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A vision for the future

Jun 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Case Study

How does a company that opened its doors in the 1940s successfully weather decades of change and emerge as a winner in the 21st century? Just ask Tom Mercier, president and CEO of Bloomington Offset Process, Inc. (BOPI). “When I started here in 1974, we still were running a 1960 ATF 226. The shop specialized in single- and two-color work, with lots of light tables, stripping tables and a fancy horizontal camera.”

Today the Bloomington, IL, printer not only has a stable of six-color MAN Roland sheetfed presses, but has aggressively moved into the digital age with the introduction of CIP3- and CIP4-compatible equipment and two HP Indigo 3000 digital presses. BOPI now specializes in six-color jobs on 40-inch machines, short-run on-demand, variable-data printing, mailing and fulfillment, and online procurement.

Tom Mercier and his dad, Burt, completed their purchase of the company in 1985 and started making changes immediately. That old ATF 226 was out the door, and new two-color presses came in. The business prospered. By the mid-1990s, Tom realized the industry was on the verge of a major change, but not how quickly things would move.

Paul Macfarlane, director of sales and marketing, joined BOPI a year after Burt Mercier passed away. With Tom Mercier’s vision of the future and Macfarlane’s energy, the pair opened an office in Springfield, IL, and also expanded into thriving university centers in Champaign-Urbana and Peoria.

Macfarlane notes, “Although we were successful doing four-color cover work for two-color projects in the Bloomington area, Tom realized that if we were going to move into new regions we had to have more capabilities. Our new markets required more than our older 1985 half-size, four-color 20 x 28-inch sheetfed press running at 6,000 sph could handle. It didn’t take a lot of extra business from those regional markets to max out that press.”

The digital revolution begins
Along with changes in the pressroom, Mercier decided to move his company more aggressively into the digital arenas for the future. “Going from film to the digital world of computer-to-plate was a great experience for us to do at that time,” Mercier says. “It positioned us to further transition to fully digital operations, because we were adding our first six-color, 40-inch press with perfector. Now, we were serving regional markets that could easily support two six-color presses, we developed Hexachrome-extended color gamuts and we had new customers keeping the shop successful. But every company has to look forward and question where the future will take it.

“Because we had gone from a 28-inch sheetfed to a 40-inch, we lost some of our short-run printing capability,” Mercier continues. “But at the same time, we identified the advent of the digital presses and decided that was a direction in which we needed to move.”

But it’s not just about buying new equipment. Mercier says, “We asked ourselves what digital presses would do for us. How would they help keep existing customers and find new customers? Would the new technology increase our value-added so we could avoid the bidding situations that drive most commercial sheetfed printers?”

Macfarlane and Mercier clearly understood buying a large piece of digital equipment meant they had to offer something more than just short runs. “Nobody gets rich on short-run color,” Macfarlane observes.

The digital presses allowed BOPI to offer variable-data printing, a high value-added service. By adding digital to their capabilities, BOPI could give clients more than ever before.

The VDP challenge
“You only have one chance with variable data,” says Macfarlane. “You have to be able to do the job correctly. You have to know if the client can give you good data. You have to have your internal ducks in a row in order to succeed. That’s a level of expertise that is foreign to most printers.”

Mercier agrees, “You’ve got to have the right people to produce accurate variable data. We started by selling our internal staff on the benefits of digital and variable data. We told them where we were going, what we were doing, why we were doing it and why we bought a new digital press. Only when we got internal buy-in and the right staff trained did we go out to the client.”

Data people are critical, says Macfarlane. “You might not see them out front, but the internal people are the ones who make the jobs happen.” BOPI was fortunate to have an employee who had come to the company with extensive experience with computers and project management. He made sure the digital systems worked and set up an efficient workflow.

Next came the estimator, who loved crunching numbers and working with databases. He wanted to move up and became the first database expert at the company.

Selling cycles
“The printing industry, for centuries, was based on eliminating change,” says Macfarlane. “Everything was designed to produce lots of one thing consistently throughout a defined process. All of a sudden, we put a piece of equipment into the shop that was designed to change everything. That was a difficult concept to adapt to. We needed a different mindset, especially in the sales cycle.”

Salespeople went from asking clients if they could quote on something to a more consultative, complicated sales process. “It’s difficult for salespeople to understand that they absolutely should not ask clients for a print order,” Macfarlane points out. “They have to be trained to ask about a client’s business strategy and what major issues face the communications and marketing departments.” The salespeople have to transition from the “Got any print?” mindset to learning about the reasons for producing print and what the customer hopes to achieve with the job.

In fact, the average sales cycle in a commercial print job is three to four weeks at most. But when you are looking at providing variable-data solutions, particularly if they involve online procurement, it can take six to 12 months, according to Mercier.

To help its salespeople transition their sales efforts, BOPI created a team approach. Salespeople are trained to identify the potential of each client and alert Mercier or Macfarlane. Then the president, sales and marketing exec, salesperson, operations person and a database expert make a follow-up call. Their presentations showing the power of variable data are generally made to marketing and communications directors, CFOs and CEOs. Having BOPI’s executives communicating directly to clients’ executives means everyone is speaking the same language.

“You want to physically show clients and potential clients how variable data works,” says Mercier. “Give them an experience they can build on. In meetings, we talk about what some of our other clients have done, how they used their data and the results they have achieved.”

For example, one BOPI project is for a company that puts on boat shows, usually in local marinas. The database identifies what kind of boat a potential customer is looking for. Prospects get an invitation highlighting the type of boat they are interested in purchasing. When they arrive at the show, customers are given an opportunity to test drive the boat, and a picture is taken. A week or so later, each attendee gets an oversized postcard with that picture. In 99 percent of cases, that picture is displayed on the prospect’s refrigerator. The results: The sales cycle of the boat seller has gone from 18 months to less than nine months.

“Today, it’s not really about print,” says Mercier. “It’s about how your client uses and procures print. If you can save them not just money on the print but within the whole administrative function, you have a happy client.”

Macfarlane agrees, “Online procurement is starting to become more and more popular with many of our clients. This type of customized system helps the client save ‘soft’ dollars by better understanding what products are being selected most often and on what type of schedule. And it helps the agents, distributors or remote salespeople do their jobs better. It’s a simple system that people can use whenever they have time, without having to worry about time zones.”

BOPI provides online services primarily to corporations that have more than one location, usually with a remote sales force, branches or distribution centers. And Macfarlane is bullish on the subject. “If you haven’t got something online, you’d better move that way quickly. Corporations want someone to look at what they are doing, analyze their operations and workflow, and come up with solutions that give them cost efficiencies. That’s what the trend is.”

For the $12 million central Illinois printer, times have changed drastically since its inception. Digital has grown and continues to grow. Commercial printing still is a growing part of the company’s revenue stream, not to mention the mailing and fulfillment services now incorporated into the mix.

What is the next vision for the future at BOPI? “We’re already into a lot of different things right now,” says Mercier. “But we’re looking at tying responses to a personalized URL. That way, we can become the agent to receive the responses from direct mail. PURLs (personalized URLs) appeal to us because it helps us to better measure our clients’ success—and our clients’ success is our success.”

Jill Roth is special projects editor for AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at