," he says. "And system reliability has been high. Up-time is in excess of 99 percent, and our downtime is usually self-inflicted, such as when we're installing release upgrades."
And responsiveness from Logic's customer service team was characteristically swift and comprehensive. "I've always believed that customer service is one of Logic's real strong suits," says Fletcher.
Now, four years into the relationship, Allied is more firmly convinced than ever that electronic management and automatic data collection are the keys to printing efficiency.
"It's absolutely what we needed to have in here," says Vice President of Finance Peter Swann. "It has definitely helped us in many ways, not the least of which is that now we have a good handle on what is going on with all of our equipment."