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Kent Larson of Bridgeport National Bindery on evolving from binding to printing

Published on June 6, 2012

Bridgeport National Bindery Vice President Kent Larson talks with Cary Sherburne about their business and how they evolved from binding only to printing and binding. They discuss HP's impact on this transition and how the digital transformation of the industry is changing the nature of book printing.

Cary Sherburne:  Hi, Cary Sherburne, Senior Editor at WhatTheyThink.com and I'm here with Kent Larson, who is Vice President at Bridgeport National Bindery in Western Massachusetts.  Welcome.

Kent Larson:  Yes.  Thank you.

Cary Sherburne:  So why don't you start by telling us a little bit about your business and what your production platform looks like and that kind of thing?

Kent Larson:  Sure.  Our business is really has its roots in library binding.  Basically doing one book at a time for-

Cary Sherburne:  Hardback.

Kent Larson:  Hardcover mostly, yes, occasionally soft cover, but mostly library binding is one book at a time, for colleges and universities, corporate, medical libraries who needed to have books bound and put back so that they will stay on the shelves and not have issues strewn about the library you know and so our whole business is focused on a streamlined workflow yet at the same time very labor intensive because we're touching all of these issues and putting them together using various types of binding methods and we don't know exactly what substrates we're getting, so we've got to be very careful and so our focus has always been on binding, case binding.  And so what has happened over the years is the digital change that really started happening in the early 90s.  We started getting calls from a number of different printers who had put in digital presses and those printers were asking us to do what they thought were really short runs.  You know, "Man can you do 150 books?"  And we said gee that's highway miles.  That's great.  Thank you.  Bring it on.  We'd love to.  And at the time what they were looking for was the ability to do short runs, 150 to 500 basically hardcover books that had the mimic and the look, the facsimile of what a traditionally bound book looked like coming off of automated equipment, but those were obviously done in much larger runs and so our key was being able to do a book that was well produced, had a nice rounded and back spine and was able to be done in short quantities.

So we were getting books that were 150 to 500 orders and at the time it was tempting to get into printing, but we felt that that was not our time, not our market.  Our customers were printers and it wasn't right for us to go around them and so we just bided our time knowing that the production runs were going to continue to go south and sure enough that's what happened with the electronic—digitization kept going on through the 90s and at the turn of the century what really happened was a lot of people said hey, these 500s became hundreds, became 50s, became 10s and then imagine printing one book.  I can't put that in a box and ship it to you and have you bind it, that's too crazy, so let's develop a workflow here and that's where we got into printing.  That's what germinated Bridgeport backing into the—backing up the production chain and so one thing led to another and a few years later we had some inquiries for photo books because photo books were oh wow we can do this as a paperback, but wow, Bridgeport can you do this as a really nice deluxe hardcover and doing that as a hardcover it means maybe some different cloth, some foil stamping, things like that and really well made because people who are doing these books need to have this rich, coffee table experience that it's their baby and so that's when we went six years ago in '06 to the IPEX show in Birmingham, England and walked into the HP booth and said that's the machine.

Cary Sherburne:  So which one did you end up getting?

Kent Larson:  The 5500 was the first one.

Cary Sherburne:  5500.

Kent Larson:  Yeah, we put it in, basically looked at it and said wow, I guess we're into color printing and we you know.  Honestly we're a bindery.  We didn't really know a ton about printing, so it's been an evolution over the past several years for us to get to know color management and all of those things that printers know.  We have the advantage of knowing binding and but...

Cary Sherburne:  And how was HP at helping you on that learning curve then?

Kent Larson:  Huge, absolutely huge.  You know we really rely on the collaborative.  The collaborative approach has been great.  So the best thing about it was—really it was about a year ago that we realized wait a second, we've got to really understand color better, we've got to really understand substrates better and so we've worked with some folks at HP that have just been incredibly helpful getting us to understand that world so that we can really take our skill set, which is binding and marry it with the real magic that happens with the HP.

Cary Sherburne:  Now I understand a couple of your customers are pretty well known kind of books on demand companies.

Kent Larson:  This is true, yes.  We have several companies that have partnered with us.  One of our main goals as a bindery is to satisfy whoever comes to us with the highest quality product.  And I mentioned going to IPEX.  Well when we went to IPEX with blurb back in the early days and also back in those early days we had folks like—people like Lu Lu [ph] interested, people at the time known as Book Surge who eventually became Create Space interested.  So back in the early days there were these ideas that were being formed about what the book of one can be and it is yes, we're still doing a lot of black and white, but the color space has really grown and what's interesting and dynamic now is where the art community and the fine art publishers are heading because it doesn't make sense to produce 25,000 books when you know you've only sold maybe 250.  Why would you produce them at a fraction of the cost in China and have them imported just to sit in a warehouse?  That doesn't make sense.

Cary Sherburne:  Yeah and gather dust, yeah.

Kent Larson:  Yeah, so the digital approach is so much more practical.  Yes, it might be higher per unit, but at the end of the day you've produced your job.  You're on to something else.

Cary Sherburne:  Well and think about it.  If you print 25,000 and only use 250 it's a pretty high cost per copy.  You do the math.

Kent Larson:  I'll let you begin starting to convince publishers of that for sure.

Cary Sherburne:  And so right now your average run length is one point-

Kent Larson:  It's generally we you know.  It's hard to calculate specifically, but we're between 1.5 and 2.

Cary Sherburne:  That's great.

Kent Larson:  Yeah and it's not so much the books per order.  It's the orders per day and this goes back to the system, the ability to calculate all of the orders that are going on and shipping out in a day and then having to reconcile those so that your customers have a bill at the end of the day that you know that it is completely reconciled, pages printed, books bound, where it's shipped.  All that information is backed up and that's a pretty critical component.  So having HP understand the IT side of things as well as the quality side of things with regards to their Indigo presses is pretty critical for us absolutely.

Cary Sherburne:  That's great.

Kent Larson:  Yeah.

Cary Sherburne:  What a great story.  Thank you for sharing.

Kent Larson:  Thanks for your time.

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