Simpson Print: How a Father’s Legacy Shines Through in His Daughter’s Leadership
Once a “hostile prisoner” of the printing industry in her late teens, Carla Johanns, president of Simpson Print in Bloomingdale, Ontario, Canada, says she loves her job. She first joined the family print business at 18 years old, after her father Martin Johanns purchased Simpson Print in 1987 and sent her to Ohio to work for the company.
She didn’t know it then, but her father’s discipline and forward thinking would rub off on her and impact the future of Simpson Print.
Growing from a Solid Foundation
Carla says the Johanns family entered the industry at an advantageous time — exploding within retail and four-color screen printing. Simpson Print did $1 million in Mylar decals for one client in those days. Some years later, Martin’s former offset business went into receivership.
As he expanded the company, Carla left to get an MBA in education and eventually teach kindergarten. Following the passing of her brother in 2012, she rejoined the company. After ten years away, she didn’t remember much about the industry, so she “came in quietly, just sat in the back, and observed,” she shares — relearning and memorizing everything she could.
Despite dealing with the traumatic passing of her brother, she had to grieve while stepping up for her family and the business. With her brother’s death came a loss of $3 million, so she got to work doing what she knew best — sales.
“I went in there to protect my father because he was very vulnerable, and the organization at large was very fractured, and grieving suicide is not good for business,” she shares. “I sold $1 million in 10 months, and then I slowly started taking on more responsibilities, and then bought shares.”
Today, heading into her seventh year as president, Carla has tripled the business since taking over. All the while, Simpson Print’s values of quality, respect, integrity, and being on time, all the time continue to remain top priority.
“I saw a beautiful foundation. I wanted to amplify and grow it,” she says about taking over the business. “I wanted to create an ecosystem that was not held hostage by family but was a viable, thriving organization that could sustain itself without any one individual. Trust me, I’m working on that daily.”
Simpson Print Today
“No day is the same and there’s always a challenge — not a problem, there’s always a challenge,” Carla says about leading Simpson Print. And that’s when she thrives — amid chaos and challenge, something she partly credits to her Dutch father, who raised her and her brothers with a strong and organized work ethic, encouraging her to find her female voice.
“I thrive when I’m in apocalyptic crisis,” she says. “I do much better in that environment.”
That work ethic keeps Simpson Print alive and well after 60 years and what the company hopes to instill in its employees. She believes “every job makes you more intelligent,” and a “can-do attitude” is vital.
Alongside these values is a constant hunger to be better and forward-looking. Growing from a small screen-print-only shop in its early days to eventually adding litho, wide-format, and UV offset printing, innovation has led the way. Ending the year with $17 million in sales in 2023, the company is committed to investing correctly — from equipment and technology to sustainability.
While the company’s screen-printing roots are still going strong, Simpson Print offers so much more than it once did. And Carla says she wouldn’t necessarily define the business as a commercial printer anymore.
“We’re a sales performance engine in the business of continuous improvement that just happens to have a ridiculous amount of capital investment in those four walls,” she shares. “We’re fully integrated end to end, from design, rendering, print, fabrication, post press, die-cutting, installation services, and warehousing. Logistics is very critical to the future of the business, too. I wanted to move and gravitate the company very much towards more diversified manufacturing.”
Why? She says today’s clients are more complex; they expect more than just ink on paper.
Being a UL-certified vendor, 20%-30% of Simpson Print’s work is industrial labels, which is why it still runs three screen presses. Wide-format printing for retail, web-to-print, and inventory makes up 40% of the business – using four swissQprint machines. Packaging and custom and temporary displays make up the other 30%-40%.
In 2022, Simpson Print acquired B2 Signs and Events, and the bulk of that business comes from the cosmetic and liquor industries, which makes the holidays a busy time of year. On the cosmetics side, think of in-store pop-up activations at Sephora and Ulta, which sometimes only last four hours.
“I love that business, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how long that kind of spend will sustain itself,” she shares. “I think cosmetics sat on a lot of COVID money that was not being spent in store. And then you infuse, ‘TikTok told me to buy it,’” and things change when consumers can buy online and get it to their house same-day.
Eventually, Carla says she wants to branch out of cosmetics and explore other market segments, but Simpson Print’s biggest challenge is time. While she says she has the strategic vision for it, there aren’t enough hours in the day, which makes sense for a print company that outsources virtually nothing.
Leaning into Technology and Sustainability
To sustain the company’s growth, Carla relies on automation and workflow solutions, including an efficient management information system (MIS) that helps rid dockets and make everything digital, which is crucial when handling so many variables and data. At every step, she says a good MIS should drive efficiency. Garbage in equals garbage out, so capturing information flawlessly from day one matters.
This intentional and methodical mindset is one Carla carries with her in all her leadership duties, especially when making technology investments.
Most recently, Simpson Print installed the first swissQprint Kudu flatbed printer after buying it on the 2023 PRINTING United Expo floor. Because of the shortened lead time, Carla waited to buy the press on the floor. It was in Simpson Print’s facility five days after the Expo.
“Because they’re out of Switzerland, lead times are three to six months,” she says. “I would say what accelerated the decision on the Kudu was 100% driven by lead time and having it on my floor and fully operational — it eradicates overtime for me.”
While an investment like this isn’t labor- or cash-neutral, it increases Simpson Print’s production and efficiency. The printer will increase capacity with 50% more speed, produce prints with a vibrant and expanded gamut (metallics, neons, and pastels), and heighten roll performance.
Before investing, Carla considered how the piece fit into her complete production puzzle. “If you put a hungry animal on the floor, pre-press has to keep up with it. The Zünd has to keep up with it,” she says. “We’ll evaluate that weekly, monthly and see what happens. But if it’s backlogged, that’s a good problem.”
While the Kudu was the Expo highlight for Simpson, it wasn’t the only investment made during the event. It bought GMG Color, a color management software that allows the team to better manage “Pantone-driven brands across multiple platforms,” Carla explains. “I’m managing litho components in a kit with wide-format elements, and not all Pantones should be chosen in a digital age, so it does drive the efficiency of managing client profiles.”
Speaking about her plans for future Expos, she hopes to bring entire teams from different departments each year. The environment revitalizes staff and team leads, which is a prerequisite to innovation. She tells anyone in print to invest in their company every two years and get their staff involved.
“I try to get my employees to drive the objectives of why they want and what they want to see,” she shares. “So, it’s not just my voice. It’s a community that’s driving the success of the organization.”
This practice sets the company up for success now and in the future. No owner will be with a company forever, so preparing staff well ahead of time for that eventual transition is “always the goal,” Carla says.
Eventually, she wants to replace herself with another female leader who comes from a tech background or is process-oriented. She even considers someone outside the industry who can offer a fresh perspective.
Speaking of fresh perspectives, Carla says her father, Martin, was always thinking ahead during his leadership, and sustainability was no different.
“I will say one thing about my father — he wanted to be an arborist,” she shares. “I think it might be that it’s the green in the Dutch culture. I think the business allowed him to play with that hobby.”
She remembers planting thousands of trees each summer as a child with her father and siblings. While sustainability has always been a conversation at Simpson Print, it wasn’t until eight or ten years ago that something clicked. After Carla sat in on a Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) seminar, she put her then-director of operations in charge of the audit process, which took roughly two years. Although completing the audit and getting SGP certified is a massive accomplishment, Carla says sustainability is a daily job and mindset.
To do it right, print businesses must ensure they’re working with vendors who can say, “Here’s how we’re reducing our carbon footprint.” Carla argues that it’s about walking the talk beyond the certifications.
“I know the old print owner’s mind: ‘Is it going to make me money?’ Well, it's all about lean automation. … It goes hand in hand,” she argues. “We’ve invested; I’ve reduced. We’ve gone to UV-LED, which is whatever percentage of reduction and energy and running costs. We’ve changed all our lighting. We no longer wash screens.”
She can see how Simpson Print is making a difference through these adjustments. She’s also considering charging a 2% green fee for any client who chooses a foam core product. She says she hasn’t been courageous enough to try it, but she’s talked about it with clients. Those conversations might spark something in them, as they did for her during that SGP seminar.
Advice for Print Business
From expanding into new markets and niches to investing, installing, and training in new equipment, there’s plenty to consider before a business diversifies. Simpson Print seems to have cracked the code.
Asking what advice she’d offer print businesses, Carla says: “They really have to look deeply at what is optimally performing well. Are you a financial-driven company? Are you an operational company, or are you a sales-driven company? They have to look at, I call it, ICP. Who is your ideal client profile? What do you want to target? Which direction? Not just because an association told you to jump on the bandwagon, but also understand which client suits your manufacturing capabilities.”
Once they’ve nailed that down, it’s time to seek out the technology and equipment that feeds that growth — an offset printer to complement wide format or wide format to fuel litho printing, for example. Additionally, she tells owners and operators to challenge themselves and get uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to step into uncharted territory.
“Sales was my gift in life, and selling the business was easy for me, but then I had to become a stakeholder and make those changes,” she explains. “I was grinding my teeth at three in the morning because I had to become extremely savvy on operations, my MIS, and how it impacts costing and the whole environment.”
Last but certainly not least, she encourages print businesses to align themselves with PRINTING United Alliance, something her father engrained in her. “Surround yourself with players in the industry,” she adds. Make friends with the competition and build those trade relationships. Carla is doing just that. In October, the Alliance welcomed her as a new 2024 board of director member. She’ll support the Alliance’s mission of providing industry-leading education and training to members and the industry at large.
While Martin remains a silent chairman on Simpson Print’s board, his impact on his daughter’s leadership is clear – through his work ethic and dedication to constant improvement.