As a 5-foot-9, 200-pound defenseman playing junior hockey in the mid-1980s, Lance Luka was more of a Ken Morrow-type stay-at-home defenseman who could pass the puck and occasionally unleash a blistering slapshot reminiscent of Alan MacInnis. Luka was a player who wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves and mix it up, because sometimes the situation called for a little aggressiveness.
Fast forward 25 or so years, and Lance Luka the printing business owner isn’t all that different from Lance Luka the hockey player, who once roomed with future NHL great Doug Weight and knocked heads with heralded No. 1 draft pick Eric Lindros. He has high energy, passion and is naturally programmed to perform in the best interest of the team, which in this case is Ignite Graphics of Elmhurst, Illinois. Even the name itself connotes a fiery approach to business.
Lance Luka and his wife, Sharon, acquired the assets that eventually became Ignite Graphics last fall. And while the Lukas don’t have a full year under their belts, the company is tracking to post sales of $5 million to $6 million for its rookie campaign, providing digital and sheetfed offset printing, mailing, fulfillment and creative services, as well as diecutting, folding, gluing and stamping. Its most produced products include direct mail, catalogs, packaging, pharmaceutical programs, card tipping and signage. Adding seasoned veterans including Drew Whitaker and Robert Lawski has strengthened Ignite’s depth chart.
“It’s gone very well,” Lance Luka says of establishing a foothold in the greater Chicago area market. “We’ve been able to leverage previous relationships. My reputation has been that of the go-to guy that you turn to when you’re in a jam.”
Starting Anew, Version Three
Luka got the ball rolling late last summer when he acquired assets and equipment from a company that had bought out packaging house Marketing 4. It was the third startup of Luka’s career; he’d co-founded and built up Imagine Print Group to a $24 million company before selling out to a private equity firm. Luka then joined web printer American Litho, where he helped usher in sheetfed and digital printing, in the process growing that segment of the operation to the $20 million plateau in three years.
What’s interesting is the reaction that the Lukas have received from the printing vendor community. Paper suppliers have told Luka that it has been at least six years since they have seen a new printer spring up in the Windy City market. Some vendors and clients have been accommodating; others took a wait-and-see approach before doing business.
“It’s interesting to hear someone say, ‘Fantastic, you’re on your own and we want to work with you. But you have to be in business three to six months before we’ll work with you,’ ” Luka recalls.
Luka is tired of hearing the claims that “print is dead” because, given the right investments and judicious equipment selections, there’s still a buck to be made from ink on paper. Plus, Luka believes his track record is proof-positive that opportunities exist for those willing to get off their duff and work the market.
“I have that entrepreneurial spirit and relish the challenge of building something out of nothing,” he says. “I love hiring people and creating a positive impact on the local economy while creating a fun place to work. Many of our employees proudly wear clothing that has Ignite’s logo on it.”
That was another lesson Luka learned from his previous stints—how to allocate investments, while being mindful of how new gear could greatly change overhead flexibility. All assets and equipment acquisitions are done using cash; the company has no bank debt. Thus, should Ignite have a slow week, Luka doesn’t find himself swallowing hard at the thought of not making payroll.
“Everyone wants to talk about speeds and efficiencies, but you pay through the nose for that type of technology,” Luka says. “A brand-new sheetfed or web press, new stitcher…that costs millions of dollars each and leaves you with $38,000 to $55,000 monthly payments. I prefer a low overhead. OK, so I’m not running (my presses) at 15,000 sheets an hour. I’m at 13,000. I’d rather eat those two extra hours of time on-press, at $300 an hour versus having a $40,000 monthly press payment. You have to be engaged in today’s economy and today’s print buyer needs to survive.”
Don’t get the impression that Luka isn’t letting his Ben Franklins see the light of day, though. Upon obtaining the 35,000-square-foot Elmhurst facility, he invested $150,000 in a complex build-out that included more than 4,500 feet of new hardwood floors, granite counters, a wet bar with Stella Artois tap, a pool table, juke box and custom wood cubicles to match the flooring. The black walls and custom Ignite lights provide a hip, modern look that suggests creativity. The same goes for the company’s Website, www.ignitegraphicsgroup.com, with its custom Ignite flame animation.
“We tried to create a Downtown Chicago agency look,” Luka remarks. “Part of my responsibilities, aside from sales and entrepreneurship, is marketing. I’ve done a lot of branding for our companies. As for the name, it just kind of came to me. I’ve always thought about igniting something. After all, the pilot light starts most fires, and one of the hottest parts of a fire is blue. So, Ignite, with a blue flame, became a clear choice for the name.
“Our concept is more than ink on paper. We’re providing creative services, logo apparel, wide-format signage, Web-to-print, and mailing and fulfillment. We’re trying to be a turnkey solution for our customers. Ignite their brand—that’s what we’re selling.”
Luka feels the company can reach the $15 million to $18 million in annual sales mark. Some of the tools for growth include a half-size sheetfed press, perhaps a web, and building its share of wide-format digital printing. But growth will not come at the expense of leveraging the company with debt.
Another positive working in Ignite’s favor is its status as a female-owned company. Luka points out that buyers whose spend is diversity driven will view Ignite Graphics as a true partner. In the end, regarding the client first and foremost will help sustain the fledgling firm for years to come.
“My model and business philosophy for print is that the customer is king,” Luka remarks. “Whatever they need, we will bend to get them where they need to be. Anyone can print an 81⁄2x11˝ sell sheet and deliver it within a week. We’re there for the customer when they really need to rely on us.” PI