What Did We Learn in 2020?
2020 has been a year of unprecedented events and extremes that will impact and shape our lives, our businesses, and the industry for decades to come. For many, this year has been the most challenging of their professional careers.
The global COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the lives and welfare of everyone worldwide. At the time of publication, there have been more than 55,000,000 global cases according to the COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). Of those cases, more than 1,340,000 have already lost their lives — with more being added to these numbers each day.
The recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is a major ongoing global economic crisis which has caused a recession in some nations, and full depression in others. Modeling by the World Bank suggests that in some regions a full recovery will not be achieved until 2025 or beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to more than a third of the world’s population being placed on lockdown to stop the spread, causing severe repercussions. Additionally, this recession has seen unusually high and rapid increases in unemployment in many countries.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, started in 2013, also returned to national headlines this year and gained further international attention during the global protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. An estimated 15 million to 26 million people participated in the 2020 BLM protests in the U.S., making it one of the largest movements in U.S. history.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has been extremely active, and has featured tropical cyclone formation at a record-breaking rate. So far, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., there have been a total of 31 tropical or subtropical cyclones, 30 named storms, 13 hurricanes, and six major hurricanes. It is estimated that there were more than 350 total fatalities and the total damage caused by these storms is estimated at more than $40 billion.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Western U.S. experienced a series of major wildfires. Severe August thunderstorms ignited numerous fires across California, Oregon, and Washington, followed in early September by additional ignitions across the West Coast. Fanned by strong winds, and fueled by dry terrains, many of the fires exploded and coalesced into record-breaking megafires, burning more than 8.2 million acres of land, mobilizing tens of thousands of firefighters, razing more than 10,000 buildings, and killing at least 37 people.
And we can’t ignore that political polarization is a defining feature of American politics today. Democrats and Republicans both could walk away from this year’s election with cause for disappointment, and divided government in Washington is a distinct possibility.
So, where do we go from here? Is there any kind of silver lining? Is there anything we’ve learned from experiencing all of this in less than a year? How will these events impact the industry and print service providers?
Crystallizing What’s Important
The events of 2020 have been a great revealer, in a way, illuminating the things that are important. It’s forced everyone to examine the needs of their businesses compared to their wants, or their nice-to-haves.
The COVID-19 Print Business Indicators Survey, by NAPCO Research and PRINTING United Alliance Research, hasn’t sugar-coated the situation. The pandemic has been devastating to many companies, and the industry as a whole. In the latest edition, nearly 80% of companies surveyed reported first-half 2020 sales below year-earlier levels. Sales were down at least 20% for more than half, at least 30% for nearly one-third, and at least 40% for nearly one-fifth. The average decline: 28.5%.
A small minority of companies, however, grew by capturing opportunities created by the crisis, moving into industries that got a boost, such as health care, home entertainment, home education, and food packaging. Their sales increased 32.2%, on average, through midyear.
They are not companies of a particular size, or that offer particular technologies, but rather companies that are entrepreneurial, agile, and skilled in both market analysis and execution — i.e., in knowing where opportunity is and capturing it. Those traits will be as important to participating in the recovery as they were in beating the recession.
“I believe a very important take away from the pandemic is how many in the industry were able to recreate themselves,” says Elaine Scrima, VP of operations, GSP, headquartered in Clearwater, Fla. “It allowed us to utilize the innovation and ingenuity we have always incorporated into our work, but demonstrated our ability to look beyond our current options and validate how we are truly solution providers. We incorporated solutions to supplant revenue streams that we never even considered offering because they were never required. Now they are part of our everyday life.”
“The loss of business hurt, but we couldn’t let it keep us down,” says Joe Dumont, VP – operations, BIGraphics, based in Nashua, N.H. “Luckily, we were still considered essential, but regardless, if we were to survive, we needed to adapt to the change. We looked at ourselves in the mirror. Who are we? What do we do well with the equipment we have in hand and our years of knowledge? How do we refocus our energy with the answers to these questions and adapt to this change? We took our equipment and knowledge, and focused on what we could supply businesses — whether existing or new — as they began to reopen.”
And as companies took steps to reinvent themselves because of the pandemic, there was also a feeling of “we’re in this together” for many. The sense of “team” and “family” and a strong company culture became much more important to businesses able to survive and pivot during this time.
“The pause that we took gave us time to reflect on those who were being severely impacted by this moment,” says Susan Cilone, CEO, FASTSIGNS of Louisville. “Our personnel shifted around a bit as we encountered choices that prioritized care for children or parents, and as we began to adapt to absences due to COVID-19 exposure.”
“With a great culture and engaged employees, you can accomplish almost anything,” says Brian Adam, president and owner, Milwaukee, Wis.-based Olympus Group. “We asked a lot of our team members at Olympus — launching new products, changing safety protocols, flexing up and down hours, and constantly asking them to wear a different hat or try something new. Our strategy during 2020 was constantly changing and poorly articulated at best, but despite this, our team was successful. They gave it their all, smiled, and had one another’s back.”
“This year has brought us together more as a team,” says George Atkinson, VP of marketing and sales, Source One Digital, based in Norton Shores, Mich. “We had to work together more than ever to accomplish what we needed to do. Having to work together to build our business back brought us closer as a team, and also brought us closer to the clients we do work for.”
“While we didn’t toss all the rules, processes, and procedures out the window, we figured out a way to make it work so that our teams could handle day care situations or virtual learning situations for their families,” says Scrima.
“We changed our working hours to 7:30 to 4:00,” says Mary Lou Goehrung, president, Signs By Tomorrow – Rockville. “This was a life changer for all, and we have decided to keep the hours permanently. This change has given back an hour to everyone’s evening to miss traffic, see their family, and do errands.”
“Before COVID-19, I was on the road weekly and enjoyed travel,” comments Adam. “It allowed me to meet with employees at our other facilities and build relationships with customers, suppliers, and other printers. As valuable as those relationships are, nothing is more important than time with my wife and kids. The silver lining of this pandemic was the memories I created with my family.”
As the industry was dealing with the blow given to us by the pandemic, we also began to witness other tumultuous changes in our society. With the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we faced the unrelenting reality of racial injustice.
This concept of looking out for others driven home by the pandemic was re-emphasized through the BLM movement. One of the lessons we learned is that people from all races can come together for a common purpose for equality and justice. That there is room for discussion and conversation and education, for everyone.
“My views were challenged by one of our employees in a very well-written email,” says Adam. “One of the best experiences I had in 2020 was grabbing a cup of coffee with her to understand her perspective. She opened my eyes to what the movement meant to her.”
“I am a believer in the concept that good does eventually overcome evil, and as a parent I have been challenged to convince my daughters that we can assist with this effort when the set-backs are so well publicized, and the steps to recovery are so beaten down by political influence,” says Joseph X. Cushing, EVP and owner, Cushing & Co., based in Chicago. “As a businessman, I think this is a reminder of how difficult it is to manage a values-based business when you need to do whatever it takes to keep the lights on. BLM is a reminder that the dignity-driven force — of good over evil — is clearly worthwhile, and how the dangers of misguided people in a power struggle affect our efforts to allow our businesses to thrive.”
“During a time when we were sheltering from others, as we limited our contacts with family and friends, relationships at work became a more central outlet for socializing,” says Cilone. “Our production team is diverse, with varied backgrounds and they span in age over a few decades. Our discussions were candid and left me yearning to address this topic in a manner that I had never faced before. What I thought I understood was challenged by events unfolding around me. I wrestled with the stark reality of systemic racism in our country.”
Forces of Nature and Politics
In the midst of civil unrest and an unprecedented pandemic, Mother Nature decided to add her own voice to 2020. Between wildfires out West and drenching hurricanes in the South and East — in which scientists point to climate change as the culprit of this extreme weather — this year has proved the necessity of having a business continuity plan.
“In one day, just shy of mid-March there would be a shift that would change the course of everyday life,” says Cilone. “We were notified within a 24-hour period that conventions, fundraising events, and trade shows were being cancelled. Within a few hours we were alerted that schools were closing, and by early the next week we had closed our lobby doors for what would become a more than 90-day closure. The changes were sudden, and significant. There was no time to prepare, as there was little warning of the drastic shift in course. This change accentuated the value of business planning.”
“Because of our location, hurricanes tend to be our biggest weather worry,” says Charles Hackworth II, VP, Hackworth, based in Chesapeake, Va. “We are budgeting for a generator in 2021 to help us weather a power outage. We now have our data backed up offsite, and because of COVID-19, many of our staff have remote access which would help us to navigate a storm-related shutdown.”
These extreme weather systems have done more than destroy buildings. They have helped build an awareness of how each one of us — our actions — impact the environment. It has also changed the way print buyers buy print, and how PSPs think about their business’ environmental impact.
Clients have started showing more interest in greener solutions. “They are starting to specify PVC-free and recyclable materials, as well as latex and UV-curable inks rather than older, less environmentally-friendly ink technologies,” says Scotty Hager, partner, Image360 – RVA. His Richmond, Va.-based company has already moved completely to HP latex technologies for both roll-to-roll and direct-to-substrate needs. And his clients have recognized the improvements in their print quality, as well as the company’s carbon-footprint reduction.
“Living in California, I’ve been evacuated from my home and business many times over the last few years,” comments Aaron Kirsch, president and CEO, Astek, based in Van Nuys, Calif. “We changed a decade-plus ago as a company to use more sustainable inks and materials — recycled substrates and paper — and away from the old solvent ways. We need to save our environment now.”
Additionally, the fires could impact everyone in the industry. According to Kevin O’Hea, president, Albuquerque, N.M.-based Academy Reprographics, the fires are “already affecting lumber prices. Higher paper prices cannot be far behind.”
And we can’t overlook that polarized political parties have separated this country in a way no one has ever seen. This uncertainty and division has had a direct impact on businesses nationwide.
“In 2020, I really feel like it’s a day-to-day strategy when making decisions,” says Hackworth II. “The government is so divided, and our country is so polarized on a litany of issues. We should be able to disagree, but still talk out our differences. Because the two parties cannot find common ground, it is hard as a businessperson to plan for the future. I have no idea what will happen next month, let alone in 2021.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
This year, everyone has experienced similar challenges. Has it been easy? No. Business has been constricted and it will continue to be until a new stimulus plan is in place, and a COVID-19 vaccine is available to the masses. And even with all of that, it’s going to take time to rebuild. As much as we may want the industry to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic, the impact this year has had means things are not going to snap back to the way it was.
“I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me when all of this and the other issues impacting our nation would be behind us,” says Dumont. “We need to continue to look at ourselves in the mirror and continue to adapt. As business evolves, we need to evolve with it. We cannot be afraid of change as it is inevitable. I hope that what we have learned this year, specifically from March until now, we will not forget and continue to apply this new knowledge and way of thinking, to our business model.”
“I believe it’s critical, as business leaders, to make decisions on how their organizations should respond to these issues and events,” says Gene Hamzhie, president, FireSprint, based in Omaha, Neb. “What we decide is far less important than choosing to decide. Will you focus on a particular political party or remain strictly neutral? Will you speak up for a movement in your hometown or focus on a global issue? Will you lower costs by improving your team’s education or by improving your team’s equipment? Move forward, evaluate, move again.”
“I learned the importance of planning with a broad vision that prepares you for the unimaginable,” says Cilone. “I learned the importance of adapting to the moment. In the age of technology, locking your front door and reducing your person-to-person contact does not mean you can no longer operate your business. How you adapt to the change is one way in which you maintain control when everything feels out of your control.
“Most importantly, I learned that people are what matters,” Cilone continues. “People matter more than profits, more than achieving that record-setting sales goal, and more than the property you own. It was my team that kept me going. It was my team that kept my business moving forward. They had my back, and I hope that they understood that I had theirs.”
Denise Gustavson is the Editorial Director and Special Projects Editor for the Printing & Packaging Group, which includes Printing Impressions, packagePRINTING, In-plant Graphics and Wide-Format Impressions magazines, among other brands. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Wide-Format Impressions.