Printing Industry Trends Reflected in 2023 Printing Impressions 300 Ranking of Largest Printers
It's hard to believe we recently published the 2023 Printing Impressions 300 list of the top printing companies in the U.S. and Canada, as ranked by annual sales — our 40th annual list. Aside from keeping a performance scorecard for individual print services providers, our venerable annual ranking of the largest printers serves as a barometer on the state of the printing industry as a whole.
Longtime subscribers to Printing Impressions will recall that our list included 500 companies for several years, then dropped to 400 — primarily the result of printing industry consolidation — followed by declines to 350 in 2020, and then to 300 in 2021 — this time, largely due to the pandemic’s negative impact on sales volumes within the graphic arts industry, which further drove M&A activity.
Nevertheless, RR Donnelley (RRD) has remained atop the list for four decades, despite its 2016 breakup into three separate companies (of which Donnelley Financial Solutions and LSC Communications, MCLC Div./Lakeside Book still remain in the rankings). Notable, too, is RRD’s private equity (PE) ownership — following a lengthy bidding war — by Chatham Asset Management, which reflects an industry trend that continues to permeate throughout the graphic arts.
Private Equity Targets Largest Printers
In fact, of the Top 25 companies ranked on the 2023 Printing Impressions 300 (PI 300), at least six are owned by private equity, including PE firms Atlas Holdings, Cerberus Capital Management, and ICV Partners. Private equity favors the printing industry for investment, in part, because our industry has relatively consistent cash flows in comparison to many other industries, despite the tight margin pressures printers face.
New to private equity ownership in 2023 (Monomoy Capital Partners) was No. 32-ranked Japs-Olson Co. in St. Louis Park, Minnesota — ending a long era of stewardship by the Beddor and Murphy families. It joins the ranks of fellow PE-backed direct mail printing powerhouses SG360° in Wheeling, Illinois (ICV Partners), IWCO in Chanhassen, Minnesota (Cerberus Capital), and DCG One in Seattle (Clavis Capital), among others.
Appearing for the first time on our PI 300 ranking, at No. 10, is $640 million in sales Marketing.com, which — under the ownership of JAL Equity, led by Eran Salu — has largely remained out of the industry limelight. Offering marketing services, commercial and direct mail printing, mailing and fulfillment, signage, garments, and more, the Eureka, Missouri-based company now consists of 32 locations, mainly through acquisitions.
Similarly, privately held CJK Group, led by CEO Chris Kurtzman, ranked No. 11, continues to consolidate the book manufacturing market. The other most active printing industry consolidators currently include No. 6 ranked Taylor Corp. in North Mankato, Minnesota; No. 12 ranked Mittera in Des Moines, Iowa; No. 59 ranked BR Printers in San Jose, California; and JAL Equity in Sarasota, Florida.
But the real heart and soul of the 2023 PI 300 ranking — just as in past years — comprises the entrepreneurial driven, mid- and smaller-size printing companies that make up the core of the list. Privately held, many of them remain family owned and operated enterprises.
Nevertheless, private equity investment groups continue to gain ownership stakes in midsize companies — such as No. 50 ranked Sandy Alexander (Snow Peak) in Clifton, New Jersey; No. 52 ranked Showdown Displays (Pfingsten Partners) in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; and No. 64 ranked Prisma Graphic (CenterGate Capital) in Phoenix, Arizona to name a few.
Selling all, or a partial stake, to private equity has increasingly become an avenue for owners of privately-owned printing companies to cash out as a succession plan. Private equity investors have also provided the funding for companies to make needed capital equipment investments that drive automation and efficiencies within today’s high-cost labor environment, as well as to enable platform growth to seek further M&A opportunities.
Printing Industry Segments: Some Up, Some Down
With commercial printing sales only expected to grow 1.5% to 3% this year — similar to what occurred in 2023 — according to a recent industry outlook authored by PRINTING United Alliance Chief Economist Andy Paparozzi, modest sales growth and tight margins continue to drive convergence trends throughout the printing industry. As reflected on the latest PI 300, commercial printers have expanded aggressively into less commoditized offerings such as packaging, wide-format digital printing, promotional products and apparel, fulfillment, and creative/agency services.
Convergence was on full display during the all-encompassing PRINTING United Expo 2023 in Atlanta last October. That trend will surely take center stage once again during PRINTING United Expo 2024 in Las Vegas, Sept. 10-12.
Direct mail printing remains a bullish industry segment, especially for highly personalized, data-driven mail pieces output on production inkjet printing presses. Unlike promotional email blasts — many of which go unread or get trapped in recipients’ spam folders — marketers realize that direct mail will at least reach the mailboxes of their targeted audiences. The shift to remote workplaces during Covid-19 also benefitted direct mail demand. Even so, what have been frequent postal rate hikes are taking their toll on overall direct mail piece quantities and expenditures.
Book manufacturing, which also benefitted from the pandemic-related lockdowns, is also facing some headwinds, partly due to bloated publisher inventories and a slowdown in reorders. Like direct mail, book printers are shifting to digital, primarily inkjet, book printing workflows that enable just-in-time output based on actual publisher demand versus forecasting models.
As our 2023 PI 300 list illustrates, the lines of demarcation that once separated printers based on product and service offerings have blurred. Consequently, there is no single highway to success when it comes to a print provider's product mixes, service offerings, and market verticals being served. Thus, the rules of the road and speed limits remain in constant flux.
I've always been amazed at the long tail of the PI 300 in terms of its visibility beyond the printing industry — to buyers, marketers, brand managers, mainstream media and analysts, and, in more recent years, the Wall Street and private equity investor communities. But one constant, for me at least, is my sincere gratitude to the multitude of printers who have participated in our annual rankings, which have chronicled the ups and downs of our great industry, these past four decades.
Click here to download the complete 40th annual Printing Impressions 300 list of the largest printing companies in the U.S. and Canada, as ranked by annual sales.