For an organization that, in the words of one of its founding members, “came into existence almost entirely by accident,” the National Print Owners Association (NPOA) has traveled a remarkably long way in a surprisingly short time.

The 19 printers who launched it in December 2012 attracted others so quickly that the turnout for the group’s first annual meeting overwhelmed reservations at the hotel. “We expected 30, and we got 100,” recalls Jace Prejean, president of Bayou Printing & Graphics (Houma, LA) and president of NPOA.

Another NPOA founder and officer, John Henry, CEO of Mitchell’s Speedway Press (Oswego, NY), says that a “pent-up desire” for affiliation and respect among small printing firms is what drives the group’s ongoing growth spurt. It appears to be proceeding at full throttle, as the NPOA membership roster now stands at more than 370 companies.

Closer to a peer group than to a traditional trade association, NPOA operates on voluntarism, a shoestring budget, and a commitment to offering quick and small printing firms services that it says other associations can’t or won’t provide. As a new and rapidly expanding organization, it’s almost an anomaly in a time of contraction for the industry and attrition for most of its trade groups.

“Owners of companies our size wanted an association that would listen to them and address their concerns,” says Prejean. Another, longer established trade group caters to quick and small printers, but Prejean and Henry say that when that association began to be perceived as unresponsive by some of its members, the demand for an alternative also started to build.

The result was NPOA, which bills itself as a group founded and operated “by printers for printers” and as the fastest-growing association of its type. Its members range in size from $100,000 to $10 million, averaging $1.2 million in annual sales and employing eight to 10 people. The heart of NPOA’s value proposition to this base, says Prejean, is the fact that “we listen, and we listen fast.”

Using surveys, feedback from a listserv, and other kinds of member outreach, “we really listen better than any other association,” he says. Another unique attribute, according to Henry, is the in-the-trenches expertise of the people in charge. “We’re in the business,” he says, and thus are better equipped to assist fellow printers than trade association executives without direct experience in the industry.

This keeps the emphasis on services, not association finances. “Nobody’s being paid any money,” says Henry, noting that contributions of time and effort by members keep operating costs to a minimum. NPOA now has a compensated executive director—John C. Stewart, a well known quick-print industry consultant—but Henry says that Stewart too worked without pay during the months when the group was being formed.

As for dues, Prejean says that at $295, they are “the cheapest out there” and serve as the group’s primary source of income. Additional support comes from vendors and suppliers that sponsor NPOA activities, including the Owners’ Conference scheduled to take place from February 27 to March 2 in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

None of it existed in the summer of 2012 when, says Henry, the group’s founding members “spontaneously” began discussing their unhappiness with what had happened to the National Association of Quick Printers (NAQP), a group that merged with the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) in 2006.

The reasons for the dissatisfaction were complex, but Prejean says what they boiled down to was the members’ belief that NAPL—with relatively few small and quick-print firms in its roster before the merger—“didn’t understand our culture at all” and wasn’t open to suggestions or inquiries from its NAQP contingent.

In an article he published in January 2013, Stewart wrote off the consolidation as having “failed miserably.” He blamed it, moreover, for the decline of NAQP’s membership from more than 1,000 firms when the merger took place to less than half of that at the point when NPOA was formed.

Instead of firing back, NAPL has focused on stepping up efforts to serve the needs of the NAQP members it still has. “Quick and small commercial printers represent the largest segment in the industry,” says Joseph P. Truncale, Ph.D., president of NAPL. “We are committed to finding ways to enhance the value of the NAQP membership experience. “

According to Truncale, NAQP members offering mailing services will benefit from NAPL’s recent merger with the Association of Marketing Service Providers (AMSP, formerly the Mailing and Fulfillment Service Association) by having greater access to AMSP’s expertise in postal regulations, standards, and technologies. AMSP representatives also meet regularly with the Postmaster General and federal lawmakers to inject the industry’s voice into deliberations about postal policy and procedures.

“With more and more printing companies, large and small offering mailing services, these added features will benefit many NAQP members,” Truncale says. He adds that members who don’t mail but are thinking of adding the capability can get practical advice from AMSP veterans or partner with them on behalf of their customers. In coming months, Truncale says, NAQP members also will gain access to information about data management services and data analytics.

But, these advantages come too late to have prevented the defection that gave birth to NPOA. Seeking renewed camaraderie and a sense that they owned the association they belonged to, the NPOA founders decided the time had come to go their own way. States the group’s web site: “Basically we needed the kind of drive and desire the original printers had, who founded NAQP in the 70s, and to accomplish this with modest and reasonable dues.”

Most NPOA members are past or present members of NAPL/NAQP, and Prejean and Henry stress that NPOA isn’t at war with the organization it broke away from or even in competition with it. They estimate that now, one-third to one-half of NPOA members also belong to NAPL or to a local affiliate of Printing Industries of America (PIA). The moment of truth for the other groups will come, say Prejean and Henry, when dues-renewal notices prompt dual members to reconsider the high cost of belonging to more than one association.

They would rather discuss the unique benefits of NPOA membership and the opportunities for solidarity that it creates with other quick and small printers. They say that one of the most effective is the PrintOwners List listserv, an e-mail colloquium in existence since 1997. NPOA acquired it from quick printer and marketing guru Mike Stevens, who had owned and operated it since 2008.

The listserv is said to generate thousands of posts each month from subscribers seeking ideas, advice, solutions to problems, and the latest feedback on trending topics. The PrintOwners List helped to spread the word about NPOA’s founding and continues to be used by the group as a polling tool. Subscriptions to the listserv are free, and Prejean says that NPOA members who do not avail themselves of it are “missing a huge, huge opportunity” to be better informed about the association and the industry in general.

Inside information for planning capital investments is available from NPOA’s Equipment Price Exchange—a members-only service that lets users compare “retail” versus “street” pricing as reported by other members who have purchased or leased equipment within the past six months. NPOA also is building up a substantial library of documents, reports, newsletters, and practical tools such as spreadsheets for calculating budgeted hourly rates, copier click costs, and break-even analysis. Scheduled for publication in April are the results of a survey aimed at establishing key financial benchmarks and ratios for the quick and small commercial printing industry.

Taking no chances on being overbooked again, NPOA has reserved an extra-large block of rooms in anticipation of a big crowd at its second annual owners conference in Fort Lauderdale at the end of the month. On the speakers’ lineup are industry notables Larry Hunt, Mike Stevens, Jennifer Matt, and Warren Werbitt. Ricoh, Konica Minolta, and Xerox are among the vendor sponsors. The program also features a side excursion to the Graphics of the Americas trade show, which will be simultaneously in progress in nearby Miami Beach.

Certain to be on members’ minds at the conference are the state of the economy, government regulations, operating cost trends, and future business opportunities. Prejean says that NPOA members want to grow in profitability if not in volume by broadening their service offerings and making intelligent purchasing decisions. Henry notes that because most members now derive only about 50% of their volume from offset lithography, they're keenly interested in doing more with digital printing, wide-format output, and other new technologies they’ve adopted.

The ambitious plan for the annual meeting is a good indication of how much strength and momentum the fledgling group has gained in its quest to become the first choice for quick and small printers who want to band together. But, its early growth spurt will not last indefinitely, and when it ends, NPOA will face the same built-in challenges as any other membership organization with loyalty to retain and dues to collect.

Voluntarism is an admirable thing, but over time, voluntarism by members with their own businesses to run may not be enough to efficiently service and manage an organization with a roster approaching 400 companies.

Henry notes that because association volunteers tend to lose personal steam after two years, keeping new people cycling through the leadership positions will be of prime importance. And, although deft use of social networks and association management software lets NPOA operate without regular employees, Henry says the day may come when the association will have grown to the point of requiring full-time management staff.

Meanwhile, with its greater resources, NAPL is busy cultivating the membership territory it shares with NPOA. It has a counterpart to The PrintOwners List in what Truncale calls “a state of the art community software package” aimed at streamlining peer-to-peer communication as well as interactions with association staff. A June conference in Milwaukee and another in Chicago just ahead of Graph Expo will showcase the combined strengths of NAPL, NAQP, and AMSP, says Truncale.

For now, though, NPOA is enjoying an upsurge driven both by its founders’ hard work and by the fact that large numbers of quick and small commercial printing firms agree that their segment of the industry needed a new trade association. “It’s almost impossible to make it out there by yourself,” says Prejean, extending the helping hand that he, Henry, and the rest of NPOA’s leadership hope more of these firms will take.

Note: John Henry and the writer of this article are not related.

Next week: Peering into the inner workings of peer groups.