It’s been a tough year for nearly everyone in the printing industry, so it’s reassuring that Dan Plomin of Westamerica Communications’ wide format division answers our first question on an optimistic note: “We’re actually not doing too badly – we’ve been fortunate.” We suspect it’s not so much to do with luck as with the fact that, over the years, Westamerica has proved itself to be a smart and forward thinking business.
Putting Westamerica on the map
Starting out as The Printing Company in Orange County in 1975, Westamerica Communications is a family-owned business that has built up more than 45 years of print and communications experience. In that time, the company’s expanded to become one of Southern California’s leading print providers, thanks to a team that puts a premium on innovation and finding the best solution for each individual client.
The company started out as a commercial printer, providing litho and offset work, doing a lot of direct mail. As the business expanded, the management group decided it was time to diversify their sources of revenue rather than having all their eggs in one basket. Dan Plomin was experienced in wide format graphics and came on board to help them set up and equip the new division. “We started offering wide format printing, digital die cutting, and with an investment in dye sublimation in the form of the MS Impres 4320, soft signage and SEG graphics. With the expansion of this opportunity, we added a Monti heat press and Impulsa automated sewing machines to the mix – an investment of about $400 thousand.” The division moved into a new facility to become a standalone operation within the group. “We had to stand on our own two feet,” says Dan, “and that’s how we got to where we are right now.”
Since 2016, he’s been the General Manager of the wide format division. “I oversee the wide format team,” he explains, “but I also spend part of my time in sales functions, either supporting the existing sales reps with wide format projects for their current client base or dealing with my own clients. But in operations, we’ve got a really good team, so it runs itself, giving me more time to generate sales.”
A fast expansion
Building a new division from the ground up has allowed Dan to configure his equipment to suit his needs. “As well as soft signage, we also do a lot of rigid work,” he says. “We have a UV press, so we can print on PVC, acrylic, foam boards and things of that nature. We also have printers that allow us to do a lot of pressure-sensitive vinyl, whether it be vehicle wraps, wall wraps, stickers, environmental graphics – and we handle all the installation for it, too.”
Before coming to Westamerica, Dan had plenty of experience of the different printers available on the market – valuable first-hand knowledge that meant he knew just what he wanted for the new division. “I’d already done a comparison of all the machines I’d worked with prior to coming to Westamerica and arriving here, I started looking at alternatives. The MS Impres 4320 came out on top. It’s a very robust machine and it has a great support network through the Dover system. Additionally, I really liked the integration with the Caldera RIP. But the thing that sold me was its ease of use over its competitors.”
Obviously, price was a factor, but it wasn’t the only thing. “We could have stepped down to some cheaper printers,” explains Dan, “but we wanted something that was not only going to work great for us consistently, day in, day out, but would be something we could rely on in the long term. You know, we were putting a heavy investment into dye sublimation when we had zero work, so we wanted to make sure we were laying a really solid foundation for that part of our business.”
Now, a couple of years on, Dan’s still happy with the decision he made. “The MS has been great – it’s relatively maintenance free. Our operator keeps on top of weekly maintenance and can change printheads if necessary, and it looks as good as the day we bought it. It’s solid – the color’s great and people rave about it. For example, we’re working right now with Kawasaki Motor Corporation, and they have a huge atrium in their office, which they use to showcase historical bikes and new products. We’d hung huge vinyl banners in the atrium some time back, but now I’ve showed them the work we’ve started doing on fabric. They looked at the two side by side and they were blown away by how great the fabric looks. So now we’re going through the process of creating new banners for the atrium, switching the vinyl ones for fabric.”
Like Westamerica, MS Printing Solutions has a long and proud family history – in this case, spanning four generations. Another feature the two companies share is a strong belief in the power of innovation. MS has built its reputation by developing the most advanced products in a fast-moving market. Digital textile printing creates unique challenges and MS printers, steamers and driers are leading the way into a new generation of print technology.
Dan uses Caldera RIP software to drive the MS, along with two of his other printers. We asked him if he was happy with the Caldera MS combo. “Yeah, the color we’re getting off the MS using Caldera is fantastic, and we have no RIP-crashing issues, despite using it to run three machines.
Both Caldera and MS are part of Dover Digital Printing group, along with ink manufacturers Kiian Digital and J-Teck. Together, they offer a comprehensive digital printing solution that incorporates printers, software and inks perfectly synchronized to work together – and as Dan’s comments show, it’s a strategy that clients appreciate. The group works closely with customers to provide added value through innovation. According to Dover Digital Printing President Abhi Agrawal, “We have gone out of our way to create a strong portfolio in the digital imaging space. Customer success is the focus for every new development we bring to the digital inkjet market – we’re solving their problems to help them become more profitable.”
Driving a business through a pandemic
Starting out with zero revenues in 2017, Dan and the team had built their division up to a turnover of approximately $2.5 million last year. Then the pandemic hit. “We did a lot of events and trade show work and obviously that’s gone from a lot to zero overnight,” says Dan, “with no sign of return, this year for sure and who knows what’s going to happen next year?” It’s a position that a lot of print providers have found themselves in. “Trying to offset those lost revenues has been a real challenge for everybody in this industry.”
Interior graphics and retail point of sale displays have fallen away somewhat due to the pandemic, as have events and trade show work. “We were doing a lot for the video game industry, supporting games like Call of Duty, Overwatch and Borderlands, with live events and trade shows. We’re still working for these clients, but at nowhere near the 2019 volumes, unfortunately.”
Luckily, with low levels of debt on the books, Westamerica is in a position to weather the storm. “We’ve been able to pick up some business, and we’ve been able to give jobs to some salespeople from companies that have gone under. Our biggest struggle right now is finding alternative sources of revenue – the traditional sources of revenue just aren’t there like they have been in the past.” Dan is most frustrated by not having an end date in sight. “You can’t just say that by January 1st we’ll be back to normal – no one knows.”
But there have been opportunities out there. “We have some customers that have really made the most of the situation. We’re working with an ice cream manufacturer right now that took the decision to rebrand themselves and refresh their product line. This was great for us as there’s been a lot of printing and redoing of all their graphics. But there are other customers that we used to do a lot of work with that I haven’t heard from all year…”
Looking to the future
The current levels of uncertainty make the future hard to predict. “That’s really difficult right now,” says Dan, “trying to predict what’s going to happen in 2021 and beyond. We’re really hopeful, but we’re not banking on it –you can’t base your business on being hopeful – that we’ll get some semblance of normalcy, though probably not until the second half of 2021. But if we can get back to even semi-normal here within the next six to eight months, we should be good in the long term. I believe that a lot of the industries that we were supporting and that have dropped off, like the trade shows and events especially, will come back. They’ll have a different way of doing things – masks might be a long term thing – but when they come back, we’ll bounce back with them as we’ve positioned ourselves to help them in a variety of ways. We’ve laid a great groundwork to be able to survive the next few months and we’ve made smart business decisions. We don’t have a lot of debt and we haven’t overspent on materials and supplies – we push to make sure that we get the true value out of our equipment, and I think we’re going to come through this crazy time just fine.”