CLASSIC GRAPHICS -- Against the Odds
BY CAROLINE MILLER
What do you get when you mix two 23-year-old night shift pressmen, a $15,000 loan, the dream of being your own boss, no sales experience, a little luck and a lot of hard work?
Answer: a $22 million company.
The story of Charlotte, NC-based Classic Graphics might sound a little unorthodox to most, but owners David Pitts and Bill Gardner have never been ones to hold with tradition.
"It was absolute ignorance on our part. We had no idea how hard it would be," remembers Pitts."We were just two pressmen working together at a local printing company. We thought that starting our own print shop would be a good idea," he laughs.
So, in 1983, the partners decided to see if they could bring their dream to fruition. Pitts and Gardner borrowed money from their families, gave notice to their employer and found other jobs to help support themselves until they could get their new company up and running.
"Bill got a job as a gate agent at Piedmont Airlines. I figured I'd get a job at Arby's or something," remarks Pitts.
Instead, Pitts got a call from his former employer, offering him his old job back because his replacement had not worked out. "I think they figured we wouldn't make it, so why lose a pressman over it? They thought I'd learn my lesson and come back," says Pitts, adding, "We are still great friends with that company today."
Pitts went back to work for his employer for the next eight months while they continued to build their own business.
Jumping Right In
What came next was a baptism in fire. The two did not have any sales background, little prepress knowledge and no business management experience. Gardner's skills had come as a result of on-the-job training. Pitts had attended a local vocational college's printing program in Kentucky before moving to Charlotte.
"The extent of my sales experience was selling band candy in high school," Pitts admits. "I knew a little bit about how to make negatives and all of that. So I essentially became in charge of prepress, invoicing, estimating and sales."
Gardner oversaw the manufacturing side of the business and Pitts' grandmother did the books for the company. "The first time I saw a profit/loss statement was when I saw one for Classic Graphics. I had absolutely no financial experience," he reports.
Despite their lack of experience, the two were determined to make their new venture work. "When we only had to work five 12-hour days in a week it felt like we were getting a vacation. In the early years, we usually worked 14- and-16-hour days six or seven days a week. We put in some unbelievable hours because we were doing so much of the work ourselves. But that's why you do it when you are young," Pitts chuckles.
Classic Graphics' first customers were the priest that Gardner was rooming with at the time and Pitts' grandmother. But other clients soon followed. Gardner quit Piedmont and became Classic's first full-time employee at a salary of $100 per week. As sales climbed from $65,000 in 1983 to $250,000 in 1984, Pitts joined Gardner in a full-time capacity.
The partners' belief that their abilities as skilled press operators would ensure their advancement turned out to be correct. "We believed that if we stuck to the concept of high-quality work, coupled with excellent customer service, we'd succeed eventually," remarks Pitts.
It turned out to be an excellent plan. The pair, who started in a 600-square-foot warehouse behind a convenience store with a Hamada press, a used camera, a paper cutter and $600 in working capital, began adding equipment, employees, square footage and, most importantly, sales.
Classic Graphics purchased its first Heidelberg press in 1984, and launched a marketing campaign that highlighted their ability to handle more complex printing jobs. Within a few months, sales climbed by 30 percent.
By December 1987, Classic had added a two-color Heidelberg press, and sales grew by another 50 percent. In July 1993, Classic Graphics moved to its third and present location. With the move, Classic added a six-color press to its arsenal of two- and four-color presses, further broadening its capabilities. In 1996, the pair opened a second facility in Morrisville, NC, geared toward the half-size sheetfed market.
A year later, the company began a $5 million equipment upgrade, which included two new six-color, 40˝ Heidelbergs and an expansion of the Charlotte facility to 59,000 square feet.
While the two appear to have the "Midas touch" when it comes to running a company, that wasn't always the case. In 1999, the company got an unexpected wake-up call. Almost overnight, Classic Graphics lost $2 million in sales from a single account. "Our situation changed with this customer. We were still getting work from them, but we weren't getting as much work as we had," Pitts explains.
This unexpected turn of events turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "As tough as it was for us, it made us focus on the cost side of our business. By learning how to manage costs, we eventually saved our company," he reveals.
Not only did Pitts and Gardner turn their company around in 1999, they also put Classic Graphics in a better position to weather the current business slowdown. "Our experience in 1999 gave us the management tools we needed to ride out this current downturn," according to Pitts.
The company has taken a hard look at every aspect of its operation in order to ensure that it is running as lean as possible. They've even gone as far as to study the cost of their printing blankets, reports Bob LeVan, production manager for Classic Graphics.
The company made the decision to switch to DYC/Kinyo printing blankets from DYC Supply for its Heidelberg presses not only because DYC could provide the reliability and the quality that Classic Graphics demands, but because DYC could also offer the cost-savings they needed, reveals LeVan.
"In one year we saw a cost-savings of 30 percent, just by switching to DYC blankets. Plus, we are still achieving the reliability, the durability and the print quality that we need," reports LeVan.
The reason for Classic's cost-savings is due to the fact that DYC's blankets are engineered to run longer, thus reducing the number of blankets that LeVan must order over the course of the year.
"We've been very pleased with the blankets' performance on-press," he states.
While Classic has enjoyed financial success, it has also enjoyed regional and national acclaim for its ability to produce high-quality sheetfed promotional materials. The printer annually brings home PICA and PIA Premier Print awards, including two "Benny Awards" this year alone.
Classic Graphics has also been honored by the PIA as one of the best workplaces in the industry. "Our workers love to do good work. When vendors and clients come into the shop, they tell us that it is abundantly clear that our employees like coming to work. I know it's cliche to say, but it is true: if you don't have good employees, then you don't have a good company," Pitts states.
With a sound investment in equipment and a strong commitment to its staff, the printer seems well-positioned to enter the next phase of its history. Pitts sees a future where Classic Graphics—already the third largest printer in Charlotte—will eventually take its place as a regional player.
"We are looking to expand our client base up and down the East Coast." It's a move Classic Graphics appears ready to make.