Making the Big Plays
As director of Printing, Mailing and Document Services for the University of Oklahoma—renowned for its storied Sooners football team, this year's Big 12 preseason favorite—John Sarantakos is used to thinking big and going long.
"I'm always looking to buy new things, and I'm not afraid to take chances," he declares. "Being a larger operation makes it easier to provide new services. Smaller equipment investments can be made when the ROI may not be as favorable as you might like."
With annual sales in excess of $16 million and 78 employees, OU Printing, Mailing and Document Services is the largest university in-plant in the country according to annual sales. The operation comprises:
- A 60,000-square-foot off-campus facility in Norman, Okla., housing prepress, offset printing, bindery, mailing and warehousing.
- The Collums center (on campus), which includes the campus mailing operation, document production, novelty sales and light digital production services.
- Two satellite copy facilities in the Oklahoma Memorial Union center on campus and in the Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
Impressive Offset Operation
Sarantakos acknowledges that the in-plant's size has increased its ability to take risks with purchasing. Six years ago, the operation made a significant investment considered unorthodox for an in-plant: it purchased an eight-color sheetfed press—a 28x40˝ Heidelberg perfector. How has that purchase panned out?
"It's been even better than expected and a reason our overall sales have increased [by $3 million since 2008]," Sarantakos says. "Since its installation, the press has been running three shifts per day. The savings related to the increased efficiencies in conjunction with the one-pass-and-done process have allowed us to increase quality and reduce prices."
That quality boost brought the in-plant a prestigious Best of Show award in the In-Print 2010 contest, and the shop consistently earns multiple Gold awards in that contest each year.
The productivity of the eight-color press allowed the in-plant to retire its five-color 40˝ Miller.
"It was just taking up space and collecting dust," Sarantakos explains. "The floor space was more important to us." The in-plant freed up even more of that floor space by moving its bindery and warehouse and taking over an additional 15,000 square feet in its multi-tenant building.
Since then, Sarantakos has kept the ball moving to maintain the in-plant's services at championship caliber. His unwavering motivation to speed production, maximize productivity and add value to product/service offerings has driven specific investments and upgrades.
"We upgraded our [Kodak] NexPress to a 3300 a little over a year ago, and extended the feeder for up to 14x36˝ sheets," he says. "Not only can we produce jobs at faster speeds, but we have been able to up the break-even point for our 29˝ manroland [offset press]."
The in-plant also added a Kodak Digimaster HD300 and a Ricoh Pro 8110S with a bookletmaker for black-and-white work, along with a Ricoh Pro C751 color printer to back up the NexPress digital color production press.
Digital printing sales continue to grow, Sarantakos says, and currently account for about 25 percent of the overall budget. "And we are doing much more variable data than we were even a year ago," he declares. (See sidebar.)
The in-plant also added a new standalone perfect binder for the digital press for fast-turnaround, short-run perfect bound books, which permits more work to be done in-house.
"Sub-contracting less makes us stronger," Sarantakos insists.
Another recent purchase was a new business card slitter. "The slitter does 500 cards in three minutes," Sarantakos reports, "whereas it took 10 to 12 minutes to cut that many manually." Plus, he points out, while the slitter is running, attendants are able to walk away from the machine and perform other tasks. A new continuous-feed laminator for four-sided lamination also enables unattended operation.
The mailing operation was upgraded recently with a newer-version Pitney Bowes inserter. The in-plant handles internal mail, as well as the distribution of U.S. mail via two contract postal stations (on and off campus) that "act like real post offices," says Sarantakos. "We're not doing anything out of the ordinary, but our people are handling postal transactions that would normally require a trip to the local post office."
Extreme Staff Loyalty
Those employees and the entire in-plant staff demonstrate extreme loyalty and a collective positive attitude about their jobs (plus the ability to perform superlatively). Despite the low turnover rate, however, five employees have retired just in the last year, leaving more work for fewer people.
"And it's getting harder and harder to find qualified people," Sarantakos notes.
One of those retirees had 38 years of service, while another left after 35 years. "Then there was the young guy—he was only here for 29 years," Sarantakos jokes.
At OU, employee longevity correlates with opportunity. "Although there are no automatics, we offer career paths that staff can move up," he says, noting that "one retiree who started out as a press feeder ended up a supervisor and another as head pressman."
Sarantakos also has the right attitude to keep everyone on target, while encouraging outside-the-box thinking to add value and profit. He has led the operation to embrace capabilities such as wide-format printing, along with more recent endeavors like engraving, dye-sublimation printing and sales of novelty items.
"Did we need a laser engraver? No, but I believed that we could make money with one—and we did," Sarantakos reports. "We'll engrave on anything: pens, pocket knives, wood, metal, glass, coffee cups, name tags, pretty much whatever.
"We were turned on to dye-sub by a colleague and, as greedy as I am, we were all over it," he laughs.
Sarantakos describes novelty sales as more of a management function, working with customers to ascertain and fulfill what they want.
"We provide a wide range of products," he claims, noting that some of the department's biggest customers are housing and resident life, as well as admissions.
"If you're not into novelty sales, you're missing the boat," he opines. "At the end of the day, it's a profitable business, and that's another way to meet the needs of your parent organization."
Right Sizing Equipment
Yet, he also keeps in mind that bigger isn't better in every case. For example, while the in-plant has kept its satellite copy centers open, it has scaled back work there considerably.
"We got rid of a bunch of equipment that was oversized but under-utilized there and shifted that work to equipment [at the main facility] better able to handle those higher volumes," he says. The in-plant is also educating customers to print smarter in support of campus-wide print reduction initiatives.
Jobs produced at the main facility for satellite centers are typically printed overnight and delivered via courier the next morning. "We proved to the staff at the satellites that their customers are taken care of, that jobs will be in on time, and that they won't catch flack. We run three shifts, 24 hours, and we can get a lot printed."
Overall, demand for services will likely continue to rise. According to Sarantakos, the university is in a growth spurt resulting from new on-campus construction related to the weather industry. Beyond serving university campuses in Norman and Tulsa, as well as its Health Sciences Center, the in-plant also insources work from other universities, as well as state government and non-profit agencies.
The in-plant supports the community by doing work for charitable organizations and events (particularly those in which staff members are involved) such as the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity and the United Way.
All in all, Sarantakos is grateful that OU's in-plant is thriving financially and technologically. Still, he never takes his position for granted.
"Anybody working in an in-plant operation needs to understand that no one's job is completely secure," he emphasizes. "You have to stay on your toes, thinking constantly of better ways to service the university. The more ingrained you become with your parent company, the broader support you'll receive."
So Sarantakos will continue to sell the in-plant to its current and prospective customers, and actively search for new clients. "We're very heavy into marketing and advertise extensively," Sarantakos says. "We do everything we can to make sure our customers know about us and what we can do for them.
"Others may hide in the basement," he concludes. "We don't."
Related story: University of Oklahoma Wins Organizational Impact Award