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Dec 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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Speed, flexibility and service have become the cornerstones of growth for Cardinal Colorprint (Chicago), allowing it to move beyond its humble beginnings to become a printer with loyal, long-established accounts.

Cardinal began in 1952 when Pat LeBeau Sr. and a business partner agreed to buy the company from the retiring owner for $8,000. LeBeau eventually bought his partner's share and merged with Colorprint Printing, a small printer along Chicago's famed Printer's Row. In 1962, the re-named Cardinal Colorprint moved from downtown Chicago to its current location on the city's north side.

Today, Cardinal--still managed by the LeBeau family--occupies a 17,000-sq.-ft. facility with 52 unionized employees. The sheetfed printer is open six days a week, and operates its four presses 20 hours a day. Also on site is a limited bindery with cutting and folding capabilities. Serving the Chicago metro area and the Midwest, Cardinal boasts many financial and corporate customers, who typically request four- to eight-color annual reports, brochures and direct mail pieces.

"Our customers are the force behind Cardinal's success," claims Pat LeBeau Jr., president of Cardinal Colorprint. "We've established long relationships with our accounts. With the ties between Cardinal and our clients, even if our buying contact at an account leaves, the company continues to use our services."

The customers' needs also are behind a recent pressroom upgrade. "At the time of Print '97, we began thinking about buying a new press," comments Michael LeBeau, vice president of Cardinal. "We noticed an increased demand for annual reports from clients such as Kemper Financial, in addition to high-end brochures for Sears and Apple Vacations. The customers needed more colors and faster turnaround."

Out went an older 40-inch two-color press and in came a Heidelberg 40-inch four-color press with perfector. "We ran it 20 hours a day for two years and never had a problem with it, so we decided to continue the pressroom upgrade," explains Michael.

Next came a 29-inch two-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 74, quickly followed by an eight-color Speedmaster 102 press with perfector. According to Michael LeBeau, Cardinal purchased its presses from a single manufacturer for ease of training and service.

A SM102 was selected because it produces four-over-four perfecting or straight eight-color single-sided printing. This has given Cardinal's customers the option to use a wider variety of colors and varnishes. "The versatility of the press allows us to go from longer runs of four-over-four to high-end designer jobs," states the vice president. "It's this kind of flexibility that has helped our sales grow strongly this year."

The investment has already begun to pay off. An average year's revenue growth is historically six percent to eight percent. Pat LeBeau Jr. expects earnings to increase from $8 million in 1998 to nearly $12 million by the end of 1999. "The flexibility and speed offered by our eight-color perfector is worth the capital invested," he says enthusiastically. The LeBeaus believed the press would take two-and-a-half years to pay for itself; now they say the press is already profitable.

"Flexibility is probably our strongest asset," Michael LeBeau confidently states. "The ability to switch projects on the fly can be incredibly advantageous. Flexibility is the name of the game."

In one recent job, a client needed 450,000 six-page, 8 x 11-inch brochures in six colors. Cardinal staffers received the disks at 9:00 p.m., showed proofs at 2:00 a.m., had the job on the press by 8:00 a.m. and by 5:00 that afternoon, the first 50,000 pieces were cut, folded and waiting for the client.

Speed is another key point to the firm's success. Cardinal's previous press printed at 12,000 sheets per hour. The SM102 produces 15,000 sheets per hour and, on top of that, the perfector runs 20 percent to 25 percent of the time. That gives a big advantage for emergency situations.

"One of our largest accounts, the Chicago Tribune, keeps us jumping," Pat Jr. says. "We don't get much lead time to prepare, and the Tribune needs its jobs--ranging from special news inserts to promotions--as soon as possible. We have literally put a job in shipping boxes while it was still wet; the job was that important."

The flexibility and speed that Cardinal emphasizes could not be accomplished without its staff. Pressroom employees are members of a union shop. "Our press crew is great," comments the president. "When we have a big job, they are at the presses doing what needs to be done. Whether it's 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning, they are giving 100 percent."

The Cardinal sales staff also receives praise. At first, only two brokers were employed. With the growth the company has experienced, there are now six sales associates. Each representative receives "home-grown" training from the LeBeaus, who teach the associates to sell what they know.

Cardinal has no plans to venture into the web market. Instead, the company's priority is to increase its position within the long-run sheetfed market. LeBeau says having an eight-color perfector has given Cardinal an additional boost for the client that requests such jobs. He adds, "We do receive short-run half-web jobs. Usually, these projects are for clients who only need to print an item once a year. In that respect, we can compete with web printers."

For example, in one recent job, a Fortune 500 customer wanted 150,000 32-page magazines with cover. Cardinal's estimate was priced 20 percent higher than its web printer competition, but the client felt the quality of the sheetfed press was worth the difference.

Following a conservative business plan is the strategy of choice for the LeBeaus. "Our motto is 'Buy it and maintain it,'" says Michael. "When we evaluate technology, we look for speed and resist the urge to buy the latest hot item. Cardinal stays one to two steps behind large printers, letting them work out the bugs in the latest technology and then buying a reliable version has been our plan."

The next step for Cardinal is an improved bindery. An additional cutter, high-speed folders and a stitcher will be installed in the next year. The company is striving to become a full-service provider.

Cardinal Colorprint's success is a result of hard work, adaptability to customer needs and service. By meeting and exceeding client requests, the LeBeaus have gained a strong place in the Chicago sheetfed market, and self-investment continues to fuel its growth.