Martin James: Always Ready for a Challenge
If there’s one characteristic that defines Martin James’ life it’s his willingness to take a chance on something new. One early example was back in his senior year of high school in Knox, Ind., in 1977, when James, now manager of Graphic Communications at Deer Valley Unified School District (DVUSD), took a spring break trip to visit relatives in Phoenix — and decided to move there, to the surprise of his parents.
“I told them I was done with the winters back there,” he recalls.
Six months after he had relocated in 1979, his parents followed his lead.
With no job prospects awaiting him, James spent the next five years working odd jobs and taking general business courses. The printing industry was far from his mind.
“I really never looked at printing as an opportunity,” he admits. “I had nobody in the printing industry in my family.”
What his family did have, though, was an entrepreneurial spirit, and by 1985 he was ready to move forward with running his own business, together with his parents and his new wife Cheryl.
“We were looking for a business to buy, and we came across an opportunity with Alphagraphics, and we jumped in with both feet,” he explains.
After a month of training from the international franchisor, James was off and running, relying on his staff to run the offset and digital presses while he concentrated on finding new revenue streams.
“I went out in my community and knocked on doors, from mom-and-pops to national banks,” he says. He pulled in clients like Bank of America and Honeywell, and gradually grew the business. The shop went from 2,500 sq. ft. to 7,500 sq. ft. as he added equipment and employees. By 1992 it boasted annual sales of $2 million and a staff of 15.
By then, however, his father had passed away, and the business wasn’t the same. Coupled with some disillusionment with Alphagraphics, James decided to sell the business and start his own company called Pro Forms.
“I basically took all my knowledge from Alphagraphics and brokered,” he says.
Into the In-plant World
After three years, he learned of a new opportunity from his wife, who was working at DVUSD.
“She said their print manager position came open,” James recalls. He decided to look into the job.
“It’s fun to open your own business, but you’re also the last one to get paid,” he laughs.
In January 1995, James started work as manager of Graphic Communications. Right away he shook things up.
“I wasn’t that familiar with in-plants, but I was familiar enough to tell them that we needed to run it like a business, and that I wanted to be self supportive,” he says. District officials agreed, if apprehensively. After all, this was not the way government entities worked back then.
The in-plant James walked into was very small and not well regarded.
“It just existed — and it barely existed,” he recalls.
With only a one-color press and a black-and-white digital printer in its 1,000-sq.-ft. space, the shop had just two part-time employees, and no sense of urgency about meeting deadlines. James’ work was cut out for him.
“I took it as a challenge and an opportunity,” he says.
As he had done at Alphagraphics, James hit the streets, looking for business.
“I started going out and bringing in external revenue from other school districts,” he says. “That was part of the business plan of offsetting our costs.” He managed to bring in work from 15 other districts over the next nine years. Internal business grew as well.
“By marketing our services, delivering a good product and delivering on time, we changed the reputation of this department,” he says.
The in-plant grew from two to seven full-time employees and relocated four times as it expanded, ending up in a 5,000-sq.-ft. facility. By bringing in employees who shared his entrepreneurial drive, he changed the attitude from lethargic to excited about each new order.
“If you’ve never been in the private sector where you have to compete … you don’t have that mindset,” he says. “Bringing that in, I think, that’s what sets us apart.”
In 2004, however, something would happen that would test the strength of that mindset change.
An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
James had been consulting on the side for CIK Enterprises, which sold direct mail to the automotive industry and also sold printed inserts to small and medium-sized newspapers. CIK wanted to expand westward.
“They made me an offer that it was hard to turn down,” James says. He was hired as VP of Western States for CIK. There he stayed for the next four years, until the 2008 recession forced the company to close his office. James went into consulting after that, but in 2013, DVUSD invited him back.
Things had changed. The in-plant had reverted to its old ways. Its external school district clients had dwindled from 15 to five, and the district was thinking of closing the shop. He was given two years to turn it around.
“I accepted that challenge,” he says.
James plunged immediately back into the quest for business from external districts. In the years that followed he brought in 37 new clients.
He also expanded the wide-format printing business and added two Epson printers.
“We’re going to be doing vehicle wraps by the end of this year,” he declares.
Under his direction, the in-plant has also started selling promotional items, saving the district 30-40% over what it was paying outside providers.
One initiative in which the in-plant has played a huge part has been the development of an online digital curriculum solution to allow every teacher at all 38 campuses to order math, reading and science curriculum. The district now utilizes royalty-free curriculum instead of buying traditional textbooks. These materials are printed in the Graphic Communications Department on Xerox D125 and Xerox 4127 printers and then three-hole punched for students’ three-ring binders. In the past five years, the in-plant has produced more than 125 million curriculum impressions, he says.
“We’ve saved over $1.3 million in teacher prep time from five years ago when they were doing this at a campus-based level on their own,” James says.
This accomplishment earned Graphic Communications the 2017 Innovation Award from the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association (IPMA). Each staff member was subsequently honored by the DVUSD school board. James says the in-plant is now offering curriculum printing to other school districts.
Since returning, James reports annual revenue increases of between 10-15% for Graphic Communications, with a 21% year-to-date increase so far in 2018. The in-plant produced $226,000 in external revenue last fiscal year. James is proud that his operation is “an asset, not a liability to Deer Valley.”
“We’ve got a great team that services our customer above and beyond,” he says. “I’m just kind of conducting the orchestra.”
The mindset of doing whatever it takes to make the customer happy is one James has fought hard to instill, and for a very good reason.
“If we’re not keeping our customers happy, it’s very easy to outsource this type of department,” he says.
James serves as membership director for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, an organization that has helped him gain most of his in-plant’s outside clients. He also enjoys attending the IPMA conference.
“It’s a great group of people to network with,” he lauds.
Outside of work, James enjoys golfing, traveling and spending time with his wife and daughter.
Related story: Deer Valley Schools In-plant Saluted for Innovation
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited more than 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.