1986, Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president, the economy was growing and inflation was low. “Platoon” won the best film category at the Academy Awards and vinyl records were still a staple in everyone’s music collection. BFL&S was Business Forms & Systems, and 50 percent of industry distributors had just one single computer in their facilities. Daisey printers used ribbon cartridges and business forms ruled supreme. In fact, for many manufacturers and distributors, business forms were the only necessary game in town. The competition was clear, everyone provided similar services to clients and location dictated business.
what a difference a couple of decades make. In an industry where change is quick and constant, company longevity is not for the weak of character or heart. Since 1986, there have been takeovers and merges. There are far fewer purely independent distributors and manufacturers than back in the days of old. The birth of the “super” distributorship, the franchisement of the industry, and globalization have all put an imprint on how businesses are run in today’s market. All this change in the business model and technological advances have not even been mentioned yet.
Add technology into the mix, and a mass of splinters go flying off into every direction. Today, the product mix and areas of specialty per company are so diverse that it has become almost impossible to know who the competition is, least of all who is winning. But, following Darwinian theory, the strong do survive and while many companies have fallen or been swallowed up since 1986, there are some that have evolved, stood strong and thrived in the face of change. What does it take to survive?
Continental Data Label, Elgin, Ill., opened its doors back in the 1960s and remains a player in the market today. Vaughn Gordon, vice president of national sales, explained its longevity and success. “We have concentrated on our core value of products of variable information print technologies, focusing on superior quality, exceptional service and competitive pricing. Our customers have come to rely upon the integrity and excellence that define the way we do business. We strive to satisfy the needs of our distributors and ultimately, the consumer.”
Lindey Webb, of the long established Ace Forms, Pittsburg, Kan., emphasized the other element of survival, strong leadership. “Leon Bogner, CEO, has been at the helm since the company was founded in August of 1971. His leadership and devotion to the company and employees is an inspiration. He has led with integrity, honesty and an enviable work ethic. He is a steady hand on the tiller.”
The backbone of survival includes: leadership, superior quality, exceptional service and competitive pricing. Generally speaking, these are critical elements of any business that is going to outlast its competition. This is a standard in business that is timeless and ensures success. But, what is specific to the industry? Bogner of Ace Forms stressed, “Today, the business is customer-driven. One significant change is the sales/production cycle. We have gone from six- and seven-week turns to two- and three-week turns, maximum. The sheer pace of business today demands the speed and ease of the Internet.”
Change, What Change?
The 1980s were a decade of economic advancement and discovery for the industry. And, what propelled the forms industry of the '80s forward is currently experiencing the most significant declines in the printed products industry. Bogner explained, “The 1980s were a growth market, with double-digit growth in continuous forms. Today, there is double-digit decline in continuous forms.”
BFL&S Magazine archive data support this statement. In its heyday, the continuous form was the bread-and-butter of the industry. The 1986 BFL&S State of the Industry report documented overall sales were robust, forms accounted for a whopping 100 percent of distributor sales and the continuous form led the charge with a projected $2.7 billion in annual sales. It was a time when unit sets and peg boards accounted for enough business to warrant their own charted category with $1.6 billion and $290 million in sales respectively.
Today’s numbers look considerably different, with forms sales accounting for only 26 percent of distributor business, and as a whole, forms sales accounting for just $610 million of this billion-dollar industry. Today’s product mix includes a variety of specialty niches, such as direct mail, commercial printing and promotional products—all areas once considered outside the realm and scope of the industry.
Gordon also cited changes from the 1980s era. “The last 20 years have seen the death of the pinfeed printer, as well as the growth and then maturity of the desktop laser, which has now morphed into a rebirth with the lower cost of entry for color laser printing.”
And there she is, the desktop laser printer and her gal pal, the desktop computer; together they stand mighty, tossing their hair to the wind in that ever so sassy and arrogant way. Yes, technology has forever changed the industry and has forever changed the way business is conducted worldwide.
Giving the People What They Want
While top-notch print quality is imperative, it is a given ingredient to success in today’s markets. Survival of the fittest for the new millenium now relies on speed that utilizes forefront technology and quality of service, with the emphasis on service. Gordon drove this point home when he stated, “We need to be on the same path as our distributors and learn to do more than just be a source for labels. We need to be a source for solutions by staying on top of technology.” Echoing his call, Bogner also stated that survival long into the future calls for an eagle eye on “service, service and more service, and if you can supply it yesterday for a really low cost it would be great!”
So, what is the state of the industry compared to two decades ago? Clearly, it is no longer a rigid entity. There is a call for getting back to basics on the customer service side, but in a high-speed, tech-savvy way. And, in regards to institutional dynamics and product mix, it is a vast, complex and ever-changing, amorphic blob that refuses to stay inside the box, and it is forcing the industry to face life without the luxury of four walls.
Related story: State of the Industry