Classic Graphics: Leadership Fosters Success

David Pitts likes to joke that the reason he won the National Association for Printing Leadership’s (NAPL’s) 53rd Walter E. Soderstrom Award recipient this year was “lowered standards.” But no one has ever mistaken Pitts for an underachiever.

Pitts, co-founded Charlotte, NC-based Classic Graphics with business partner Bill Gardner in 1983, and under their leadership the company has grown from $65,000 to more than $75 million in annual sales. In the top two percent in the industry, Classic, an employee-owned company, has grown to 300 employees—a 64 percent increase in just three years. The firm has also been honored as an NAPL Management Plus Hall of Fame company. Pitts is also a former member of NAPL’s board of directors.

So what was the real reason? The association cites Pitts’ willingness to share his knowledge with fellow printers. As he himself admits, “We have participated with PIA and NAPL and I am a member of a peer group called Print America. I’ve always been very open to a lot of exchange of ideas with other smart printers. And I’ve benefitted from that—I’ve gotten more back than I have put out there.”


Breaking Out

Perhaps, but he must have received something: 2013 has thus far been what he terms a “breakout year” for Classic. Thanks to growth from existing accounts and having picked up a new and sizeable client, which Pitts prefers not to name, the bottom line this year is expected to grow by $17 million, to $75 million. He notes simply, “It’s a pretty good year.”

Indeed, this has been a year of expansion for Classic, in a physical sense as well. The company merged with Belk Printing in January of 2011. “Our primary space at the beginning of the year was 180,000-square-feet,” Pitts recounts. That company has added 58,000 square-feet for services such as material handling and kitting. “We do a lot of complex kitting for these big customers. It takes up a lot of room and uses lots of people, and lots of conveyors, and lots of hands putting stuff in boxes. Because of the rapid growth, we basically ran out of space to handle all of the materials. We need more space for when we get one large order in or, even better, two large orders at one time. It’s a lot more efficient now.”

Efficiency has always been a core concept at Classic. As it explains to visitors on its website, “Through precision integration, we achieve simpler, more efficient execution of marketing communications and drive out wasted costs, time, and unnecessary complexity.” The company is ISO registered and has FSC (FSC-C017621) Chain of Custody Certification.

Another accomplishment this year has been cutting waste in the manufacturing process. “We’re starting to see the benefits of that,” Pitts explains. “It’s a little bit early, but we’re driving labor—and especially temporary labor—as a percentage of sales down.”

The desire and ability to evolve with the market has always been one of Classic’s defining characteristics. “In the early years,” company lore holds, Pitts and Gardner “worked hard to master the best business and production practices of an industry that was being revolutionized by technology. Client environments were transforming. The World Wide Web was emerging. Marketing communications would never be the same.” The story is very much the same today, with Pitts, Gardner, and their team looking to the future by delivering interactive, mobile, and social media solutions.


2014 and Beyond

“You know,” says Pitts, “one of the reasons Classic has been successful in the last few years is that we have a very broadly diverse service offering: offset, and small digital, and large-format digital, and mailing and fulfillment, and kitting. So the goal for 2014 changes depending on what we sell next.” The company will certainly continue to expand its wide-format revenue. “Wide-format is the fastest growing segment of our business. We see that trend continuing in 2014.”

As for the health of the US economy, Pitts—who was honored at NAPL’s annual Soderstrom Awards Dinner on September 7 at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center—says he holds no illusions.

“Every time I think I know what the economy is going to do, it either does something completely different or it does nothing at all,” he admits. “I’m expecting no significant growth from the economy, and so that, to me, is the safest bet. If we do things expecting the economy to not help us, and then it does help us, we’ll get even more lift. But the safe bet is to bet on no help.”