Cary Sherburne: Hi, I’m Cary Sherburne, Senior Editor at WhatTheyThink.com. And I’m extremely pleased to be here with Kevin Cushing, my friend and colleague and 2011 WhatTheyThink Print CEO of the Year. Congratulations Kevin.
Kevin Cushing: Thank you Cary. It’s great to be with you and it’s a great honor.
Cary Sherburne: And it’s a heavy award.
Kevin Cushing: It is. The question mark in front of me, people are thinking, why Kevin?
Cary Sherburne: That’s not what they think, oh no. But tell us why. I mean, you had some really great metrics behind, you know, it’s voted on by your peers and you had some great metrics. Tell us a little bit about, first of all, how long you’ve been with Alpha Graphics and some of the uniqueness of your position there.
Kevin Cushing: I started with Alpha Graphics in 1995. I had been in the food service industry running a very large franchise or of a quick service chain, and had decided I wanted to take my life in another direction and I was looking for a business to business… business to business concept, and had looked at a number of them and came upon Alpha Graphics. A good friend of mine, Rob Johnson in Salt Lake City, was an Alpha Graphics franchisee and I asked him to teach me a little bit about his business.
And in May of ’95, I went to Tucson, Arizona, which is where the headquarters were at the time. Went through Discovery Day, I was extremely impressed by the staff and the leadership and the vision for the brand back then. And I visited probably 21 different franchisees across the country. And I was so impressed by the caliber of people, that these were people who had been very successful in their earlier careers; could have done really anything. And they chose to put their time and talent and resources into the Alpha Graphics brand, and they were very happy about it. And it wasn’t as though it was, you know, everything was perfect, but it was… it was like if there was a problem, it was a problem we could always work through. So with that, I chose to join the Alpha Graphics network and move from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis, a town I had no experience into being a business, I knew nothing about. So that was fun.
And we built a great team. And we came out of the shoots and did very, very well in our early years. And in 2004, the ownership of Alpha Graphics came to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking on the CEO role of the franchisor, which has been a great experience for me. And I’m like a dual role as a franchisee and a franchisor, heavy on the CEO of the franchisor because I only get back to Minneapolis maybe six days a year.
Cary Sherburne: And you’re the first… this is the first time that a franchisee has actually been CEO of Alpha Graphics, right?
Kevin Cushing: Yes, that’s right. Roger Ford, our founder, ran the first 10 years of the company, I think, with company-owned centers and then converted it to a franchise brand late in the ‘70’s.
Cary Sherburne: And then Mike Witte was…
Kevin Cushing: Yep, and then Mike Witte joined Alpha Graphics and became CEO after Roger, and then I succeeded Mike.
Cary Sherburne: Yeah. And so tell us a little bit about your performance over the last couple of years. What, you know, qualified you for this award?
Kevin Cushing: I think what qualified me for the award was the fact that we just have a boatload of great people. The fingerprints of everybody in the Alpha Graphics network are on this award, it’s not anything that I deserve and I’m a bit embarrassed by it, actually.
Cary Sherburne: Oh, you shouldn’t be.
Kevin Cushing: But what our network has done is really live what we call the vision of the Net Vision Four Plan. And before that there was Net Vision Three and Net Vision Two and Net Vision One. And Mike Witty actually started this in the mid ‘90’s, and I’ve been able to build on that with our franchisees. And Net Vision Four, the new now talks about what our network needs to do to build on our heritage of helping people communicate, typically in the printed form, and now allow them to communicate in multi channels and be able to show them the results that they are getting from their communications.
Cary Sherburne: Now, unlike a lot of the industry, you’ve actually been growing, same store sales and number of centers.
Kevin Cushing: Yes. Our same center sales, I think we’re up four to five percent this past fiscal year for us. Our network sales overall we’re up seven, and while I’m a double digit growth guy, I have to be realistic and say that in this environment, that’s not what we want, but it’s better than what we could have. And the growth in our network location counts has been terrific. And that’s a product of a few things. First, to grow, you have to stop losing. So if people, you know, if centers want to grow their customer count, the first thing is, don’t lose customers…
Cary Sherburne: Don’t lose customers, yeah.
Kevin Cushing: And we’re extremely pleased and proud of the fact that we have 100 percent renewal of our franchisees. So when they get to the end of their franchise agreement, if they’re qualified to get an invitation to renew from us, 100 percent of those folks have done that.
Cary Sherburne: That’s terrific.
Kevin Cushing: And they, you know, they could go independent and not pay those royalties. On the other side, we have independents joining us that are happy to pay the royalties because they see the value in getting a brand that has equity to it as well as someone that can help vet where the industry is going and provide the research and direction for them.
Cary Sherburne: Now, as you know, I had a chance to peruse Net Vision Four, and it’s pretty aggressive. I mean, what was the reception in the network?
Kevin Cushing: The, let’s see, two years ago at conference, I think it was right here in Chicago, as I was giving my talk about where Net Vision was leading, I could see the eyes in the audience getting big, like oh my god. And then a year ago, a lot of head nods and, yep, I realize we need to go this way; we just need help getting there. And then this year we formally introduced Net Vision to our network in the document forum this past December, and the network is very much all onboard. And we’ve really worked hard to make it implementable in terms of productizing a number of things and giving people the steps to implementing the marketing services aspect of our product offering.
Cary Sherburne: You know, it’s kind of interesting, and you and I have talked about this before, when you look at what’s going on in the printing industry as a whole and you look at particularly the challenges that smaller printers have, personally, I just sort of wonder, you know, how do they do it? Because you know, a CEO of a small printing company is fighting fires every day and you know, you get down in the weeds and you don’t have time to research the technology or training is a problem, and all of those things. And so being part of a network like Alpha Graphics or the others, I mean, you’ve got this… how do they do it without the resource… or infrastructure and support that you…?
Kevin Cushing: It’s really tough. There are a number that do it very well, of course, but Lou Holtz had an expression called, WIN, W-I-N, What’s Important Now. And I think small business owners always face so many, what seems to be priorities of the moment, what are the real…the ones you really need to be focusing on now to win. And it’s easy to lose that focus when you’re so overwhelmed by so many things coming at you and belonging to a bigger network like ours or some of the others really helps them offload some of the important challenges and tasks, and let us take those and develop it and present it to you and you worry about the things, about leading your team, binding with your clients and developing more business.
Cary Sherburne: That’s great. That’s great. Well Kevin, again, congratulations, Print CEO…
Kevin Cushing: Thank you Cary.
Cary Sherburne: of 2011…
Kevin Cushing: Thank you everybody in the Alpha Graphics network.