Ambrose Printing: Meaningful Enough to Print
Change is inevitable, and to be a commercial printer is to know this is a fact of life. To be in any manufacturing sector, for that matter, is to be all too aware of how technology can take a time-tested production process and snuff it out.
In the movie "Field of Dreams," actor James Earl Jones famously delivered the "people will come" speech about how baseball has survived the passage of time and our country's constant reinvention. "America," he declared, "has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again."
Well, baseball might have emerged from the generations largely intact and original, but the printing industry has endured more style changes than Madonna. Take a look at the historical profiles of any printing company that has been around more than 100 years, and you'll note the massive shifts in markets and products. Printing gets pushed around and dismissed as mature technology, but it trudges forward. Market segments die like endangered species, only to be replaced by new print products.
Why? What is the fascination with ink on paper? What could possibly be romantic about clutching print? There's no warm-n-fuzzies; try to show paper affection, and you'll end up with a painful, nagging cut. So why won't it just die?
John Ambrose offers an observation that seems intuitively true. He is the president of Ambrose Printing, the fourth generation in his family to guide this 145-year-old Nashville, TN-based commercial printer serving the religious, collegiate sports and retail point-of-purchase/point-of-sale (POP/POS) sectors. The company was founded in 1865 and acquired by Ambrose's great-grandfather—who provided printed products for the railroad—in 1880.
Religious publishing and related items—church bulletins, catalogs and kitting—represent a lion's share of the work produced at Ambrose Printing. For the past 30-plus years, the company has enjoyed a close and fruitful relationship with one of the country's largest religious publishers.
"We feel it is a pretty stable market; we put a lot of stock into it," Ambrose says of the religious sector. "People will always seek spiritual guidance, in good times and bad. And man will always be on a quest to learn about God."
While the market may never go away, it does seem to be insulated, to a degree, from the threat of a wholesale shift to online dissemination. Can it be that the congregational nature of religious groups calls for portable, tangible literature and educational documents? Ambrose himself offers a printing epiphany.
"The more important a subject is, the more likely people are going to want it printed out," he says. "It's important to them, so they want to touch it, feel it and discuss it with other people. But it's not altogether removed from the threat of electronic alternatives."
Whether divine intervention has anything to do with print's survival in the religious sector is an argument for another day, but it certainly has served Ambrose Printing well since the 1930s. Whenever its religious clients wanted to speak, Ambrose would clear its throat. That meant investing in whatever equipment necessary to fit the needs of the customers. Or, as Ambrose puts it, "We do all of their blocking and tackling." Knowing the sector and its needs has made Ambrose Printing a valued partner for the religious space.
Not that the company, which posted sales of $9.3 million in 2010, hasn't seen its share of challenges. For years, Ambrose Printing has specialized in publications printing—media guides and programs—for collegiate sports programs. In the past three years, there has been a concerted effort among cash-strapped programs to shift much of the information that would normally be included in a media guide to an official online Website. Plus, the NCAA ruling body that governs collegiate sports has handed down edicts limiting the page counts of media guides to keep schools on a level playing field, so to speak.
Factor in the green movement on most campuses, and Ambrose Printing finds itself working harder than ever to keep a close tab on its collegiate customers' evolving needs. However, game programs and posters have helped compensate for the media guide share erosion, according to Ambrose.
"We just need to look at the direction they're taking, where they're going, and show them what we can offer," he says. "That's the universal game—communicating with your customers and seeing where they want to go."
Entering New Niches
Ambrose Printing is diversifying its offerings. About 5 percent to 10 percent of its workload output is corrugated box labels for the retail sector. The company also provides guidance on design elements.
As for perhaps its best opportunity for growth, Ambrose Printing has made strong inroads into the retail POP/POS space, buoyed by the recent acquisition of a five-color Xeikon 5000 digital press. Ambrose liked the 5000's ability to print on a wide variety of substrates and formats.
"Xeikon is the only toner-based digital color press available on the market that has no frame or sheet size restrictions, and produces offset-like quality," he says. "In addition, it prints on both sides of the substrate at the same time and has little to no makeready time, which allows us to be more productive and efficient."
The Xeikon can handle a variety of media, including coated and uncoated paper, with weights ranging from 27-lb. text to 130-lb. cover. With the 5000, Ambrose Printing can accept short- to medium-run jobs involving variable data printing, which it could not deliver cost-effectively prior to installing the press.
Ambrose Printing works through agencies, as well as directly with some of the nation's largest retailers. From a digital standpoint, the company president sees a bounty of untapped potential.
"We can do shorter runs or one-offs," Ambrose notes. "Every sheet can be different, all variable. That's important when there's retail pricing that can be changing weekly, monthly or quarterly. More retailers are coming over to the idea of changing over their pricing and inventories faster, and especially with seasonal items. Retail is still a growing market."
What will allow Ambrose Printing to take over more market share? Ambrose says the company is stocked with employees who have an abundance of "technology and firepower" under one roof, but are adept at making the complex seem simple. Maintaining profitability will be critical, but Ambrose will be relying on those strong customer relationships to keep his company relevant. Sometimes, that will entail walking away from unprofitable projects, "even though that's not the politically correct thing to say.
"A lot of printers are beating each other up over prices, and that's crazy," he concludes. "If our customers are engaging and talking to us more as a partner, as opposed to talking only about price, then we will be successful." PI