Pennsylvania Printers -- There's Plenty to Love in PA
WHAT IS there not to love about the state of Pennsylvania? After all, it is host to the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. And, sure, sometimes it can be tough love—Philadelphia Eagles football fans once pelted Santa Claus with snowballs during a home game—but the town certainly heaps tender love when it enjoys a winner. Just ask the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, the 2008 World Series champions.
We could go on and on about Philadelphia alone. It is the unofficial home to cheese steaks, soft pretzels, water ice and TastyKakes. It’s where the Mummers strut every New Year’s Day. And don’t tell us that Rocky Balboa is fictional—we have the statue and the fighting spirit to prove it.
You want history? Philly was once the capital of the United States. Ben Franklin drank beer, flew kites while pondering the meaning of life and founded the first zoo in America. Did we mention he also did a little printing? Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, sitting on her porch, Betsy Ross poked her fingertips more than a couple of times while sewing the first American flag.
But one city does not a state make. Hershey is the home of chocolate. The first baseball stadium was erected in Pittsburgh in 1909. The Steel City also hosted the first automotive service station a year later. Williamsport is home to Little League and its annual World Series. The Pocono Mountains attract thousands of skiers and lovers each year, making it one of the region’s top honeymoon destinations.
Fame and Fortune
The state has its share of notable sons and daughters: artists Andy Warhol and Mary Cassatt; authors Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein and Donald Barthelme; baseballers Honus Wagner, Stan Musial, father and son Ken Griffey; footballers Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Dan Marino; actors/entertainers Jimmy Stewart, W.C. Fields, Gene Kelly, Bill Cosby and the Barrymores; and golfer Arnold Palmer.
From our vantage point, how do you top Ben Franklin as a prominent citizen?
“This is the land of Ben Franklin, and his most conspicuous craft is printing,” notes Eric Roberts, director of sales for Philadelphia-based Bartash Printing. Roberts echoes his fellow Philadelphia-area and eastern Pennsylvania printers when it comes to the chief advantage they enjoy as businesses: the ability to reach as far north as New England and as far south as the Carolinas. When Roberts takes to the road, he is also able to ply customers with the many cuisines that make the Keystone State famous, and further leverages the advantage of being centrally located.
“I’ve had clients ask, ‘The next time you come down to DC, can you bring me some scrapple?’ ” he relates. “People in New York want me to bring pretzels. We’re more than happy to do that, because it’s all about pleasing the customer. If I can fill their bellies and put a smile on their faces, that’s a good way to earn my sales that day.”
Pennsylvania printers have certainly earned their keep. According to the most recent figures from Printing Industries of America, Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation for total printing shipments at $10.68 billion, trailing only California, Illinois and New York.
The Keystone State also finished behind the same trio for total employees, with more than 65,500. For plants, Pennsylvania has more than 1,850, good enough for fifth on the list behind the aforementioned group, plus Texas.
A Philadelphia Mainstay
Speaking of the state, century-old Pearl Pressman Liberty (PPL) in Philadelphia was able to rely on state grants in order to finance a move to another part of the city as opposed to heading over the Ben Franklin Bridge and relocating into New Jersey. Elliot Schindler, executive vice president, credits helpful folks in Harrisburg for enabling the company to realize its goal of remaining in Philly (they settled into the old Braceland Brothers building down by the airport).
It can be challenging to find clientele in the region that are cutting edge or high growth, Schindler notes. Whereas California has the Silicon Valley and the New England market benefits from technology companies in Boston, eastern Pennsylvania printers aren’t as fortunate, he adds.
“We have companies like Comcast and Vanguard here but, when I look at other states, they’re able to attract and hold onto growth industries at a much better rate,” Schindler observes. “There’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not going to pull up stakes and move to the Sun Belt.”
Despite being able to claim a lineage back to the 1800s, Pearl Pressman Liberty has become a favorite among the green set in Philadelphia. Companies that do retrofits to buildings, additions such as roof gardens, solar panels and the like, often rely on PPL for their printing. Since PPL is FSC chain-of-custody certified and uses wind power, the printer is perceived as a progressive company.
“People are looking at us as being hip,” Schindler laughs. “We’ve been able to get in on the green (environmental) business growth.”
Positioned between Philadelphia and Harrisburg is the little-known town of Mechanicsburg, PA, which is the home of Fry Communications. And while Fry enjoys the same geographic advantage that enables it to cover a healthy portion of the East Coast, it reaps the added benefit of doing business in an area with a distinctly lower cost of living than Philadelphia.
“Employee wage dollars go farther around here,” notes Elizabeth Bellis, sales and marketing operations manager. “Housing is also very reasonable, which allows us to keep good people.”
Bellis notes that nearby Harrisburg gets something of a bad rap. But Harrisburg is no longer a town that is put to bed at 5 p.m., and the area is not a cultural wasteland. “People always thought the state government rolled up the Harrisburg sidewalks at night and [the city] became a ghost town,” she says. “Harrisburg now offers the symphony, ballet and excellent dining. You can find art galleries and theater—all sorts of options.”
The rap against central Pennsylvania was that the people were uncultured and had no teeth, Bellis laughs. “That’s not true. We’re located in Amish country, where it’s absolutely beautiful with rolling hills, very pastoral. So you can drive 20 minutes one way and see ballet, or drive 20 minutes another way and see nature at its best.”
Fred Aheimer, vice president of Ralf Printing in Pittsburgh, sees maintaining pace with technology as being one of the toughest aspects of competing in general, and surviving the Pennsylvania talent pool in particular. Declining margins make the process somewhat more difficult, but often times the choice to invest is a matter of survival.
“We were one of the first in the marketplace to purchase Indigo (digital) presses,” Aheimer says. “We installed a quarter-size, five-color Heidelberg press to make us more competitive in the short-run field. With the way the economy was going, we felt customers would be looking more toward short runs, and we wanted to be more competitive. We also installed a new platesetter that produces plates faster and that uses fewer chemicals.
“For us, finding that edge is trying to be as efficient as we can. If you can’t increase the price on your product, you have to be more efficient in producing that product.”
The P.A. Hutchison Co., in Jermyn, began life as a commercial printing firm in 1911, the year before the Titanic sank in the Atlantic. According to President Chris Hutchison, the company began to gravitate toward book manufacturing in the 1980s. The printer has prospered thanks, in part, to a strong interstate highway system and a historically strong workforce.
But the former can prove to be a dual-edged sword, particularly in inclement weather. “We had a very important order that was time-sensitive,” Hutchison recalls. “We shipped the product in the nick of time, but during transit on I-81, a car slid into the tractor trailer and knocked it over a cliff. All of the books were scattered and destroyed.”
Location, location, location is the name of the game for Keystone, of Old Forge, which neighbors Scranton. According to Randy Torrence, vice president of sales and marketing, clients from New Jersey, New York and the New England area enjoy the competitive pricing and high quality offered by Keystone, a non-union shop in a region with a relatively low cost of living.
And, once customers get a taste of the Pocono Mountains, they become more frequent with their press checks.
“A lot of customers think we’re some company out west in a Podunk town,” Torrence says. “But they like our pricing, our quality and, when they come to visit us, they love the area. They’ll visit us for press proofs and then make a weekend out of skiing and sight-seeing.”
And no, before you ask, Keystone doesn’t buy its consumables from Dunder Mifflin Paper Co., despite its close proximity. Dunder Mifflin, the fictional firm made famous in the hit TV show “The Office,” is the source of many laughs for Keystone and its clients. Torrence believes the show portrays Scranton in a positive light.
Actually, Scranton received a good deal of positive press last year from some presidential and vice presidential candidates. But at least one TV institution took its shot at the old town.
“Joe Biden did well by us, as did Hillary Clinton,” Torrence says. “A guy from Saturday night Live did a Biden impression and totally ripped Scranton. Local people were up in arms; I was looking for them to come out with pitchforks and torches. It’s a very proud town.”
Suffice to say, Pennsylvania is a very proud state. PI