Talking Shop

Print providers discuss the state of the industry at the Signage and Graphics Summit.

What are the thorniest problems facing graphics providers these days, and how are they being solved? Which new technologies are really essential, and which ones are a waste of money? What are the hottest growth areas in the market, and what are your customers going to be looking for in the year ahead? These were some of the questions asked and answered at the third annual Signage and Graphics Summit at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, this past January.

More than 100 print providers attended the conference, presented by ST Media Group (parent company of this magazine and others), to meet with their peers and assess the state of the industry in digital printing, screen printing, and signmaking. Three days were spent in lectures, panel discussions, and free-for-all roundtables, with plenty of old-fashioned networking in between and, for one afternoon, golfing on a championship-level course. Present were the leaders of a wide variety of businesses that represented all areas of the industry, from specialty shops to full- service graphics operations, plus representatives of industry’s supply side.

Frank Maguire, business expert and former executive at FedEx, ABC Radio Network, American Airlines, and KFC, kicked things off with the keynote address on Wednesday morning, followed by a secondary session later that day. Drawing from his wealth of experience in corporate America and his days working alongside the real Colonel Sanders, his message to attendees centered around what he calls "Maguire Absolutes" for success-passion, attitude, and relationships. People must be passionate about what they’re doing, have a positive and optimistic attitude about their work, and be willing and able to develop sincere relationships with their co-workers and employees as well as their customers, he said.

Keeping employees highly motivated and dedicated, he added, requires sending a message of positive reinforcement that lets employees know how valuable they truly are; a message summed up in Maguire’s signature phrase: "You’re the greatest." He added that a company should always consider "employee ROI," short for:

* Recognition: Establish a personal relationship with each employee to the degree that you can, and recognize the value each employee brings to the company;

* Opportunities: What are they for each of your employees?; and

* Information: Keep your employees informed about what’s going on in the company.

Running a smarter business

One of the event’s most anticipated features was the annual Buyers’ Panel, in which senior buyers of signage and graphics from some of America’s biggest corporations discussed what they’re looking for and how they choose vendors. This year’s panel included Bob Rorke from AT&T Mobility, Ted Glauth from Coors, and Sue Miller-Payton from Wal-Mart. Each of the panelists suggested that although price will always be an important factor in selecting their graphics suppliers, vendors who can offer innovative solutions and value-added services can win contracts over lower-priced bidders. They also emphasized that because exciting new methods are being developed for far more accurately measuring the effectiveness of P-O-P displays, they foresee an increasing interest in purchasing in this area, regardless of the anticipated economic downturn overall.

Summit attendees were particularly intrigued by Glauth’s comments concerning Coors distributors. Approximately 85 percent of the beer company’s 500 distributors now have their own in-house print and production facilities, he reported, allowing them to customize point-of-sale signage (working from Coors-provided templates) and to do final output and finish work in-plant. When this program first began, Glauth assumed that the costs in hardware and software as well as the necessary training would become too much of an investment for distributors, but that hasn’t been the case. "They’ve been patient to stick with it as they’ve made mistakes," he says, "and, now, they’ve re-set their customers’ expectations."

In another of the most popular sessions at the conference, "Is It Easy Being Green? Or Profitable?," three panelists from print shops that had taken steps to make green manufacturing a key strategic campaign offered their thoughts on how their companies have become greener and how they’re marketing those initiatives to prospective clients. They suggested that the first steps in going green should be internal-reduce waste, adopt recycling practices, and implement lower-voltage lighting. The panelists also discussed the eco-friendly consumables they use, as well as how they deal with the increase in the costs of orders. Acknowledging that there’s a limit to what customers are willing to pay, Jon Zinsmeyer of The Big Print in Seattle said that selling green jobs to big customers versus small customers is usually easier.

Brandon Gabriel of LAgraphico said that the profitability of green initiatives is not all measured in dollar amounts, however. Through environmentally responsible practices, LAgraphico has established a healthier work environment, is more aware of internal operations, and has had doors open up to new customers. (See "Where the Grass and the Profits are Greener," page 30, for more information on Gabriel’s operation.)

A panel discussion on "New Ideas in Inventory Control" examined the need to minimize inventory while remaining responsive enough to handle unpredictable situations. Moderated by Marty McGhie of Ferrari Color and including Greg Schopmeyer of OAI, Inc., and Mark Wallace of Pratt Corp., an emphasis was put on developing as close and trusting a relationship as possible with your suppliers while not remaining dependent on too few of them. It was also noted how critical the efficient use of your physical space is, so that what inventory you have is as accessible as possible while minimizing the space it occupies and the expense of storage.

A lot of discussion throughout the conference addressed the difficulty of how to define your business based on the work you do and who your customers are. At a roundtable discussion, for instance, it was noted that the difference between the work of a custom shop and a production shop is becoming less clear as more and more production work requires customization, with very little inventory or standardization except at the highest volumes. One of the toughest things for a relatively small shop to know is when to turn down a big job because it’s really not a good fit. The competition is keen for those big jobs, even with their lower margins, but the demand for quality and even customization at that level is ever-growing.

On the cutting edge

Emerging technology, and the smart use of it, was of course one of the most popular topics. A busy session on what’s new and important about flatbed UV digital printers, for instance, with panelists Jim Hunt of Fastsigns, Paul Lilienthal of Pictura Graphics, and Greg Root of SuperGraphics, created a lively discussion.

Moderator Tim Greene with InfoTrends reported that although UV is still the smallest percentage of the installed base when it comes to wide-format inkjet printers worldwide, that percentage is rapidly growing. UV, he said, is seeing a 42-percent growth rate per year, versus just 16 percent for solvent and only 3 percent for aqueous.

From the panelists’ point of view, the consensus was that the value of these printers will continue to increase and they’re a smart investment in addition to more traditional printing technology. Their speed, ability to work with specialty color-especially white-and their flat capabilities are key, in addition to their suitability for printing on textiles, one of the fastest growing segments of wide-format printing.

A panel discussion on how to evaluate a potential printer purchase, with Rich Thompson of AdGraphics, Jim Hunt of Fastsigns, and Brandon Gabriel of LAgraphico emphasized the importance of taking the machine for a test-drive-not merely on any random job but one that’s typical for your company. The panel’s advice was to remember that a machine’s specifications for speed and output aren’t necessarily what you’ll get from normal practice, and be sure to take into account both the need to make a new printer work within your operations (RIPs and color calibration with other machines) and the new needs for equipment and service that a new printer might bring with it (such as cutting, laminating, and grommeting).

Where the jobs are

Two high-growth areas that drew a lot of interest were vehicle graphics and stadium signage and graphics, with plenty of shop owners wanting to know more about what’s required for them and how to do them right.

In a panel discussion on vehicle graphics, Jared Smith of bluemedia, Wade Davis of Image Graphics 2000, and Rich Thompson of AdGraphics talked about the rapidly increasing demand for wrapping corporate fleets, buses, boats, big rigs, and just about anything else on wheels.

The key points made by this group began with personnel-how essential it is to have the right people on your staff, to get them properly trained, and to keep them. This was followed by general agreement on the difficulty of getting usable, print-ready files of the artwork from clients. Be sure not to guarantee a completion date for the job, warned Smith, until you have received the artwork, because most delays occur before the art is approved. Finally, it was noted how critical it is on virtually any vehicle job to let the inks dry, especially when using mild-solvent printers, and not to rush a job out the door before this process is complete.

On the subject of stadium work, Richard Stein of MultimediaLED, Steve Jones of Young Electric Sign, and R.J. Orr of bluemedia talked about the exploding growth of new sports- stadium construction, even at the level of colleges and high schools, and the abundance of both printed and electronic signage within them. It was noted that these jobs tend to be big and ongoing, so developing good relationships is key. Flexibility on the part of the shop is essential, because short turnaround times and last-minute jobs are common with large events, and many stadiums have highly idiosyncratic and inconsistent physical dimensions to work with.

Similar challenges

The camaraderie among attendees was evident as they seized the opportunities to learn something valuable from their peers and simply be around others who are doing the same things and confronting the same challenges every day. The informal roundtable sessions, in which attendees sat down to chat about common topics, was a prime example. At one table, which featured a handful of industry veterans as well as a shop owner just delving into wide format, the latter was able to garner some good advice that he could put to use almost immediately, including: how to look at different sales-compensation plans; how to get sales people out of the office and in front of prospects (but not in the production area); pricing strategies, including how to begin with the markup that you need; and how to analyze the companies from which you source your materials.

The 2009 Summit will take place January 26-28 in San Diego, so mark your calendars and visit www.signageandgraphics.com for updates and registration, and then come join the industry’s best.

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