Family-Owned Printer Bucks Industry Trend, Expands Operations

When Bobby Firestein announced this spring that his family-owned company, SVECONWAY Printing, was expanding its operations by 25 percent and taking over the vacant warehouse space next to his Silver Spring, MD, shop, the DC-area printing community took notice. Suffice it to say he’s bucking a trend.

“Over the past decade, only the most resilient small printers have been able to navigate the extremely challenging business environment that has pushed approximately 30 percent of their colleagues out of business,” says Dr. Ronnie Davis, vice president and chief economist of Printing Industries of America.

“The industry is down to a few stubborn holdouts like me and a collection of large printers who are owned by out-of-state conglomerates,” says Firestein from his tiny office in a drab industrial park.

“In printing, like many industries, technology has allowed smaller companies to reach up to the lower end of the mid-market and bigger companies to reach down to the upper end of the small market. This has put the squeeze on family-held businesses,” says Kerry Stackpole, president of Printing & Graphics Association Mid-Atlantic.

The Internet is also to blame for the decline in the printing industry, according to a recent report published by InfoTrends, a document technology consulting firm. Just as travel agencies, the US Postal Service, and bicycle couriers have been threatened by the proliferation of electronic information, so has the printing industry. “We continue to see consolidations and acquisitions,” says Stackpole.

Those companies that survive have been relegated to an endangered-species-like status. Firestein considers himself lucky to be among the survivors and readily acknowledges his tenuous existence.

Solid Strategy

If the truth is told, however, Firestein’s business acumen probably has more to do with SVECONWAY’s survival than stubbornness and luck. In spite of his insistence that he is “not an entrepreneur,” Firestein has not only dodged the Grim Reaper, but grown his business by three-fold over the last eight years. “Printing is changing fast, but I doubt it will ever go away completely. I think it will continue to evolve. Recognizing and capitalizing on new opportunities is the constant challenge,” says Firestein.

“The printing industry landscape continues to evolve at an unprecedented rate, but with that comes opportunity,” says Mike Philie, vice president and senior consultant for National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL). “The potential for success in the market redistribution happening today lies in refocusing a company’s sales effort, staff and overall operation to align with marketplace expectations.”

In that vein, Firestein has differentiated SVECONWAY as a greener printer and has taken several steps to make good on that claim. For instance, he purchases electricity from renewable sources, buys carbon offsets so that his operation is carbon-neutral, uses only chain-of-custody paper, recycles everything he can, and has a tree planted for every print job to replace the paper used.

“I wanted to make my business greener because it’s the way of the future, the right thing to do, and there is a growing core of customers out there who value sustainability,” says Firestein.

Because so many other companies have failed, Firestein has been able to recruit top-notch employees who seem grateful to have a job. “I have a great crew that accepts that they have to multi-task and cross-train to keep the business profitable. They are okay with working weekends and evenings if that’s when we have jobs,” says Firestein.

He also makes good use of part-time labor. “I have a lean staff of full time people that I can usually keep busy, and when I need extra help, I call in part-timers,” says Firestein. “That way, I rarely have to pay people to stand around.”

A Family Affair

Because he asks so much of his employees, Firestein pays them above NAPL Scale, an industry-standard wage scale published by the industry association. Even though his labor costs are slightly higher than average, Firestein keeps his other costs down by relying on friends and family members. “My uncle, brother, and a cousin do most of the equipment maintenance and my aunt, who has been in the printing business for more than 40 years, runs the office.”

Firestein says that he never seriously considered closing up shop, even during the darkest days of the Great Recession, mostly because, “Printing is all I know.” Both his mother and father came from printing families. “I’ve been working in this industry since I was 15 except for my college years at RIT. If my shop foreman, general manager, and I weren’t running a printing business, I don’t know what we’d be doing—probably nothing well,” says Firestein, 47, with a chuckle.

“What keeps me up at night is the ever-present possibility of failure,” admits Firestein. “If we fail, it most likely will be because of a quick drop in revenue—either losing an account or because a big customer goes insolvent and leaves us with a huge receivable.”

“I get calls all the time from people I know—people I worked with years ago in my uncles’ printing businesses. A lot of people are rooting for us to make it,” says Firestein. “I am cautiously optimistic about all the changes and diversity of business, but I don’t harbor any fantasies about the printing industry getting better. Survival is the new 10 percent growth!”