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Hiring Outside the Core

What positions beyond the core could expand your shop's reliability and capabilities?

Last February, our small digital printing company completed its 20th year in business. Over the years, we have ranged in staff size from four employees when we started to a peak of 45 in 2007, right before the “Great Recession” began. During the recession, our staffing numbers dropped to roughly half of what they were at our high point. Like many print shops, we are grateful to have survived what bordered on an economic depression.

Over the past four years, we have regained profitability and gradually expanded our staff to pre-recession numbers. This experience of expansion, contraction, and expansion again got me thinking about staffing in our industry, and the positions that are core to what we do versus those that expand a printing company beyond its core functionality.

What jobs are required to simply operate as a digital printing operation? In very small companies, employees take on responsibilities for multiple skill areas. For example, when we started Pictographics in 1994, I did sales, customer service, prepress, design, printing, and delivery. Sue, my wife and business partner, did billing, collection, accounting, HR, purchasing, and finishing. Combined, we accounted for 11 job functions. As sales increased, we hired people who specialized in those skill areas.

So at its most basic, a digital printing company requires certain skills to get the file from the customer and the finished product delivered. At the risk of over simplifying, we break these skills into front end, printing, and finishing. I’m just going to focus on jobs that are directly associated with production, leaving sales and front-office roles for another time.

Laying it out
We define “front end” as customer service and prepress. A customer service representative’s basic job is to communicate with the client, receive customer files, and write associated work orders. In prepress, we hire specialists to receive the work order and customer files, and then prepare them for the printing department.

In the printing department, we employ press operators. Their job is self-explanatory: they load and unload media to the printers and run the jobs. Some companies have their prepress departments RIP the files; we have our press operators do it.

The finishing department is where prints are turned into finished products. When we started Pictographics, finishing was primarily cutting boards to size, mounting prints to the boards, laminating, and trimming. Today, many printers have CNC machines, sublimation presses, sewing machines, saws, lasers, paint booths, and welders, for example. Finishing has become much more complex and the required skills have dramatically expanded beyond simple laminating and mounting. We also incorporate shipping and receiving into our finishing department.

Beyond the core
Since the economy is expanding and our business is growing again, we can add more people to the required core staff and increase our capacity – but what positions beyond the core could expand our reliability and capabilities?

In 1995, our first outside-the-core hire expanded both of these attributes. We brought on a gifted designer, a risky move because almost all of our customers were ad agencies and they were selling their own design services. We feared that by hiring our own designer, we might be seen by our ad agency clients as trying to poach their business. We needed to reassure them that we had no plans to circumvent them. Our rationale for adding a degreed designer to our staff was to give us the ability to communicate professionally with the agencies’ designers through a person who spoke the same language. (I don’t know how many of you were in the business in the mid ‘90s, but we got files in Quark, PageMaker, Photoshop, Illustrator, Freehand, and Corel Draw; all on SyQuest Disks.)

Bringing in a designer turned out to be a smart move because a significant percentage of the files submitted back then were unprintable. It took less time for our designer to rebuild or recreate the files in a format that we knew would print then to go back and forth with the client until they could make the file printable. Over time, our clients came to appreciate the fact that we had a talented designer on staff. We could turn jobs faster than any of our competitors, had fewer file mistakes, and better quality prints.

Today, there are fewer file formats and we rarely get files that are unprintable. However, we have expanded to five designers on staff. Designer-to-designer communication has continued to prove to be beneficial for us. To take this one step further, we have hired designers who have specializations. For example, one was the assistant art director at a large architectural firm. She handles all of our architectural clients with ease because she knows the industry and speaks their language. Another was the lead interior designer for a major hotel-casino who brings the same knowledge of this field to our company. So these two women have a powerful customer service role, much like the original designer we hired years ago. And, yes, we have managed to make design a significant profit center without jeopardizing our relationships with our design clients.

Our second “outside-the-core” hire was a technician in 1997, when we had grown to a staff of 10. Some of our colleagues questioned the wisdom of a company our size hiring a dedicated technician. Our rationale was we had become a company known for our ability to turn around jobs in 24 hours or less. (This was at a time when our competitors offered 72-hour turnaround.) We realized that even though all of our equipment was under warranty or a maintenance contract, outside resources were not good enough. None of the printer techs lived in Las Vegas, so any time we needed someone to fix a broken machine, we would have to fly them in. We’d be lucky to have a printer back up and running in 48 to 72 hours. However, if we stocked parts and had a technician on staff, we could be back up and running in hours rather than days. We found that the printer manufacturers were only too happy to train our technician on their machines. In the past 17 years, since that first technician hire, we have never been without one. We are convinced we enjoy a competitive advantage as a result.

The best technicians have both electrical and mechanical skills. They also have to be computer and network savvy. Our technicians go way beyond fixing printers. They must maintain and repair any system in our shop where operation is mission critical. An excellent example is our compressed-air system. We consider compressed air to be the fourth utility because it is so vital. We can make products without water or gas, but we are “dead in the water” without electricity or compressed air. Our technicians keep all of our critical systems maintained and repaired, and ensure that our company is productive day in and day out. They increase our capability by approaching 100-percent uptime so we can assure customers that we will turn their jobs faster.

Our next outside-the-core hire was an installer (or decal applicator) in 1998. At that time, all of our local competitors used independent installation contractors. This was fine when things were slow and you could have your pick of the best contractors. However, when big trade shows or events came to town and every good installer was booked, you were in trouble. You could either get a relatively unskilled installer who was not in demand and then be embarrassed by your final product, or find no one at all and have to turn away the work. After bringing installation in house, we have never had to turn away work because we couldn’t provide this service. Jobs that require both printing and installation are now more profitable because we get to keep all the money from the job. It’s not unusual for the installation to be more profitable than the printing.

We generally maintain four to six employees that are cross-trained as decal applicators. This has expanded our capabilities because our installers know how to do more than just apply decals. They now install tension fabric display systems, stand-off pieces, erect structures, etc.

We can run our company without designers, in-house technicians, or installers. However, these three outside-the-core specialties distinguish us from our competition. They create collegial relationships with clients, provide additional services and profit centers, keep our equipment and production running reliably, improve our turnaround times, and generally make us a more well-rounded company.
 

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