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Strategies For Success

Jeff Bittner

Jeff Bittner of AlphaGraphics in Wood Dale, IL shares his strategies for success.

In an interview with Cary Sherburne from, a global printing and media organization, Jeff revealed his insider scoop for the future of his business. They discuss the hardships of sustaining a business through the pandemic - but also a record month for AlphaGraphics in Wood Dale. [embed][/embed]     So first of all Jeff, tell us a little bit about your AlphaGraphics store, how long youve been in it and the number of employees, printer types you have, that kind of thing. We opened up in June of 1998, we are coming up on our 24th anniversary next week actually. Been in business since then, our first location we were in was about 3,100 square feet, and about 5 years ago moved to a location that is about 6,300 square feet just so we could keep up with what we were doing and how we were growing. As everyone else, we started off with our basic analog copiers and moved our way forward - well past "just burning CD's" and these days we are running our digital presses. We have a Canon ImagePress 8000, and Ricoh 7110 and then a full compliment of bindery equipment like a cutter, folder, drill, speed punch, duplo creaser/slitter - which is just the small format side of it. When you move to our large format side of it, we run two HP Latex Printers, an EFI 16H Flatbed Printer allowing us to print direct to substrates, and then a Colex Sharp Cut - allowing us to finish everything we do on that large format side of things. So that's kind of who we are as far as what we do for equipment. Staff at the moment is a staff of 6 people, we were 9. Covid had a little bit of a play on that from the standpoint of making some adjustments. We went through the motions of keeping all of our staff on as much as we could through the PPP loans and keeping everyone busy. Unfortunately we couldn't keep a couple of our part timers with us at that point, and now we're in a position where we're trying to replace everybody that was not there and struggling like everyone else to bring in enough staff. We had a great run the last several years. In the last 7 years, 6 of them have had record months - May was just recently our biggest month in the history of the company. We're doing that with about 80 hours a week less labor, not because we are trying to be lean, but because we are trying to find some people. So that's kind of the situation we're in at the moment, but it has been a great run to this point - just a lot more hours than I'd like it to be today. During the pandemic, obviously things happen that we can't predict or control and maybe you can talk a little about what you did to weather the pandemic. You took advantage of the government funding, but what are some of the other things that you did to weather that terrible time? We're a family run business, my parents are my business partners, and when that all started - our first initial reaction was obviously hands up in the air, we had no idea what to expect and what are we going to do. Knowing that our staff is the most important piece of the puzzle, we got together and just started brainstorming ideas on how we are going to make sure we can maintain paying our employees to keep them on so that when this comes to the other side we've A. got a staff but B. they are our responsibility at this point and we want to make sure that we are maintaining for their families as part of it. That's one of those stresses I take on as the owner that I feel like all of my team, not just them but their families, are dependent on me doing what I do every day properly. So when we did hear about the payroll money that was a huge opportunity. We jumped in, we were I think the 17th person to apply for our bank and once that hit that allowed us to keep everybody on, we did as much remote work as we could with as many people as we can. Obviously no one is working from home running a press that's not there but minimize the number of people in the building, and did as much as that remote as we could - set up some remote phones in a couple of places so we could take calls. Our small format side of stuff we actually saw take an 80% hit for those first three months. Literally I mean the volume of dollars we were billing on our digital presses was actually less than we were paying for the leases on our equipment. We were hoping it was a short term, glad to say at this point we are back stronger than ever on that side. Our wide format on the other hand just really grew throughout the entire pandemic. Everybody always just assumes what we did was Covid signs, and actually that wasn't the case - somehow that blossomed throughout that period of time and we've kind of rode that all the way through. And obviously at the other end of it now we're pretty happy so as I mentioned earlier when we got into the staff side of things we did end up unfortunately letting two people that weren't full time go because we just didn't have any work for them, they were both on the small format side. Since then we've now been back to normal, and then some, we're trying to ourselves back up to speed and trying to bring in staff like everyone else is trying to do. Less people doing more things is kind of common. Definitely bought a lot more lunches than I'm used to buying to keep everybody going in happy and you know I've got a great team of people - I'll put them up against anybody's staff as far as what they do and how they do it. I'm just super appreciative for the effort that the team has put in and guys just taking on roles that they weren't used to before just to keep it going. Outside of that we just try to do the same stuff we always do - when a client calls we take care of them, make sure we're that first point of contact, make sure we say "yes" to as many things as we can, and that's really been kind of the success story so to speak. As part of a franchise network, talk a little bit about how that helped you do these things. AlphaGraphics, as the franchisor, they jumped in where they could and tried to get us as much feedback - and I think we're all sort of in a situation where we're treading water. No one knew the answers, I appreciate the efforts they put in trying to get details to us - and at the same time, we as an owners group and just different owners in the system, I talk to my peers all the time - just bounce ideas off, we all try to get feedback from each other and... I can't imagine being on my own I guess is what I'm saying. I always thought my banker was a great partner, my accountant was a great partner, my attorney was a great partner throughout all of this but the franchise network was huge because if nothing else you had other people - the whole "misery loves company" scenario - you could at least have a conversation with. You know "wish you were like that guy" doing that, or "glad I'm not that guy" because I'm in a better place, you just have that opportunity to have that conversation and feel that you were with family and at ease. I remember talking to Ryan Ferris, the CEO of the network and franchisor, that one of the things that they did was put together some application packages specific to the pandemic. For example, like meeting kits that could be sent to peoples homes. Yeah! Absolutely, they definitely tried to think outside the box - or in that case think inside the box because it was a box program that they were working on. They did put together some programs like that, there was definitely some other stuff - they tried putting some artwork together that was related to Covid and you know we did do some of the basic posters and stuff for companies who needed that information. Some of our clients we just ran those and handed them out as they needed them, other people wanted bigger lots of stuff and we were able to jump on that opportunity and help keep those going. It was kind of neat to see because everyone was in the same boat so even though everyone likes a hand out there a lot of people like "no, no, you're struggling too - we'd like you to bill us for that" that's great. The franchise as a whole, they did do I think as much as they could do with where they were - it was not an easy time. When you are a part of a franchise, I think you look to the franchisor for advice when things come up - but I think we all realized that they've never experienced this either. We were all kind of just in it together trying to figure it out, and I think as an overall it was a good outcome, the way it happened and the comradery amongst everybody. Listening to you talk brings to mind I am always a little bit puzzled with smaller independent printers that are struggling and I hear them say well I don’t wanna pay royalties you know it’s like I wanna stay independent. Talk to me a little bit about that because to me it doesn’t typically make a lot of sense especially with the situation you've been describing. So obviously the royalty thing is going to be the one thing that anyone is going to point out - that’s gonna be the expensive piece of the puzzle, do I like sending that money away every month? No, of course I'd love to keep it but the other side of that is I take a slightly different approach than maybe some people do: I look at what I pay out on royalties but what I get as part of the franchise network, our POS system, our customers, our CRM tools that we work with, our support desk, our marketing program - and all of that stuff when I put that together if I was to go independent and do the same level that we have available to us today its you know I never did the math but my gut tells me it’s probably pretty close to a wash by the time its all said and done, and if it's not maybe I come out a little behind but I don't have to do any of that stuff it’s all been done. We've got a web presence and a other pieces of the puzzle that as an independent I would have to create. Then there's that other little nugget that comes into play, yeah there's training, yeah there's the conference - but it's the interaction with the other owners that’s the meat and potatoes of everything. We've actually got some focus groups that are part of the franchise network, I just finished up my second one with six owners from around the country where we get together once a quarter at someones location. We go through each others financials, you literally know everything about everybody once you get into this group. We interview each others staff when we're on site, we give input on things we see when we're there "hey I think you should do it this way, we do this" and you just have this opportunity and those are the things in my opinion that are just the invaluable part of it. Everyone you talk to, especially when there are new franchisees that are trying to get their ducks in a row on what they're doing and you talk to them at a conference - I think the take away for all of that is: when you’re at a conference, the classes and stuff that corporate puts out are all great, it's good Information to get, but most of what we really benefit from in our opinion is always the interaction with rest of the network. That's where the strength is, and I know corporate has tried even to restructure a little bit of the conference last year just to give us more time for that particular situation. Sort of force us into a group to talk together, which was kind of fun. I had somebody say to me that the royalty fee is like an extra employee, only one day they are in sales, one day they are in marketing, one day they might be in production. It's kind of an virtual extra employee. I guess you could look at it that way it - again to me I look at it the other way like I said. I think I mentioned as we were talking here - I obviously believe in the concept because I signed my franchise agreement at 27 years old here, but my 20 year agreement came up and I renewed for 20 more years just based on the fact that I don’t wanna go independent, I don’t want to go and try to do this on my own, I don’t wanna have to go out and build a website and figure all that other stuff out - because we have a system that works. So to that extent - yeah! I’m a believer in why it's there. And I see the other side of the coin for someone who is independent if they're doing well and things are going great I can appreciate where they're coming from, but until you’ve actually jumped in and experienced what’s going on, and again - open minded.. you get out of it what you put into it - so if you get all this stuff you get more feedback. It’s it’s interesting because today the printing business is so technology driven and you have resources like that and they can help you if you’re needing to get a new printer or you want to know what is the latest available. I mean you’ve got those resources to turn to as well. Absolutely! They are just an email or phone call away and you can get some input on the questions you’ve got. We find that when we bought our last piece of equipment - that's absolutely where we started was to kind of get the ball rolling there. We went to other owners in the network who have the piece of equipment we’re looking at purchasing, and ask those questions from those guys and say "yes or no? why would you do this, why would you choose this over that?" So again that goes back to that ability to be part of a franchise network and understand why you can take advantage of that. It's like having 200 people that are in the same boat you’re in. It sounds like you’ve got a good thing going there and I am glad that you were able to whether the pandemic as well as you did - it looks like a bright future! Thank you very much for sharing your story it’s always good to hear the positive stories.

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