Blueprint for Success
In 2008 it wasn’t uncommon to pass an empty dirt-filled lot with an excavator standing by idly. The recession hit the construction industry hard — including architects, and in turn, the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) printing market. Luckily for Dallas-based Thomas Printworks, the company had already sensed a shift in the market and made strategic moves to expand its services through new technologies.
Thomas Printworks started as a blueprint shop in the 1950s in Dallas, and served the AEC market for many years. The company has been family owned for three generations and now has more than 600 employees spanning 28 locations across the United States, including its original location.
As the construction industry evolved, Thomas Printworks sought growth through a number of acquisitions that pushed it into the wide-format graphics space, starting with fence wrap graphics, which it offered to its existing construction and infrastructure clientele. This initial jump allowed the company to later push into other vertical markets, including retail and hospitality, venues and events and corporate and nonprofit.
Not only was Thomas Printworks providing clients with signage, it later provided direct mail campaigns and stationery, among other items, on the small-format front. This omnichannel approach was made possible by the convergence of wide-format and small-format under one roof.
“When the recession hit and there was a significant decline in construction, it really pushed us further,” says Trevor Hansen, chief sales and marketing officer at Thomas Printworks. “Our first focus was developing solutions around marketing supply chain management.” This included warehousing fulfillment, production of marketing collateral, online ordering portals and the management of those products. “That was our first big push outside of that space and into work for other markets such as restaurants and retail franchising.”
This led to the company acquiring digital equipment, such as a Xerox and an HP device a few years ago. And, in 2016, with a big acquisition of Seabridge Media in Houston, the company added commercial print and direct mail capabilities.
Direct mail has been a big focus. So much so that it has a U.S. Post Office location onsite to handle the volume of direct mail that it now produces.
Over the past few years, there has been a growing demand from Thomas Printworks’ customers for variable data text and images as part of its direct mail campaigns. While Thomas Printworks’ toner-based presses could produce short-run VDP jobs, the company was finding that longer runs were not economical. In order to capture more of the VDP market, it had to drive the overall cost of that down. It needed a solution that would address the pain points at both ends of the market — enabling lower volumes of fast-turn direct mail jobs and higher volumes of variable data jobs.
“A lot of it revolves around that direct response marketing — the ability to produce variable data direct mail campaigns at a more effective price point so that we can transition from static direct mail and provide a higher value and response rate through the use of digital printed collateral that’s more one-on-one focused on the recipient,” Hansen explains.
After doing its due diligence and researching a variety of machines capable of handling the direct response work, the company ultimately landed on the Océ VarioPrint i300.
“We’ve had a long-time relationship with Canon. The decision was driven around the strategy of expanding our direct mail capabilities and offloading some of the traditional offset work, even just in terms of turnaround times for key clients. I think part of the decision was the machine’s capabilities, but part of it was just our relationship with Canon and the support we get. We have a wide range of Canon flatbeds and roll-fed devices on the wide-format side and our traditional AEC business ran on Océ devices. So, we have had a very long relationship with Canon.”
Thomas Printworks didn’t stop there. The company is getting ready to develop and launch a direct response marketing solution to customers, which should be out next year. This includes direct mail, email, web-based IP targeting, tracking and other technology components to create a full direct response solution.
Getting Here Wasn’t a Straight Road
Back when the company began, things were simpler. The person who produced the job — blueprints, construction drawings, maps, etc. — could also package the work and have it ready to be delivered to the customer. Now, the company follows more of a manufacturing type of model. The pre-production staff gets everything prepared. The production team produces the work. The fulfillment department packages and gets all of the pieces together and pulls items from warehouses.
Instead of the entire staff being cross-trained, the team has become more compartmentalized where everyone has their own specialty in the process. The person producing one piece may not know there are other pieces being produced. This has led Thomas Printworks to work in a manufacturing assembly line workflow, which requires a different style of communication and management. “A lot of adjustments have had to be made,” Hansen explains. “Frankly, some are still being made.”
Traditionally, the AEC market was relationship based. Once a relationship with a customer was established, it often became a long-term relationship.
“It became more of a servicing relationship,” Hansen says. “When our company pushed into the wide-format graphics space, a lot of what it was doing at the time became very transactional. Every job was quoted and everything was a one-off job.”
As the company moved into market supply chain management, it once again became more of a solution sale and understanding what the customer’s objectives were.
“You weren’t selling them prints anymore, you were selling them a solution to a problem they had and helping them overcome that in a much bigger picture,” he says. “Print happens to be part of that, so it requires a different set of selling skills and sales processes to drive those types of sales.”
Within the events and venues market, it also became more of a solution sale. For stadiums, Thomas Printworks was installing everything — the graphics, the cabling systems and everything to mount the graphics to.
“Then, when a concert comes to town, we go out and strike all the existing graphics, replace the graphics for the concert, then go back and strike those graphics and put the other graphics back up,” Hansen says. “There’s a lot more moving parts than just printing what the customer wants and delivering it.”
Digital Print to Digital Signage
Most recently, Thomas Printworks has dabbled in digital signage, such as branching into menu boards about a year ago. The company has been working on growing that end of the business and marketing it to clients within the hospitality, retail and restaurant markets. The focus there is very specific — and much simpler. They are not producing video walls and complex signage.
“We’re trying to keep it simple to start with and within the vertical space that works best,” Hansen says.
The foundation of Thomas Printworks is forever changed; the company has productized what it does.
“We are trying to change the message and increase the value of what we’re selling away from just selling a print,” Hansen says. “It becomes a very commoditized product, then becomes very competitive. So, by wrapping it all into a bigger solution and a bigger offering, it allows us to sell the additional value in what we’re doing.”
Thomas Printworks is thriving today because of its ability and openness to evolve with ever-changing market trends. Realizing growth opportunities and embracing the merging of industry segments early has allowed the company to serve clients holistically and remain relevant.