Characteristics of Leaders & Laggards

Learning to Distinguish Between The
Leaders & Laggards in the Printing Industry

By John Stewart, Executive Director
National Printing Research Council (NPRC)

I’ve been actively involved in this industry since the early 1980’s working with association such as NAQP, NAPL, NPOA and NPRC. I’ve published or co-published virtually every statistical study produced in our industry, ranging from wage and benefits and pricing studies to studies dealing with compensation practices for outside sales reps to what I consider the most valuable of them all – the biennial financial benchmarking studies.

My expertise as an observer of our industry’s history also stems from the fact that I have conducted more than 400 on-site consulting visits both in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland and even Brazil. Most of these consulting visits were conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Ironically and to a large extent, I can still recall the physical attributes of almost every shop I ever consulted with as well as the major recommendations I made following the visit. As the popular Farmers Insurance commercial suggests, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” I truly have seen it all, but the one more humorous visits I can recall was a consulting visit to a printing firm in Brazil where I encountered press operators using gasoline as a press wash while smoking cigarettes.

Characteristics of Winners vs. Losers

With the foregoing out of the way, and hopefully having established some credibility with you the reader, I would like to share with you what I consider to be some specific characteristics that distinguish highly efficient and profitable firms from firms found at the other end of the spectrum.

Success or failure in this industry can rarely be blamed on cut-throat competitors, brokers, the local economy or even on employees.

I will note that, more often then not, the primary cause of failure in this industry falls entirely on the shoulders of the owners. Success or failure in this industry can rarely be blamed on cut-throat competitors, brokers, the local economy or even on employees. The blame belongs precisely where it should – The owner.

Monitoring Productivity via SPE

As many of the studies that I have published, it is shocking to see a histogram depicting sales per employee in our industry, and observing the fact that sales per employee (SPE) can range dramatically from a low of $80,000 to more than $200,000 at the high end.

Tell me your annual sales and the total number of employees (including yourself, partners and spouses) and I can closely predict where you will fall in terms of real profitability. SPE in turn will also provide a good indication of the ultimate value of your firm if  it was put up for sale tomorrow.

According to the just-released 2019-2020 Financial Benchmarking Study, (visit the NPRC Bookstore for further information about this study)the average SPE of our 177 qualified participants was $139,595. The median SPE was almost identical. Firm’s falling into the bottom quartile reported SPEs in the $119,000 range while those in the top quartile reported an average SPE of approximately $144,000.

It never ceases to amaze me how poorly some printers perform these days!

Owners of troubled printing firms constantly make excuses for poor performance. The solution for boosting and improving SPE is two-fold – Terminating excess or unproductive employees and boosting the firm’s overall productivity and efficiency.

Unfortunately, all I hear most of the time from owners of troubled firms is excuses, excuses and excuses. Owners are simply afraid to make changes and constantly rationalize as to why certain suggestions can’t be implemented at their firms. Offer specific suggestions for major improvements in their SPE and owners balk and claim, “It simply can’t be done at my company.” 

The truly sad thing is most of these owners will never, never change, and will ultimately end up closing their doors because they will never find a qualified buyer for their firm willing to pay them anything close to what they think their business is worth. In the best case scenario, many, many printers will end up closing their doors, selling off their equipment, and selling the customer list for mere pennies on the dollar.

Poor Financial Reporting

Profit leaders in our industry are far more likely to receive monthly financial statements, including a P&L and a balance sheet. Even more important than the statements themselves is how they are formatted.

No profit & loss statement should come across your desk without a column of “expense ratios” appearing directly to the right. If total cost of goods (COG) is $440,000 I want to immediately know what percent of gross sales does that figure represent? Is it in the 31-32% range (that’s bad) or is it 29% or lower (that’s good).

Comparing the performance of leaders against laggards in our industry.

Far more critical is taking a look at total payroll expenses (excluding what is paid to a single working owner). The most financially troubled firms in this industry report payroll ratios of 34-38% and higher, while the best performers in our industry report keeping payroll ratios in the 25-29% range.

Check-out the percent of owner’s compensation being withdrawn in the industry.

If your bookkeeper or CPA is providing you with financial statements that lack comparative ratios adjoining your column of expenses you need to fire them immediately. There is no excuse for failing to provide “ratios” next to “expenses.” It shouldn’t be a question of “well you never asked.” That was and is their responsibility to provide you with the proper tools, whether or not you asked for it. And, these “ratios” are indeed the most important tools you can use to help you analyze your business.

Of course, the worst sin of all is to see owners of troubled firms receiving properly formatted financial statements month after month and yet seeing them take no action. What the hell are they waiting for. As you can surmise, I have little sympathy for owners who sit on their ass every day checking their Facebook accounts and reading their Twitter feeds.

Owner’s used to ask me what guarantees I would offer and I used to respond. I will refund the entire consulting fee if I can’t turn your company around, but you have to give me total authority to implement all of my recommendations. And that authority would include terminating your son or daugher-in-law and raising prices across the board. Guess what, too many timid owners out, almost all of whom where afraid to give me that authority.    

It’s All About Pricing – NOT!

Profit laggards (those making less than 6% owner’s compensation) are far more likely to be willing to match or lower prices than those offered by profitable firms – firms reporting owner’s compensation of 25% or more.

 Sometimes a printer will tell me that, “I don’t try to be the lowest priced printer. Instead, I try to be sort of in the middle.” And yet, when challenged, many of these printers simply know very little about local or regional pricing. Troubled printers are far more likely to be swayed by customers telling them that their prices are a bit high, too often responding to the customer by saying, “Let me look over the quote we provided and see if we can’t shave it a bit.”

In my experience talking with some of the best and most profitable firms in this industry, they tend to have an attitude that their first price is also their best price, and they make no apologies or excuses for the fact that their quote is may indeed be higher than other quotes obtained by a customer. They know the value of their product and will not quibble.

Imagine visiting a high-end restaurant and when the waiter comes to your table, you point out the price of the eight ounce filet mignon on the menu and asking him if he could do a bit better on the price. Even worse, imagine telling him that all three of your guests are going to be ordering filets and surely they can lower the price a bit!

For additional information on pricing in our industry, we invite you to visit the NPRC blog where you can find two articles of interest:

Major Pricing Variations A Myth (Page 1 of Blog)
Shopping Your Competitors (Page 2 of Blog)

For those who always seem to get hung up on price and believe it to be the most important criteria when it comes to selecting one printer over the next, I suggest that the next time you are at the grocery store and explain, if you can, how Philadelphia Cream Cheese is consistently priced 30-40% higher than the store brand sitting directly next to it? Better packaging, marketing, shelf placement, great recipes? Whatever your excuse or answer, it can be applied to printing products as well.

 

A survey print buyers conducted years ago found “Price” ranked #5 in terms of importance.

P.S. A study of print buyers conducted a number of years ago by RIT sought to determine the importance of various factors in making a decision to use or select one printer over another. They prepared a scale that ranked eight various factors in the selection process. Guess where “price” fell? Pricing was ranked #5. What factors were more important? Dependability was #1, and was followed by Print Quality, Turnaround Time, and Ease of Doing Business – all ranking above “Price.”  

Failing to Practice the 80-20 Rule

 Learning to spend time wisely (The 80-20 Rule) is another characteristic that seems to distinguish the best run printing firms from the also-rans. Owner’s of top tier firms seem far more disciplined that owners of troubled firms.

One perfect example of the 80-20 rule suggests (at least roughly) that 80% of your employee problems are caused by 20% of your employees. A very small number of employees cause most of the problems… they call in sick, make most of the mistakes, and seem to be the root cause of much of the turmoil in a company. In you have 10 employees there’s a very good chance that two of them cause most of the problems in your company. Terminating these employees can make a major improvement in most companies.

Another example? Approximately 20% of your overhead items account for 80% of your expenses. If you’re motivated to cut expenses and improve profitability, don’t spend time worrying about the reducing the cost of office supplies, trash removal, travel and marketing. Concentrate instead on some of the “biggies” like auto operating expenses, building rent (Yes, that too can be renegotiated), lease expenses, repairs & maintenance, and even utilities. Successful companies find a way to reduce these types of expenses, while troubled firms once again just rationalize and make excuses.

Too Much Time On Social Media (A personal a rant <g>)

There is no doubt in my mind, that there is at least an inverse relationship between profitability and the time spent by many owners on social media. While I cannot point to hard statistics to back up this claim, Just observing printers from close up and afar I see so much time being wasted in this industry on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, just to name a few. I would also include various printing related listservs to this list as well.

I believe a significant percentage of our political and social discord in this country can be directly traced to what is published and shared on these sites. I think many owners and their families would be far better served by reducing participation in these various social network sites.

It is embarrassing these days to go out to a medium or high-end restaurant these days and to observe two adults and two children all with their heads down sending out text messages and reading the latest posts on Facebook. Not only is it rude and impolite, it is a terrible waste of intellectual talents.  Enough ranting!

I used to own a cell-phone jammer (Yeah, yeah, I know they are illegal – who cares) and I could destroy an evening for a family like that, but unfortunately it only worked G3 Networks. When they went to G5 the jammers got more expensive and harder to purchase. When it worked, it was so much fun watching folks suddenly losing reception and then holding up their cell phone higher in the air somehow thinking this would boost reception. 

Enough for now. Have a great week.

 

 

 

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