2019 Top 100 Printers

Each year, Printing News invites commercial print owners to participate in the Top 100 Small Commercial Printers survey. The survey takes a look at the state of the industry as presented by commercial print owners across North America.

June 10, 2019

Each year, Printing News invites commercial print owners to participate in the Top 100 Small Commercial Printers survey. The survey takes a look at the state of the industry as presented by commercial print owners across North America. This year, in keeping with the spirit of “Small Commercial Printers,” we included the Top 100 North American commercial printers with revenues of $25,000,000 or less.

Total reported revenues by the top 100 respondents were $502,588,165, with individual company revenues in the Top 100 ranging from $1.9 million to $24.3 million, with median company revenues of $4 million. Be sure to check out the in-depth profiles of our Top Six at the end of this article.

In our survey responses, we saw a 60/40 split between privately held companies and franchise operations, with two in-plant print operations responding. Three of our respondents have been in business since the early 1900s: Seiders Printing Company (now doing business as part of a group under theprinters.com), founded in 1902; Foote Printing, founded in 1907; and Consolidated Printing & Stationery Company, founded in 1914. The median founding date for all companies was 1987.

Most respondents had one or two locations; two of our Top Six had five (AlphaGraphics Seattle) and six (Allegra Asheville) locations, respectively. AlphaGraphics Idaho Falls also reported having six locations. The most locations reported by any respondent was 13 (Copy Central (Fairbanks Enterprise)). The median number of full-time employees for all respondents was 22. Promotional products, branded apparel and web design services were the most common non-print marketing services offered by respondents. A quarter of respondents indicated they offer no non-print marketing services, which was higher than we expected.

The following summarizes the percent of revenue for print-related services in 2018 from our Top 100.

Among those who reported offering prepress services, it represented a median 6% of revenues. One company reported that 40% of revenues came from prepress. The company, a franchise operation, also reported 24% of revenues coming from garment decoration, textile printing and dye sublimation on products or substrates other than textiles, an unusual product mix for this survey sample. Eighty-nine percent of respondents reported offering this service at some level.

One-Color Offset: 61% of respondents offer this service, with the median percent of revenue for those reporting at 3.5%. Ten companies count this as 10% or more of revenues, with one reporting 50% of revenue coming from one-color offset.

Multi-color offset is slightly more popular, with 61% of respondents offering this service. Only 13 firms attribute more than 10% of revenues to this service. For those that offer this service, the median contribution to overall revenues is 5%.

Four-color offset accounts for a median of 14.5% of revenues for those reporting that they offer this service, which is 66% of respondents. Forty-seven percent of respondents report process color offset as accounting for 10% or more of revenues.

Black and white digital represented a median of 8% of revenues for the 88% of respondents that offer this service. Twenty-five perecent of respondents generate 10% of revenue or more from this service.

Color digital printing and copying presents a more robust picture, as expected, with this service accounting for a median of 24% of revenues for the 86% who offer it. Eighty-two percent of respondents report this accounts for 10% or more of revenues. There were only two firms in the Top 100 who did not report offering this service.

As one would expect, production inkjet was not offered by many respondents – in fact, only 12 firms claimed to offer this service. It is unclear how the term “production inkjet” was interpreted by respondents, since technically, production inkjet devices are very high-volume printers. We’ll be sure to do a better job of clarifying definitions in our next survey.

Wide format printing, 36” wide or larger, accounted for a median of only 8% of revenues with 77% of respondents offering this service. However, 32 companies reported this service accounted for 10% or more of revenues, including two that reported 64% and 55%, respectively. 

We also asked about signage, and the responses there are a little less clear. We are assuming that respondents differentiated between display graphics, which would have been produced on wide format printers, and other types of signage. That being said, 54% of respondents reported offering this service, which represented a mean of 6% of revenues for those reporting. Only 17 companies reported signs as representing more than 10% of revenues.

We found it somewhat surprising that bindery and finishing services only represented a mean percentage of revenues of 9%, although 90% of respondents reported offering these services at some level, with 48% reporting it represented 10% or more of revenues.

With 79% of respondents reporting that they offer mailing services, these services only represented a mean of 5% of revenues (excluding postage). Seventeen firms reported that mailing services account for more than 10% of revenues, with one reporting it represented 55% of revenues.

Only a small percentage of our respondent (22%) reported offering interactive/web-based services. And only one firm reported that these services represented more than 10% of revenues, the number-one company in our Top 100 at 32%, and we think that sends a significant message. Next year, we will ask specifically about revenues attributable to e-commerce to determine how many of the Top 100 small commercial printers are using web-to-print in a significant way.

Garment decoration and other textile products are being offered by 24% of respondents, with only five companies reporting this service accounting for more than 10% of revenues. Dye sublimation on products or substrates other than textiles had even fewer participants, only six companies. However, it should be noted, as you will see next, that companies are outsourcing a significant amount of work, and that likely includes these products for many of them.

Brokered and other services represented a mean of 16% of revenues for 85 of the reporting companies. Sixty-six percent of respondents reported that these services represented 10% or more of revenues, with 20 firms reporting they represented 25% or more of revenues.

With continuing pressure on the commercial printing industry, small commercial printers should look for ways to develop incremental revenue streams. There are still almost 70% of respondents offering offset printing, while almost 90% of respondents offer digital printing, and printing will likely remain the core of the business for some time. But many of our most successful respondents have undertaken diversification in their businesses.

Key areas of opportunity for expansion will depend on where each printer is located and the needs of its customers. One immediate area of opportunity that we see is wide format printing. Some companies are all-in on this application, but for most, it only represents a very small percentage of revenues. Customers are buying wide format printing from someone – it might as well be you, right?

Another area of opportunity is dye sublimation printing on products or substrates other than textiles. This can include things like mugs, laptop covers, coasters – just about anything you can think of. While we believe that many of our respondents are outsourcing this to some degree, the investment to bring it in-house is quite reasonable, and these products can offer good margins. 

Finally, there is the whole area of garment decoration and textile printing above and beyond soft signage. These are markets that can be entered with reasonable investments, and/or produced with equipment that might already be in place, especially when using heat transfer dye sublimation paper. As with the dye sublimation applications noted above, it may only require acquisition of a heat press to supplement the printer. 

We were surprised that only 22% of respondents reported offering web-based/interactive services. This is another area of opportunity, especially with customer portals and web-to-print services. There are many software solutions in the market today that make this an affordable investment. However, to truly be successful, the back-end production, fulfillment and shipping operation must be efficient and automated. 

Another area of opportunity for additional in-house services is finishing and bindery. While it can be easier to send that work out, as the industry has done for a long time, the level of automation now available in binding and finishing equipment often means that skilled labor, which can be increasingly hard to find and retain in this area of the business, is not necessarily required. 

While the company is not included in the Top 6, we also wanted to give special recognition to CEO Jeff Ostenso and his team from Ironmark of Annapolis, Md. The company saw 22% year-over-year growth and generated 2018 revenues of $28,665,000 – slightly over our topline qualifier for “small commercial printer.” 

We wanted to give special recognition to the Top 6 Small Commercial Printers from this year’s survey for their outstanding achievements. Each have different approaches to the business, but what they share in common is an entrepreneurial spirit, a dedication to understanding and meeting customer needs, a commitment to providing a supportive environment for employees and an unmatched enthusiasm for their businesses and the industry.

Logo Firespring#1 Firespring Print, Inc.

Congratulations to Firespring CEO Jay Wilkinson, COO Kevin Thomas and their team for coming in number-one in our 2019 Top 100 with 2018 sales of $24,348,340. The company has two locations – Omaha and Lincoln, Neb. – and 200 employees. Firespring has a full-service ad agency within the company that offers branding, interactive web design, digital marketing (marketing automation), copywriting, media, strategic services and SEO/SEM. In fact, Firespring reports that 32% of its revenues come from Interactive/Web-Based Services. Having this in-house agency helps Firespring offer strategic services to customers. 

“Selling a strategic plan, and then layering in and executing the tactics, is the fastest growing portion of our company at the moment,” Wilkinson said. 

While Wilkinson admits that the first 10 years were mostly about staying in business, the company then started to transition into a more purpose-driven business. The company began organizing itself around a sense of purpose for its employees, vendors, clients and community rather than focusing only on shareholder value. 

“Our mission became to leverage people, products and profits to do more good,” he said. 

Firespring SelfieIn 2014, Firespring was the first Certified B Corporation in the State of Nebraska (A B Corp meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose). 

“We constantly think about how we can affect the families of our employees and the community,” Wilkinson said. “Then we love sharing our experiences with other companies. I believe that in 10 years, companies that don’t do that will be out of business; 20- and 30-year-olds won’t want to be part of a company that doesn’t focus as much on their ‘why’ as they do on their ‘what,’ and customers won’t want to buy their products and services.”

Wilkinson brought the entire company together for an open Q&A, asking what the company had to do to have employees go out into the community and proudly say, “I work for Firespring.” 

“You have to let yourself be incredibly vulnerable,” he said. “You have to be open about what you can and cannot do. Like, we can’t do a 20% raise for everyone, but here are the things we can do. That openness and rapport and level of trust between the employees and the leadership team put us on the path, and we have been on that path ever since. We are not there yet; we still think we have a long way to go.”

What Firespring has achieved in a short time, however, is remarkable; not only its financial success with big growth seven out of the last nine years both organically and through acquisition (acquiring 21 companies over the last 12 years), but in making real progress toward its mission. The company delivers on its promise by giving back with 1% of profits, 2% of products and 3% of people (employee time engaged in community projects).

#2: Strategic Factory

SF Logo Stacked Opt1CMYKStrategic Factory is based in Owings Mills, Md.. The company has two locations, 132 employees and delivered total 2018 sales of $20,404,288, an 11% year-over-year increase. Keith Miller, President, founded the company in 1999. Strategic Factory has positioned itself as a single point provider with a broad range of services. Twenty-eight percent of revenues were generated from offset printing, with 30 percent coming from digital printing, including wide format.

“Our philosophy is to just say ‘yes’ to the customer and figure it out,” Miller said. “We very much listen to what they are looking for and try to find ways to make their lives easier. We do the vast majority of the work in-house, only outsourcing the items that don’t make sense, or when we don’t have capacity.”

In addition to digital and offset printing, the company also has an in-house creative agency and sign shop that produces a wide variety of signage (8% of revenues), including production and installation of channel lettering, monument signs and directional and informational signage.

An important element of being able to effectively manage such a wide variety of offerings is having in place effective workflows and an MIS/ERP system that can offer real-time insight into the business. 

“We had a relatively basic pricing tool before, but now with EPMS we can be much more proactive,” Miller said. “It gives us insight into the business we never had before; and it is helping us work smarter, not harder.”

Miller invested in digital printing technology from the get-go.

“I got in at an opportune time when the entire industry was going digital and everyone was looking for a way to do it faster and better. All my digital equipment was leased, which allowed me to change it out quickly and stay current, helping us to evolve.”

This strategy – staying current with technology, adding services he knows his customers want in order to be a true single point provider for them and doing everything he can to deliver on their current and emerging needs, and ensuring the right workflow/MIS infrastructure – has paid off for Strategic Factory, delivering double-digit year-over-year growth and placing him at number two in our Top 100. 

#3: Kelvyn Press

The company was founded in 1968 by Richard Malacina, Sr., the company’s president – one man, a Multilith press and a vision working out of Chicago’s historic Printers Row neighborhood. The focus has always been on delivering reliability and fast turn times to customers.Kelvyn Logotype FINAL

In 1983, the company created a subsidiary, Financial Graphic Services (FGS) to enable more focus on its financial clients, opening additional centers in Aurora, Ill. and Boston. Malacina reports that two years ago, FGS represented 80% of the business, while today it is at about 50% largely due to the SEC ruling that much of what the company has been printing will go paperless. 

“We’re not fortune tellers about the future of the financial business,” he said, “but we do still produce a significant amount of printing for the financial community, including black and white books for the big banking firms, four- and five-color prospectus documents, pitch books, etc. The SEC rulings, however, are pushing us into new markets.”

While Kelvyn Press produces a great deal of traditional printing, the company also produces specialty work, including digital spot 3D UV embellishment, digital foiling, digital die cutting, large format printing and signage. Seventy-five percent of revenue, however, still comes from offset printing, with 15% generated by bindery and finishing, including embellishment techniques, primarily produced using MGI technology. In addition to pursuing growth in finishing, mailing and fulfillment services, Malacina notes the company is considering textile-related printing as an expansion area for the future. He also sees digital printing playing an increasing role, as run lengths and turn times decrease.

In 2018, Kelvyn Press reported $20 million in revenues and had 100 employees.

#4: AlphaGraphics Seattle

Alpha Graphics LogoChuck Stempler’s AlphaGraphics Seattle has been the largest operation in the AlphaGraphics network for quite some time. In 2018, Stempler delivered $18,060,788 in sales, up one percent from last year. AlphaGraphics Seattle operates out of a centralized production center in Seattle and three sales offices in the suburbs. AlphaGraphics Seattle was founded in 1989 and subsequently purchased by Stempler in May of 2001. The company has 94 employees.

To continue to grow and maintain a leadership position in the AlphaGraphics network, Stempler has invested in new technologies and services on an ongoing basis. 

“The challenge is to not buy too far ahead of your clients or your market, but you can’t grow without being in front of it,” he said. 

As an example, Stempler has invested in signs and display graphics with three 5-foot presses and five 10-foot presses, multiple CAD systems and sewing equipment. He also has a robust fleet of digital presses from HP and Xerox, as well as a 5-color half-size press from Komori. He has implemented e-commerce solutions on multiple platforms and can meet strict customer requirements for data security and service level agreements. 

“About 37% of our sales flow through e-commerce,” he said. “In order to make that happen, you need to make a very significant investment in development of hands-free workflow and have substantial print and finishing capacity with more automated and less manual functions.” 

Stempler reports that from a printing perspective, 40% of revenue comes from signage, 35% from digital color and 25% from offset. Stempler introduced signage to the business in 2008, so bringing that to 40% of revenue in a decade is quite an achievement. One of his sign presses, an EFI VUTEk FabriVU, has enabled him to move into dye sublimation as well.

Stempler looks for opportunities to disrupt with his technology investments. 

“When we first moved into signage,” he said, “our clients in cut sheet were doing screen print. We saw an opportunity to disrupt that by adding full color at the same cost as spot color, just as we did in the early days of digital color printing, taking share from parts of the offset market.”

With this approach, Stempler has seen a growing number of clients using a wider variety of services. 

“When we land a large sign client, it almost always leads to additional cut sheet opportunities as well.”

Stempler has also invested heavily in data processes and security, including SEO/SEM expertise he uses both on behalf of customers and in his own marketing efforts.

#5: Allen Printing

Allen Printing, located in Nashville, Tenn., has been in business since 1931, originally founded by Mr. Allen to print materials for local churches and printers. Shannon Heffington currently owns the business with her husband, Paul. Her great grandfather worked for Mr. Allen in the 1950s, and he ultimately bought the business. In the 1970s, Shannon’s father became the owner, and then the Heffington’s acquired this woman-owned business in 2007.Allen Logo2018

Fast forward to 2018, and Allen Printing generated $15 million in annual revenues with 115 employees, with $25 million or less in annual revenues. The company grew 25% year over year from 2017 to 2018. Today, the company primarily serves the trade (with a few end customers) with 24- to 48-hour turnaround of general commercial printing work. 

“One of the big things that has helped us grow,” Paul said, “is that we don’t say ‘no’ unless the work physically cannot be done in the requested timeframe.

“Everyone in our company has bought into our ‘hard work, be nice’ mantra, whether we are dealing with each other, our customers or our vendors. If there is an issue, we fix it. We don’t argue. We just get it fixed. We hope our customers will take on their own responsibility, and 98% of them do. This approach opens the door wider, and they step through and do what should be done. Sometimes we eat jobs that we shouldn’t, but then we get other work that we might not have gotten had we not gone ahead and taken care of the customer.”

In terms of future growth, Paul notes that the company plans to keep growing the piece of the pie they are already getting for work they do.

 “Unfortunately,” he said, “the reason we are able to grow is that owners of competitive businesses are aging out. They are tired and they don’t want to be in the business anymore. It’s just not that easy to make money these days, not like the good old days they were used to. Shannon and I are both 47. We’ve got three kids in college, and we have the energy and need to do what it takes to grow the business.”

#6: Allegra Asheville

Allegra4C MpmDave Campbell has been in business for 21 years. In October of 2015, he converted his independent business to an Allegra Marketing Print Mail franchise within the Alliance Franchise Brands network. 

“I wanted to grow the business,” he said, “diversify and consistently be able to handle client needs from within. Joining the franchise network, with all of the centralized services they offer, has enabled me to do that.”

Campbell’s growth plan, established in 2013, was to grow both organically and through acquisitions. 

“I received a piece of mail from Allegra Network in 2014,” he said, “offering assistance to business owners who were looking for an exit strategy. In speaking with them, I learned there were two different brands under the franchise’s umbrella in my area whose owners were looking to retire. I was invited for a Discovery Day, which I really enjoyed. I was impressed with what was presented, checking off in my mind all the things I was trying to do, and they had it already figured out. I’ve been ecstatic since joining. All of the support they promised has lived true to form.”

For Campbell, his 2014 revenues were less than half of where they are today, at $12,942,615 with a total of 47 employees, a stunning 23% increase over 2017. He is now operating six centers, including a new location in Tennessee that is opening as a dual branded Allegra/Image360 print and signage center, with a plan to add two more in 2019. He is in the process of migrating his other five centers to dual branding as well. He operates mainly as a hub-and-spoke operation with the primary production site in Asheville, and runs a series of couriers for coverage throughout the North Carolina footprint.

“Over time we’ve expanded into variable printing, and now we have added promotional products, window graphics, signage, fleet graphics and more.” 

Mailing today still represents 29% of the business, with printing, including wide format and signage, representing 62% of revenues. 

Advantages for Campbell of being part of the Alliance Franchise Brands family include better pricing from vendors, leveraging components of the network’s Workstream™ e-commerce business management and workflow system, and access to the headquarters Marketing Resource Center, which includes graphic designers, copywriters and digital marketing specialists.

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