DLT Direct--Playing to Win
DLT Direct's strategy and emphasis on "quality, service and price" have brought it major-league growth in the direct mail printing game.
BY GEORGE WHALEN
In 1932, playing for the NY Yankees against the Chicago Cubs, George Herman Ruth strode to home plate at Wrigley Field, raised his arm and pointed toward the centerfield fence. He silently predicted he'd hit a home run over it—and he did! Calling that shot made Babe Ruth a legend.
What Ruth did in baseball, Sterling, VA-based DLT Direct and its owner David L. Taylor and General Manager Chester "Chet" Ruby, have now done in direct mail printing. Starting from zero, with seven employees and a used six-color Didde web press, DLT Direct not only recouped all of its start-up costs and lease-hold improvements in its first six-month year (1995), it earned a tidy profit of $78,000 too! Its second, third and fourth years brought sales of $2.4, $3.7 and $4.8 million, respectively—and all were profitable. Figuratively looking toward that center-field wall and calling its next shot, DLT forecasted its 1999 fiscal year—and blasted another home run—coming in at $5.4 million. With its whopping, 300 percent growth rate, the firm's expansion appears to have earned DLT Direct a permanent spot in the Hall of Fame of fastest growing printers in the U.S. In all, Taylor and Ruby have consistently called their shots, six years in a row.
Hitting Its Numbers
Back in 1992, Taylor created a business plan for DLT Direct to hit annual home runs of sales success and profitability; and since then, it has hit or exceeded every year's number. Says Taylor, "Long before we opened the doors, we forecast our revenues and expenses to the penny, and we've made our numbers. DLT Direct's growth has come from making right choices and by paying meticulous attention to detail."
DLT Direct focuses on commercial direct mail and subscription fulfillment printing. It manufactures multicolor brochures, letters, insert cards, magazine subscription and renewal cards, and countless other forms of quality-color, direct mail printing. DLT's prepress facility is geared for digital and film-based production, even though 95 percent of jobs come as digital files.
Among its growing roster of major-league clients, one of the latest is Veranda magazine, said to be the nation's premier country living publication. "We're proud to be printing exceptional color insert cards and other full-color direct mail materials for Veranda," says Ruby. "Its style, color and design standards are among the highest in publishing today."
That DLT can handle such exceptional color work, and do it in higher volume than ever, confirms the recent strategic move by DLT in trading its pressroom's star-player color press—a five-color, 18˝ Didde MVP web press—after a highly successful year, for a new-generation, eight-color, 201⁄2˝ Didde Viper press. Ruby explains, "We loved our Didde MVP, but we saw that the demands of our growing business were changing by leaps and bounds. To handle all the sophisticated color work our customers want, in the faster times they need it—and still have press capability to grow on—we needed a 'slugger' of a press."
The 129 ft.-long Didde Viper was installed without a hitch and went online at DLT in September 1999. It sports every advanced-technology feature available today, for fast makeready, precision printing and quick turnaround. DLT's Didde Viper has exchangeable cylinder inserts for cutoff flexibility from 14˝ to 22˝. It has Didde Quick Step, as well as QTI automatic register and GMI computerized inking controls. Interstation UV dryers are between all printing units, so work emerges fully dry. Inline, the Viper has magnetic perfing, diecut windowing and pattern perfing capabilities.
But because finishing requirements vary in DLT's job mix, runs are typically done continuous-form on the Viper and custom-finished in DLT's fully equipped imprinting and bindery facility. In the commercial direct mail printing game, DLT Direct has stayed a consistent winner by thinking ahead and acting boldly.
The company began with an idea in 1989, when Dave Taylor became a print broker, handling direct mail printing in the Baltimore-Washington-northern Virginia market. But Taylor wanted to do it all—manufacturing, too. Chet Ruby literally grew up in manufacturing. He was then managing sheetfed manufacturing operations for a prominent Baltimore printer. Working together on jobs there, the two found they "clicked" as a team. In 1992, they planned their expansion into manufacturing.
"We didn't know exactly when we'd start," Taylor recalls, "but we ran-out years of projected income and cash flow to test the feasibility of our idea. We built DLT Direct on paper, then assured ourselves it would be a success, long before we actually took the first step."
That business plan and its figures next went to the bankers, which resulted in a financing commitment. Meanwhile, Taylor had personally put a deposit on a large plant space and on a used six-color Didde web press. A complement of folders, cutters and prep equipment were also being held by deposits he'd paid.
Key employee-candidates had been told that a start date was at hand. But, in that fateful first inning, the banker's game turned to hardball. Suddenly, the bank that made the loan commitment was bought-out. The new owner's loan policy excluded startups. It withdrew the commitment, pitching DLT Direct a curve. The company was back on first base.
As the two regrouped, a new opportunity came. Taylor learned of a printer that was going out of business. He was quickly able to negotiate a takeover of some of its assets, including its facility. But it was no "move-in" situation. The building was in bad shape: run-down and filthy. Its electrical wiring was inadequate. Lots of work was needed.
Yet, Taylor, Ruby and their wives were able to look beyond the grimy present and see a gleaming future. Working round-the-clock, they cleaned and painted. Meanwhile, electricians rewired and contractors remodeled. When the renovation was finished, the exhausted Taylors and Rubys celebrated in DLT Direct's soon-to-be pressroom—with pizza and champagne.
DLT Direct's doors opened as a printer and orders came in, but supplies didn't. Investigating, Taylor found that because his street address was the same as the insolvent printer, suppliers wouldn't ship there!
"To clear that up, we tried to petition the county to change DLT Direct's address," Ruby recalls. That, plus the partners' good reputation with paper and ink companies, soon lifted the embargo. Supplies poured in. The company began printing on April 10, 1995. And though its first "month" was scarcely 13 working days long, it billed $92,000—a portent of success to come.
Today, there are 54 employees that the partners describe as DLT Direct's most valuable asset. They also call its new Didde Viper the company's second most valuable asset. The vigorous young company's sales are currently running at $500,000 per month. First-prize awards for printing excellence cram its conference room walls, including countless awards won in recent Printing Industries of Virginia (PIVA) competitions. Now, because of its Viper press, DLT Direct is classed as a "category 3" printer, which pits it against PIVA entries from the highest-ranked printers. Yet, on its award wall hangs the coveted PIVA August Dietz award, declaring that DLT Direct is the best printer in Virginia.
With so much proof of its top-quality direct mail printing, Ruby observes, "Some printers still think that direct mail is 'down-and-dirty.' They're wrong, of course. We think 'top commercial quality' when we say 'direct mail.' We do everything we can to make a job turn out absolutely top-notch. Paying attention to details makes the difference in our quality, and all those little things add up."
Working smarter and adopting state-of-the-art technology have helped DLT Direct grow in sales and profitability, according to Ruby. "I came from a long history of printing high-end, multicolor, sheetfed work. Any way you look at it, sheetfed is simply a costly way to manufacture," Ruby comments.
"You see, sheetfed printers typically run color 'work-and-turn.' So, printing the first side, they face the bugaboo of drying time. Now, any time sheets are lying in a pile, it's costly, because dollars are standing still while time is passing. Running sheetfed, you need to pass those sheets through the press a second time for side two. Then, they need additional drying time for that side. Again, dollars stand still while time passes. And after that, they still have to go into the bindery for finishing.
"Add up that time and it's clear that sheetfed production takes longer and costs more than printing and finishing with a Didde web press." Ruby continues, "Getting the kind of quality our customers want and need is easier and less costly for us with our web presses than it would be for any sheetfed competitor. So, being a Didde web shop makes a winning difference for us and for our customers."
Taylor agrees. "With our Viper, 90 percent of the work we print is full-color. We UV-dry both sides in one pass and we're immediately ready to finish the job. When our products reach the end of the press, it's not to lie around as dollars standing still. Instead, they're ready to be finished, packed and shipped to the customer. There is no 'work-in-process' and no extra steps—only high-quality, profitable production, backed by our continuous checks and quality assurance."
Ruby says that DLT Direct's Viper is intensely competitive on runs from as low as 10,000 to 1 million and more. This positions the company in a highly desirable niche, between sheetfed shops and large-web printers. "It's a terrific capability to offer, where we can perform a valuable service for our customers better and much more cost-efficiently than other printers," he remarks.
The proof is in the bottom line, says Taylor. "Our accountant is a seasoned pro in printing and he says he has never seen any printer take the sizable percentages to retained earnings that DLT Direct has consistently achieved over the past five years. I believe he is seeing in our numbers the actual savings in time and the lower costs we've experienced with our Didde presses. Those presses help us consistently deliver high-quality color product satisfaction with quick turnaround, at eminently fair prices, so we win for our customers. In turn, that brings us more growth and higher profitability."