What is the one thing every print owner needs to be successful? Is it sales, prestige, rockstar employees? How would you answer that question?
Author and speaker Brian Basilico would tell you that the one thing you need is relationships. Or, as he says it, “Relationships are the currency of business.” But have you ever thought about what exactly it means to build and focus on relationships as a business owner? And how to create and develop relationships that ultimately turn into sales for your print business?
Ralph Irwin, Owner of Irwin Printing in Republic, Missouri, has this growing-through-relationships concept figured out in a way that might surprise you in its simplicity. But, before we dive into that, let’s meet Ralph and Irwin Printing.
Founded in 1974 by Ralph’s father, Irwin Printing is built on a solid legacy of dedication and passion for helping customers and their businesses thrive.
“It all started with my dad,” says Ralph. “He was incredibly hardworking. Some of my earliest memories are of sleeping on the shop floor or not seeing my dad because he’d work late or get up early to make sure he got everything done.”
“I ended up following in my dad’s footsteps,” Ralph continues. “Printing is really the only job I’ve had my whole adult life. It started with sweeping floors, then bindery handwork, then everything else. I remember being seven or eight years old standing on a box so I could reach and run the numbering machine or throw chipboard into pads on an old ABDick. After my parents passed away, I bought the company from my father’s estate and became the official owner in 2010.”
Today, Irwin Printing is a hybrid of both digital and offset printing, pursuing higher-quality performance with a focus on marketing services.
“We work with a lot of larger entities who come to us and say, ‘We know you do the printing, but can you do this?’ or ‘What do you think of this?’ We’ve become more of a marketing arm for several of our customers,” explains Ralph. “While this has become more and more successful, direct mail is still our bread and butter. We specialize in Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM), sending millions of pieces a year. We have several nationwide accounts we do mailings for with a diverse range of specialties, including fast food, furniture retailers, etc.”
At first glance, it may appear that Ralph is just the owner of a little ole print shop in Republic, Missouri, but you might be surprised to learn that Ralph has acquired and is currently the owner of multiple shops across his area.
“I have four, stand-alone entities, or in other words, four print shops total. I have a small copy shop in Oklahoma, another shop in Joplin, Missouri, and I just recently purchased another one in Arkansas. These are in addition to my main shop, Irwin Printing. All my shops are around the region, with the farthest one being two and a half hours away.”
Amid a worldwide pandemic, is it really possible to be able to purchase additional shops and continue to grow? For Ralph, the answer is yes. In talking with Ralph, his unique approach for growth can be summed up in the following tips.
“I’m finding that there are a lot of printers out there who don’t have a succession plan or things didn’t go as they had hoped. So, I see a lot of opportunities. Right now, there are a lot of seasoned, motivated shop owners that are ready to do something different.”
To see those new opportunities, you have to change your mindset. As Ralph says, “Get up, get out, and drive around the block or across town to get out of the mindset you’re in. Having shops in different locations gives me lots of windshield time to think, grow, and get outside of myself. It’s a mindset. A changed mindset requires a changed path by getting outside of the norm of where you are. That, in turn, creates other opportunities or mindsets to get you from here to there.”
A lot of Ralph’s customer base comes from the furniture industry, and during the pandemic, a lot of furniture retailers were closed. Instead of taking on an “it is what it is” attitude, Ralph asked himself how to use that time wisely.
“I used that time to encourage those clients and build stronger relationships. These clients were down and out. It stripped away the sales tension and made it all about relationships. I sent emails and made phone calls with the intention just to listen and be there to encourage them. Doing that solidified ties with a lot of clients and built relationships even stronger,” says Ralph.
The benefits of listening and encouraging have also spilled over into Ralph’s acquisitions.
Ralph continues, “All of the shops I purchased actually reached out to me to begin with. I haven’t gone seeking them. Most of these print owners just needed someone to light them up, validate them, or encourage them. I think there are a lot of printers who are coasting and just need some fresh air breathed into them.”
“When I purchase a business,” Ralph says, “it has to make sense for both of us in every way. We’ve been able to add into our mix different shops that each bring something unique to the table. Each shop has its own specialty, whether that be production capabilities or a specific customer base. All of them have come with good, solid teams in place, which is important because I don’t need (or want) to buy a job. I have a job. The business has to be able to run without me and require minimal input from me.”
It’s unrealistic to think that life is all sunshine and roses. When the dark times come, as we all know they will, be ready for them by investing in yourself. Have your own support system, so you can then go and support others. In interviewing Ralph, it’s clear that a lot of his support comes from his wife, Gail.
“I’ve had dark days too. An example that comes to mind is in 2011. I purchased a piece of equipment and then lost the customer that I bought the machine for. I was stuck with this payment and continually beat myself up about screwing up. My wife supported me and encouraged me, saying we didn’t screw up and that we were unified in our decision. She really helped me grow out of that dark time and reminded me that nothing is as bad as it looks a lot of times. I started to focus on the day after tomorrow. Thinking that way helped me remember that anything bad on the horizon is not going to define me. Even if tomorrow is bad, I can choose to focus on the day after tomorrow when it will all be behind me.”
Many print owners have given their whole lives to the printing industry, and Ralph understands the importance of recognizing that.
“I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to minister to people, encourage them, even stop and pray for them. To a lot of these printers looking to move on, I’ve become the son these fathers never had. And with my dad passed and gone on, it’s given me the gratification to just hang out with them, glean from their years of experience, and look them in the eye to say, ‘you did something worth building upon’ and then honoring and building on their legacy.
When asked what words of wisdom Ralph has for other printers, he says, “Start looking at things you’ve never looked at before. Start asking the ‘what if’ questions: What if you did this? How would it look? These kinds of questions make me think of things I hadn’t thought of before. God gave you an imagination for good or bad; use it to start thinking, ‘What if I did sell the shop?’ or ‘What if I decided to go after this type of business? What would it look like?’ Zig Ziglar used to say that the middle part of life is ‘if,’ which is half of (your) life. Try and direct your life, your thoughts, and your mindset in the way you want to go.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of NPSOA magazine. For more information on how you can become an NPSOA member and enjoy the many benefits offered there, contact Member Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or head to their website at NPSOA.org.