Co-owners of ImageX, a printing brokerage, Glen Douglas and Stan Poitras have been business partners for close to 30 years. They met in the early 1980s when Poitras was the sales manager for an envelope printer in the East Bay, and Douglas handled sales for an engraving company, an occasional vendor. Both natives of Massachusetts, the two men hit it off, and Poitras recruited Douglas to the envelope printer. In 1986, after a few years of working together, they branched out to start a print brokerage, which they named Image Press. "We've been working together ever since," Poitras relates.
Their business odyssey, however, has not been nearly as straightforward. In 1999 the print brokerage had grown to the point where it attracted the attention of ImageX, out of Kirkland, Wash., an early specialist in online modifiable pdf technology. The partners sold their firm to the newly public ImageX and stayed on to participate in its expansion. The experience allowed them to witness first-hand the perils of irrational exuberance. Over-ambitious after its IPO - Image Press was the second in a string of acquisitions-ImageX was eventually sold to Kinkos, which shortly thereafter became Kinkos/Fed Ex.
Poitras and Douglas thrived under the new ownership. "We really liked being owned by them. They were wonderful to work with. But when the economy turned in 2007, Fed Ex determined we didn't fit their scalable operations, and asked us if we would consider buying back the company." The transaction was finalized in 2009. By then the company had established itself in Pleasanton. Back in April, as its existing lease was expiring, ImageX moved into almost 5,000 square feet in Hacienda, at 5990 Stoneridge Drive.
Reflecting on the journey and its detours, the partners note that they outlasted all their colleagues from the overspent ImageX organization, which at one time had a workforce in the hundreds. The ringside seat on the dot-com craze confirmed the validity of their own, more balanced approach.
"It seemed like the goal was the IPO, not business performance," Douglas notes. That attitude flew in the face of their own convictions. "Stan and I share the mindset to make money first, and then make decisions on what to do next. We only go in a new direction if it's going to be profitable."
A willingness to develop new capabilities led them to market sectors in the printing industry where demand was growing, not falling off, due to new technological capabilities. This was a foundational part of their business strategy. Continuing to eschew equipment ownership, they cultivated relationships with printers all over the world who could offer the most efficient technology to fulfill the diverse needs of their clients - whether arranging to have brochures printed at the site of distribution, say a trade show in London, to avoid huge air freight costs; or delivering backpacks embroidered with a special logo to a client team of 400 employees dispersed around the globe.
As they positioned the company to provide a broader base of product offerings, the partners followed a logical path. "The people who originally dealt with printing were often in charge of purchasing promotional products, office supplies, and trade show exhibits. It was a natural transition to upsell," Poitras points out.
To speed up the learning curve, they hired an expert in the promotional side to get that new program up and running. The rest of the staff is comprised of highly seasoned veterans within the promotional-item and printing industries, including one sales rep who has been with them 25 years. Other employees had been brokers themselves or worked for printing or envelope companies. "A couple of former plant owners sold their own plants and brought customers into us," he adds.
As the industry shrank and consolidated amidst the online onslaught, Poitras and Douglas focused on parts of the printing business that cannot be replaced by the Internet - packaging, for example. "There are no virtual boxes," Douglas quips. Another arrow added to the quiver is the capability to build online stores that allow customer employees to order company-branded products, from business cards to clothing.
"Essentially, we are an extension of our customers' purchasing departments," the partners observe. "In a nutshell, we are experts at getting things produced."
The two men grew up in Massachusetts, but at opposite ends of the state. Douglas got into the printing business not long after high school. Having decided that college was not a good fit, he took a job in the engraving department of a large local printing company, introduced by a friend of his father's who was the vice president.
All was going well, until one snowy winter day in 1980 when his car engine froze in sub-zero weather. Douglas specifically remembers tinkering with the carburetor while wearing the leather gloves his mother had just given him for Christmas. "I thought, this is for the birds, and decided to move to California." A few months later the chance to act on that decision came along; he was invited to join a company division about to open in San Leandro. About five years later another printing broker approached him about starting a business together, but when he mentioned it to Poitras, they decided they would make a better team.
Poitras had landed on the West Coast about a dozen years earlier, thanks to the U.S. Army reserve. He spent Christmas 1969 on leave from his post in Fort Lewis, Wash., visiting a Massachusetts cousin who had moved to Sausalito. He fell in love with the Bay Area, and as soon as he finished active duty, he packed his bags and headed to Marin. Always entrepreneurial, Poitras got an AA degree in horticulture and started a landscaping company in 1972. When the business shifted from the specialist to the "mow, blow, and go" model, he sold the company. Encouraged by his relatives, he searched for a sales position in a growing industry, ultimately choosing the envelope company.
The fact that he had little printing knowledge hardly held him back. "Sales is about being entrepreneurial and communicating well with people," no matter what the product.
Still, print brokering is a complex business that takes superior organizational skills. Clients place orders for products in lots of 6,000 to 1 million. One job can have up to 15 different people touching it, and, given the plethora of circumstances beyond human control - from high humidity in the plant to a traffic accident - the partners realized that "things can go awry."
"One thing about experienced print brokers," Poitras comments, "they know more about the business than anyone else. We are exposed to everything - forms, labels, web-fed, large format, digital - and we have to learn it all."
Echoes Douglas, "We learn every day. One customer recently asked if we could produce tablecloths. We always say yes."
A staff of professionals with the right chemistry and similar values, especially a sense of humor, goes a long way to offset the constant business tension. The partners share a core philosophy: "Draw on your experience from the past, plan for the future, and strive for a balance of work and enjoyment in the present."
The odyssey has a happy ending. "We're as good as it gets out there," they affirm. "We do stunningly beautiful work. We might achieve it a little differently than what was originally intended, but the results are still beautiful."
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