As part of Print+Promo’s ongoing feature, Executive Perspectives, we get to know a leading professional in the print and promotional industry. This month, we talked to John H. Osborne, CEO of Midwest Single Source, Wichita, Kan. Here, Osborne discusses his business approach and what he perceives to be the industry’s biggest threat.
How did you first get started in this industry, and what path did you take to land in your current role?
John H. Osborne: While I was at the University of Wichita, before [it became] Wichita State [University], I was a salesperson in the JanSan [Janitorial and Sanitation Supplies] business and did very well as I worked after classes. I had a new car and made as much as the older guys who worked full time. After returning from my tour of duty in the Army, I found the Jan/San customer base limiting because my primary contact was custodians. I wanted to call on executives. I went to work for UARCO Business Forms and, after two years, was fired. That is how I got into working for myself—out of pure necessity.
How do you set goals for yourself? For your business?
JHO: Goal setting in our business is based on what we did last year and how we build on our past performance. But, the one goal that has nothing to do with the past is how you position your organization to continue without you. The goal becomes how to build an organization that supports you instead of you, the owner, being the major producer. This has been a major goal from the beginning, mainly because of my concern for the customer. If I got hit by the proverbial bus, who would take care of our loyal customers?
How does the economy continue to affect the industry?
JHO: Our industry is so competitive that our growth comes from our customers’ growth, mainly by penetrating them with more product and services. When the overall economy is not growing, our customers don’t grow [and], consequently, we find growth slow and difficult. One of the most important tasks when the economy is slow is prospecting, showing and telling. Expanding your customer base in slow times is the only answer to real solid growth.
What do you expect to be some of the biggest challenges the industry will face?
JHO: In this new century, the biggest challenges are related to technology. Most of the products we sell are being eliminated by technology. We see it every day, whether we like it or not. Consequently, management’s role changes from “doing” to “thinking.” How do we move our organization from printing on paper to printing on anything that doesn’t move? Fortunately, we made the transition to the promotional business through that thought process. Promotional services are affected more by the economy than when printed business documents were at their peak. The customer likes to cut expenditures when things are slow, but promotional products are a part of their marketing efforts—not a commodity. The best time to install online stores or other supporting services is in a slow time, so when things pick up, everyone is ahead of the curve. But, my advice is to invest in technology in your organizations. It’s not comfortable for seasoned folks, but if you aren’t leading edge, younger potential employees won’t find you as an attractive opportunity.
What keeps you up at night?
JHO: The industry keeps evolving along with customer demands. Keeping those two things synchronized keeps me thinking more than most issues. Things are the way they are and there is not much that can be done to change the direction of the industry or market. The only thing you can do is stay ahead of that direction through education, reading, going to trade shows, attending industry conferences and [being] involved in your communities. I think you will sleep better at night if you are not sleeping at your desk dreaming about what was instead of what is.
What do you think is the most exciting, cutting-edge thing your company is doing right now? Why?
JHO: Six years ago we invested heavily in high-color digital printing equipment. We have evolved with technology to where today our customers have access to online order entry that is sent directly to the press. Most of our printing is variable, which supports our promotional business when customers need personalization on high-quality printed items. The other investment we made is in software for online stores. Our customer orders any promotional item in their personalized catalog making a seamless operation. We relieve them of the burden of handling, shipping, receiving, billing or delivering apparel and any other marketing materials.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
JHO: Several years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas started a mission, K2K, of support in Kenya, Africa. They send medical teams and people to help build houses for those who basically live in tents. After years of engagement, it was time to build a library for the kids to read and learn. My wife, Renee, and I donated the money to build a library and now there are two. Along with the buildings, we also have, with the help of other donors, supplied E-readers loaded with books that are age-appropriate for the kids living in the area. It is truly unbelievable how hungry these kids are to learn about the world beyond their little villages. We are thankful to be involved in changing their world.