Best-in-Class Innovator: Specialty Print Communications Isn't Just an 'Also-Ran, Me-Too' Printer
Let’s first be clear about what “innovation” for printing companies isn’t.
It’s not merely about acquiring new technology (although technology typically serves as a catalyst for innovation).
It’s not necessarily about producing things that no one else has produced before (although this kind of inventiveness is one sure sign of a company that deserves to be called innovative).
The stories of the six printing companies profiled for our Innovators series suggest that when we speak in practical terms about a relentless drive for improved performance, we come nearer to the heart of what “innovation” in the printing business really means.
No company achieves operational excellence without rethinking time-honored production routines and replacing them, when need be, with processes that work better. That’s innovation. So is the continuous effort made to set new benchmarks of productivity and efficiency on behalf of customers — because a company determined to excel will never hesitate to innovate its way to the next level of excellence.
Companies dedicated to pursuing this kind of innovation may well be the ones with the latest-and-greatest gear in their production departments and the most dazzling applications coming out of them. But make no mistake about why the capability is there or what fundamental strategic purpose it serves.
We’ll let our source pick up the explanation from here.
It’s one thing to realize, as Adam LeFebvre, president of Specialty Print Communications (SPC) , did in 2003, that “just being an also-ran, me-too printer was not going to be the wave of the future” in the mature, but tumultuous, industry printing had become. It’s another to act on that insight by remaking the company from top to bottom and laser-focusing its strategy on “something that wasn’t going to sunset.”
The LeFebvre family did it through aggressive investment in technologies for data-driven direct mail — a market that, until 10 years ago, Specialty Print Communications had never touched. Today the Niles, Ill.-based company produces more than one billion mail pieces per year, many of them on behalf of online retailers discovering how powerful the outreach an envelope in a mailbox can make.
LeFebvre says that a $25 million capex program from 2003 to 2006 modernized production at the company, which he started as a 22-year-old with three employees in 1996. Since then, organic growth has transformed SPC into a $90 million enterprise serving Fortune 100 and larger companies in the retail, financial, insurance, travel, loyalty program and e-retail market segments.
The main engine of growth has been direct mail, which LeFebvre began targeting in 2008 when he acquired the assets of a bankrupt lettershop. “Everyone thought we were a little bit kooky” to make such a bold move and become more heavily leveraged in that recession-darkened year, he recalls.
What the skeptics weren’t appreciating was the enduring appeal of direct mail, especially for online marketers. “Sending a piece of tangible mail is like the new brick-and-mortar,” LeFebvre says, explaining that an e-tailer “legitimizes” its business model when it demonstrates that it “spent real, tangible money to put a real, tangible asset into your hands.”
SPC caters to the demand with a mix of offset, digital and hybrid offset/digital production. Digital, the newest element, includes three high-volume production inkjet systems from Canon Solutions America: an Océ VarioPrint i300 sheetfed color press; an Océ ProStream 1000 continuous-feed color press; and a continuous-feed Océ ColorStream 3000. LeFebvre says he’d eventually like to have “genuine redundancy” on all three of the devices, which are well-suited to direct mail applications.
Hybrid production consists of the Kodak Prosper inkjet imprinting system running in-line on the company’s 261⁄2˝ and 38˝ web offset equipment at 2,000 fpm. Combined with in-line finishing, LeFebvre says, variable color and black-and-white
inkjetting over offset makes it possible to complete complex direct mail formats in a single, high-speed pass.
No matter what the method, the goal is always to “put some wow into it — more ‘open-me’” on the front of the mailing piece. LeFebvre’s team includes a creative department whose job is to design these kinds of “paper architecture opportunities” for clients to take advantage of.
His near-term plan is to keep the company moving steadily forward in “the one big lane” of direct mail production that accounts for so much of its success. “In classic SPC fashion,” LeFebvre declares, “we’ll continue to be as good as we can possibly be in what we are expert at.”