As print shops face a dark future, a local business tries a new spin |

As print shops face a dark future, a local business tries a new spin

You would think a banker would know better than to invest in an industry that has gone through a major contraction since 2000 and is predicted to shrink even more in the future.

But that’s what Tom Conley did four and half years ago, when he turned his back on a banking career and purchased LectraMedia in Nevada City, a printing company that traces its roots to the Grass Valley Group.

“The printing business is about as ugly as it can be,” Conley said. “The industry is like the blacksmith in 1907. Is there any future?”

After investing in new technology and changing LectraMedia from a conventional printing business to one that specializes in short-run digital color and variable data printing, Conley is confident the company has a bright future.

In fact, he expects to increase the company’s sales by 25 percent over the next two years without increasing his 30-person staff, and to be looking for additional space by then.

Conley said the big investment and change in focus “was not a casual decision. Like other businesses, we’ve rolled the dice.”

Certainly, the printing business is a dicey proposition these days. As printing moves to digital technology from standard offset printing, commercial printers have been hit hard.

Conley cited a study that estimates that the revenue of commercial printers declined $15 billion and profits dropped $10 billion in the 2000-03 period. The bleeding is expected to continue over the next 10 years, with 13,500 printers closing, 450,000 jobs disappearing, and revenue shrinking another $17 billion.

But Conley believes LectraMedia is well positioned to take advantage of a changing industry. “We decided we had to focus on variable data … to compete in the (marketing communications) area, where we see the future of the business,” he said. “Personalization is our future.”

Personalization uses computer-generated databases to address each piece of direct mail – what most of us call “junk mail” – to the recipient.

The sales pitches can be customized to appeal to a person’s interests or characteristics.

The technology can also be used to print out the property tax bills issued by the Nevada County Treasurer and sample ballots mailed to registered voters in Placer County. Both jobs are done by LectraMedia.

Conley was the senior credit officer at Citizens Bank of Nevada County when he purchased an inquiry fulfillment business. “I thought it was an interesting business, and they had some proprietary software I thought had promise,” he said.

That’s when Shirlee Hull and Ron Martling approached him about buying LectraMedia. The business was originally Grass Valley Group’s in-house printing operation, and Hull and Martling convinced Grass Valley Group’s owner in the early ’90s, Tektronix Inc., to turn it into a commercial firm.

Conley doesn’t believe printing is a particularly big leap for a banker. “The business principles are the same,” he said. “You try to spend less than you make.”

More than 60 percent of LectraMedia’s work was producing technical manuals when Conley purchased it. He wants to change the mix so that 60 percent of the business comes from short-run digital color and variable data print jobs.

To move the transformation along, LectraMedia has purchased three digital printing systems that look more like photocopy machines on steroids than traditional printing presses.

The company expects to get its revenue in the future from three sources:

• Personalized printing for direct mail and other customers;

• On-demand printing for technical manuals and catalogues;

• Ancillary services that include literature fulfillment and sales lead generation and management (already 23 percent of the company’s revenue).

With customers scattered up and down the West Coast, being in Nevada City presents some challenges. “We have to get in front our customers, and a lot people don’t know where we are,” said Conley, a 15-year resident of the county.

But the scenic remoteness of Nevada County has its benefits, he said.

“The labor pool is not as big, and we have to pay higher wages. But we’re willing to pay the pine cone tax.”

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