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.

 

 

 

Printing Association Releases 2019 Goal Sheet

Interested in boosting profits and becoming a “Profit Leader” in 2019? If your answer is “Yes,” we suggest you Click Here and download NPRC’s latest publication – The 2019 Financial Model & Goals sheet.

Click JPG to Download 2019 Goal Sheet

At a quick glance, you’ll discover what the top 25% in our industry are reporting in terms of :

  • Cost of Sales
  • Payroll Expenses
  • Operating Expenses
  • Owner’s Compensation
  • Sales Per Employee

The data provided is based upon statistical data reported in various research studies and reports published by NPRC during the past 18 months. For additional information about our industry, visit NPRC’s website at www.printingresearch.org and scan the various articles under our “blog” tab.

5 Characteristics of Troubled Printing Firms

Troubled Printing Firms – Five Characteristics!

John C. Stewart, Executive Director, NPRC

John Stewart

John Stewart Executive Director, NPRC

NPRC maintains the largest and most accurate data base in the printing industry, especially when it comes to key financial ratios. Just like  the Farmers Insurance Company that  frequently notes, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” we feel the same way when it comes to knowing what works and what doesn’t work in the printing industry! This article intends to target one of our most topics – troubled printing firms!

So we thought we would tackle in detail five of the most common attributes of troubled printing firms – attributes that clearly distinguish between the profit leaders and the profit laggards in our industry. For some readers, one or more of the practices noted below will be almost “second nature,” while others will either skip the advice entirely, or rationalize why that characteristic doesn’t apply to them.

(1) Monthly Financial Statements – There’s no question about it – troubled printing firms are the least likely to receive and analyze monthly financial statements. Some owners appear to go through the motions of getting financial statements, but then rarely take the time to really look them over! Some of the most troubled firms I know are likely to go months without obtaining a current profit and loss statement or a balance sheet.

Collage of Financial Benchmark Study Pages

Collage of Financial Benchmark Study Pages

Successful owners are far more likely to spend at least a couple of hours each month going over various expenses and ratios, using a yellow highlighter to denote areas that need work. Every owner should have at their finger-tips key ratio goals for categories such as payroll, cost of goods and overhead expenses. Note that “payroll” should include all direct and indirect payroll expenses, but should exclude that attributed to a single owner. Successful and profitable owners can typically quote these key ratios, while less successful printers end up making wild guesses.

If you have no idea what the “top” companies in this industry report for these key expense categories then you need to make a small investment and purchase the latest Financial Benchmarking Study from NPRC. This report is all about how to increase your profitability. The Executive Summary by long-time industry guru Larry Hunt is by itself worth ten times the price of this report. To purchase, visit the NPRC Bookstore.

(2) Low Productivity as Measured by SPE – How many employees, including working owners, does it take to produce $XXX in sales. This critical ratio is one of the simplest of ratios to calculate in our industry, and yet it is also the most telling as well! The bottom line – troubled printing firms do a lousy job when it comes to maintaining high levels of productivity.

Sales Per Employee Graph

Sales Per Employee Graph

To calculate your SPE, divide total annual sales (actual or projected) by the total number of employees (including all working owners and partners) required to produce those sales. Yes, that includes outside sales reps whether or not they receive a salary. The more accurate your numbers the more valuable the resulting answer will be. Count part-time employees proportionately. If an employee averages about 20 hours per week, then count he or she as a one-half or .5 employee.

In a recent survey of approximately 210 printing firms, the SPE ranged from 20 firms reporting an SPE of less than $100,000 to 52 companies reporting an SPE of $155,000 or more. To put this in some “real world” terms, let’s take a look at two firms – both producing $700,000 in sales.

• One $700,000 firm requires/reports using 7 employees to produce its sales – An SPE of $100,000! Plain and simple, a firm reporting an SPE of $100,000 or less is simply over-staffed, as well as most likely inefficient as well. That SPE number is also significantly below the industry average of approximately $135,000! Owners of firms with below average SPEs are likely under-paying themselves due to excessive payroll. Low SPEs also tend to impact the value of a firm when it comes time to sell – if it sells at all!

• While a second firm reporting the same $700,000 in sales produces its sales with only 4.5 employees, or an SPE of $155,500. Although the SPE calculation totally ignores what employees are actually paid, a closer examination tends to indicate that employees working for high-SPE firms also tend to be paid significantly higher and also tend to be far more efficient and talented at what they do.

(3) High Payroll Costs – Unfortunately for many owners  of troubled printing firms (it’s not always their fault), total payroll costs are sometimes hard to find on the typical profit and loss statement. This is often the fault of CPAs and accountants, as well as in-house bookkeepers, who fail to consolidate payroll expenses under one heading.

We often see direct payroll expenses under a payroll heading, but then discover that other related payroll expenses such as health insurance, payroll taxes and unemployment taxes are listed below under overhead expenses. Ideally, you should be able to look at your financial statements and quickly determine the total amount spent each month, as a percent of sales, for total payroll, excluding your own payroll, taxes and benefits.

Financial Benchmarking Study

Financial Benchmarking Study

The previously mentioned Financial Benchmarking Study contains some very reliable payroll ratios, including ratios based upon various annual sales categories, but also a quartile report which provides total payroll for the top 25% firms (in terms of profitability) and compare that ratio against the bottom 25%.

Is your company a “troubled printing firm? If your total payroll expenses are in the 32-34% range or higher (excluding your own payroll) the answer is “yes.”You have a serious problem on your hands, at least in comparison with the rest of the industry, and it needs to be addressed immediately.

On the other hand, if your total payroll is in the 26-28% range you should pat yourself on the back because those ratios would be considered outstanding in this industry.

P.S. Payroll is consistently the single largest expense in operating a modern-day printing firm, and has been the largest expense ratio for more than 35 years. If you fail to proactively address this category, it really won’t matter much about steps taken elsewhere on your financial statements.  As we’ve noted previously, troubled printing firms are notorious  for  failing to maintain acceptable payroll ratios.

(4) Failure to Monitor Industry Pricing – Our industry is somewhat unique in that it has available to it so much in terms of valuable financial and pricing data – information that can really help a firm compare its performance and pricing practices against others in the industry. Without many of these studies, a printer could easily find himself misled by the comments of customers who sometimes remark, “I like what you folks do, but your prices are just too high sometimes.”

How is a printer to react when he hears something like that? Well, before you go off and start lowering all your prices, or instituting more discounting, there are at least two things you can do. The cost will be relative small and the ROI could be huge, in terms of both raw dollars as well as peace of mind.

First, if you’re concerned about pricing and where you stand compared to competitors you could visit the NPRC site and check-out an article we posted about 15 months ago titled, “Hiring Someone to Shop Competitors.” Click here to read the article. Conducting a thorough, detailed survey of competitors can be a real eye-opener, but you can’t do it on the cheap. Hire someone, as the article explains, and do it right.

I have seen some top-notch surveys conducted by printers I know and every time I see the results they tend to refute many of the myths regarding pricing within individual markets – even in very small markets where only 5-6 printing firms exist.

Key NPRC Studies

These are just a few of the many studies and reports available in the NPRC Bookstore. No other printing association offers the broad selection of studies and reports offered by NPRC.

Second, visit the NPRC Bookstore and check-out the list of pricing studies we have published in the past 24-36 months. The pricing data we report is extremely accurate with an average margin of error of +/- 4% or less for most items. And please don’t dismiss this suggestion by saying that most pricing is local and not national and therefore what we report may not have any bearing in your local market! Wrong, wrong!

We can report with absolute certainty, based upon hundreds of individual market surveys, that pricing tends to vary far more within your own individual market than it does from one section of the country to the next. We can report with great assurance that while the national average price for a simple product such as 1,000 #10/24 envelopes printed in reflex blue (no bleeds) may vary by no more that +/- 4%, prices for that product within an individual market can easily vary by as much +/- 35-40%.  +/- of the reported average price!

We just checked pricing on this product and even after eliminating outliers, the pricing for 1M envelopes varied between a low of $104 and $280, with an average price of approximately $158. that type of variation occurs even within the smallest of markets. 

(5) Tolerating “Bad Apples” – With more than 400 on-site, individualized consulting visits under my belt, I can report that I can’t recall visiting a mid-size or larger firm (5 or more employees) that didn’t have within their midst at least one “bad apple.”

Ironically, while it was not that difficult for me to spot the bad apple, the owners were often totally oblivious of the bad apple, or the real-world impact that the bad apple was having on the rest of the staff. Not surprising too was the fact that virtually all of the remaining employees could name the ‘bad apple” in the company, agreeing almost 100% of the time on who that employee was!

Press Room

Press Room

Rest assured, your employees are uniquely equipped to identify who the bad apple is and how he or she is impacting the profitability of your firm. They know it, even if you don’t! Unfortunately, even the good employees, just like the owners, sooner rather than later start making up excuses for the bad apples, and why they continue to be retained.

“Bobbi’s a single mother who brings her personal problems to work and shares them with other employees as well as our customers! Sometimes it’s like a soap opera out there in the shop. As a consequence, a lot of time is wasted.”

“Martin is a recovering alcoholic but every once in awhile he goes off the wagon. We always seem to have our fingers crossed as to whether he will show up, especially after the holidays.”

“Steve isn’t the most reliable. However, when he shows up he is very productive, but I can’t always count on him. There is always something going on in his life that interferes with work.”

“Cathy is incredibly talented, but has a terrible personality when it comes to dealing with customers, and I’m at my wits end in how to deal with the situation. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have been putting up with this for more than seven years!”

“Mike is probably one of the best operators I have when it comes to knowing the equipment, but he makes a lot of mistakes as well. He’s just not very good when it comes following procedures.”

I could go on offering up a dozen of the more popular excuses I have heard over the years when it comes to tolerating employees that in any other more profitable firm would have been terminated months if not years ago. I guess that’s the difference, among many, between how the “profit leaders” in our industry manage their businesses as opposed to the “profit laggards.”

If you have any questions about this article don’t hesitate to drop me an email at johnstewart@printingresearch.org.

Happy 2018!