“In wide-format, the technology moves incredibly fast, so we’ve got to make pretty good bets, because a good decision 36 months ago is obsolete now.”
If he had stopped to think about it, David Pitts might have said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” when his colleague approached him with the idea of opening their own print shop. It was the winter of 1983 and Pitts was working alongside fellow press operator Bill Gardner on the night shift at Belk Printing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ronald Reagan was president and the US was just beginning to creep out of a recession. Inflation was up, unemployment was high, and the looming economic boom that was to become the 1980s wasn’t yet a blip on the national radar.
“We weren’t thinking about this kind of stuff when we were 23, but in retrospect, we probably picked the best time to start a business,” says Pitts. “We borrowed $15,000 from our families and opened a printing company in April of 1983. Our sales the first year were $65,000 and it grew from there. This year, I’d say our sales will be about $50 million.”
Their company, Classic Graphics, with offices now in Charlotte and Raleigh, got its start as a traditional offset printer.
“We had offset duplicators and were trying to do work for agencies and designers when they needed small runs. Our goal was to move as quickly as possible to the quality side of the market – we thought that would be our niche,” Pitts says. “In the first years, it was pretty easy to be a printer: guy puts ink on paper and sells it to people. From 1983 through 2000, we grew at an average annual growth rate of about 37 percent, and every two or three years, we would double the size of the company.”
The secret to their success, he says, is the team’s ability to keep re-inventing the company.
“Charlotte was a great place to be in business in the 1980s, the banking industry was growing dramatically at that time, and we rode that wave all the way to 2000, when we hit a new recession, which dramatically changed the way we do business.”
Instead of being “just a printer,” Classic Graphics found that it had to add other services to stay competitive.
“First, we added fulfillment services. That led to small-format digital printing, then mailing, then data-management services,” Pitts says. “We had a tough 2001 and 2002, but by 2003 we had reversed the slide.”