2009 Best of the Best: Top Shops

Within recent history, 2008 had to be one of the most challenging years for print providers. Between the credit crunch and the faltering economy, things just seem to go from bad to worse with 2009 shaping up to be an even tougher year.

The Top Shops were not immune from these events and many have seen a distinct impact on their 2008 revenue figures—much like everyone else. But, all of them have remained optimistic about the future of the industry and their business despite the sluggish economy. While growth expectations for 2009 are not ambitious, most of the top shops have weathered similar storms and are well-prepared for the current situation.

While we see a number of the same shops on this list from previous years, no two businesses are alike. They come from all walks of life—digital color shops, reprographic shops, photo labs, service bureau, production facility—and from all over the US. Some have a single location, while others do business out of multiple locations over a wide geography. Some businesses are focused primarily on black-and-white or color images, while others do a little bit of everything.

The age of our companies averaged out a little under 25 years (24.92 years), with our oldest and youngest hailing from Texas. Thomas Reprographics, based in Richardson, TX, was established in 1956, marking its 53rd year in 2009. Dallas-based XL Digital Graphics was the newest, established in 2003. This year's list includes 78 total locations (down from last year's 91), with 21 more planned for 2009—one less than the numbers from 2008. While most shops had only a handful of locations—ranging from one to five—Thomas Reprographics boast 33.

The Top Shops offer a range of capabilities and services including analog and digital printing technologies, installation services, warehousing and distribution services, and creative/design services, among others—depending on exactly what their customers need. As an average, 49.40 percent of the top shops' output is wide-format (36-96 inches in width), followed by grand-format (96-inches plus) at 23.36 percent, medium-format (24-35 inches) with 16.44 percent, and the remaining 7.8 percent in small-format, 14-inches and smaller documents.

While banners and signs (19.88 percent) make up the largest application on average for the shops, retail and POP displays (13.44 percent), engineering drawings (11.38 percent), exhibit and trade-show graphics (10.62 percent) are bringing in good share of revenue for these companies. Fleet and vehicle wraps (8.93 percent), billboards (8.69 percent), backlit graphics (6.74), posters (6.48 percent), fabric and textile printing (3.82), specialty graphics (3.32), and fine art applications (2.76 percent) round out the rest of the applications. But what's next?

TOP SHOPS 2009

Rank
Company
Location
Web Address
1. Thomas Reprographics Inc. Richardson, TX www.thomasrepro.com
2. Ferrari Color Salt Lake City, UT www.ferraricolor.com
3. Crush Creative Burbank, CA www.crushcreative.com
4. GSG New York, NY www.gsgnyc.com
5. Gigantic Color Dallas, TX www.giganticcolor.com
6. Source One Digital North Shores, MI www.sourceonedigital.com
7. Perkinson Reprographics Inc. Phoenix, AZ www.pri.us
8. Sharpe Images Winston-Salem, NC www.sharpeimages.com
9. Pictura Graphics Minneapolis, MN www.picturagraphics.com
10. Point Imaging Hobart, IN www.pointimaging.com
11. Image King Visual Solutions New York, NY www.imagekingvs.com
12. Inkjet International Dallas, TX www.inkjetintl.com
13. XL Digital Imaging LP Dallas, TX www.xldigital.com
14. Mathison Co. Fargo, ND www.mathisons.com
15. Bloomingdale Signs By Tomorrow Bloomingdale, IL www.bloomingdalesigns.com
16. Precision Color Digital Imaging Las Vegas, NV www.pcolordi.com
17. Vista Color Imaging Inc. Cleveland, OH www.vistacolorimaging.com
18. Big Ink Display Graphics Eagan, MN www.inkbig.com
19. MegaPrint Inc. Plymouth, NH www.megaprint.com
20. Dimensional Silk Screen San Diego, CA www.dimensionalsilkscreen.com
21. Fast Signs Antioch, TN www.fastsigns.com/210
22. Academy Reprographics Albuquerque, NM www.acadrepro.com
23. Sealand Graphics Bennington, VT www.sealandgraphics.com
24. Solar Imaging Gahanna, OH www.solarimaging.com
25. Road Rage Designs Spring Grove, IL www.roadragedesigns.com

Economically Speaking

Without a doubt, the economy is foremost on everyone's minds these days and nearly all of our top shops said it would be the biggest challenge for them going forward. But even though things look grim, many of our top shops have a positive outlook for the future and are planning on investing in their companies and their businesses this year.

Flatbed printers were on the minds of many—some as new installs, others for additional capacity. Dye-sublimation, fabric printing, vehicle graphics and custom interiors were also hot topics. Shop owners are also looking at specific products—online document management systems, MIS sytems, ecologically-sound printing options, Web-to-print and eCommerce applications—to help them grow and streamline their businesses.

"Everyone will be faced with the same challenge this year, which is to sustain growth during a difficult economic period," said Barry Polan, vice president, National Sales, Crush Creative. "We plan on using this period of time as an opportunity to further differentiate Crush Creative from the competition. We plan on doing this by adding new technology and making further investment into our infrastructure. We believe that this period in time is a growth opportunity for companies such as Crush that are strong financially and technologically."

"Our biggest challenge will to take the major investment we have put into our equipment, facility, and personal and to grow our print volume," said Randy A. Crow, president, Source One Digital. "We have the production flow and system in place to ramp up our goal of increasing our print capacity to all new level. We plan continue to grow our client base in all channels of direct, wholesale, and sports industry and define our production flow and process on a 24 hour, seven day a week schedule."

"The biggest challenge to our businesses will be to find innovative ways to maintain market share and profitability. We will look into services we previously didn't offer and equipment or personnel that can help us achieve it. We've been through recessions before and will again, but that causes us to learn to work smarter and once again gain control over our business. Those that realize this early on can make adjustments and survive during the rough times without reducing prices, and turn a profit on same or less sales," said Mike Tardy, president, Dimension Silk Screen.

"We need to remain committed to our business model and core competencies to fend off the pricing pressures from the competition and the potential commoditizing/cheapening of our products and services," said Paul Lillienthal, owner, Pictura. "Management will be challenged with the volatility of our business and the industry in the short-term, while maintaining a long-term perspective and executing our business plan. We need to maintain an opportunistic approach and focus on our distinct competitive advantages. Our commitment to “sustainability” will be more important than ever and be a vital component to the long-term growth and success of Pictura Graphics."

Reinvention Key for Some

Some of these shops are viewing this as an opportunity to expand their business, by offering new products and services, reinventing the way they do business. "It will be necessary for almost all companies to consider major changes in their business paradigms. If anyone denies this, they are either ensconced in a cottage industry that is not suffering the effects, or they are in denial," said Spencer Jacobson, executive vice president, ImageKing. "The biggest challenge will be how to deal with these major changes on a cultural, profit, and business continuance level. 'There will be blood'."

"We have made a concerted effort over the last year to evolve our company into a leaner, more responsive organization," said Kevin C. Vesely, president, Vista Color Imaging, Inc. "We've expanded our perspective on what kind of provider we are, and now pursue projects that were once considered outside our comfort zone."

Scott Perkinson, president, Perkinson Reprographics sees things in a similar fashion. "We need to be more creative with our sales and marketing process. We need to reach out beyond our normal borders and find clients and projects that our different than our norms. We need to work harder and smarter than we have in years. The refining process is and will be good for our business in the long run."

"Now more than ever we need to focus on taking waste out of our processes, both literally and figuratively," said Tom Trutna, owner, BIG INK Display Graphics. "We will continue to use 'lean' and 'green' as our mantra that will move us forward today and in the foreseeable future."

Partnerships

For some of these companies, they have found new ways to partner with both their customers and their vendors—to positive results.

"Our goal over the next 12 months is to collaborate with our customers to find solutions that are both creative and cost-effective," said Kim Dahl, vice president, Mathison's. "We are finding new ways to help our customers realize the greatest impact from how they spend their promotional and printing budgets, also ensuring that they never compromise their brand image or quality."

Zach Sharpe, president of Sharpe Images, agrees. "The current economy is requiring every business to evaluate what it is printing, how it is printing, and what the value it is receiving. We are working closely with our customers and prospects to show them how to manage their printing requirements through on-line digital storefronts, we are developing new cost effective solutions for their printing needs and finding lower cost production equipment that continues to produce a high quality."

But, according to Jittu Sarna, owner, Inkjet International, these times also can be seen as providing some of the biggest opportunities for businesses. "We have invested in improving our customer communication tools through a dynamic new website, the convenience of a web-store with customizable options, and aggressive outbound marketing. These steps and others are forming the platform for us to step out from being a printer that reacts to an order, versus a solutions printer that creates ideas, earns loyalty and generates new business," said Sarna. "All of this requires a synchronized effort and collaboration with our vendor partners—whom we are working more closely with than ever before."

"Working with our current vendors and searching for new vendors that can offer better pricing on our materials has opened up more opportunities to help our clients out during this time. In doing this we've been able to lock down bigger discounts, allowing us to pass these savings onto our clients resulting in lower prints costs," said Gina Spring, Solar Imaging. "With these savings, our clients have been able to continue their advertising and print projects and sometimes even do more than they have anticipated for the year. It's really a win-win situation for all of us."

Empowering Employees

Many of these shops have turned to their employees for both ideas and support. The right people in the shop are key to growing their businesses—even during down times.

"We face many challenges in the next several years. The one area that will present my biggest challenge is employee retention," said Kevin O'Hea, owner, Academy Reprographics. "My company's greatest asset is its employees. These are the people that I trust day in, day out, to keep my customers happy and content. I can have all of the latest equipment and gadgets and services, but without good people, I'm just another blueprinter. So when I lay awake at night and worry, it's not about revenue and cash flow, it's about losing good employees. If our revenue slows down, we will be forced to let some of them go. I trust my people, and more importantly, they trust me to keep them out of the unemployment lines. We have expanded our market into nontraditional services and included niche markets that have typically been ignored. The employees themselves have provided some of the best ideas and we have invested heavily in those areas."

"I think our biggest business challenge over the next twelve months will be the speed at which our business is growing, and being able to keep up with it," said Kris Harris, vice-president, Road Rage Designs. "We doubled out staff in 2008, and we can see that we are going to need to add more employees to keep up with the work for this year. This creates a new problem—finding qualified installers. We get people coming in every couple of days looking for a job, but rarely are the people who walk through our door qualified to work here."

"While the economy seems to be the 'hot topic in news' our team is embracing all the benefits and value our products bring to our clients and how our products can grow a client business during tough times," said Crow. "With our 'yes we can approach' we remain optimistic that “tough times never last …but tough people do'."

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