"A Look at What's Happening on the West Coast"
[Column #32, 8/97]
The Binding Industries of America (BIA) sponsors a program called Bindathon. It happens biannually and consists of ten to twenty members who gather in a city where they are not competing and spend two days touring six to eight postpress finishing operations. The tours began in Toronto in 1995 and have since been held in Baltimore, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Bindathon tours are great because members can see what types of work are being done in other parts of the country and how other postpress operations are handling their work (it's also fun because members spend lots of time on a bus telling each other war stories). In addition, they get to observe new equipment in operation and learn ways to operate more efficiently. I've gotten some great ideas for our company just by watching how others operate. When I hosted the Bindathon tour in Baltimore last May, we visited Bindagraphics and a variety of other businesses including a case binder, a finisher, and a mailing company. Among them were Direct Marketing Associates, C & J Graphics, Inc., Advantage Book Bindery, Creative Package Development, Port City Press, and American Trade Bindery.
Trade binders across the country specialize in different types of work depending on where they are located and the jobs that are available. In Chicago, for example, many shops have 30 or more folders doing direct mail pieces with various specialties like labelaire and gluing inline. That type of volume just doesn't exist around here. A lot of web printers in the Midwest specialize in direct mail both because of their proximity to many of the paper mills and because bulk mail drops for that region are closer to the majority of post offices.
On the BIA's most recent Bindathon tour, in May, we visited Los Angeles. I wanted to write about this trip in particular because I saw many striking differences in the business practices of the binderies there compared with our methods on the East Coast.
One big difference was that several large commercial printers did not have significant in-house binderies. These are nationwide commercial printers relying solely on outside vendors for postpress work. They say that because there is such a huge selection of binders and finishers in the area, it is more profitable just to send all their work out and specialize in what they do best-print! Boy, I wish it was still that way in our area! The services are readily available, and because there are plenty of binders, the prices are competitive. Most L.A. binderies offer limited services-specialty finishing techniques are done primarily by finishing houses that handle only those kinds of work. This is in sharp contrast to our operation where we seem to be squeezing in new equipment all the time!
Our West Coast tour was interesting because all the finishing houses were in a slow period and were looking forward to getting busier in June and July. This was odd to me since those are two of our slowest months. I soon learned that the business boom they were expecting results from the work generated from automobile books. Most new car books are designed and produced in L.A. and are shipped back to Detroit. How can we get some of this work in the East? We're closer to Detroit than our West Coast competitors. What we need are designers who can do automobile books and a sales force that can sell Detroit on moving this source of work. I did notice that one of the binders we toured was doing one or two car books. The work requires some demanding cross-alignments and fancy foldouts. The books are very high quality and many folded signatures require glue in the trim area to make the product suitable for automatic feeding on a saddle stitcher. Not surprisingly, many of the binders in California have adapted their plants to process these demanding projects by adding extensive gluing equipment on their folders.
Some of the binderies in California have operations in Mexico and send hand-intensive portions of their jobs (or complete jobs) down there to save on labor costs. Many of these jobs include hand assembly, mechanical binding, plastic comb, and so on. This practice puts pressure on the entire industry because a bindery, to stay in front of the printer, may operate a domestic operation at breakeven just to continue sending tons of work to Mexico. This may explain why East Coast printers may have trouble getting these hand-intensive jobs from the West Coast. Their prices are probably one tenth what it would cost to produce the job domestically.
Because of the huge labor pool from Mexico, I was surprised to learn that the West Coast binderies have the same problems getting temporary help that we do. They seem to experience the same headaches with getting labor in fast and dealing with the up-and-down workload.
I also noticed that many of the postpress finishing houses out there use their parking lots as additional storage space. Since it rarely rains and never snows, it's a convenient way to handle temporary storage needs. I wonder what my customers would do if they pulled up and saw their skids spread out across our lot! It sounds bizarre but it works.
In general, the binderies ran their equipment well-at good speed and properly staffed (not too many or too few). I was particularly surprised because there seemed to be small office staffs and no salespeople. Most of the work is acquired through word-of-mouth.
All the binders we met shared in our East Coast philosophy-"We're not the cheapest guy in town but we give great service."
I guess that's one thing we have in common.