How Does Your SPE and Sales Compare to Others in the Printing Industry?

Jan. 8, 2021 – We discovered some new stuff earlier today that we think you might find interesting! We were checking out our recent study on wages (The 2021 Printing Industry Wage & Benefits Study) when we came across three interesting graphs that we thought might be worth sharing with the industry.

Sales Per Employee has always been one of our favorite ratios that we like to use and illustrate overall productivity and efficiency in our industry. If you’ve never calculated this number shame on you!

Simply divide annual sales (actual or projected) by the total number of “bodies” or employees used to produce those sales to arrive at your SPE. Be sure to count everyone – owners, managers and partners. If they work in the business, whether they are paid or not, they need to be counted.

How much do owners make? Our 2021 Wage & Benefits Study, among dozens of other key ratios, breaks out participants and ranks them by their reported “Owner’s Compensation.” The ranking is further divided into four quartiles. Although drawn from a unique data base, the responses are shockingly similar to more than a dozen similar breakouts we have used in the past. The bottom line (excuse the pun) is that 25% of the industry reports averaging less that 3% in terms of owner’s compensation, while the top quartile averages approximately 22% – Quite a spread!

Survey Participants Ranked by 2020 Sales – About 25% of our survey participants reported average 2020 of approximately $450,000, while the top quartile in terms of annual sales reported average sales of $3.2 million in 2020. This distribution of participants by annual sales is quite similar to sales distribution reported in other recent NPRC reports.

For additional information on this study, including a downloadable Table of Contents, visit the NPRC Bookstore today.

SPE – A Critical Ratio in Covid-19 Era!

The biggest challenge confronting the printing industry today is how quickly individual firms are reacting to sudden as well as prolonged declines in sales. The declines are no longer looked at at temporary, but rather something that may be with many of us for many, many months to come.

With dramatic declines in reported sales for the past five months, many printers are now closely reexamining what were once deemed to be minimum staffing levels – All of this as a result of Covid-19!

Declines in Sales Projected to Continue

Sales Per Employee (SPE) has long been considered a primary productivity ratio in the printing industry, and it has now moved to the forefront of discussions as to how best firms should deal with the current economic upheaval facing our industry.

Put in the simplest of terms, SPE essentially answers the question as to how many employees should it take to produce XXX in sales. According to our survey data, sales already took a dramatic hit in the March – July time frame and most printers are projecting those decline to continue well into 2021.

Approximately 80% of our industry claim Covid-19 has had a significant to catastrophic impact on their business.

In light of these projected declines, owners need to be countering these projected declines with equally robust reductions in employee staffing as well.

“In light of these projected declines, owners need to be countering these projected declines with equally robust reductions in employee staffing as well.

SPE is always based upon annual sales, actual or project. It is calculated by dividing annual sales (excluding postage income if applicable) by the total number of of FT equivalent employees, including all working owners.

Whether or not an employee takes out a salary (such as spouse or other family member) is not factored into this calculation. If the individual contributes in any way towards the production of the “product” or “service” they are counted. This would include all regular employees, spouses, partners, in-house bookkeepers or outside sales reps.

If a firm reports $1,200,000 in annual sales and utilizes or requires an equivalent of eight (8) employees (including the owner and his/her spouse) their SPE would be  $150,000. Contrast that with another firm doing almost exactly the same sales volume (very similar sales breakdown) but requires 10 employees to produce those sales their SPE would be $120,000!

If you currently employ eight employees, including yourself and a sales rep, you should expect, assuming proper pricing and the right equipment, to produce produce $1,500,000 in sales!

An SPE number can also tell you how much in sales can you expect to produce with a specific number of employees. If you currently employ eight employees, including yourself and a sales rep, you should expect, assuming proper pricing and the right equipment, to produce produce $1,500,000 in sales! This is based upon data taken from the SPE quartile analysis chart below.

SPE Quartile Analysis based upon 2019-20 Digital Color Pricing Study.

Don’t Smile Yet!

Before you start patting yourself on the back or giving your manager or spouse a “high five,” it is important to note that SPEs can vary dramatically within a single study or report. NPRC not only calculates individual SPEs in order to obtain averages and medians, it also ranks the SPEs from low to high (after excluding outliers) and then divides the list into four quartiles.

So while you may be eager to pat yourself on the back for achieving an SPE of $136,000 you should be aware of the fact that the average for the top quartile in that study was $184,939.

Remember too, that the SPE reported for each quartile is just that – an average of that breakout, meaning that the actual SPE range within a quartile (See  Top Qrtl. below) was probably in the $160,000 to $215,000 or possibly more.

Note the close similarity in SPEs reported in a variety of NPRC industry surveys.

Turning a Blind Eye to Sales Declines

When sales suddenly decline precipitously, it is only human nature to initially excuse to ignore the event as a one-time drop. Many printers will simply view a sudden drop as an “outlier.” The natural reaction by many is to assume that sales will recover quickly. Historically speaking, sales have indeed recovered quickly – that is, of course, until Covid-19 came along.

“Historically speaking, sales have indeed recovered quickly – that is, of course, until Covid-19 came along.

Not only did sales plummet in March, but the dramatic decline in sales continued throughout the 2nd quartile (April – June). Average 3rd quarter sales, according to our most recent survey, are projected to be even worse at $174,597. Median sales are predicted to be even worse at $156,681.

Based upon input from survey participants, industry sales are are not expected to recover anytime soon!

What about the 4th quarter? Yes, while survey participants projected a slight improvement in 4th quarter sales, that projection of $307,025 for the 4th quarter is still 26% below what was reported for the 1st quarter.

Future of the Industry?

The facts are pretty clear. Robust sales are not going to return anytime soon. There is a great deal of pessimism in the industry, and while many tell us they are in it for the long haul and have sufficient cash reserves, most also candidly tell us they think the odds are about 50-50 that we will see any improvements before July 2021.

Knowing that sales are not going to recover anytime soon, it is probably long-past the time for owners to take a close look at staffing, including where they can make reductions.

Knowing that sales are not going to recover anytime soon, it is probably long-past the time for owners to take a close look at staffing, including where they can make reductions. Hopefully, the easy staff reductions have already occurred. Terminating “bad apples” as well as “excess” employees has already occurred.

Unfortunately, as we continue to muddle through the 3rd quarter and prepare for the 4th quarter, owners will now have to make some of the hardest decisions in their careers – terminating good productive employees with good attitudes.  Some owners will be shocked by that statement, but having to terminate good, productive employees is simply a harsh reality – one that at least needs to be seriously considered.

“… owners will now have to make some of the hardest decisions in their careers – terminating good productive employees with good attitudes.

You either have enough sales to support these employees at pre-Covid-19 levels of productivity or you don’t. What kind of decline in SPEs and owner compensation are you truly willing to absorb before you will act? That is indeed a question only you can answer.




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.




$130,000 SPE – The Magic Number!

By John Stewart, Executive Director, NPRC

$130,000 SPE – The Magic Number! If your firm is going to survive or prosper in the next five years, you must currently have an SPE of $130,000 or higher. If your firm fails to achieve that SPE the chances are good you will soon become just another mediocre firm. There are too many firms today that are simply holding on to a few “old timer” customers while the owners are eagerly awaiting retirement, forced or otherwise!

The answer may very well be found in your current sales per employee (SPE)! Meet or exceed an SPE target of $130,000 and you’re likely to be one of those firms that survive and prosper. Allow your SPE to drop below that mark and you are likely going to face increasingly serious problems in the next few years.

Defining SPE

First, let’s precisely define how to calculate SPE. Divide your total annual sales (actual or projected) by the total number of full-time equivalent employees, including all working owners, used to produce those sales. You’ll be wasting your time doing this calculation if you do not do it properly.

“Unfortunately, we also know of printing firms selling the same mix of products and services as our first example, that will often require 8 to 8.5 employees to produce that same amount of sales.”

SPE is an important productivity ratio that indicates how many employees does it take to produce $XXX in sales. The converse is true as well. You can use SPE figures to estimate the annual sales you can expect X number of employees to produce.

As an example, SPE data we rely upon states that $1,000,000 sales can be easily produced by no more than 6 to 6.5 employees. Unfortunately, we also know of printing firms that will require 8 to 8.5 employees or more to produce the very same mix of products and services.

Properly Counting All Employees

As part of the calculation, you must count all “employees” whether or not they are on the payroll. Do not rely strictly on your payroll reports to make this calculation. An example of this would be when you have a husband and wife both working in the business but where only one of them actually draws a salary.

Yes, you should also include outside sales representatives as well as in-house bookkeepers. If your father retired from the business but now comes in and works about 20 hours a week then he too should be counted as a 1/2 or .5 employee.

You also must accurately account for all part-time employees. If a graphic artist or bindery operator consistently works 30 hours per week they would be counted as a ¾ or .75 employee. On the other hand, if you have an employee that consistently works 50 hours per week then they would count as 1.25.

The only exception to the above process for counting employees occurs when we are dealing with working owners. The reality is that owners are typically expected to work 45-50 hours because they are in fact the “owners.” However, in situations where one or more owners or partners, feel compelled or are obligated to work 60-70 hours or more each week then it is time to start counting them as more than just one “body.”

If in fact an owner is consistently working in the 60-70 hours per week range then we suggest they should at least be counted as 1.5 employees!

Industry Overview of SPE

Below is a broad overview of sales per employee statistics in the printing industry. Whether or not our numbers reflect the industry at large is subject to debate. We speculate that our industry surveys tend to attract slightly more successful printing firms than exist at-large, and thus our average and median numbers may not be reflective of the industry.

Nonetheless, the numbers clearly indicate that SPEs of $130,000 and higher are easily achievable, and we can’t help but wonder why so many owners appear to be willing to tolerate SPEs of $120,000 and below.

If your firms is indeed struggling with SPEs in the $100,000 to $120,000 range you need to make “improving your SPE” a major goal for 2019-2020!

Counting Owners Properly

On the other hand, an owner who consistently works 55-65 hours we would suggest that a more accurate SPE calculation might result if we count the owner as at least a 1.25 employee. Yes, there is some subjectivity in the calculation when dealing with owners and we will just have to live with that.

Nonetheless, SPE is the most frequently tracked productivity ratio in the printing industry and we have been tracking and recording it for more than 25 years. Virtually every pricing, productivity and financial ratio study published during this time has tracked that ratio.

SPE QUARTILES – WHERE DO YOU RANKWe calculated the sales per employee of all participants based upon the information provided, and then ranked the data from high to low. Next, we divided the list into four approximately even breakouts or quartiles. Last, we averaged the SPE for each quartile breakout. The results are depicted above. If your SPE falls into either the bottom (red) or the 2nd quartile ((gold), your SPE number falls into the bottom half of the industry and should be a source of  concern. On the other hand, if your SPE is in the $130,000-$175,000 range you deserve a pat on the back. (This chart and caption appeared in the 2019-2020 Sweet Sixteen Digital Color Pricing Study published by NPRC.)

“We estimate that close to 50% of the industry (see graph above) is failing in terms of SPE, and many of those firms will most likely not make it another five years.”

We estimate that close to 50% of the industry (see graph above) is failing in terms of SPE, and many of those firms will most likely not make it another five years. There is little or no chance for firms with SPEs of $115,000 and below to pay the owners a reasonable salary and generate the excess earnings required to maintain or boost value as well as provide the funds required to finance upgrades in equipment. It just can’t be done with SPEs that low.

Higher Profits, Better Ratios

If your calculated SPE is $130,000 or higher it typically places your firm in the top two quartiles in the industry in terms of profitability. Printing firms in the top half of the industry typically report lower cost of sales ratios (30-26%) and lower payroll costs (28-30%). As a result of running leaner firms and better operating ratios, owners of firms in the top two quartiles report significantly higher owner’s compensation ratios in the 19-27% range.

Looking at the other side of the coin, we know that approximately 35-40% of the firms in our industry (based upon the feedback and results of our numerous industry surveys) report SPEs of $120,000 and below. That can be reaffirmed by examining the bar graph above.

Causes of Low SPE

There are many reasons for low SPEs, and we can only speculate for a few of them. Below is a brief listing of some of the causes we have encountered over the years as a consultant:

Build it and they will come – One cause of low and declining SPEs stems from firms acquire one or more highly productive pieces of equipment (like large, expensive and very productive digital printers or presses) only to maintain their current employee staffing. It is indeed rare these days to expect that demand will increase as the result of acquiring a new piece of equipment. The “Build it and they will come” approach is rarely an accurate assumption, at least in the short-term of 12-24 months. The original assumption in most cases is that the new equipment will produce more product than before with lower labor costs, and yet labor is rarely adjusted downward.

“…many of these owners fail to recognize the benefits that can be realized from new technology, especially as it relates to allowing them to reduce overall payroll costs.”

Failure to Invest – This is almost the exact reverse of the “Build it and they will come approach” noted above. Many owners continue to report and tolerate excessively low SPEs because they prefer to stick with what they know, rather than invest in new technology. They are fearful of new technology and often shy away from new investments in equipment, fearful of taking on new financial obligations. While the latter is a legitimate concern, many of these owners fail to recognize the benefits that can be realized from new technology, especially as it relates to allowing them to reduce overall payroll costs – i.e. produce more with fewer people! The number of small, medium and large firms that have reduced their offset press footprint and transitioned to 70-100% digital production continues to grow virtually every month. As a consequence, some have reported significant reductions in payroll costs.

The 80-20 Rule is another source or cause of low SPE ratios. There are many variations and applications of the often-quoted “80-20 Rule,” but one of the more common examples states that 20% of your employees cause 80% of the employee problems. That means in the typical company employing ten individuals, approximately two of those employees appear to cause most of the problems. Poorly managed printing firms tolerate employees that would never “make it” in more productive firms.  It is ironic that an educated outsider can often spot those “bad apples” within a few minutes or at most a couple of hours. How or why it is that owners continued to turn a blind eye to these employees and tolerate them year after year is beyond comprehension.

Tolerating Mediocrity – This may indeed sound cold-hearted and that may indeed be true, but time after time I have visited firms where there was a great reluctance to terminate employees that by any reasonable measure should be terminated. Owners typically recognize the need when it is pointed out to them, but they are rarely willing to act. By the way, most employees already know who the  bad apples are, but they are typically reluctant to share their beliefs with management.

As always, we encourage your feedback. Send us your experiences, especially if you have increased your overall productivity and SPE. We’d love to hear from you. We can of course treat any stories and tales you provide with 100% anonymity.



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 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 [email protected].

Happy 2018!