Danger Lurks Offshore for American Printers
Chuck Nason admits he wasn’t fully prepared for the effects of global competition as it accelerated in 2001. The president and CEO of Worzalla Publishing, a Stevens Point, Wis.-based book manufacturer, watched as a significant portion of the company’s four-color children’s book work went to China.
“Global competition has affected us in a major way,” Nason contends. “It caused us to suffer a five-year slide in annual sales from just over $62 million to $44.4 million a year ago. This has meant little or no wage increases for our employees and a freeze on capital equipment purchases for four years.”
Nason points out what many printers already know—foreign printers, particularly in Asia, provide significant pricing advantages to the book publishing community.
“With China, for example, this starts with a currency that has long been devalued, which gives Chinese printers a 30 percent to 50 percent advantage just on the currency alone,” he reports. “With lower wages, fewer benefits, lack of environmental regulations and nothing in the way of OSHA to ensure plant safety, Chinese manufacturers simply have less overhead to support through their pricing. A publisher buying on price alone finds the Chinese option an attractive one.”
Experts agree a company like Worzalla is not alone in its experience with competition from foreign printers. And, many times, the U.S. firm may not even be aware the competition exists.
“For many companies, it’s not on their radar screen,” observes Dr. Joe Webb, a partner at PrintForecast.com, Harrisville, R.I. “It’s often hard for them to know which jobs they’re not being asked to bid on—such as those that are part of marketing campaigns with non-print media
elements—or to know what competitor wins a bid in the normal course of business. Offshore competition certainly adds to that confusion.”
Webb also believes that most domestic printers are not only unprepared to deal with offshore competition, but the entire concept that they can, or should, globalize their businesses is a foreign concept all together. He says many firms don’t know how or where to begin.
“Communications and physical logistics are so good today that geographic proximity is less important than ever,” Webb explains. “Being close to your customer was never really about geography, anyway. It was about having a shared understanding of goals and objectives, as well as getting things done in the most cost-effective manner today and in the future.”
Fast turnaround, long- and short-run work tends to be “safe” from offshore printers’ grasps, notes Vince Naselli, also a partner at PrintForecast.com. Mid-range sheetfed work that is not time-sensitive or that can have a buffer of time is the most at “risk.” He warns, however, that the bounds of “safe” are always being tested.
For example, some offshore printers ship partial jobs by air to deal with any quick turnaround issues, Naselli informs. “While timing and cost may prohibit a more substantial job to be outsourced internationally, if a small initial run will satisfy immediate requirements, the balance can be shipped normally. This incurs lower shipping and job production costs, with only an initial run or portion of the run shipped by air. While longer run projects are more insulated from the effects of international outsourcing, they are not immune.”
Which brings printers an interesting dilemma. Although viewed as an unpopular option for American workers, many U.S. printers are now either partnering with foreign printers or opening satellite plants in foreign countries, namely China, Mexico and India. While this trend may have started with mega-printers like RR Donnelley, Quebecor World and Banta Corp.—firms with sales of more than $1 billion—smaller companies are now looking at offshore printing as an option to keep a hold on current customers.
Clint Bolte, president of printing consultancy C. Clint Bolte & Associates in Chambersburg, Pa., suggests that those printers facing the loss of big accounts to an offshore printer should partner with their customers and help them find a foreign print provider.
That way, the American company remains as a technical consultant on printing projects and in good standing with the client. Bolte reveals he has encountered companies in the $20 million to $40 million range partnering with offshore printers to assist clients that would have otherwise been lost all together.
“Even medium-sized establishments really need to be thinking about this and what role they can play for their customers,” the industry consultant advises. “If printers ignore offshore printing, they are being written off as ostriches with their heads in the sand.”
Having a marketing mind-set and staying close to your largest clients will help aid in the partnership process, Bolte adds. Managing digital workflows, handling proofs and resolving production problems allows an American printer to prove it has a vested interest in its clients’ success. It also allows the printer to mark up the foreign contract enough to cover supervision costs and generate a profit, while the customer still realizes cost savings.
Naselli recommends changing the nature of clients’ use of print and embracing more value-added services to make customer relationships deeper and broader. Once that is accomplished, it’s not about the cost of print any more—it’s more about “best cost” in terms of the range of benefits of the printer-client relationship.
Relationships Pay Off
“If you are handling the direct mail services, fulfillment, design, data management and, yes, even printing for a client, it becomes very undesirable for that customer to leave or go elsewhere for their printing,” Naselli says. “In fact, print is then another project component; no longer a commodity to be sourced to the lowest bidder.”
Worzalla’s Nason stresses that printers must accept the fact that competing on price with some offshore printers simply isn’t possible for companies operating in the United States. He suggests focusing on service and quality—looking for customers who require something other than a rock-bottom price.
“We wouldn’t have any work if things were bought strictly on price,” Nason says. “But we have taken steps to reinvent ourselves and rely more on single-color
customers to support our workload.”
This tact has allowed Worzalla to experience a 20 percent sales increase over last year, rebounding to more than $53 million in revenues. The company is in the process of adding three new presses, and it is visiting the idea of having an Asian partner.
“The experiences over the past four years have made it clear to us that we have to continually reinvent ourselves, keeping our quality and service at the highest level, while reducing unnecessary waste and costs,” adds Ron Blaha, Worzalla’s process manager. “It has been trying at times, but our recent upswing in sales has made it fun again.”
Blaha credits the strong work ethic and management skills of Worzalla employees for enabling the company to survive. This will prove to be valuable for the
company in the future, as well.
“Imported print will continue to grow, and will probably double in the next five years,” Webb says. “Whether or not U.S. printers will do the things necessary to avail themselves of the opportunities to compete in growing overseas markets, or partner with overseas printers, remains to be seen.” BB
Chris Bauer is managing editor of Printing Impressions magazine. This article was reprinted with permission from Printing Impressions (www.PIWorld.com).