Rich Ayres likes the fact that his company is an anonymous force in the screen-printing industry. That’s precisely how he’s positioned Fontana, CA-based Southern California Screen Printing (SCSP), a thriving graphics-printing operation that only does business with a select group of customers–other screen-printing and graphic-imaging businesses. SCSP takes on the overflow work of its printer clients, as well as large-format jobs they’re not equipped to handle, and works quietly behind the scenes to deliver top-quality graphics they can sell as their own.
SCSP prints a broad selection of graphic products for its customers, ranging from movie posters and banners to fleet markings and P-O-P displays. Sometimes the company is responsible for finishing off a job its client has already begun, or it takes on orders that exceed a customer’s own capacity. On other occasions, printers may turn to SCSP because the company can do things that they can’t, such as produce large-format process-color graphics in high volumes, provide various finishing processes, or offer complete fulfillment services.
After printing an order, SCSP will ship the finished goods to its client or blind-ship the products directly to the buyer that originated the order, providing no evidence that it had a hand in completing the job to protect the relationship between its customer and the print buyer. In fact, to prevent his customers’ customers from approaching his company directly, Ayres doesn’t hang a sign outside his shop, and his business is not listed in the telephone book.
With all this secrecy, one might wonder how a company could attract enough business to succeed. Yet Ayres found a very effective way, one that helped him take a two-person screen-printing operation with manual equipment and grow it into a shop with a na-tional client base, more than 100 employees, 72,000-sq-ft of production space, and an impressive lineup of large-format and inline screen-printing systems (Figure 1).
According to Ayres, the key to this success has been developing SCSP’s reputation as a printing company that is loyal to its printer customers. “Every printer is afraid to let another printer know who his customers are, but I’ve built up trust and confidence among my clients over the last 15 years,” explains Ayres. “I provide the right comfort level for them because they know that I don’t sell direct.”
To get the message out about the services his company offers for other printers and attract their business, Ayres relies largely on word-of-mouth. But the quality of SCSP’s printing has also helped bring in new orders. Ayres is happy to let his customers take credit for work his company printed. And he is gratified by the fact that when customers have entered pieces his shop printed into various printing awards competitions, the prints have emerged as winners. “I have won [the SGIA’s] Golden Squeegee award, and I’ve never entered,” he admits. “It just shows you that we’ve got the quality that promotes our clients’ own businesses. If we did lousy printing or were always late, printers wouldn’t come back to us.”
Becoming a printer’s printer
Ayres’ screen-printing business grew out of a personal commitment to keep customers satisfied. It started when he worked as a distributor of foam board. One day, a screen-printing customer asked if Ayres knew of a printer who could flood coat one side of foam boards with black ink to save him time in production. Despite never having picked up a squeegee before, Ayres said he could do the printing. So he went out and bought a wooden manual printing table, a wood-framed screen, and a squeegee, then set out to learn screen printing.
A few screens and several jobs later, Ayres decided to tell other customers that he was now offering screen-printing services. Word got around quickly, and several more printers began requesting preprinted foam boards. It wasn’t long before he had to add an employee, then a dryer. Basic flood-coating orders gave way to printing single-color signs and banners, and Ayres kept up with the growing demand by investing in a semiautomatic press and sewing and grommeting equipment and adding more employees. Before he knew it, orders of 400 pieces or more were coming through the door.
While his printing operation was growing, Ayres also maintained his distribution business, which was then supplying various graphic-arts equipment. But by 1987, he decided that the demand for his printing services was great enough to require his full-time attention. That year, he founded Southern California Screen Printing in Long Beach, CA.
From the start, Ayres wanted to concentrate solely on serving screen printers. But to do this, he had to reach out to other screen-printing companies and sell them on the benefits of outsourcing their work to SCSP. To get the opportunity to speak to other shop owners, Ayres decided to begin exhibiting at the Screenprinting and Graphic Imaging Association’s annual trade show, where he would employ various tactics to grab the attention of potential customers.
During the first show at which he exhibited, he served free breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks from his booth, which drew lines of people. He recalls, “As people came by to get food, I would give them my pitch: ‘Hey, I’m a printer, but I don’t sell direct. I only print for you. You can add my $6-million worth of equipment to your own capabilities.'” While he admits that the food bill was costly, Ayres says it paid off in lots of new business. In later exhibitions, he would use other methods to draw potential customers to his booth, one year giving away free TVs, and at another show, giving away $500 every hour.Anne Dinardo
In addition to participating in trade shows to find new clients, Ayres relies on his current customers to create additional demand for his company’s services. In fact, Ayres does not maintain an internal sales team; instead, he looks to his company’s reputation and his clients’ sales forces to bring in new work. “By having no sales people, I do not limit where my customers come from,” he explains. “Every time I add a new customer, I always ask how many salesmen they have. If they say they have 14 salespeople, then I know I just picked up 14 new salespeople.”
The right equipment
Ayres built up SCSP’s arsenal of equipment around the desire to be versatile and customer-focused. Far from its early days of manual production, SCSP now boasts an impressive collection of large-format and inline screen-printing equipment. In 1990, the company purchased two single-color M&R longstroke presses (48 x 144 in.), followed a year later by two more longstrokes. The growing amount of equipment spurred the company into relocating in 1992, when Ayres bought a new plant in Fontana, CA, which still serves as the company’s headquarters today.
In 1994, the company became one of the first on the block to offer in-line printing capabilities by purchasing a five-color, 60 x 144-in. M&R Processor. Then in 1998, after expanding the shop to 72,000 sq ft, the company added a second Processor–a six-color, 64 x 80-in. system.
Ayres explains that when he ordered his Processors, he had them customized with pockets on the edges of the print tables, which helped to accommodate larger-sized substrates, “If somebody wants a 20-ft-wide banner, we can roll the material up and it rides along in the bed as it goes through the press,” explains Ayres. “Then we just turn it over and print the other side.” SCSP relies on UV inks and curing technology for all the jobs it produces.
To keep pace with the demands of his wide-format inline presses, SCSP purchased a 16-ft Harlacher screen-coating system (Figure 2) in 1998. The company also employs a 72-in. Rosenthal sheeter and keeps a large inventory of roll substrates in stock so that it can sheet its own material.
On the finishing end, SCSP also has an impressive collection of equipment and capabilities (Figure 3). Today, the company employs three cutters with 65-in., 95-in., and 110-in. widths, as well as eight high-speed sewing machines and several automated grommeting machines. The company tops off its service offerings with complete packaging and fulfillment programs.
Although some of the new flatbed inkjet printers have attracted the company’s attention, Ayres says SCSP has shied away from adding digital capabilities to its production line-up because there are so many other digital printing companies in close proximity to the business. He notes, however, that SCSP often does work for digital shops, producing large-quantity orders that are impractical to print electronically. “It’s another part of the industry that is helping us grow,” he notes.
Locating to southern California meant that Ayres’ business would have to meet strict water-quality standards. Since a mountain spring-water bottling facility is also located in the area, Ayres must ensure that the wastewater from his company, which includes screen-cleaning and reclaiming discharges, meets stringent codes for pollution control.
To meet these obligations, Ayres hired Chemical Consultants to design a custom reclaiming system (Figure 4) for his operation, complete with a filtration system and special biological capturing system. With the latter system, SCSP employees add microbes to the water that react with the effluent, causing the waste to solidify and making it easier to remove. SCSP’s treatment system also involves the use of an outside facility to monitor sensors in the sewer lines and make sure the company’s wastewater remains safe.
Additionally, SCSP works on behalf of the screen-printing industry as a beta test site for California’s South Coast Air Quality District (SCAQD). The company’s facility and equipment are used by the SCAQD to help find environmentally friendly solutions to printing problems.
Proof is in the printing
Ayres’ company has always relied on outside service bureaus to provide film separations for the jobs it prints. Plant manager Ken Morris explains that SCSP chose not to have an internal filmmaking department since its printer clients provide most jobs on disk and sometimes even film. “We let the customer be as responsible as possible for their artwork and for finished approvals on artwork,” says Morris. “Once we get disks or film, we just hit the ground running.”
However, SCSP recently entered into a joint venture with the prepress services company, California Film. As part of the arrangement, the film supplier moved its facilities inside SCSP’s building. While California Film remains an independent business, it takes care of all of SCSP’s film needs. Morris explains that this setup gives SCSP rapid access to high-quality film, while allowing the company to concentrate on what it does best–screen printing. “It’s a win-win situation,” he says.
Throughout the production process, SCSP encourages its printer clients to come in and make sure that a job is done to their satisfaction. Ayres explains that SCSP will get a Matchprint from the client and set up the presses to run a few samples. Employees document press settings, such as individual color percentages and squeegee pressure, on the back of the proof from each of the trial runs. When clients come in for a press check, they have several proofs to look at and are able to pick the one that best matches their needs. Then SCSP employees use the recorded information to set up the presses and get the job running. The job may be checked again while on press, giving SCSP yet another oppor-tunity to ensure a finished product that exactly matches customer standards.
The proofing process is also important when SCSP is handling overflow work for another printer or working jointly with a customer to complete a large order. Ayres says that in such situations, the substrates and ink will generally be gathered and divided between both screen-printing shops to eliminate material variances. Then, throughout the press run, both companies will send each other press proofs to check for color consistency and print results. In some cases, Ayres sends an employee to the client’s shop to conduct a press check, while one of their employees comes to SCSP. To accommodate these visits, the company even has set up a customer press-check room, complete with a phone, TV, VCR, computer with Internet access, and a refrigerator stocked with refreshments.
Another way the shop ensures efficiency and accuracy is through the computerized estimating system it recently installed. The system not only makes the estimating process faster, it also has provided the company with a database of past quotes, job specs, and other job-reference materials. This is extremely important at SCSP, since several clients doing the same job for the same buyer may all send their work to SCSP. “We want to make sure that jobs are priced fairly across the board,” says Morris. “So it’s real important that we know what we’ve done in the past.”
Rules to live by
Relying on word-of-mouth to build a client base would be impossible if SCSP hadn’t established a high level of confidence and trust among its customers. Ayres says he has worked hard to develop an understanding with customers that SCSP won’t give out its client names or go directly for their customers, even when big-name buyers come forward with lucrative offers. Staff know that if they were to bend the rules, even just once, their relationship with all their clients would be forever changed.
“If you are truly a printer’s printer, you guard your accounts and you know how valuable they are to your livelihood,” says Joel Zelepsky, a consultant for SCSP from The JMZ Group. “The printers reward Rich’s silence and loyalty with their business.” When customers call Ayres to ask if they can trust SCSP with the names of their own customers, he often refers them to other local printers with whom he has already worked, as well as suppliers who are familiar with his operation.
Morris adds that employees do their best to make customers understand how SCSP operates. “It’s a real paradox because Rich wants to protect his customers and make sure that they feel their work is safe here,” he says. “But at the same time, he wants everybody to understand what we do and the lengths that we’ve gone to make this a quality printing operation.”
Even after 15 years in business, Ayres still has buyers trying to bypass his clients and come directly to him. “Just last week I had a customer here who brought along one of his clients. Before they got back to the airport to head home, the print buyer called me and asked, ‘Why don’t I just come to you direct?'” Ayres recalls. “I said, ‘[The printer] flew you down here and showed you our shop. If he has enough confidence in me to bring you down here, why would I take that away? As far as he’s concerned, this is his plant.'”
Printing with a personality
While Ayres takes his work seriously, he also makes sure that a bit of humor is part of the workplace environment at SCSP. “We have a lot of fun, and we are constantly pulling pranks–I mean big pranks!” he explains. As an example, he recounts the time a particular customer was scheduled to come in for a meeting. Ayres learned that it was the client’s birthday, so he hired the local high-school marching band to come into the plant and play “Happy Birthday” for the customer. “He practically started crying, he was so embarrassed,” Ayres remembers.
Ayres has found humor in printing, too. During the company’s early years, SCSP worked with a local litho printer, who was printing brochures and tickets for a traveling circus. One day, the litho printer called Ayres and asked, “Can you print on elephants?” Always looking for ways to please his customers, Ayres said “No problem,” and then set out to find a way to accomplish the odd job. “We put scaffolding up, and the elephants would walk up, stop, and we would stencil on the colors with water-based paints, one by one,” he says (Figure 5).
While Ayres’ company grew mainly by serving the screen-printing industry, Ayres recently hired Zelepsky to design a marketing campaign to help him reach new clients and expand the company’s sales volume. It’s the first time Ayres has attempted to market his company using more than word-of-mouth. Under the company’s new plan, it will actively target not only screen printers, but all companies involved in printing, including litho and flexo printers.
Both Zelepsky and Ayres see this new approach not only as a route to increase SCSP’s business, but also as a way to aid other printing companies in delivering whole-package graphic solutions to their clients. “What always happens is that the litho printer says, ‘We don’t do screen printing, you’ll have to send that out to a screen printer,'” explains Zelepsky. “Now what they can say is, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, we can do both.'”
SCSP is also eyeing some new technologies that will help it remain on top in terms of print quality and productivity. Recognizing the increasing pressure to provide shorter-run custom printing, the company is looking to computer-to-screen direct-imaging technology in prepress, as well as flatbed inkjet technology for the production floor. SCSP is also in the process of revamping its Website (www.iprintforyou.com) to make it a resource for printing information, as well as a tool for promoting the company’s services.
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