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Aug 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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Sailing in uncharted waters is a frightening prospect. Metaphorically speaking, a business changing its normal course of operations and navigating into the unknown--say, entering a new market--could encounter stormy seas in the form of stiff competition and unexpected challenges, and possibly even shipwreck. But when choosing that path less traveled also means firing 80 percent of your customers, most companies would opt for the tried and true, even tired, ways of running their business.

U.S. Press isn't most companies. For this Valdosta, GA printer, finding, maintaining and constantly refining its focus meant charting a new course and jettisoning most of its customers, but the strategy has resulted in smooth sailing. U.S. Press has plenty of proof of its business achievements, in the form of 11 Management Plus awards from the National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL) since 1987: one merit, six silvers, three golds and this year, induction into the prestigious William K. Marrinan Hall of Fame.

U.S. Press is very much a niche player, according to president Kent Buescher, and that's what has kept it successful. The firm specializes in production of short-run process color literature, such as postcards, catalog sheets, folded brochures and booklets. Print runs average about 5,000 pieces. The bulk of U.S. Press' business comes from small manufacturers nationwide.

It's a far cry from where the company began. Established in 1981 as Buescher Communications, the printer served a local market and, as Buescher describes, "did any and everything, provided it was ink on a page."

By 1986, however, "we were working a lot of hours and not making any money," Buescher says. "We lost money on 80 percent of the jobs produced and made a lot of money on 20 percent of them. So why not concentrate on the 20 percent that are profitable and throw away the rest of it."

That's what the company did. The profitable 20 percent turned out to be the short-run advertising literature in process color. The money-losing jobs were business cards, letterheads and envelopes, which Buescher cut out of the business. In less than a year, Buescher Communications developed a new concept to sell nationwide, changed its name to U.S. Press and implemented the rest of its revamped business plan. That included reallocating equipment that the company no longer needed, purchasing equipment more suited to its new niche and reconfiguring employees to roles that were more appropriate for the new company. While he says he didn't fire anyone, Buescher admits that some employees he did not want to lose left of their own accord. What had been 37 employees in June of 1986 dropped to 20 by the following March.

Implementing the new business plan also meant firing customers who didn't meet U.S. Press' criteria. "It was a pretty scary six-month period," Buescher confesses. "All of a sudden, we were getting rid of 80 percent of our business. It's one thing to know that the strategy will work and another to actually do it. I'm happy to say it worked."

Indeed, it has. Housed in a two-year-old, 36,000-sq.-ft. facility, today the company employs about 50 people and is expecting revenues in the neighborhood of $7 million this year. And since 1986, U.S. Press has remained committed to its niche, continually refining what it does and refocusing its efforts as necessary.

"We have four four-color presses," says Buescher. "We run only straight four-color jobs. We never change the ink rotation. We hardly ever change the paper that runs in the press and run the same job on the same press. That's why we're faster at what we do than our competitors. We have a narrow focus, and that's what makes us successful." U.S. Press doesn't deviate from its standardized goal, turning away customers whose requirements fall outside its range.

That isn't to say, however, that the company doesn't show flexibility when required. That's why the printer opted to sell its services nationwide, via telemarketing and direct mail.

"You can either take a very broad approach and sell to a narrow geographic area, or take a very narrow approach to sell over a large geographic area," Buescher contends. "If we sold all the process color printing possible in Valdosta, we couldn't have even kept one press busy. So we had to try different ideas and ways to sell."

The printing executive didn't believe traditional methods, such as employing salespeople or opening a satellite office in Atlanta, would achieve a sufficient level of sales for the company. Telemarketing nationwide has its obstacles--"we're selling an intangible service to someone over the telephone 3,000 miles away"--but the company chose that path. After 88 days, U.S. Press won its first order over the telephone, and soon, other sales came in.

U.S. Press didn't go the traditional route when selling its color pieces, either. In 1991, the company decided to price its services at a flat rate. If a customer wants to produce an 81/2 by 11-inch folded brochure, for example, the company quotes a set price that depends on the print run and type of paper. If the customer wants color photos in the brochure, the price depends only on the number of photos. "We prepriced early on, and it gave us some unique selling propositions," Buescher sums up. "We made it easy for people to buy printing."

After making those big business decisions that centered U.S. Press within its market niche, Buescher says the company is now refining the way it does business. "We work on a thousand little things," he says. "We listen to customers and ask how we can do our job better, faster." After cutting turnaround times from 30 days to 20, and from 20 to 10, for example, the firm is examining all the aspects that go into cutting out an additional six hours or even a day.

Buescher also considers technology that can move the business up to the next level of growth. He is careful about buying, though, calculating production costs with the new equipment versus potential revenues. "We're eager to adopt technology that will allow us to print faster, better and cheaper. When we see technology that is affordable and allows us to shave days and cost at the same time, then we'll adopt that technology," Buescher says.

It's just one of those many issues that makes up Buescher's business. "Most printers talk about their people and equipment, but we have a product focus instead of a process focus," he asserts. "We do have the best people and equipment today, and that makes a big difference, but we still let the product do the talking."

Lest that product and business drift off course, however, U.S. Press reconsiders its niche every one or two years, examining its sales, competition, strengths and market demands. The company, in essence, blazes its path of choice, all the while keeping a very attentive eye on market dynamics and changing course when circumstances demand it.

"We ask ourselves, 'What business are we in? Are we still in the same business we thought we were in? What business should we be in?' " Buescher recounts. "We ask dumb questions. What you may find is you're not even in the business you think you're in.

"Nothing is forever. Things change and the market changes. We don't know for certain what we'll be doing in the future. Will we always be printing short-run process color jobs? I think so. But that may not be true. You have to be prepared for that."