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Bouncing back

Jul 1, 2008 12:00 AM

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Mele Printing (Covington, LA) can measure its history using several milestones. Mallery Mele founded the company in 1985 as one-man walk-up copy shop called Mele's Instant Printing. A few years later, the employee ranks had swelled to three. By 1996, the company was a 15-person operation doing $2 million in annual sales.

“In 1996, we acquired a printer in New Orleans,” says Mele. “We began opening branch locations with two or three people [throughout] the city. At one time, we had seven locations and three production facilities. That was a great until the market started changing. Bricks and mortar were not as important as price, turnaround and service.”

From 2002 to 2005, the company was in consolidation mode, gradually paring back to one location. “We were growing, but we weren't profitable,” Mele explains. “Having a single location and investing all of our technical [resources in one place] helped us turn things around. We eliminated a lot of overhead, while growing sales, offering more to our customers and producing work at a more profitable rate.”

At its peak, Mele Printing employed 85 people with $8 million in annual sales. Today, 60 staffers are producing similar revenues in a 36,000-sq.-ft. facility.

When the levees broke

No date looms larger in company history than August 29, 2005, the day that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. “When it hit, everything stopped,” says Mele. “Printing was the last thing anyone needed or could even think about.”

In Katrina's aftermath, Mele spent three months in limbo, uncertain if he or his customers would come back. Located about 45 miles north of downtown, Covington is a small town that sustained less damage than New Orleans. Mele, who never left, lives two miles away from the plant. After the storm, it took two days before he could get to the building. The following week, only 10 employees were on hand.

“We lost about 40 percent of our competitors and about 40 percent of our customers, too,” says Mele. “We were fortunate that we could immediately invest in the business to get it back on its feet. With all the changes [after Katrina], we had to handle customer issues remotely. We upgraded everything to better serve their needs.”

Two Heidelberg presses equipped with coaters (a CD-74 5-color and an SM-102 6-color) anchor Mele's offset pressroom, while a Kodak NexPress 2100+ and several Xerox DocuTechs occupy pride of place on the digital side. Kodak's Prinergy workflow supports production while the InSite portal facilitates customer file submission and communication.

Lessons learned

In hindsight, Mele says he would reprioritize his growth strategies, something he urges others to do, too: “Start with your salespeople [and make some strategic hires if necessary]. Once you've done all you can with your sales force, then consider an acquisition.”

When evaluating potential acquisitions, consider the consequences. “You might think you can save [an ailing] company,” says Mele. “In reality, you're inheriting all their problems. Acquisitions can be a good tool, but be careful. Make sure the culture of [the acquired firm] is similar to what you already have, because you're going to have to work together.”

Adding new products and services offer another path to growth. Mele has a full-time IT person as well as a product development specialist. “Every company should be studying the newest software, the best way to handle customer files and so on,” says Mele. “Your [file turnaround time] could determine how much you'll grow with a given customer.”

Knowing customers' needs and challenges also helps the bottom line. “We would never have gotten into fulfillment services if we didn't understand our customers' needs and realize that they were spending money with another vendor on it,” says Mele. “We found a way to bring it in house, allowing us to do a lot more printing for them.”

Joining a peer group can provide a valuable perspective. Mele belongs to a 20-member group called the Premier Printer Network. “All owners need to have accountability. With a peer group, you can share financials as well as strategic planning while bouncing ideas off each other.”

Mele Printing is more fortunate than most printers in its market — its sales have exceeded pre-storm levels. The company now has 24-, 48- and 72-hour contingency plans in the event of another natural disaster. “You have to be prepared,” says Mele. “Customers can stay loyal only for so long if you can't adapt to a sudden change. We see everything differently now.”

Katherine O'Brien is the editor in chief of AMERICAN PRINTER magazine. Contact her at

Got gimmick?

Mele Printing is famous for its cookies. “My mother is the cookie lady,” says Mallery Mele. “She works here part-time and twice a week she bakes 500 cookies. It sounds crazy, but you'd be surprised how popular they are.”

A brother-in-law in the baking equipment business helped Mele install its oven, which comes in handy for making King Cakes during Mardi Gras, too.

There's money in that workflow

John Giles' “12 Secrets for Digital Success” explains how printers can make money with digital services. Readers will learn how digital related tasks can be divided among employees and customers. Giles also addresses the potential of Web-based printing services. See

How to hire the best people

Quick print consultant Debra Thompson of TG & Associates and co-author Bill Greif have received several awards for “No More Rotten Eggs: 13 Steps to Hiring Grade AA Talent.”

The concise guide includes a CD with sample ads, job descriptions, interview questions and more. The book is offered in versions tailored for small and large shops.