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Making History

Nov 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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If you venture south of Chicago's Loop to a neighborhood encompassed by Congress Pkwy. on the north, Polk St. on the south, Plymouth Ct. on the east, and the Chicago River on the west, you'll see a lot of printing history. Of course, you'll have to look pretty closely, because this history is now hidden behind lofts, condos, restaurants and even student housing.

But you can still see the ornate quarters once occupied by RR Donnelley, Donohue, and Franklin Printing Co. Most of these buildings were constructed in the mid-1880s. John Paulett, co-author of “Printers Row Chicago,” says, “The concentration of printing companies between Polk and Van Buren was the result of geography and transportation. An underground rail system allowed paper to be moved below street level at the Dearborn Street Station and transported through tunnels directly to the binderies and print shops. In addition to access to raw materials, Printers Row was just blocks away from the explosion of skyscrapers in the Chicago business district.”

By the 1960s, trucks had displaced trains as delivery vehicles and, as prepress departments required more space and presses got longer and heavier, many printers vacated their old multistory city digs for modern single-floor plants in the suburbs. Dearborn Street Station was shuttered in 1971, and, while there still was a handful of printers around, many buildings were empty and the neighborhood had a distinctly gritty feel. But some enterprising real estate developers and architects could look beyond the vagrants and shabby streets and envision a new kind of city living. The large windows and sprawling production floors would make wonderful lofts for photographers, artists and, eventually, families.

The Palmer Printing family is still there. Founded in 1937, the printer has moved several times in its 70-year history. “Mr. Palmer started on Plymouth Ct. and then moved to Dearborn St. and then Federal St.,” explains Ed Rossini, president. “Back then, the shop was the size of a couple of offices. It was a one-man show.”

After its old neighborhood went residential 28 years ago, Palmer Printing moved to its current home on 739 S. Clark St. Today, the company occupies a 60,000-sq.-ft., four-story building and has a total of 48 employees.

“We are growing a business with diverse products and services to provide our customers with a soup-to-nuts approach to their projects,” Rossini says. “We're moving beyond print to do everything from marketing to building Web sites that let customers manage e-mail and print campaigns. We're also helping them determine the best way to use signage, marketing material and point-of-purchase displays.”

The company's consultative sales approach is built around analyzing customer needs. “We don't ask, ‘Do you have any print we can quote on?’” says Rossini. “We say, ‘I know you're doing this brochure or postcard or flyer. Can you tell me more about it? Will it be combined with something else?’ When we understand the big picture, we can help our customers sell something.”

The Palmer Network includes three companies; Palmer Printing, ACT+ and One2Won Solutions. The core business, Palmer Printing, is an offset operation anchored by two six-color, 40-inch presses with coaters (a Mitsubishi and a new Komori Lithrone S40) as well as a comprehensive postpress department and fulfillment, mailing, shippingand distribution services. The company's digital division, ACT+, includes two Xerox iGen3 presses, a DocuColor and four Docutechs. On the Internet front, One2Won helps clients build personalized, standalone Web sites that can be integrated with their corporate Intranets to facilitate CRM, marketing and sales, regulatory compliance, PURLs and event management. Palmer Printing also partners with a display company that provides POP and other wide-format work.

“It was a natural evolution,” says Rossini. “When we started, we were selling people printing. As all types of additional communication [emerged], we tried to print a little smarter. We latched on to the coattails of customers who needed these other products and added more services. When I started here in 1989, we didn't have any type of fulfillment or assembly operation; we only had a small bindery shop. Now, we've grown into a full-blown hand work and fulfillment mailing operation, with saddlestitching and converting, too.”

ACT+ is a certified minority business enterprise (MBE) owned and operated by Rossini's sister. It was created about 16 years ago to sell document assembly, collating and tabbing services to Palmer Printing's customers and to the trade; digital printing capabilities were added later. “We wanted ACT+ to be able to market and promote to the trade in addition to end users,” says Rossini. “We felt we'd have a stronger marketing message if we created a separate division, and that's been a good decision.”

A different business model was the rationale for creating One2Won as a separate entity. “It's a marketing consultancy,” says Rossini. “It's not a company tied to Palmer; its services and products can be used with any printing company.”

How has Palmer Printing endured and evolved while printers of all sizes have struggled? Rossini cites outstanding customer service as well as a common sense approach to new technology. “We've probably made our fair share of equipment mistakes,” he says. “But we've never had a large lapse of judgment. We've planned things out. We looked at different imagesetters and let it all settle out before going digital. We started with a two-up imagesetter and moved to an eight-up and then to a platesetter rather quickly. Because we were using the same software and RIP, it was the same dot. When we switched to the platesetter, the press operators didn't miss a beat.”

Luck also is a factor. “We've seen great printers go out of business when they didn't do anything wrong,” Rossini says. “An agency might suddenly drop the printer's customer. We try to outplan bad luck.”

While Palmer Printing won't rush to embrace unproven technology, Rossini says the company guards against waiting too long to update equipment. He recalls helping the company transition to desktop publishing in the early 1990s, shortly after graduating from college with a degree in business. “I purchased the first Mac for the company with my 20-percent student discount,” he says. “I had to drive back to campus to get a little Mac SE and a laser printer.”

Even with that modest configuration, Rossini realized early on that the company eventually could use the new machine to output one big piece of film, eliminating the tedious process of stripping up flats and registration problems, uphill type and other relics of the manual assembly era.

“I saw [desktop publishing] had a lot of promise. I had to choose between a Scitex machine or just a Mac with a different RIP. There were a lot of decisions, and if you made the wrong one, you would throw your company back five years. We considered the $150,000 Scitex but opted for the $10,000 Mac. Six months later, no one was using the Scitex machines.”

Key acquisitions have helped Palmer push into new areas. The printer got started with mailing services and digital printing after a customer eliminated an in-plant operation. After that first infusion of outside employees and equipment, Palmer diligently developed its own expertise. The commitment to developing in-house talent extends to all departments. “Our prepress manager formerly was a film assembler,” notes Rossini. “We sent him to school, and now he operates everything from plotters and printers to servers to our online proofing system. Our iGen operator originally worked in the bindery. He's a sharp guy. We take the time and money to train our employees.”

Employees help set Palmer apart. “It might sound like a cliché, but even with our technology, our people make the difference,” says Rossini. “If you talk to any of our customers, they'll tell you our CSRs, management and production staff all exude a confidence that comes from a family environment. Our customers know we are here to accommodate their needs — especially fast turn times — without sacrificing quality. Everyone works together to make that happen.”

What's next? “Our company needs to continue to grow,” says Rossini. “We've moved beyond the mom-and-pop stage. We've got to be a midsize firm to finance and keep our operation on track.”

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

Meet the photographer

Our cover photo and the photo on this page appear courtesy of Ron Gordon, a professional photographer and professor of architectural photography. Born on the South Side of Chicago, Gordon has been photographing the city for more than 35 years, capturing the growth and decay of urban life.

With John Paulett, Gordon co-authored “Printers Row Chicago” and “Forgotten Chicago,” available from In addition to Printers Row, Gordon has captured many neighborhoods and buildings that no longer exist, such as Comiskey Park and Maxwell St. “Often I have been the last person to document something as it was about to disappear,” says Gordon.

Gordon's work is included in a number of publications and permanent exhibitions, including the Art Institute of Chicago. His studio also has worked on the photographic portions of films such as “The Fugitive” and “A River Runs Through It.” Contact him via

City of big printers

In the late 19th century, Chicago became a center for commercial printing in the United States second only to New York. From the 1850s onward, railroad printing became important because so many lines established headquarters or regional offices in the city. One early specialized railroad printer was Rand McNally & Co., founded in 1868.

After the fire

The Great Fire of 1871 allowed printers to concentrate their works in the new central commercial district and on the Near South Side. Coinciding as this new construction did with technological advances in power presses, it also led to the creation of large-scale printing plants with skilled workforces and to the development of a characteristic tall and narrow loft-style building to house rows of presses in rooms with good natural light. Rand McNally, M. A. Donohue & Co. (1861), R. R. Donnelley & Sons (1864) and the W. F. Hall Printing Co. (1892) were among the large firms that grew up to exploit such economies of scale for long print runs of textbooks, magazines, and catalogs.

Two Chicago press manufacturers became leaders in their respective fields. The Miehle Co. (1890) made high-speed sheetfed presses, and the Goss Co. (1885) developed web presses for newspaper work. The final pieces in Chicago's complex printing industry were added just before World War I with the invention of new proofing presses by Robert Vandercook and the founding of the Ludlow Typograph Co. Theodore Regensteiner of the Regensteiner Printing Co. pioneered the color offset press.

The industry expanded well beyond Printers Row even before World War I. Printing supply and press manufacturing companies did not need to be as close to each other or to the shipping hubs as the printing plants first did. Miehle and Goss put early plants west of the river; Ludlow's was in the Clybourn Ave. industrial corridor. Printers also located elsewhere as the need for larger plants developed. The Henneberry Printing Co. opened a large plant at 22nd and Clinton near the river in the mid-1890s, and it was vastly enlarged in the 1920s after the company was taken over by John Cuneo, becoming the city's second largest printer as Cuneo Press. But the symbolic leader of the industry was the Donnelley Co., which built a vast printing plant designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw on 22nd St. near Lake Michigan between 1912 and 1929. Donnelley also opened one of the first regional printing plants of a Chicago firm at Crawfordsville, IN, in 1921.

Spread out

The pace of regionalization quickened after World War II, when the need to arrange large new offset presses on single floors led the industry giants to build plants in the suburbs and even farther afield. Further erosion of the urban concentration occurred in the late 20th century, with the most rapid changes from the late 1970s onward.


The last printer on Printers Row?

Earlier this year, Rider Dickerson, a Chicago printer that traces its roots to 1903, left its long-time home on Printers Row for a new 80,000-sq.-ft. plant in nearby Bellwood, IL. Local pundits are jokingly calling the old neighborhood “Printer Row,” because Palmer Printing is the only printer left.

Ed Rossini's father, Ciro, owns the building and land the company occupies, and he gets regular inquiries from real estate developers. Palmer Printing has no immediate plans to move. After replacing three legacy presses with a Komori Lithrone S40, space isn't an issue. The pressroom has tripled its capacity while freeing up a lot of floor space.

Soaring property taxes might eventually push Palmer to a suburban location, but Ed Rossini would like to maintain a presence on Printers Row: “It's a customer-driven decision. Ideally, we'd keep our on-demand operation here. With today's technology, we don't need to be in as close proximity to our customers as we once did. But at the same time, with digital equipment, short runs and ever shorter turnaround times, it does help to be close to customers.”

Meet the press

The newest addition to the Palmer Printing pressroom is a Komori (Rolling Meadows, IL) six-color Lithrone S40 with coater.

Highlights include computerized makeready capabilities that significantly shorten makereadies; a closed-loop color control system for more flexible, faster color control; and consistent print quality.

Owner Ed Rossini, vice president of sales and marketing Jack Shafer, and vice president of operations Steve Wicklander tested numerous presses during their evaluation process.

“We used a weighting system to evaluate each press, measuring overall pricing, print quality, service levels and training,” says Rossini. “Komori came out on top in every area. Along with being very happy with what the press can do to satisfy our growing business requirements, we are enjoying a positive working relationship with Komori.”

The Komori Lithrone S40 was designed to provide a new level of automation for operating ease. The fully automatic plate changing system (Full-APC) changes all six plates in just three minutes at the touch of a button. Ink, blanket and impression cylinder cleaning also are fully automated. The addition of the anilox coating unit adds value to the quality of print Palmer can produce, making it possible for the company to offer applications with metallic coating and other special inks and substrates.

Father knows best

Ed Rossini credits his father, Ciro, with shaping his work ethic as well as his consultative sales approach. Ciro was one of five children born to Italian immigrants. After being orphaned at age 10, an aunt and uncle took in Ciro and two older siblings; the two younger children were sent to an orphanage.

Ciro graduated from high school but dropped out of college after one year. “He didn't like it,” says Ed Rossini. “He came to work for E.F. Palmer Co. as a laborer until he was drafted.”

The elder Rossini spent two years in the Army in a division with a printing unit, where he was trained as a press operator. After his tour of duty, Rossini put his press skills to work for Mr. Palmer. “Back then, it was a small company,” says Rossini. “My father would run the press in the morning and deliver jobs in the afternoon.”

Palmer Printing produced menus for many customers — Rossini would deliver the menus for that night's dinner and pick up the menu for the following day. His boss noted an unusual — but beneficial — trend. Ciro always returned from his rounds with more orders:

Jobs went out and more kept coming in.

According to Ed, “Ciro said, ‘Well, I was there delivering the menus anyway, so I asked about business cards and order pads.’”

Ciro subsequently moved out of production and became a full-time salesperson. “He was an early solution seller,” says Ed Rossini. “He'd listen to what the customer needed and say, ‘Have you thought of this?’ Eventually, as I made calls with him, I'd add my own two cents, maybe suggesting a customer [with a time crunch] consider printing on plastic to eliminate the time required for lamination.”

Ciro Rossini had been with Palmer Printing for about 10 years when E.F. Palmer decided to take time off and travel. During the owner's three-month absence, Rossini essentially ran the business. Eventually, in the mid 1970s, E.F. Palmer offered to sell him the company. “It was a great opportunity for someone with my father's background,” says Ed Rossini. “It's a nice American Dream story.”

All in favor say ‘Aye’

PIA/GATF president/CEO Michael Makin was the guest speaker at the Printing Industries of Illinois/Indiana (PII) 80th annual meeting. Makin launched his brief but broad-ranging “Perspective on the Graphic Arts” by summarizing the state of the industry. Conditions have dramatically improved since 2001, but cost pressures and fierce competition continue to pose challenges. It remains to be seen if the country can sustain a seventh consecutive year of economic expansion. While offset growth is expected to be relatively flat, digital sales are trending upward. The complete presentation is available at

PII members elected officers for the coming year and board directors for varying terms. The roster is a who's who of the local printing community:


Chairman of the board: Ross Johnson, Johnson Printers Illinois, LLC

Executive vice chairman: Ed Rossini, Palmer Printing

Senior vice chairman: Jeff Norby, Jet

First vice chairman: Joe Novak, BFC

Board of directors

Bill Barta, Rider Dickerson

Glenn Barton, Unisource

James Hillman, Mossberg and Co.

Kathy Jahnke, Printing Arts

Steve Johnson, Copresco

Andrew Lanum, Kennedy-King College

Chris Owens, Gem Business Forms

Hoyett Owens, All Printing and Graphics

Sam Pentzer, Pentzer Printing

Matt Pusatera, Royal Envelope Corp.

Greg Schiefelbei, Komori America Corp.

Hal Slager, Trico Graphics

Mark Turk, International Label & Printing Co.

Mark Wallace, Pratt Corporation

Bill White, Quantum Color Graphics, LLC

Phil Wicklander, Consolidated Carqueville Printing Co.

Rodd Winscott, Newsweb Corp.

Non-voting board members

Bob Windler, Diecrafters, Inc. (BIA board president)

Bill Gibson, Rider Dickerson (PII Rep to PIA/GATF board)

Customized marketing campaigns

“You can use your Web site or our Web site. Or, we will build your site. Your computer is all you need to take advantage of online solutions.” That's the premise behind One2Won Solutions, according to Tom McInerney. The company creates customized marketing campaigns through direct mail, e-mail and the Internet. “We help customers manage their brands, leverage data and customize documents,” he says. Integrated solutions include PURLs, CRM, marketing/sales efforts, regulatory compliance and event management.

One2Won's solutions are powered by tailored solutions and Fuse, a proprietary on-demand, Web-based platform.