Commentary & Analysis
Survival of the Small to Mid-sized Printing Company in Today's Chaotic Environment
By Wayne Lynn
Published: September 11, 2012
These times are challenging. Businesses are being threatened with tighter margins, increased competition and financial limitations. Suppliers, customers, and regulators are demanding more as they grapple with the uncertainty that global events are creating.
Leaders in business are accountable to effectively and efficiently deal with the external world, attract and retain top talent, and deliver bottom line results to all stakeholders.
This white paper deals with some of the most immediately beneficial strategies that leaders can pursue in increasing their opportunities to survive and thrive. We show how to make an immediate impact and how to improve your long-term business fundamentals.
The structure of the printing industry is evolving into what economists call the oligopoly market structure. Some call it the "barbell" structure. At one end of the barbell are a few but very large firms and, at the other end, over 25,000 others. Such is the end result of 3-4 decades of industry consolidation. At this point in time, if memory serves me, total industry revenues are split about 50-50 between the two ends of the barbell. The latest PIA data, however, suggest that the larger firms (and, by the way, there are about 2,500 or so if you use a dividing line of 100 employees and $10 million in sales) are growing again and almost no one else is. There are numerous reasons for this that include the fact that larger firms are starting to do "tuck in" acquisitions of smaller failing companies where the owner(s) have decided they need to get out before it is too late. The larger companies also, typically, have better sales forces and pricing power and can "cherry pick" a shrinking firm's customer base with better offerings and operational capabilities.
This is an important statement about our industry and where it's going. Here's why. Think Lowe's, Home Depot, and who? Think Wal-Mart, Sears/Kmart, Target and who? Three to four decades ago both the home improvement and discount department store retail categories were crowded with many more well established large players. What happened? The market dynamics of an oligopoly took over. Total category growth slowed down. The big players were public, subjected to the pressures of continual growth and improving profits. In a slowing market they started buying growth through acquisition of the smaller players. Where there was no suitable acquisition candidate, they simply used their economies of scale and squeezed out the local "mom and pop" stores who couldn't compete with their everyday low prices. Sound familiar?
The wave of consolidation in our industry that started as early as the 70's in some segments is not over. The general commercial segment, the industry's largest, is nowhere near done with this process.
The companies on the small end of the barbell (less than 100 employees) are struggling to compete and survive. Most are suffering long-term sales declines (since 2008) and still have debt on the books that was incurred when they were larger and still expected the market to grow. Total industry sales have declined by, at least, 25-30% in the past 4 years and offset lithography as a process has been shown to be in permanent decline. The total count of firms in the industry is now around 27,000. The overwhelming majority of those companies that have left the market are those with employee counts less than 50.
Internet and satellite based communication channels are eroding print's traditional media share and, since the advent of social media beginning in 2009, print volumes are shrinking even faster. Based on PIA and other sources, digital print and some ancillary services are the only parts of the industry growing now. Digital print volume has grown steadily for the past decade. Rising paper and postal costs have forced marketers to become more targeted with their mailings. Digital print's ability to produce variable content has helped with the push toward better targeting.
A recent edition of the quarterly PIA magazine had an article by Bill Lamparter with several predictions about some of the things discussed here. In that article, Bill makes the following predictions that, sometime in the next 3-5 years:
- The total market share of the offset process will shrink another 25%;
- The total market share of all digital printing will grow by 50%;
- As the two trend lines cross the two processes will have equal market share and, afterward, digital share will be larger than offset.
While Bill's numbers and timing may be off one way or the other, it is hard to argue that he is directionally wrong. I think company owners should consider this trending and their likely continuation as an important part of the decisions being made today to keep their companies viable and relevant in the market.
If what has happened in the discount department store, grocery store, drug store, and home improvement store retail segments is any indication, we will see continued shrinkage of total company counts in the industry. Due to the impacts of trends discussed above, the overall output of the traditional printing industry will continue to drop for another decade or so. More will be said about these trends in a later section.
Profitability distribution of the industry
For a long time, PIA ratio study data has painted a picture of typical profits in the industry that suggests two groupings similar to the one above. About 25% of the participating firms have, in most years enjoyed pre-tax margins of 8% and above. The remaining 75% have typically not shown profits and the combined industry average is usually in the 2-3% range. This has held true across all of the company size groupings in the industry.
The ratios of the profit leaders and profit laggards, respectively, are significantly different. However, from year to year the ratios of each have maintained a very consistent relationship with each other. If you totaled the impact of the differences in the profit leaders and laggards and mathematically reduced it to the average sales volume for each size category you saw millions of dollars of performance differential between the leaders and laggards on an industry wide basis. This has been true for a long time and speaks to a tale of two industries, not to be literary but to make the point.
Since the beginning of the Great Recession in late 2008, these trends have worsened and the performance of the laggards has dropped into territory that, at best, is characterized as perilous from a survival standpoint. Making matters worse, margins in the smallest sized groups are significantly lower than the margins in the largest couple of groups. This may explain why firms from these groups are leaving the industry at a rate much higher than the largest ones.
The characteristics of the profit leaders have helped many of them weather the storm of the economic woes of the US and, specifically, the printing industry. These companies tend to not only be more profitable but, also, more productive, less indebted, less asset intensive which allows higher asset velocity, and, probably more important than anything, have had market traction the laggards don't have and have come through these tough times with less impact on their top lines.
Not only do the profit leaders operate more viable businesses they appear to be more relevant in the market and to their customers. They display better adaptiveness in terms of their ability to change with the market and the environment. They have built into their DNA an ability to endure hardships, perform at consistently high levels, and keep on going.
Where are these trends going?
Total industry shipments (sales volume) have been declining since the 2007-08 time frames. Total company count in the industry has been shrinking since 1995. Run lengths, page counts, and average order sizes have been declining for years.
If, and it is increasingly likely, a true oligopoly market structure emerges, the following industry characteristics will prevail:
- The industry will be dominated by a few very large players who will control 70-80% of total revenues;
- The remaining 20-30% of all sales will be split among many small players who will comprise 80-90% of the total company count;
- The companies in the top 10-20% of the total count who are controlling 70-80% of all sales will, on average, be 25-30 times larger than the average company size of the bottom group;
- The average size of the bottom group will be significantly less than $2 million in annual sales;
- The number of companies in this group may shrink to as low as 15,000; down from the current 25,000.
- The industry will slowly become more profitable as the profit laggards continue to go out of business or get gobbled up by larger firms as "tuck-in" transactions.
Consistent, year over year growth will be a thing of the past for all but the best performers until this market restructuring has run its course. Faced with this, the average small to mid-sized company owner has the following set of options:
1. Do whatever is necessary to get your company's performance to current profit-leader levels and then sell it for the highest multiple you can get from one of the consolidators.
2. If that is not achievable, find a company who will benefit from your sales volume and sell your book of business for the highest royalty you can get for the next 3-4 years. Liquidate all the assets of your company that the acquirer can't use, settle your debts, and, hopefully, walk away with some cash in your pocket to add to the royalties. If your chemistry is compatible with the acquiring owner(s), take a job with them and enjoy life a little more.
3. If you have too much debt but believe you can make a go of it with some type of relief, begin Chapter 11 proceedings, reorganize your firm, and, hopefully, emerge with a profitable future ahead.
4. If you have persisted in the belief that, when the economy turns around, you will be OK, and you have procrastinated on tough decisions about your cost structure…make those decisions NOW! Quit kidding yourself. This is the new normal and this is where you are going to be operating your business for years to come. Do the things you need to do to become viable, creating the platform to survive and thrive again!
5. If you are a profit leader, find and acquire books of business through tuck-ins. If you desire to execute an exit strategy eventually, keep growing for as long as you can, raising your EBITDA, and showing a track record of rising equity and then sell to a consolidator. If you want to remain independent, find a defendable niche and move away from the mainstream.
6. If none of these are options…punt. Life is too short. God probably has another plan for you anyway!
Effective management…the missing link
Human civilization has been built on cumulative knowledge and learning. The technological wonders of today's world are the application of millennia of accumulated scientific knowledge. Scientific inquiry has created systems of thought that are used to explain much of the known universe. Other fields of human endeavor have progressively copied the scientific method and built their own accumulated systems of thought. These systems are used to explain what's going on in the worlds of both individuals and organizations. As well, these systems can be used to guide their actions toward productive ends.
As the industrial revolution of the 18th century matured and the modern corporation came into full bloom in the 20th century, the field and practice of management developed. Led by many thinkers including Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford, and Peter Drucker, management theorists and practitioners began to build a system of thought to deal with the complexities of a global economy and a world of rapidly rising expectations, technological change, and political upheaval.
The forces of globalization have created a world economy where the production of goods goes to the lowest cost producer, no matter the location. This forces all players, no matter where you are on the continuum of size and scale, to play by the same rules. By definition, this means even the small and mid-sized company owner must know the rules, speak the language, and possess the critical skill sets and mind sets. Said another way, they must understand and be able to use the thought system of business success.
Sustained business success is a hard thing to achieve. Many authors over the past century have offered up various theories that claim to be the final answer. While helpful, many of these miss the mark, overcomplicating an area of human endeavor whose fundamentals have not changed much in 4,000 years.
A useful thought system or business theory is emerging, however. Research, over the past 25-30 years, has shown that successful businesses tend to have four fundamental attributes. In summary, the four attributes are as follows.
- Viability: This is about keeping the company in a state of financial health. This is done by looking at the right numbers and looking at them the right way. Then, do the right things dictated by what the numbers are saying.
- Relevance: This is about understanding what your customers consider value. It is, ultimately about how to look at the revenue side of the business. To get to relevance, you must answer some tough questions about why your customers buy what they do and what they don't.
- Adaptive: This is about dealing effectively with changes in the market, technology, and customer needs. This is the essence of being an entrepreneur. It is the skill of taking small steps with minimal but defined affordable loss; evaluating what you've learned; repeating until you've achieved your goal, realized you can't, or decided to change direction on the basis of what you've learned.
- Durable: This is the broadest area. Over the course of years it is perhaps the most crucial. It is about your values, and the way you lead. It defines how your company, as a team, will respond to a crisis. It provides the norm for handling those ugly situations where you've disappointed a major customer, it's not all your fault, but you've got to live to fight another day. It also determines whether your company will naturally learn and grow and get better over time. Said another way, durability is the ability to produce predictable, consistent results over the long term.
These four attributes provide a useful model of the business fundamentals that are needed to succeed over long periods of time. They also provide a practical backdrop for comparing alternatives as you plot out the strategy and future direction of your business. In addition they provide a very powerful tool that a small but dedicated and committed team can use to overcome the talent gap between themselves and the big guys.
The essence (meaning) of the 4 attributes
Viable, in Webster's New World Dictionary is defined as workable and likely to survive and to have real meaning, pertinence, and substance. The word was chosen to represent the fundamental attribute of successful companies having to do with financial performance. As demonstrated in the definition, viable connotes not just surviving and "workable" performance but doing so in a way that is robust enough to generate real strength and, eventually, wealth through the creation of increasing equity.
The heart of viability is the concept of ROI or return on investment. ROI has two components:
- Profit or free cash flow as a % of sales. This is called margin.
- Sales divided by net assets. This is called velocity.
ROI is calculated by multiplying margin times velocity.
A viable business is one that consistently generates a good ROI for its investors and/or owners. Achieving viability, therefore, requires working on the things that drive good margins and high velocity.
Most investors and business owners invested their money into companies with the expectation that there would be, at some point in the future, a payback or return on that investment. Return expectations take several forms but, generally, they center on the notion that the investors will "exit" at some point and cash out when the "market value" of the company has peaked or reached a desired level. For an owner to achieve this, he must operate his company at a high, growing level of viability for a long enough period of time to raise the market value to the desired levels.
Strong viability always precedes high market value which precedes increased personal wealth. In addition, from another perspective, strong viability enables a company to work on and afford the things that make it more relevant, adaptive, and durable.
While it is neither necessary, nor desirable in some respects, that companies achieve benchmark levels of financial performance before working on the other three attributes, it is very desirable that companies achieve this in order to achieve sustained success in the other areas. Doing so also teaches disciplines and mindsets that help in the other 3 areas.
Being viable has 5 components:
- Good margins
- High asset velocity
- Strong cash flow
- High productivity
- Balanced debt to equity
Viability is driven by understanding and acting in four critical areas.
1. Knowing the numbers, specifically the key numbers that profit leaders exhibit in their financials.
a. Understanding what drives those numbers.
b. Knowing what needs to be done to cause good numbers to materialize.
2. Knowing your break-even point.
a. Paying close attention to revenues, pricing, mix, and their relationships to break-even performance.
b. Having contingency plans in place to lower the break-even point when sales slow to a level where there is danger of going into negative earnings and cash flow.
3. Understanding the notion of being "right-sized".
a. Working hard to keep headcounts, assets, and debt at profitable levels.
b. Thinking twice about investing in assets that won't "turn" at least twice a year.
c. Requiring employees to have multiple skills to flex with changing mixes of work thus helping to keep headcount under control.
d. Keeping debt service at less than 8-10% of net sales.
4. Paying close attention to cash flow at all levels, including various levels of the income statement and working capital.
a. Looking at free cash flow more than accounting profit except when calculating income taxes or tax deductions that are applicable to capital project paybacks.
b. Making working capital cycle as fast as possible and insuring it does not get hung up in slow moving inventories or sit for more than a few hours before a completed order is converted into an account receivable.
Working on viability involves a process. It goes something like this:
- Get educated on what benchmark level performance means.
- Set up your financial reports in a way that measures your company's performance in a close replication of the PIA Ratio Studies formats and data.
- Take 2-3 years of history and analyze your performance formatted in this way.
- Look at your numbers and compare them to the benchmarks.
- Highlight the areas where you have opportunities to improve as suggested by the comparisons to the benchmarks.
- Using data from the analysis of margins, velocity, productivity, cash flow, and leverage; carefully think through a plan to move toward benchmark levels of performance.
- Act on the plan.
- Analyze the impacts of that action.
- Adjust accordingly and act again.
- Continue until benchmark performance is achieved.
- Monitor performance monthly and adjust when trending is negative, therefore, maintaining your performance at high levels and correcting bad trends before they get out of control.
To find the word relevance in a list of four fundamental attributes of successful businesses may be strange to some. It was selected carefully.
In the end, it was the best choice to describe the seeking of adequate amounts of revenue to insure a company's sustained success over the long haul. It takes a certain level of sales to insure viability in the short term. That means you must be selling what the market is buying. That's the starting point of relevance.
Over time, things change around you in the market and with your customers. You must redefine your relevance to your customers and the marketplace by adapting what you sell to meet their changing needs.
What are your customers buying from you? What are they not buying and why? How do you create a working partnership with customers because you do things for them they can't do well and, therefore, don't want to do? What would your customers buy from you if they could?
Being relevant is also driven by four actions.
- First, successful firms are focused on serving the needs of a highly defined target audience.
- They develop a deep understanding of the customers' business and business processes and tailor their offerings in specific and meaningful ways. They deliver value by devising ways to use print and print-friendly media in combination for better results.
- Successful companies acquire the necessary assets to meet those needs and don't go overboard with equipment and software that will not be used all the time. They find partners to meet those occasional demands from customers.
- Lastly, they will define a strong value proposition matching their offerings to customer needs and clearly communicate it to the market and within the organization.
Remember this; if you are relevant, customers trust you as the expert.
Over the long haul, your company will go through many cycles of market change. Constant adaptation must become part of your firm's DNA. This ingredient, coupled with constant attention to the disciplines of viability and adaptiveness, are the foundations of durable, sustained success.
The pure operational definition of relevance is growing sales. To not grow is irrational. You lose customers through attrition over time. Customers change their direction and leave you with holes in your top line you must fill. Technology changes and new products/processes take the place of what you sell to your customers. Viewed this way, assuming you have no need or desire to grow leads only to decline. You've got to grow to keep up. You need to grow more than enough to just keep up because there is always a day of reckoning where, if you haven't grown and, you haven't paid attention to the disciplines of viability; you'll be facing a game changing event and you won't have enough money to either survive a catastrophe or invest in a change needed to keep up with your customers and competitors.
The purest strategic definition of relevance is provided by answering the following 10 questions:
- What is the market buying?
- How has that changed in the last 2-3 years?
- Which are you set up to sell: what the market was buying 2-3 years ago or what it is buying now?
- If you are not set up for the current market, what do you need to do to get there?
- If you are set up properly, what would make you better than anyone else in your market?
- Do you have the resources to improve to this level?
- Assuming you can get to this state of readiness, do you have the skills to sell what the market is now buying?
- If not, how are you going to get those skills?
- Once you have retrained and/or retooled your sales effort, are you selling what the market is buying?
- Are your overall sales growing as a result of these new sales?
If you can successfully work your way through these 10 questions (and it will not come overnight) you will become relevant in your current market. By working your way through this list you have begun to refine the adaptive skills of successful companies. If you can repeatedly work your way through this list as the normal evolutions of the market play out over time, you have acquired the durability required for long term success.
Adaptive is the word chosen as the third attribute of successful companies. The words innovative and improving were also considered. The definitions of all three are below:
- Adaptive: able to adapt and make suitable to the situation or circumstances
- Innovative: able to create and introduce new methods, devices, products, processes, ideas
- Improving: continuously raising to a better quality or condition; make better
After a lot of consideration, adaptive was chosen for two reasons:
- It is a perfect fit for the process used by serial entrepreneurs of incrementally moving toward the thing that will work/sell in the marketplace;
- Pragmatically, it resonates better with the realities of small and mid-size businesses.
The word improving and its definition are very much aligned with the quality movement and its theme of continuous improvement. While a worthwhile pursuit for almost any company, it is a formal approach and doesn't fit well with the messiness of entrepreneurial activity and smaller business life.
Innovative is also a concept used constantly in larger companies and a bit formal also. Not many organizations are truly innovative…not having the structure, skills, and talent to achieve true innovation.
It is felt that the adaptive skills of the serial entrepreneurial are the most important and useful for the small and mid-sized business owner. Being adaptive is about being entrepreneurial. The point is that successful entrepreneurs don't just "think different". They translate that thinking into immediate action, often eschewing or ignoring analysis. Rather than try to predict the future, they try to create it.
Instead of starting with a predetermined goal, these entrepreneurs allow opportunities to emerge; instead of focusing on optimal returns, they spend more time considering their acceptable loss; and instead of searching for perfect solutions, they look for good-enough ones.
Anyone engaged in entrepreneurial endeavor can and should follow the same process when confronting the unknown because it is an extremely low-risk way to launch new projects. It also involves only a few simple steps:
- Plan: Think through a first (or next) smart step.
- Act: Carry out the smart step.
- Learn: Evaluate the evidence you've created.
- Build: Repeat steps 1,2 and 3 until you accomplish your goal, realize you can't, or opt to change direction on the basis of new information.
What's a smart step? There are 4 parts.
- Act quickly with what is at hand.
- Determine what you can afford to pay to play and what you want to pay to play. (What are you willing to risk in terms of time, money, and reputation?)
- Bring other people along. Build assets, spread the risk, get ideas, gain other perspective.
- Build off the unexpected. You will encounter problems and obstacles you did not anticipate. Turn them into assets.
Repeat these 4 steps until:
- You don't want to continue; or
- You exceed your affordable loss; or
- You prove to yourself it can't be done.
Durability was chosen as the name of the fourth fundamental attribute of successful companies. The dictionary definition of the word is stable and lasting in spite of hard wear and frequent use. This attribute is the summation of a number of things that, when added up together, give a company the ability to be stable and lasting. Many of these things often appear in the context of buzz words or lofty aspirations but, at a deep level, they must exist inside an organization as the glue that gives it stability, consistency, predictability, and character.
Organizations are comprised of human beings. Humans, possessing a will of our own, will tend to go in directions of our own choosing unless there are boundaries to undesirable behavior and motivators to induce desirable behavior. It is the systematic building of these parameters on behavior that creates the qualities that make organizations durable and, perhaps most important, effective.
Concepts like those in the following list are things being done in companies that contribute to the building of durability:
- Continuous learning
- Positive environment
- Systems thinking
- Performance management, i.e., expectations, measurement, feedback, rewards, and consequences
Many large organizations have tried most, if not all, of these concepts in the past few decades in the effort to create high performance. There have been varying degrees of success. Those that have focused on a few and stayed the course have probably done better at achieving their goals.
In any event, the creation of a durable business enterprise is the sum total of the things that the leaders put in place to bound unwanted behavior and motivate desired behavior. This effort is critically important for one central reason. Becoming viable, relevant, and adaptive (and maintaining those characteristics) is dependent on strong leadership and group of employees who display the right attitudes, disciplines, and flexibility to continuously, through the years, change in response to changes impacting the business. Those attitudes and disciplines can be chosen, implemented, and fostered.
There is one final capstone to this. It's called leadership. As humans, willfulness has a way of getting in our way. We can have boundaries to keep us in line. We will still slip up. We can have motivators in place to drive us toward our goals. That doesn't mean we'll respond. We need inspiration. That comes from a leader. A leader provides vision, meaning, measurement, and removes obstacles to people getting things done. Stable, consistent leadership is the cornerstone to durability.
Durable companies take the time to define the values that are the compass headings for which they want to be known for and remembered by. They use these values to frame and make crucial decisions; guide daily behavioral norms; hire, retain, and develop people; recognize and reward accomplishment; drive fear from their companies and create the most positive environment possible. They tend to build long-term relationships with customers, vendors, and lenders. They typically have low employee turnover and great loyalty.
The following four areas are at the core of creating a durable organization.
- The values that the company believes in are thought through, clarified, and communicated to all stakeholders of the company.
- These values are used as the filter to screen the hiring, retention, and development of the talent needed to achieve the vision, strategy, and goals of the company.
- The leaders of the company work constantly to drive fear out of the environment. The resulting positive atmosphere enables improvement, an open exchange of ideas, and acceptance of change.
- Accomplishment is recognized and rewarded. What gets rewarded gets done.
Tying it all together
This white paper has been written for a specific purpose. The printing industry, like many other American industries, has reached maturity and is on the downward slope of its lifecycle curve, thus shrinking. As we transition to a likely oligopolistic structure, the independence and survival of over half of the current company count is at risk. The small to mid-sized companies are particularly at risk.
Many of the owners of these smaller companies do not have the benefit of formal business training. They lack a coherent mental model of the fundamentals that give one a structured way of thinking about business. This was the purpose behind laying out the four fundamental attributes of successful companies. This model is built on asking common sense questions that anyone with a high school education and a willingness to think hard can use. It is humbly offered as a tool for the owners of printing companies to help them reach their goals…whether that be to execute an exit strategy or survive and prosper independently over the long term.
For the busy company leader looking for something to digest and use we have provided the following:
Mistakes to avoid:
- Don't assume you're immune from the big picture. The trends impacting the industry and the economy are impacting you too. Since 1995, thousands of owners have chosen not to heed the warning signs or not to act decisively to save their companies.
- Don't be afraid to act because you don't know what to do. There are lots of people out there with the expertise to help you.
- Don't take on more debt without financials that are the profit leader category. You'll just go broke faster.
- Don't assume that sales will cure all your problems. Sales growth is exceedingly difficult in this environment. Don't blindly reduce prices trying to drive volume. The only beneficiary will be the random "price buyer" customer who will not be loyal to you. Consistently doing this may accelerate not only your demise but your competitor also.
Some practical advice that can bring you results in just weeks:
- Really analyze your financials. Compare your numbers to the profit leaders in the PIA ratio studies. Find the areas where you are out of line. Do something about it!
- Find someone who can come in and train your sales team, in a hands on way, how to sell solutions. Participate yourself…then lead the charge!
- Referring to the first bullet above, you will likely struggle to get your headcount and payroll costs in line because of "specialists". Look deeply and analyze your people's talents. Find ways to reduce headcount by cross-training everyone else.
- Look for ways to grow your existing customer base. There are always opportunities to go "wider and deeper".
- Use your web store front capabilities to automate the handling of incoming jobs. The high transaction costs of the past are deadly in this era of shrinking order sizes.
Special offer: Exploration Session
If you are interested in learning more about how to survive and thrive in this challenging and dynamic environment, you can contact us at 704-516-7787 or wlynn8697@gmailcom. Please call or email to set a schedule to talk. The first conversation is over the phone and free.