How Printers Are Navigating The Coronavirus Pandemic
Like the broader U.S. economy, the commercial printing industry has been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and the first wave of data from a PRINTING United Alliance survey — designed to measure conditions and recovery in the sector — is sobering. Andy Paparozzi, PRINTING United Alliance’s chief economist, who analyzed the survey data, came away from that task with three key impressions.
The first is that the contraction has been deep across the printing industry. “It is what we should expect,” Paparozzi reports, “given widespread closings, shelter-in-place, and more.” The
commercial printing sector has been hit hard by the crisis, and the numbers show it. The severity of the numbers, he says, is strong evidence of the quality of the data and, hence, the state of the industry amid the worldwide shock of the crisis.
Based on the contraction of the U.S. economy, Paparozzi, secondly, was not surprised that the recent data showed no signs of an upturn, or even a bottoming out. At least yet. Sales and production both trended down. And while government-based stimulus has been a lifeline to businesses and employees, he believes that stimulus of the broader economy, which contracted 4.9% in the first quarter, and is estimated to contract nearly 25% in the second quarter, will be needed.
Last, despite the dark news the recent data shows, there are bright spots in our industry. Paparozzi explains that printing companies of all stripes will be essential in helping their customers communicate effectively with clients. “This will be essential,” he says, “in establishing the trust needed to open the economy, manage the crisis, and maintain safety. A lot of it is going to have to be printed.”
Like stars illuminating the darkness of the night, the efforts of printing companies to stay strong, protect employees, grasp opportunity, and share goodwill can astound and amaze.
Doing What’s Right for Employees
For the team at Bradford & Bigelow, a book printing specialist based in Newburyport, Mass., the biggest initial concern was not knowing how severe the crisis would be. One particular priority for the company was to keep its labor force intact. In response to attractive, local pay hikes of two dollars more per hour, the company matched the increase for all production employees, adding a competitive enticement for employees to stay.
Since the start of the crisis, Bradford & Bigelow has also instituted detailed procedures for employee protection. One initial challenge for the company was procuring masks for its employees. In addition to providing needed personal protective equipment (PPE), Bradford & Bigelow — currently running with a labor load of 125 employees — provides disinfectants in the form of wipes and spray bottles, as well as hand sanitizer, throughout the operation.
The company also instituted staggered lunches, which allows for social distancing during the lunch break. This is particularly important as masks are not worn while eating. Further, at the beginning of each shift, a 30-minute shutdown takes place to disinfect production equipment, forklifts, and hand trucks — essentially anything handled during the course of a shift. The firm also has the whole facility cleaned daily, and deep-cleaned every two weeks.
As an added benefit to employees, and as a way to control variables that could lead to infection and spread within the facility, Bradford & Bigelow provides a free lunch to each of its 125 production employees each day, which has proven to be a very popular benefit. In doing so, it eliminates the need for employees to leave the building during lunch or having to use shared microwave ovens and refrigerators.
“Each day, our employees aren’t sure what’s being served,” Rick Dunn, executive VP, notes, since the menu changes frequently. “Most days when I walk in, I’m asked, ‘what’s for lunch today.’”
Dunn says that at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, significant concern existed from workers about whether they would be safe. “Our employees looked to us for guidance.” The company responded by taking proactive steps to protect them and provide security. Bradford & Bigelow is currently running at 95% of its normal staff, and is even offering overtime hours. “We’ve been proactive,” Dunn reports. “We communicate openly with all employees on a regular basis.”
Amid changes to its product mix, Bradford & Bigelow is producing an increased amount of health care and educational materials. Additionally, the company does election ballot work, and is working with states on plans for potential mail-in ballots.
Staying Busy, Doing Good
While feeling the effects of many companies being shut down, Master Print, of Newington, Va., continues to stay busy. The business, which produces magazines, newsletters, and monthlies for many of the organizations, associations, nonprofits, and foundations in the Washington area, is producing print that is an essential communication vehicle between organizations and their members or constituents.
To reengage customers, Master Print got creative and used alternative methods to contact customers to let them know it was considered an essential business by the state of Virginia, that it was open for business, and to inform them of the steps it had taken to protect employees in the workplace.
In addition to its traditional print work, as part of The Vomela Cos., Master Print is producing PPE and “Reopening” signage to promote a safe return to work. Master Print and the other Vomela companies across the nation are currently manufacturing 75,000 face shields per day for first responders, medical personnel, and others.
According to Steve Austin, Master Print’s VP of sales, the main priority is keeping staff safe. “We devised a plan to split the company into two separate shifts, quarantined from each other while ensuring that we can still produce work and effectively meet customer deadlines.
About the company’s move toward recovery, Austin is optimistic. “As states start to open up, things will start to move again,” he predicts. “The industry will recover. The big question is just when.” As for Master Print’s staff, Austin describes them as very dedicated. “We have been through tough times before, and we are taking steps to protect the business. We have good attitudes and there’s plenty to do between printing, PPE manufacturing, and helping customer prepare for their reopening.”
Becoming Part of A Solution
At the outset of the crisis, when “shelter-in-place” was implemented in Hoffman Estates, Ill., the management team at Plum Grove Inc. consulted government entities for guidance, but didn’t find much that was helpful. So the company wrote its own protocol for a safe workplace in the age of COVID-19. It has since been shared with roughly 500 other companies.
Plum Grove provides publication and wide-format printing services, including exhibit and display work, as well as digital marketing services. One of the areas of this multi-faceted business is a segment that was already being dedicated to producing safety and health solutions, including signage and hand-sanitizer stands.
The company utilized its experience in producing these elements to design a wide range of free, sharable images for COVID-19 signage that advises social distancing, wearing and disposal of face masks, hand washing, and images encouraging “we will beat this together.” At the time this article is being written, the designs have been downloaded, and in many cases printed, more than 30,000 times, in more than 150 countries.
According to founder Peter Lineal, Plum Grove has undertaken this effort to serve two purposes. “First and foremost,” he says, “this is intended as a means to give back. Since Plum Grove is currently receiving benefits from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, dedicating a portion of our resources and expertise to help slow the spread of the virus is the right thing to do.” Second, he says the company is providing situation-specific signage that just did not exist before.
Available on its website, Plum Grove also offers a wide range of COVID-19-specific floor decals, yard signs, and banners. These items are available through an online store, and are sold with no minimums. Lineal said that while the sales model is new for Plum Grove, the online store was already under development and the company has taken advantage of its functionality.
The elements offered in the online store allow businesses of any size to acquire thoughtfully-designed, durable graphics that contribute to the safety of both employees and customers. The elements will be of essential importance in the re-opening of many businesses and public buildings.
Regarding business recovery and the road ahead, Lineal draws wisdom from experience. “I started my company in 1980 when interest rates were very high. We’ve been through the dot-com crash, 9/11, and the Great Recession. Companies need a plan to react to the inevitable,” he points out.
In the near term, however, Lineal expects a great deal of industry consolidation.
The Right Moves to Make
Industry consultant Pat McGrew (McGrewGroup Inc.) sees the state of business in today’s COVID-19 influenced industry as a “moving target.” The outlook, at the time this article was written, has stabilized somewhat from its precipitous, initial decline, she says. But the playing field is not steady, and much is unsure.
Some segments of the commercial printing sector have seen steep declines, while others — some transactional printers, she offers, as an example — are seeing increases in work due to increased communication between financial and medical institutions and their respective clients. Quick printers are finding tough times, as walk-up traffic has, for the time being, stopped.
In her discussions with equipment vendors, McGrew has heard that many of the major capital investments in the pipeline before the pandemic crisis began are still moving forward. She has even heard from other companies who are looking to add equipment as they reset and modify their product mix to meet current needs.
As an example, McGrew offered that the use of floor graphics is skyrocketing, as the movement of persons through retail and other public settings has become imperative.
For any company looking to position itself for recovery, she offers three strategies. The first is to take a hard look at your business as it is today and ask if you have the right product mix now, and in the years ahead. McGrew urges companies to identify those products that are no longer relevant, and those that can offer an increased opportunity. Ask yourself what your customers are going to want to buy in the next six to nine months.
She also says that now is the perfect time to take a hard look at workflow to determine if (and where) there is waste in your processes. Look into areas where manual workflow may be preventing efficient production, and find solutions for them. This step is important in general, but gains additional gravity as a bulwark against potential, future waves of the virus. Further, it can ease production amid a minimized production staff.
Lastly, McGrew says this is the time to investigate and practice new things within your business. Get your staff on board to understand the full capabilities of the processes you have and the application areas they can serve. If your production is currently slow, then now is the time to perfect the processes that will lead you toward new opportunities. Ask yourself: what can we do, and what can we make, that we haven’t?
McGrew believes that, after recovery, the commercial printing sector will be similar but different, with a strong focus on short-run printing, and perhaps the end of the warehousing of “pre-printed stuff.”
Among the traits she has noticed among business owners who have responded positively to the COVID-19 crisis — above all, they're flexible. The companies highlighted in this article were able to branch elegantly from their status quo to find new business, serve the community, and protect their businesses and employees.
“This is a time,” McGrew advises, “to be smart about the business, to move conservatively AND proactively, and to market the business effectively.”
The Future Is Unwritten
When the COVID-19 crisis will abate is currently unknown. While the country — and the world — seeks to re-open, rebuild and re-energize, the timeline is hazy. Governments are left to wonder what is “too soon,” and to balance that decision with what is “too late” for businesses and the economy. Will there be a second wave of the virus? When will a vaccine be in place?
This and many other questions are currently conjecture. As an industry and a society, we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Related story: Life After COVID-19 (Part 1)