Changing the Face of Printing September 2001

 September 24, 2001

Trade Printer/Broker: Changing the Face of Printing?

By Gary McDonald a former printer, sales person, sales manager, co-owner, president and general manager of Arthurs-Jones Lithographing Ltd. (retired June, 1998).

When did it begin? Was it the Mac attack of the middle 80’s? What is different about the printing business? Is it because the tradesmen work without the ever present, proud and immutable ink under their fingernails? It’s a fact that the unseen work produced by the printer is primarily conducted in a clean environment. Gone is the Linotype and the Low Slugger found in the type house; the traditional, as well as its replacement type house is typographical history. Film and plates are made using the continuing science of invention and completed by a near hands-off process. The use of a wrench is without purpose on the heavily laden electronic printing presses of today. As a matter of fact, a printer with a wrench in hand is a major problem for the production hungry employer—the manufacturers of these $5,000,000.00 printing machines say so, not me. The suggestion that the craft has become a science therefore requires considerable scrutiny. The argument made by the equipment manufacturers is a valid one: press the right buttons at the right time and you’ve got images; you’ve got film and plates—if you really need them —and you’re printing in minutes using a film less and often times plate less process.

The process is vastly different than it was fifteen or twenty years ago; however, the most important factor changing the face of the printing industry is not the printing process, that honour goes to the men and women who direct the business affairs: the owners of the equipment. In my view, it is the role and responsibility of the investors of capital, the ones who purchase the machines, and to whom they report, that have changed the face of printing.

On a business trip in the early 1980’s, my partner and I wanted to visit some of the great printing companies in New York City; we also wanted to see the operation of a particular piece of press equipment we had an interest in. The great printing companies—to our dismay—didn’t exist in New York. By great, I simply refer to a company housed in a large, attractive and functional building with lots of employees, all sorts of different presses doing elaborate work for big name clients that are the envy, or, if you will, that set the standard to which lesser known printing companies aspire. As a part of our day trip, we visited an office tower housing primarily print brokers. The tower was down the street from a printing company that boasted of one employee and one machine. The employee was the owner of the company and his machine was a half web; the people required to run the press were not in the building that morning. While this scenario appeared bizarre to us, the owner confidently said, “by eight o’clock tonight this baby will be running; I’ll find a couple of guys who’ll want the extra money, I always do.” The paper, plates and ink would be shipped to his plant during the day under the direction of a broker who worked in the ‘Tower’. And the following morning, the printed stock would be shipped to the bindery of choice. That was the plan; we weren’t around long enough to see the results. That was my first experience with a New York printer/broker combination. I concluded that no one with a large investment in the Printing Industry had any contact with the original client—in this case anyway, it was rent-a-press by the hour or the night.

Who took the ultimate responsibility for the completed result? The printer had the machine—was he responsible for the final product? I presumed he really wasn’t. The broker fed the materials to the printer and then to the bindery—was he responsible for the final product? I supposed he was; but would he be financially responsible if something had gone wrong? I thought not; after all, his investment was his time and ability to convince the client that he could deliver as promised. If these suppliers didn’t, he’d call someone else to get the job done to his satisfaction and find fault with his original suppliers’ effort to avoid payment.

The trade printer was born in The Big Apple a long time ago. The big companies with the employees and the reputation had fled for safer ground. I understand from more recent dealings that they have prospered as a result.

I see that the trade printer/broker concept permeates the pages of Print Action. Are they today’s dominant player in The Big Apple North? They appear to be the prevalent advertisers in Print Action; are they paying for the ads in a timely way? Are the best and brightest of the printing sales force self- employed as brokers, or, does the printer employ them? Are the profits [that are necessary to replace equipment] staying with the owner/printer who invests, or, with the owner/broker who has little interest in equipment, but invests their time looking for the best available price, quality and delivery from its stable of suppliers? If it is the latter, and the owner/printer can’t afford the ever changing technology, or, chooses not to participate in the high stakes game that is, or was his to foster and feed, then the face of printing will continue to change into a something like the New York entrepreneur who mans the phones by day looking for someone who needs the extra money.

Doing business directly with the company who has the original requirement for printed goods and services is good business for those who seek and find it. The people who understand the importance of this concept and implement appropriate action by and for its people, will change the face of printing in the big-apple-north. Is it the broker/trade printer combination or is it the commercial printer who will set the standard for the Industry? Who is running the printing industry today, and who is benefiting the most? Who would you rather be?

Watch out Heidleberg.


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